A Twist on 5/3/1 for a Recovering Weightlifter

I don't take any credit for this but instead give credit to the mind who published his idea for the 5/3/1 program—Jim Wendler.

September 24, 2011

While at a demo in Utah, I had the chance to test my skills and strength once more in the clean and jerk as well as in the snatch. In arriving, it was apparent that it was a popular competition because there were more than two hundred people running around between happenings to see what was going on. In the background, I had the chance to warm up and test my levels in front of many of them. Based on request, I started with the clean and jerk and made my way through my normal pre-competition numbers.

I started with 50 kg and did repeated reps with it to make sure that I was quick and that my flexibility at the bottom of the catch was better. I then progressed to 100 kg and did the same for four more reps. From there, I progressed to 130 x 3, 140 x 2, 150 x 1, 160 x 1, and 170 x 1. In between each of the sets, I rested about two minutes to allow myself to recover enough to be ready for the next weight. It was when I attempted 170 kg that I knew that I was going to break a PR. I attempted 180 x 1 and made it easy and then attempted 185 and missed the clean, but after resting enough, I took a second attempt and made both the clean and the jerk without any problem, thus breaking my previous PR by three kilos.

At the time, I felt that my lifting was right where I wanted it to be. I was hitting PR numbers and I felt great. I could train hard, and I didn’t have an injury to worry about. It’s at those times in training when something always seems to come up. It was about a week later that I really had to make a decision on how I was going to continue with my training. While doing some snatch grip presses, I tweaked the ligaments in my left wrist on both the medial and lateral sides as opposed to the anterior and posterior sides. This left me unable to put anything overhead. In a sport where the lifts are meant to be overhead, I couldn’t perform any of them completely. I couldn’t even clean the weight because things hurt so bad. It was then that I came upon Jim’s 5/3/1 program and knew that was what I needed to do. I needed a raw program that I could apply to my specific situation to allow me to at least maintain my strength. Maintain was definitely the wrong word when it comes to 5/3/1.

Where it Gets Interesting

This is where it got interesting. I decided to play around with Jim's programming to tailor it to my needs. I couldn’t do any of the upper body lifts because of my wrist. Instead of deadlifting really heavy, I converted it to snatch and clean grip pulls. The biggest change was how I decided to do my squats. In a three-week cycle, I squatted three times each week as opposed to one because that was what I was used to doing. Because I was tripling the amount of squat workouts that I was getting in a week, keeping the same percentages seemed unwise, so I decided to cycle the percentages as well. I did 5s on Monday at 85 percent, 3s on Wednesday at 90 percent, and 5/3/1 at 95 percent on Friday. Instead of going back to the same 5s, I switched to 3s on Monday, 5/3/1 on Wednesday, and 5s on Friday. I then went to 5/3/1 on Monday, 5s on Wednesday, and 3s on Friday, finishing the three working weeks. Going into my deload week, I just did the prescribed 5s at 40–60 percent. It was in the third week that I tested my max by performing 242.5 kg for two reps, smashing my single rep record of 240 kg, and then went directly to 250 kg and nailed it. Ten kilos in three weeks isn’t too bad.

One specific part to this program that I didn’t take was the 90 percent of my max to formulate the weights I used. Instead, I used my actual squat max to do so. On top of that, I actually increased my projected max each week from 240 in the first week to 245 in the second and then 250 in the third. I found the percentages of 5s, 3s, and 5/3/1 from these maxes each week, which automatically led to a new record. The funny thing was that it worked. I hit 250 kg because I was able to do the correct amount of reps for the various percentages prescribed. I was able to do 225 kg for four reps and 237.5 for three reps, which correlated to a guaranteed 250, if not more. The thing is once I hit that single record, I stopped. Now, this wasn’t an end to my quest for leg strength but instead an experiment. I still needed to increase my front squat, which was now lagging too far behind.

Two days after maxing my back squat for the first time prior to this program, I did 212.5 kg. My previous max was 205 kg, and when working up to my max, I did an easy single with 200 kg. I decided it was so light that I would go for 212.5 kg and it worked. Taking into account my back squat success, I wasn’t so sure I’d be able to mirror the same results through the next cycle, so I tweaked the program again. Instead of increasing my projected max by 5 kg each week, I kept it at 215 kg to make the calculations easier. Then based on feel and the prescribed reps, I chose the record to break. I felt that this was much more of a character building cycle because I would have to choose a weight for a needed amount of reps instead of having the weight chosen for me. I had the chance to either take the easy way out and barely break my previous PR or go for broke and really break a PR.

End of 3-Week Cycle

Needless to say, at the end of the three-week cycle, I had the chance to break a 3-rep record and succeeded doing 200 kg for four, but I wasn’t satisfied. I continued on and put 215 kg on the bar, picked it up off the rack a couple times to accustom myself to the weight, and then proceeded to smash it. I beat it so bad that I immediately put 225 kg on the bar without any hesitation and prepped mentally for a 12.5 kg PR. Following my previous methods, I picked up the bar and completed the lift at a max rep pace. It was done. I had just put 12.5 kg on to my best front squat. How’s that for success?

At the same time that I was doing my front squat cycle, I kept my back squat up by performing them once a week as normally prescribed. I usually did them on Fridays after my front squat lifts. I didn’t go for a heavy single but instead increased my double to 245 kg. I did 230 kg for four and 222.5 kg for five.

In six weeks, I put 10 kg on my back squat and 12.5 on my front squat in two separate cycles. Do I believe that 5/3/1 works? Without a doubt! Do I believe that my own twist made a difference for me because I was used to squatting multiple times per week? Yeah. To top it off, at a local competition, after not lifting overhead for two months, I was able to match my best snatch of 140 kg and increase my clean and jerk to 190 kg. By only working on my legs in those eight weeks, I saw an actual increase of 5 kg in my weightlifting total without practicing the lifts.

Now this was something that I did to help my specific situation. I’m just stating a personal experience, a testimonial if you will, for 5/3/1. Thank you, Jim Wendler.