531 for Beginners – Introduction
531 for beginners – a classic program for building muscle and strength.
If you want to get stronger and build muscle, you will get better results if you follow a clearly laid out, progressive workout plan.
The thing is, there are LOTS to choose from, and some are better than others.
Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” program that will suit every lifter, and it may take a little trial and error to find the right one for you.
And even if you DO find one you like and that works, even the best program can lose potency if you stick with it for too long.
You may need to alternate a couple of different programs to ensure you keep making steady progress.
One of the most popular strength training programs is Jim Wendler’s 531 (also known as 5/3/1).
It’s built around a handful of basic compound exercises and uses a unique but straightforward linear progression model to ensure you keep on improving.
This article will reveal the essential 531 for beginners and provide you with an example of what has become one of the best-selling strength training programs of the last decade.
What is the 5/3/1 training program?
5/3/1 is the brainchild of American powerlifter Jim Wendler.
Wendler’s claims to fame include training at Westside Barbell, the home of elite US powerlifting, and squatting 1000 lbs.
He designed the program to be simple to follow, time-efficient, suitable for training novices and experts alike, and good for developing muscle size, strength, and power all at the same time.
There are several variations of the 5/3/1 program, including one for older exercisers and another for powerlifting, but the basic 5/3/1 program is NOT aimed at powerlifters and is, instead, a more general strength training plan.
With 5/3/1, you train four times per week, with each workout built around one core lift and some secondary accessory exercises.
The core lifts are:
- Bench press
- Overhead presses
Each week, your rep scheme changes to:
- a) make the workouts progressive and
- b) prevent boredom and stagnation.
The basic weekly structure looks like this:
- The first week – 3 sets of 5 reps (last set to failure aka periodic AMRAP sets – indicated by a + sign )
- Week 2 – 3 sets of 3 reps (last set to failure – indicated by a + sign)
- Week 3 – 1 set each of 5 reps, 3 reps, and 1 rep (last set to failure – indicated by a + sign)
- Last week of a cycle – 3 sets of 5 reps with light weights (deload*)
All training weights are based on 90% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the core lifts. This means that 5/3/1 starts relatively light, so you can increase your weight from one week to the next.
So, if your 1RM for your chosen core exercise is 100 pounds (45 kilograms), for 5/3/1, you adjust that down to 90%, which is 90lbs.
All of the percentages outlined below are then based on that weight.
% of 90% 1RM
Start back at week 1
Decoding the first week of 531 for beginners
For instance, imagine you are starting the 5/3/1 program, and your first core lift of the week is the deadlift.
How much should you be able to deadlift?
Mark Rippetoe is a renowned strength training coach and author of the Bible of basic barbell training, Starting Strength.
Rippetoe estimates in his strength standards for squats, deadlifts, power cleans, and bench press, that an untrained 198 lb adult male can deadlift 156 pounds.
Therefore, first find 90% of your 1 rep max, which if you are near 198lbs as many American men are, is 140.4 pounds (90% of 156).
So, using the above 531 for beginners program template, you will deadlift 65% of 140 pounds, which equals 90 pounds for your first set of five repetitions.
Then, you will do another set of 5 reps using 75% of 140 pounds which is 105 lbs, and 5 reps or more of 120lbs for your last set.
It might be easier to picture the sequence using this 531 for beginners template:
*Deload – no sets are taken to failure
At the end of the fourth week, after the deload week, you increase the weight of the main lifts and start over.
Wendler recommends that you increase squats and deadlifts by 10lbs/5kg and bench presses and overhead presses by 5lbs/2.5kg.
Alternatively, you can increase all weights by 2.5% or the next nearest convenient weight denomination.
Increases are small to ensure you don’t stall too soon.
Speaking of stalls, at some point, you will find yourself unable to add any more weight to the bar, and your progress will grind to a halt.
When this happens, you should retest your 1RM in the stalled lift, recalculate 90%, and start over.
There are several apps and websites you can use to calculate or predict your 1RM, and some are designed specifically for the 5/3/1 program.
Hashi Mashi’s One Rep Max Calculator
Hashi Mashi’s 1 rep max calculator will expand to show you the estimated weights and reps you can lift based on your input.
The method for calculating your 1 rep max is based on the Epley formula.
Enter weight or reps
|% of 1RM||Weight||Reps|
Step 1: Select your units, pounds, or kilograms.
Step 2: Adjust the amount of weight and reps you tested with.
Who is 5/3/1 for?
Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 method is for anyone who wants to build muscle size and strength at the same time.
It combines elements from powerlifting and bodybuilding to create what is best thought of as a powerbuilding program.
Because it starts light and the weights increase gradually from week to week, this workout plan is ideal for new lifters as well as more advanced lifters.
It adheres to all the basic principles of barbell strength training methodology and should produce good results for anyone who is prepared to stick with it for several months.
