[This is an excerpt from the book The 5-3-1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System for Raw Strength]

In the summer of 2005, I was burned out from competitive powerlifting. I was tired of bench shirts, box squats, bands and being fat. Two years earlier, I’d written down three goals I wanted to accomplish. In my last meet, I’d done all three. Satisfied with reaching my goals, and dissatisfied with how I felt, I needed a change – but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted or how I was going to get there.

My first order of business was losing weight. I was about 280 pounds, and I wanted to be able to tie my shoes without turning red. I wanted to be able to walk down the street without losing my breath. Like many people, I played football in high school and college. I was in shape then, and could do just about anything. Fast forward five years, and I was at the bottom of the food chain. That feeling of being a fat-ass was awful. I was exactly what I despised.

I remember once watching a young woman walk for exercise when I was in college. She wasn’t overweight, and she didn’t look like she was suffering from any kind of physical ailment. I was mystified as to why this seemingly fit woman was simply walking. Why wasn’t she running? Why wasn’t she running with a sled? Why wasn’t she pushing a car, or pushing an SUV up and down the street?


I remember thinking to myself that if I ever reached a point in my life where I had to walk to get exercise, it might be time to clean out my ears with a gun.

Fortunately, I didn’t follow through with my plans. The point, however, is this: I was fat and out of shape. And even though I’d recently squatted 1000 pounds, I really wasn’t strong. I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t use this strength for anything other than waddling up to a monolift and squatting.

A few months later, I’d managed to lose about 25 pounds. Simply walking and not eating as much helped me out immensely. I was able to move again. I could run, sprint, jog, jump rope or do just about anything.

But damn was I weak.

I knew where I wanted to go. I simply wanted to deadlift and squat over 600 pounds again, and I wanted to bench press 405. That was it. And I wanted to do it without the aid of powerlifting gear like bench shirts and squat suits. I also wanted an easy plan to get there. I didn’t want to have to do a million different exercises. The bench press, parallel squat, deadlift and standing press have always been staples of any strong person’s repertoire, so I knew what exercises I wanted to do.

I needed a plan for all of this. I needed something very simple, and I didn’t want to have to think about it. I had recently become a father, and my priorities had changed. I still wanted to be strong, but I didn’t want to have to spend all my time thinking about it. I wanted to go in the weight room, have my work planned for me, and get out. No bullshit, no problem.

I’d started playing around with the concept of 5/3/1 months earlier, so I knew I was on to something, but I wasn’t sure how it would work. Because my bench, squat and deadlift goals were so straightforward, I gave myself 12 months to accomplish them. I worked backward from these numbers and ended up with beginning weights that were really light. I mean ridiculously light.

I had a plan, though, and I followed through. I figured once I finished each month of training, I’d be ready to move on to the next – and the next, and the next, until I finally reached my goal. Of course, this was wishful thinking – it doesn’t always work like this – but I needed a simple plan, and this was the best one I could come up with. Or the simplest, at least.

Sometimes, however, the simplest is the best. In my case, this proved to be true. I was breezing through my workouts, putting on some muscle, and having fun again. I began pushing my last set for as many reps as I could, setting personal records in the process.

Training was fun again. Gone were the three hour marathons of bench shirt training and sweating my ass off wearing tight polyester gear. I was in and out of the weight room in 30-45 minutes, and I was still getting stronger. After about three months of training, I got a wild hair up my ass and tried to pull a max deadlift. After my sets were over, I loaded up the bar and pulled for 3 reps what I thought I might be able to pull once. 610 x 3.

Now, this isn’t any kind of world – or even personal – record, but it was really, really good for me at the time, especially when you consider the fact that I was used to wearing a deadlift suit and briefs and had lost so much weight. Plus, the deadlift was always my worst lift. I can blame this on any number of things, but the bottom line is that I just wasn’t strong. Now, with this program, I could feel myself inching toward “strong” without having to be a blob of disgusting lard.

I began playing more and more with this program. I switched things up, experimented on friends and training partners and read some old books on training, and this is what I came up with. Hell, it may change even more with time, but the basics will always remain the same.