Programming Beyond a Linear Structure.
Looking at 5/3/1 to bring mathematical programming to fitness programming.
In early 2021, I decided to augment some of the class work I was doing at the gym with my own strength training. I’ll explain more about my reasoning in a future post–I had become obsessed with a ridiculous sport called Strongman. My coach, Patrick Barnes, told me he had run Jim Wendler’s “Boring But Big” program for two years and had seen incredible progress. Patrick hadn’t led me wrong yet, so I decided to check it out. And this was the gateway to my obsession with the logic of exercise training.
Boring But Big is a program in Wendler’s book “5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System for Raw Strength.” 5/3/1 is pretty simple. I will explain the basic program in a couple of paragraphs [footnote]. But it’s not that simple. What are the necessary ingredients to make it work?
The 5/3/1 program consists of 4 one week blocks. Each day at the gym is devoted to one of the four main lifts: squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press. In week one, for each lift, you do 3 sets of 5. In week 2, you do 3 sets of 3. In week 3 you do one set of 5, one set of 3, and one set of 1. In week 4 you rest (this is called a deload week). The weights are calculated as particular percentages of your estimated maximum ability on each lift. The beauty of 5/3/1 is that you can repeat this 4-week cycle indefinitely.
Two details are critical to getting 5/3/1 to be most effective: plus sets and accessory work. Plus sets are the last set of every training day. You perform as many repetitions as you can, going as far over the suggested rep count as possible. If you’re in week one, you have to perform at least 5 repetitions of the lift. But you should try to get 10 or more. On the last set of week three, you need to get at least one rep, but Wendler thinks you should always get at least 5. If you can get 5 good reps on that last set, then you add weight to that lift in the next 5/3/1 cycle. If you don’t get 5 reps, you reset the weights to 90% of the current cycle and start the process over again. The plus sets introduce an ebb and flow to the training. The weights get heavier over time, but when you get stuck, they get lighter, and you start progressing again.
The accessory work is the “boring” part of boring but big. Every day after the main 3 sets, you drop the weight of the main lift and do 5 sets of 10 reps. These sets are there for building extra muscle rather than pushing maximal strength. But they are an essential part of the program.
And that’s it. It might sound complicated, but it’s simple to set up in a spreadsheet. I’ve been doing some version of 5/3/1 for two and a half years and am still improving. But why does it work? Wendler doesn’t explain. He’s a hilarious writer, but his attitude is “I’ve done this with hundreds of athletes, and you are not special.” He’s not wrong! But my analytical mind wanted an explanation.
The best explanation I found was by YouTuber Alexander Bromley. There’s a lot of bad fitness YouTube out there, but I enjoy Bromley’s overly analytical content. He’s a Strongman athlete (and I will tell you about my passion for Strongman soon), but his videos often feature him lecturing in front of a whiteboard. Maybe this appealed to my college professor brain. Regardless, he’s got a knack for explaining the ins and outs of programming.
First, Wendler has structured this program so you only go after super heavy weights once a month (week 3). This gives your central nervous system time to recover from the impact.
Second, the accessory work is aimed at building muscles and training the other systems that are not exhausted by the main 5/3/1 sets. In most programs, accessory work is a lot of machine or dumbbell work. Wendler’s brilliant thought is to use the main lifts as accessories, just lower the weight and increase the volume. This is introducing a different stimulus than the heavy sets with high weights. In Boring But Big, all you do is squat, deadlift, bench, and press.
Third, and I think most importantly, the plus sets provide autoregulation. Progressive overload suggests that a greater stimulus is always better. But precisely writing down the exact number of reps and the exact weight on a given day is a challenge. You never know how you’re going to feel every day, and sleep, diet, and stress can induce day-to-day changes in your gym abilities. If you want to go as hard as possible every day, that doesn’t mean you need to move a maximal weight. Moving a maximal number of repetitions in a short amount of time is also a form of progressive overload. The plus sets let you find out what is maximal today.
5/3/1 is already a lot more complicated than the basic “progressive overload.” Is it necessary? While the specifics are definitely not critical, all strength programs combine elements of autoregulation and splitting up work in varying periods. You clearly need to add some level of complexity as you get more skilled. But why? And how? I’ll describe the landscape of programming tomorrow and try to see if there is a way for me, a math guy, to make it algorithmic.