Why several months?
5/3/1 starts off light, and the weights increase weekly.
This helps create some training momentum and provides an opportunity to dial in your lifting technique, but also means you’ll only be doing one intense set per workout for the core lifts – the final set.
It will take a couple of cycles for the weights to become heavy enough that the first two sets are also challenging.
In short, 5/3/1 is a slow-burner, but this method can produce great results for most users if you stick with it.
Sample 531 for beginners workout template
If you buy Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 book, you’ll find lots of different workout templates and novice programs to choose from.
There are plans for training two, three, or four times per week, plus assistance lift programs such as “boring but big,” bodyweight-only, and the triumvirate, as well as strategies for increasing power rather than muscle size.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to give you all the details of 5/3/1, but here is a general strength template to try:
- Work out four days a week, such as Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday.
- You can train on other days according to your schedule.
- However, you should keep the workouts in the prescribed order to avoid overloading any one part of your body on consecutive days.
- It would not be a good idea to squat on Monday and then deadlift on Tuesday as both of these workouts involve your lower body.
531 for Beginners Workout 1 – squat plus accessory lifts
12 per leg
Workout 2 – bench press plus accessory work
Bent over rows
1-arm DB rows
12 per arm
Workout 3 – deadlift plus accessory lifts
Bulgarian one-leg squats
10 per leg
Seated calf raises
Workout 4 – overhead press plus accessory lifts
For assistance exercises, choose a weight that takes you close to failure on the final set.
Try to increase the weights week by week, but not at the expense of the core lifts, which are the focus of this training method.
If you’re feeling tired after the core lifts, it’s ok to reduce the reps/sets of the assistance exercises, or, as Wendler suggests in his book, not doing them at all!
5/3/1 training program drawbacks
5/3/1 has been popular for over a decade, and that’s because it works.
However, there are a few drawbacks that aren’t deal-breakers, but it’s worth knowing about these issues before starting this program.
#1 – You can’t miss workouts
With 5/3/1, it’s hard to catch up on missed workouts.
Each training week is different and won’t be repeated for four more weeks.
For example, if you miss the 3 sets of 5 reps squat day, it’s almost impossible to make it up.
#2 – All the math!
5/3/1 only works if you follow the math.
You need to work out your 1RM, calculate 90% of that number, and then use percentages for every set and week of your training sessions.
The good news is there are workout spreadsheets and apps you can use to do all these calculations for you, but you’ll still need to keep track of your progress and reps performed.
#3 – Every workout involves an all-out set
Each core lift involves a final all-out set, where you train to failure or very close to it.
This can be draining, especially if you’ve been on 5/3/1 for more than a couple of months, and your weights are getting heavy.
However, if you are the sort of person who likes a challenge and, more importantly, can rise to that challenge every week, you’ll probably enjoy this aspect of the program.
But you will need a spotter to train safely as you’ll be training to failure.
#4 – Very regimented
With 5/3/1, it’s Wendler’s way or the highway.
There is no real way to modify the basic 5/3/1 framework, although Wendler himself has done his best to provide a few options and alternatives.
You can, however, customize the assistance exercises to meet your needs and preferences.
#5 – You need to know your 1RM
The 5/3/1 program hinges on knowing your 1RM, and that means testing or predicting it.
You’ll need to know your 1 rep maxes for squats, bench presses, deadlifts, and overhead presses.
Mr. Wendler recommends that you use your current 1RM and not an old one.
This means you’ll need to establish your 1RM before starting 5/3/1.
Use Hashi Mashi’s one rep max calculator above to determine your 1RM.
See my recommended Fitness Gear for the 531 for Beginners workout plan.
531 for Beginners – Final Thoughts
Wendler’s 5/3/1 has been refined and improved over the last decade, and it’s now acknowledged as one of the best all-around strength training programs available.
It may look a little complicated, but once you’ve completed your first four-week cycle, everything soon falls into place.
You can always use an app to do all the math for you, and some even have assistance work templates too.
If you want to build muscle size and strength, this basic program can definitely help. But, to get all the long term benefits 5/3/1 offers, we strongly recommend that you buy the book.
It’s worth buying Wendler’s book to get all the info because it’s difficult to encapsulate all of Jim Wendler’s weightlifting and fitness knowledge into a single article.
And you’ll get more from this 531 for beginners program if you have access to all of the information!
- 7 Greatest Deadlift Muscles Worked That Can Change Your Life
- 20 Greatest Benefits of Squats – The King of Free Weight Strength Training
- Great Bench Press Benefits, Muscles Worked, Variations + How-To
- Top 10 Compound Shoulder Exercises to Build Size and Strength
- Powerbuilding Program for Beginners: Get Big AND Strong + PDF
- 3×5 Workout: The Only Strength Training Program You Will Ever Need
- Phraks Greyskull LP Variant vs. Starting Strength vs. GSLP