Articles


Into the Great Wide Open: The Texas Method and 5/3/1

by Jordan Feigenbaum, MD, SSC | March 22, 2017

“Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”

―Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

The world of training after the novice linear progression may be the most volatile place for a lifter. Three to five months of adding weight to the bar nearly every session on the same lifts is no small task. Yet the process of regularly adding ballast and diligently doing the program does not adequately prepare the lifter for making the very important decision: What’s next?

Lifter, meet Internet. A Google search for “intermediate lifting program” yields over 600,000 entries suggesting that there is no shortage of training programs or well marketed coaches that a former novice has access to. There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this, former Novice, you can recognize Silly Bullshit and steer clear of the programs that have been copy-and-pasted out of the magazines or published on a website and named “Freakmode,” “Chiseled,” or “Get Swole” (all real programs by the way).

However, it might not be so obvious that some of the most popular programming options recommended for folks after the novice phase are either wholly inappropriate or very poorly designed, and consequently are not good options for the lifter trying to plan his next move.

In other words, “Why in the hell are so many people doing 5/3/1 or Texas Method?”

Now I imagine that I may get a fair amount of pushback from the Internets who say, “Jim Wendler is a God, man. You don’t know what you’re talking about!” or “How can you diss Texas Method like that? Rip should be ashamed of ever making you a coach!” Well, that all may be true (especially the Rip being ashamed part), but that does not change the fact that 5/3/1 and Texas Method are not the best options for the vast majority of folks finishing the novice progression. This article is about why.

The Programs

To begin, let’s first define what we’re talking about. The 5/3/1 program has many iterations, and a search on Google yields nearly 22 million results for the terms “5/3/1 program.” The original version appears to have been published on T-Nation in 2009 and was transcribed into an eBook in 2011. Currently, several more 5/3/1 books have been written based on the original’s success, but we’ll address the original here with Wendler’s preferred organization.

The 5/3/1 program is set up for 4 training days per week. On each day, a “core” lift is performed for a predetermined number of reps at a specific intensity for three sets and on the third set, the lifter attempts to do as many reps as possible (AMRAP). Then the lifter completes a varying amount of accessory work that ranges from mild (Not Doing Jack Shit™) to wild (The Triumvirate™). Wendler states in his 2009 article that he prefers the Triumvirate setup, which is set up like this:

Day 1

  • Press
    • Week 1: 59% 1RM x 5 reps, 68% x 5 reps, 77% x 5+ reps
    • Week 2: 63% 1RM x 3 reps, 72% x3 reps, 81% x 3+ reps
    • Week 3: 68% 1RM x 5 reps, 77% x 3 reps, 86% x 1+ reps
    • Week 4: 36% 1RM x 5 reps, 45% x 5 reps, 54% x 5 reps
  • Dips x 15 reps x 5 sets
  • Chin ups x 10 reps x 5 sets
Day 2
  • Deadlift
    • Week 1: 59% 1RM x 5 reps, 68% x 5 reps, 77% x 5+ reps
    • Week 2: 63% 1RM x 3 reps, 72% x3 reps, 81% x 3+ reps
    • Week 3: 68% 1RM x 5 reps, 77% x 3 reps, 86% x 1+ reps
    • Week 4: 36% 1RM x 5 reps, 45% x 5 reps, 54% x 5 reps
  • Good Morning x 12 reps x 5 sets
  • Hanging Leg Raise x 15 reps x 5 sets
Day 3
  • Bench Press
    • Week 1: 59% 1RM x 5 reps, 68% x 5 reps, 77% x 5+ reps
    • Week 2: 63% 1RM x 3 reps, 72% x3 reps, 81% x 3+ reps
    • Week 3: 68% 1RM x 5 reps, 77% x 3 reps, 86% x 1+ reps
    • Week 4: 36% 1RM x 5 reps, 45% x 5 reps, 54% x 5 reps
  • DB Chest Press x 15 reps x 5 sets
  • DB Row x 10 reps x 5 sets
Day 4
  • Squat
    • Week 1: 59% 1RM x 5 reps, 68% x 5 reps, 77% x 5+ reps
    • Week 2: 63% 1RM x 3 reps, 72% x3 reps, 81% x 3+ reps
    • Week 3: 68% 1RM x 5 reps, 77% x 3 reps, 86% x 1+ reps
    • Week 4: 36% 1RM x 5 reps, 45% x 5 reps, 54% x 5 reps
  • Leg Press x 15 reps x 5 sets
  • Leg Curl x 10 reps x 5 sets

