While listening to Episode 4 of Season 4 of the Voodoo Strength podcast (featuring Brandon Herring), the versatility of Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 program came up as a topic. It reminded me of an application I’ve used in recent training programs. Most readers of this blog will certainly recognize the 5-3-1 as a foundational program featuring a simple loading scheme aimed at developing strength in the weight room. For those who don’t know, I encourage them to read Jim’s work in its entertaining and elegant simplicity.
One facet of the 5-3-1 program I’ve delved deeper into this past year is the “First Set Last” concept. In FSL, the first working set (65%, 70%, or 75%) of the workout is repeated as supplemental work with the same or a slight variation of the main lift. Two typical applications of FSL outlined in Wendler’s 5-3-1 are:
- The FSL 5×5.
- The “Widowmaker” set.
Applying 5-3-1 in Performance Training
For my programming, I’ve used the former a bit more than the latter. The 65%–75% zones work perfectly as a three-week wave for power applications. This is a bucket I fill with athletes who I know are doubling up with other programs (school) and seem to focus on the heavy end of the strength curve.The ‘First Set Last’ 65%–75% zones work perfectly as a three-week wave for power applications. Click To Tweet
The lion’s share of Wendler’s FSL application is in the five sets of five following the main sets. The author states, “The biggest reason why I like using 5×5 FSL is bar speed is never compromised.”1 In my experience, the FSL 5×5 performed after main work enhances the PAP effect from main sets, allowing further precise practice of the lift while simultaneously building power. I’ve also used FSL 5×5 as the main work of the day for a “dynamic effort” type of feel. This helps if you are a bit beat up or lacking that snap, as the moderate loads moved quickly aid in garnering the power response.
The second way to do this (FSL) is to perform a “Widowmaker set”—a term borrowed from Dante Trudel’s Doggcrapp program, where 15–20 reps are done for a single set.1 This can work wonders for the newer athletes that need a shotgun response. With the main sets serving as high-quality practice, the FSL WM set of 15–20 hits everything from hypertrophy to work capacity to strain ability (much like the effect of 1×20), not to mention its mental kick in the butt.
The FSL 5×5 is easy to program and, if using an appropriate training max, helps athletes recover more easily. It does not interfere with on-field abilities, allowing your gym work to stay in line with all-around progress. This then makes the FSL 5×5 template sustainable over a longer period.1 For athletes in our program, the FSL is a “fail-safe”: whether it’s programmed as added volume or done as main work, for sets of five or higher reps, we can use FSL loads for power or hypertrophy work at points in the training year when such effects are called for.
Why the 5-3-1 Works
As a coach who routinely ponders the why behind training effects, I often dip my feet into both practice and science in search of where best practices and examination overlap. This search led me to the work of Dr. Matt Rhea and his study of “Optimal Resistance Load for Peak Power in Various Exercises.” His findings revealed some eye-opening aspects of weight-room work in relation to power development in American football.
“We have significantly altered our training focus from strength to power over the past 10 years among football players. This change is due to: A) football is a speed/power sport; B) improvements in strength with a power-focused program were occurring simultaneous to power whereas power was not improving significantly with a strength-focused program. In an effort to maximize power development, we have been investigating different training loads and their impact on acute peak power. What is the best % of 1RM for eliciting peak power in a given lift?”
Rhea’s investigation tracked peak power outputs in the back squat, bench press, hang clean, split squat, rear elevated squat, power clean, incline bench press, and hang high pull over the course of a year and a half. No more than five reps per set were done (very 5-3-1-like). Rhea found that 63% of 1RM showed the highest peak power, with 60%–75% appearing to be a consistently high power range across the various exercises.If success leaves clues, we can clearly see the ‘First Set Last’ ranges (65%/70%/75%, respectively) fit nicely into this peak power range. Click To Tweet
If success leaves clues, we can clearly see the FSL ranges (65%/70%/75%, respectively) fit nicely into this peak power range. Although each percentage is a precise piece of data collected from the most elite of elite athletes in Rhea’s findings, we can certainly distill the application down to using the FSL loading for developing athletes. Where Rhea’s studies reinforce the concept with precision, Jim’s coach’s eye led him to witness the positive effect on power.
Not one to leave personal interpretation and implementation on the table, I’ve recently employed two other ways to use the FSL to drive power adaptations. In using the traditional application, FSL 5×5, I simply track average velocity (using Flex Stronger units) across the whole set with the intent of moving the barbell as fast as possible. I’ll wave the percentages over three weeks, rinse, and repeat, aiming to set personal bests in velocity each session. As athletes grow stronger, you can even drop to five sets of three, which is also a great volume control when in camp or in season.
In my recent work with a female soccer team, I have been challenged by how to get enough high-quality work in a short amount of time—I’m given 15 minutes once a week for strength work (yes, 15 minutes is all I get). Much of this stems from the fear that:
- “Lifting will make them too sore to practice.”
- “Lifting is dangerous and will make them tight.”
- “We don’t want them to look like boys.”
Yes, we’re still battling this nonsense from a few naive parents and coaches, but we must press on!
Relative to an earlier point, these loads lend themselves to work along the power and hypertrophy spectrum. For the bulk of the team sport athletes I get who are in season or training in other activities, the 3–5-rep sets help preserve power quality; for the undersized athletes that need some muscle, the 10s are the spark for muscle building.
Given the constraint above, I thought, “Why not incorporate both?” What I mean here is if 10 reps at these percentages give us a structural response and 3–5 can keep power quality…why not use a cluster-style approach for 10(ish) total reps per set?
To accomplish this, we use a cluster approach in the hex bar deadlift and a squat variation affectionately dubbed “Rapid Fire.” We break up the set of 10 into three mini-sets of three (nine total reps) or five mini-sets of two reps. To create more training density, we have added 2–3 box or long jumps immediately afterward. Here, the athletes go in a “follow the leader” fashion, and if weights need to be adjusted, they work as a team to load and unload each other’s bar.
Typically, we have groups of 4–5, and they can whiz through a “Rapid Fire” set in about 90 seconds—during the rest period, they each perform one set of predetermined reps in an upper body push or pull and a trunk exercise. The total set takes 3–4 minutes—we rest for a little and then go again.
For us, attaching a number to the execution of bar speed is key in driving home intent and purpose with otherwise disregarded loads. The “Rapid Fire” approach has filled the buckets of providing a higher-quality volume of work while driving a team-building environment, given the constraint of time. From the coaching side, these applications have allowed my program to be science-guided, principles-based, and inventive simultaneously.
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1. 5-3-1 Forever: Simple & Effective Programming for Size, Speed, & Strength. Wendler, Jim. 2017. p. 59.
2. Rhea, Matt. “Optimal Resistance Load for Peak Power In Activity,” Linkedin.