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How to use 5/3/1 at Ironstone

February 07 2015 Program Structure

In our last post “On Strength Training” we discussed the basic framework for how we will be tackling strength cycles. In a future post we will explain in more detail how our programming template works and what the purpose behind each segment is. Today we would like to focus on the details of how 5/3/1 will be used as the strength template for more advanced athletes.

Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program was devised as a strength program for the general population; a program that could be followed for a long time without beating the athlete up too much on a day to day basis. It wasn’t meant to be incorporated into CrossFit, but because of its time efficiency and relatively low volume it works very well using CrossFit WODs in place of the typical accessory lifts. Wendler has actually addressed this in a recent version of the program. For more information about the program and lots of articles and commentary by Jim, check out his site.

For our purposes, what you need to know is that we have taken his traditional template and built it into our micro cycles as the predominant strength builder. Remember, in CrossFit the point is NOT to specialize so although we want to get stronger, strength is not the only thing we care about. Everything comes at a time cost, so we cannot focus only on strength if we are trying to be well rounded humans. For this reason we cannot follow the 5/3/1 template on the prescribed Mon/Wed/Fri schedule as set in his program.


How we implement it

Our template

First, understand that we work in 14 day blocks that currently include 4 rest days, 2 Olympic days, a gymnastic day and 2 accessory days. The remaining 5 days are predominately focused on strength (squat, deadlift, press). At different points in the “season” the number of strength days may increase slightly. 4 blocks make up micro cycle. In each micro cycle we will move through a 5 Rep Exposure, a 3 Rep Exposure, a 1 Rep Exposure and a Volume/Deload for each exercise. We will typically put two micro-cycles back to back focusing on the exact same lifts for 2 rotations.

5 RM 3 RM 1 RM Volume/Deload 5 RM 3 RM 1 RM Volume/Deload



At the day level, things get a little bit more complicated. Each exercise will be completed in 6 sets, each with the prescribed number of reps for that day. The wrinkle is that each set based on percentages. Meaning the amount of weight lifted will be pre-determined by the % for that set multiplied by the max for that lift. The second issue, which is perhaps what most people find complicated, is that the Max you use will be a Training Max, not your absolute max for a given lift. If you are an athlete with an established absolute Max then your training max should be roughly 10% lower when you calculate your starting point. We do this for 2 main reasons: first, with a slightly lower starting point you will have a lot more room to progress and grow inside the training template from one week to the next and one cycle to the next. This capitalizes on the idea of small, incremental gains over long periods of time that lead to big changes. Second, when we are operating at our absolute max we beat our body up pretty badly and we tend to fail lifts on days where we aren’t at 100%. A failed lift generally does nothing for strength gains and is really of no benefit in a training environment when we are talking about the “power” lifts. In training we have to have the maturity to delay our gratification and stick to the long game – make progress week after week at a slow but steady pace. Even though you may want to max out, resist the urge.

So how do we get stronger if we don’t max out the weight? We Rep out! The last set in our 3 loading blocks (5-3-1) are “AMREP” – as many reps as possible (with good technique) at the prescribed load. This way we are operating sub-maximally but loading the volume our body can already handle at the time.

So that leaves us the main structure:

  • 6 sets, each at a prescribed percentage and number of reps for that block
  • % calculations are based on our training Max for that cycle
  • The last set of our loading weeks are X reps + (as many as we can manage with good technique without failing)

When we put this into practice, this is what our blocks actually look like:

5 @ 40% 5 @ 40% 5 @ 40% 10 @ 40%
5 @ 50% 5 @ 50% 5 @ 50% 8 @ 55%
3 @ 60% 3 @ 60% 3 @ 60% 6 @ 70%
5 @ 65% 3 @ 70% 5 @ 75% 6 x 3 @ 80%
5 @75% 3 @ 80% 3 @ 85%
5+ @ 85% 3+ @ 90% 1+ @ 95%

Note the 3 warmup sets on each of the 5, 3, and 1 Rm weeks are the same.

Putting it into Practice

In order to make this easy to navigate in a class environment we have created an excel spreadsheet that does all the heavy lifting for you. There are instructions included in the spreadsheet but the basic summary goes like this:

  • Use block “A” to put in your last known max attempt. This will use the weight and the number of reps to make an estimate of your true absolute max.
  • Block “B” will give you 90% of that number automatically. Use this as your training max for the first cycle.
  • Block “C” is where you plug in your training max. Once you do this all your set weights will automatically be calculated for the next 4 blocks of the program.
  • After the 4 blocks are over all we do is bump up our training max, typically 2.5-8 pounds for upper body lifts and 5-12 pounds for lower body lifts depending on how our rep out sets at the end of each block went.

You can download the excel file here: 5-3-1 Workbook

If you want to be super pro environment once you calculate your numbers for this cycle save the file as a .pdf and send it to your phone so you always have your numbers with you.