Texas Method, on the other hand looks like:

Day 1: Volume Day

  • Squat x 5 reps x 5 sets across
  • Bench Press OR Overhead Press x 5 reps x 5 sets across
  • Deadlift x 5 reps x 1 set
Day 2: Light Day
  • Squat 2 x 5 @ 80% of Monday’s work weight
  • Overhead Press (if you bench pressed Monday) x 5 reps x 3 sets OR
    Bench Press (if OHP on Monday) 5 reps x 3 sets @ 90% previous 5 x 5 weight
  • Chin-up 3 x failure x Bodyweight
  • Back Extension or Glute-Ham Raise x 12-15 reps x 3 sets
Day 3: Intensity Day
  • Squat: warm-up, then work up to a new 5RM
  • Bench Press, (if you bench pressed Monday) OR Overhead Press (if OHP on Monday): x new 3-5 RM
  • Power Clean x 3 reps x 5 sets

The Variables

In order to objectively compare 5/3/1 and Texas Method (TM), we need to define our variables and provide background information for discussion. Additionally, I think it’ll be beneficial to also include the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression (SSLP) in our comparisons.

When it comes to program evaluation and planning there are many variables to be considered. While an exhaustive list of these variables is outside the scope of this article, we can focus on the most important ones when evaluating a program, and they are as follows:

Volume: The product of sets and reps gives us the volume of an exercise. For instance, if someone squatted 5 sets of 5, the volume would be 25 reps. However, as we’ll discuss in the other definitions below, this may not be as straightforward as it appears.

Intensity: The load being used is referred to as the intensity, and is typically defined as a percent of 1RM. In general, higher intensity training is more fatiguing than lower intensity training, though there are no agreed-upon ranges that determine low, medium, or high intensities.

Tonnage: The product of sets, reps, and weight on the bar yields tonnage. (For our purposes, the accumulated tonnage of the warmup sets is omitted, since they do not constitute a part of the “overload event” unless serious mistakes have been made in programming them.) This value gives more insight into a program than the volume alone if a lifter’s strength is known. For example, for a guy who squats 405 lbs x 5RM, we can make more predictions about the effect of a program that prescribes 315 lbs (78% of 405) for 5 sets of 5 reps than if we only know the volume without any discussion of the load. 5 sets of 5 at 225 (55% of 405) for the lifter described above is a completely different training stimulus, and requires consideration of the minimum intensity necessary for volume to be useful.

In other words, what is the threshold for useful tonnage for each exercise? For a given exercise and a given rep range, loads equal to or greater than 70% a person’s 1RM tend to be productive for increasing force production and hypertrophy through both structural and enzymatic changes in the muscle. For repetition prescriptions greater than 10 reps, it is difficult to use this rule since the loads have to be light enough to complete the set successfully, and are typically less than 70% of a 1RM.

Another consideration that throws a wrench in all this is how perceived effort levels can change with fatigue, e.g. attempting a set on short rest either between sets or between workouts, additional stressors in the person’s life, or other things that temporarily compromise the ability to perform. When levels of performance change, a 1RM becomes inaccurate and will therefore affect any calculation based thereon.

