5/3/1 for a Beginner
Generally, I tell everyone to just do the program as is, regardless of training age.
Of course, if you’re a trainer and are using the program with a novice athlete or someone new to training, simply use your experience to make whatever changes are required – though there shouldn’t be many.
Now if you’re a beginner and are working out without any guidance whatsoever, it’s probably best to just stick with the basic program. One of the worst things a young lifter can do is take advice from other beginners on message boards – they usually have all the advice and none of the experience.
Below is one beginner modification that’s permissible, and effective. It’s a subtle, easy way to add in some extra work on the main lifts without compromising the program or the philosophies it was built upon.
You perform a full-body routine, three days a week. Full body strength routines are the best way for novice lifters to quickly get strong, provided the program is non-retarded (i.e. adheres to an intelligent progression system).
Instead of just one main lift per workout (using the 5/3/1 set-up), two main lifts are used for additional weekly exposures. The second main lift, however, should not be performed 5/3/1 style; instead, use a standard 3 sets of 5 reps, starting at 55% of your training 1RM for the first set of 5 and increasing the weight by 10% each successive set.
The exception is the deadlifting day with presses as the second lift. Just do 5/3/1 here across the board.
Squat – 5/3/1 sets/reps
Bench – 55%x5, 65×5%, 75%x5
Deadlift – 5/3/1 sets/reps
Press – 5/3/1 sets/reps
Bench – 5/3/1 sets/reps
Squat – 55%x5, 65%x5, 75%x5
The program is set up the same way – taking 90% of your max and working up slowly. All percentages are based on that training max.
The first thing I’ll be asked is, “What do I do for assistance work?” Because you’re doing a full body routine each day and using compound lifts, you need to keep the assistance work to a minimum. Chins, dips, back raises, neck work, and curls will serve you well. Stick with that.
The above program is nothing revolutionary, but it’s effective. When you’re given a training max and the exact percentages to use every workout, it removes all doubt as to what’s heavy, medium, or light. This is simple and easy to use for any beginner.
Intermediate lifters, provided the percentages on the non-5/3/1 days are lowered by 10 percent each set, can also use this basic structure. (As you get more experienced, you can’t handle the extra work at a heavier percentage.)