My Favorite Training Plans: Wendler 5/3/1

Genius makes the complex simple.

Jim Wendler was a long-time lifter at Westside Barbell in Ohio. Louie Simmons had used conjugate periodization to create powerlifting champions; Dave Tate had used blog posts to make the gym famous.

But Wendler made the concept work for normal people.

Simmons was the most practical type of inventor: he pulled good ideas from many sources, and put them together into a plan. He used Prilepin’s chart; he used progressive overload; he used High Volume Training; he used accommodating resistance and compensatory acceleration. He probably used 200 other ideas and discarded them before Westside became famous.

But inventors can rarely take their ideas to a broad market. By definition, they’re technical experts, and they don’t speak the same language as the masses. But Jim Wendler took the big concepts of Westside’s success, and put them in a very simple format: 5 reps one week; three reps the next; a max single on the third week; and then you switch exercises.

This was a radical departure from traditional “westside barbell” training. When I met Louie Simmons at Westside in 2014, he struggled to define “the westside program”. As a genius tinker, he was always changing the definition as he added new ideas or subtracted the old. Even at the height of its success, following the Westside program wasn’t simple. Dozens of powerlifters worldwide would call the gym every week to ask for clarification despite hundreds of articles, blog posts and DVDs published by Louie. And the answers would change from week to week.

Wendler changed all of that.

In a conversation we shared in 2016, Jim Wendler told me that he was an English major and spent most of his time writing. But the secret to good writing isn’t more words, or even more creativity: the secret to good writing is good editing. The secret is removing the stuff that isn’t absolutely critical. The secret is removing the shades of gray; the “it depends” language; the diversions, distractions and digressions.

As it turns out, that’s also the secret to good programming. It’s not the creativity; it’s the clarity.

Here’s the link to that podcast:

True powerlifting pros (and maybe exercise science geeks like me) want to know the FULL program. They want to know how often to insert a high-rep workout on Fridays; what band tension to use on a cambered bar; how often to wear squat briefs in the weeks before competition. But that deep knowledge actually deters most people, who just want to know:

“How much do I squat, and for how many reps?”

When I visited Westside Barbell, I arrived with a cameraman at 7am. Two lifters were already there, eating McDonald’s on the hood of their Dodge Ram, waiting for Louie to tell them what to do. Ninety minutes later, after an interview with Louie in his office, the lifters were finished their warmup…and were waiting for Louie to write the day’s workout on the chalkboard. Even the experts in his method couldn’t reliably predict what to do next. In his brilliance, Louie was always victim to “The Technician’s Curse”, which plagued me as a coach for years. For example, I once drew this picture on my gym floor to explain Rate of Force Development to a 17-year-old sprinter.

But any novice who reads “5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System for Raw Strength” can explain the program to another novice. They know exactly what to do on a given training day, and have a rough idea of why it works.

And it DOES work–the simplicity makes it effective. As coaches, we don’t have to explain Rate of Force Development, or the factors that contribute to it, like disinhibition, neuromuscular efficiency, or recruitment across the fiber spectrum. All we have to do is coach the athlete through a challenging set of 5 squats.

The lesson? Simpler is better. Simple programs create rapid understanding, and understanding creates faster progress. Genius makes the complex simple; simplicity creates action; action begets results.

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