Frequency: The number of times a movement or movement pattern is trained per unit of time (week/month/year) is the frequency. Broadly speaking, the three basic movement patterns that are most important from a strength perspective are squatting, pressing, and pulling. With that in mind, any squat-type movement affects the frequency of squatting. For example, if a program calls for squats on Day 1, paused squats on Day 2, and front squats on day 3 then the frequency of squatting is 3x/week.

More interestingly, consider the different effect of a program that prescribes squatting 5 reps for 5 sets @ 75% of a 5RM all in one day compared to another program that prescribes squatting 5 reps @ 75% of a 5RM for 1 set on five separate days in a week. These two different protocols will have different effects on training outcomes like strength and hypertrophy.

Slots: The difference in frequency in programs depends on how many “slots” – exercises within a workout – are dedicated to each major movement pattern in a given training week. When comparing programs, we consider slots as either upper-body or lower-body.

My rationale for this is that the carry-over, stress and fatigue, and other effects from exercises stressing similar muscle groups are significant, and thus are best grouped together. For example, squats contribute to increasing the deadlift, and deadlift training contributes to increasing the squat through both indirect and direct mechanisms. We could consider squat slots and deadlift slots separately, but this complicates program evaluation without any benefit, especially from a volume and tonnage standpoint.

The Assessment

Volume, defined above as sets x reps, is actually tough to calculate for 5/3/1 given the accessory work included in the Triumvirate iteration we’re using as our sample 5/3/1 program. I think it’s prudent to include things like dips, good mornings, DB bench press, and leg press into press, deadlift, bench press, and squat volume. I also think it’s reasonable to lump press and bench press volume together collectively as “pressing” volume. Therefore, the volume calculations presented below reflect these inclusions.

Wendler’s 5/3/1 includes 84-90+ reps for squat, 168-180+ reps for pressing, and 69-75+ reps for the deadlift, with the “+” denoting the variability of the final sets of each week’s 3rd set for the “core lifts” being scheduled as AMRAP sets.

For Texas Method, the squat’s volume is 40 reps, pressing is 45 reps, and the deadlift gets 20 reps, which includes the power clean’s 15 reps and the deadlift’s 5 reps.

The Starting Strength Linear Progression (SSLP), by comparison, has 45 reps for the squat and pressing exercises. Like the Texas Method, the SSLP commits 20 reps of volume to the deadlift from the combination of the deadlift and power clean.

intermediate program volume comparison

To simplify, 5/3/1 has over double the volume for the squat and pressing movements when compared directly to TM and SSLP. For deadlifts, 5/3/1 has over triple the amount of volume compared to TM and SSLP. However, nearly 80% of that volume comes from good mornings. Similarly, in the case of the squat and pressing exercises, approximately 83-89% of that volume comes from leg press (for squats) and both dips and DB bench press for pressing.

The transferability of the volume from these assistance exercises is less effective for strength improvement than volume from the Big Five barbell exercises. Power clean volume is less effective for strength in the context of the deadlift, since most lifters will power clean less than 50% of their deadlift’s 1RM. Conversely, the power clean’s rate of force production commensurately requires high levels of force production, and it could be argued that the absolute force productions are similar and both should be counted in the deadlifting volume.

Still, if we make these considerations and eliminate the exercises contributing less effective volume, then the breakdown of volume is as follows:

5/3/1 yields 9-15+ reps for squats compared to 40 and 45 reps for TM and SSLP, respectively. Similarly, 5/3/1 commits 18-30+ reps of volume to pressing compared to 45 reps for both TM and SSLP. Finally, 5/3/1 commits 9-15+ reps to deadlifts compared to 5 reps for TM and SSLP. Using this assessment, 5/3/1 has approximately 20-38% of the volume for the squat and 40-67% for pressing. For the deadlift however, 5/3/1 has a slight volume advantage with 180-300% of the volume that TM and SSLP have, which is owed to multiple work sets seen in 5/3/1 compared to the single work set in TM and SSLP.

adjusted intermediate program volume

Intensity

The intensity comparison is significantly tougher to do, given that the SSLP and TM programs do not use any percentages of RM when selecting the loads from week to week. As you might expect, that is not the end of the story here, folks. As a brief explanation of how SSLP and TM’s loads are selected, the initial loads a lifter uses for SSLP are such that either one of two criteria is met on the squat, bench press, deadlift, and press:

  1. After starting with the empty barbell and adding weight incrementally, the velocity of the barbell noticeably slows down for a set of 5 reps, which denotes a challenging load for the lifter’s ability level on that day, or;
  2. The load selected is the maximal load the lifter can use on the exercise in question for a set of 5 repetitions with absolutely no form breakdown.

As an aside, any maximal effort done by a novice lifter, e.g. a 1, 3, or 5RM, cannot be used to calculate the intensity of the lifter’s working sets because a novice does not yet possess either the skill or the neuromuscular efficiency to execute a true 1, 3, or 5RM. To clarify this point, consider the situation of a competitive powerlifter who attempts to “max out” on his third attempt at a meet compared to a novice lifter attempting to do the same. This performance is a non-repeatable event for the advanced lifter, while the novice lifter could repeat or even exceed this weight later the same day.

For the advanced lifter, the development of the strength displayed at the meet is the result of serial applications of stress with subsequent recoveries and adaptations. After this grand effort, the advanced lifter requires a significant amount of time to recover and go through the serial stress-adaptation-recovery cycles to produce an increased peak performance. The stress an advanced lifter produces at a meet – itself the result of months of accumulated stress and adaptation – would result in a weaker subsequent performance until the stress of that heavy attempt was unrecovered from.

Not so with the novice lifter, however. In addition to lacking the skill necessary to actually perform an efficient 1RM (which means that repeated testing of a novice lifter’s 1RM will produce different results), the exposure to 1RM-level loads provides a significant training stress to the novice lifter, which itself increases the lifter’s performance. Yes, Virginia, the Novice Effect is real.

So no, it is not possible to accurately predict a novice lifter’s 1RM until he is no longer a novice. That said, the relative effort on any given set of 5 during the novice progression is somewhere between 70% and 90% of his actual 5RM ability. This means that the lifter could likely perform an additional 1 to 3 reps in any given work set if he absolutely had to. From an intensity standpoint, this corresponds to 79-84% of “1RM” for a set of 5 reps.

With this in mind, SSLP’s intensity for the working sets tends to be about 80-85%, and likely improves within this range due to the relatively consistent increase in the novice lifter’s strength as he runs the program successfully.

For the Texas Method, the intensity calculation also requires some mental gymnastics for discussion purposes. Volume Day, for instance, prescribes 5 sets of 5 reps across at the same weight, whereas Intensity Day prescribes 5 reps for 1 set at a personal record (PR) weight, which could be construed as a new 5RM for that lifter.

In my experience, a successful run of the Texas Method program has volume days that are performed at about 90% of the Intensity Day’s loading for males. Females are quite different, and that is another article entirely. Additionally, most Intensity Day efforts are done at near-maximal levels, which suggests the lifter could do at most one more rep. Volume day intensity would therefore be at about 70-75% of a lifter’s 1RM, and the intensity day performance would be at about 83-86%. Like the SSLP, the 1RM increases as the program continues, but because the lifter is getting stronger, the intensities are probably equivalent for as long as TM can be run without modification.

5/3/1, on the other hand, varies the intensity each week over a 4-week cycle. For example, on week 1 the program calls for sets of 5 at 59%, 68%, and 77% of the lifter’s 1RM. Weeks 2 and 3 add 4% and 9% to these initial intensities, and it is highly likely that a lifter’s strength is not increasing weekly (like TM) and certainly not every 48 hours (like SSLP). 5/3/1 is a 4-week cycle, while TM is a 1-week cycle.

Tonnage

At this point, it is useful to include tonnage in order to compare intensities between programs. Recall that tonnage is reps x sets x load. Using the theoretical example of a 180 kg squatter, 110 kg bencher, 70 kg presser, and 200 kg deadlifter, we get the following comparisons:

intermediate program tonnage comparison

SSLP uses an average intensity of 81.5%, as this is the mean of the predicted 79-84% intensity range. TM uses 72.5% of 1RM for Volume Day, 80% of the Volume Day squat value for the intensity on Light Day, and 84.5% of 1RM for Intensity day. Both SSLP and TM press and bench values are calculated using twice per week benching example. 5/3/1 uses values from week 1 and assumes 9 reps on the AMRAP set. Only directly attributable volume is used. 1RM was held constant across the training week for calculation purposes.

Squats

For squats, SSLP provides the most tonnage at a given strength level, with TM and 5/3/1 providing 85% and 36% of the tonnage of SSLP. However, the higher the absolute strength, the less able the lifter will be to recover from and sustain that amount of volume and intensity. More advanced lifters, despite the benefits of the Specificity of Adaptation to Imposed Demand (SAID) principle, cannot tolerate thrice weekly loading at >80% of 1RM for significant amounts of volume for extended periods of time, due to the Principle of Diminishing Returns.

Bench Press

For bench press, TM generates the most tonnage when performed twice weekly, with 5/3/1 and SSLP yielding 59% and 79% of the tonnage of Texas Method, respectively. However, when we look at a 2-week cycle the picture becomes a bit murkier since the weight on the bar for the SSLP and 5/3/1 increases while the volume of benching decreases for all programs. The volume, intensity, and tonnage of each program over 2 weeks is described below:

5/3/1’s  bench rep scheme for week 1 is 5/5/5+ and we estimated 9 reps on the 3rd set as 77% of a 1RM is approximately a 9RM. Week 2’s rep scheme is 3/3/3+ and the 3rd set is done at 81% of 1RM, which is approximately a 7RM. Thus, we assumed 9 reps were completed on the 3rd set for week 1 and 7 reps were assumed for week 2. When working off a 1RM of 110kg, total tonnage for 2 weeks (sets x reps x load) is 2530kg.

Week 1 of the Texas Method uses 5 reps x 5 sets across done at approximately 72.5% of 1RM on Volume day and 5 reps x 1 set done at 84.5% of 1RM on Intensity Day. Week 2 prescribes bench being done on light day only at 90% of the preceding week’s Volume Day weight for 3 sets of 5 repetitions. All together, this yields 3535kg of tonnage for a 110kg 1RM.

SSLP alternates bench press and press each workout, such that there are 2 bench sessions on week 1 and 1 bench session on week 2, yielding a total of 3 bench workouts of 3 sets of 5 reps. If the 1RM is held constant over the two weeks, which is not actually done for a novice, then the tonnage is 4034kg over two weeks for the bench alone.

By comparison, 5/3/1 and TM only provide 63% and 88% of SSLP’s tonnage. If the lifter can tolerate the novice progression – by sustaining the ability to add weight to the bar each workout – it provides significantly more tonnage than the two popular intermediate programs, 5/3/1 and Texas Method.

Frequency and “Slots”

The last program variables we’ll jointly assess in this article are frequency and “slots.” Frequency refers to the amount of times a particular exercise is seen, whereas slots are the exercises within the workout sorted according to whether they are upper-body, like the pressing movements, or lower-body, like squats and deadlifts.

Keeping with the methods used when assessing volume and tonnage, we’ll limit frequency calculation to only directly attributable variations of the Big Four lifts. However, we will include the additional variants that train the collection of muscle groups in either the lower body or upper body. The logic for comparing slots this way is repeated from the earlier discussion: “…the carry-over, stress and fatigue, and other effects from exercises stressing similar muscle groups are significant and thus, are best grouped together. For example, squats contribute to increasing the deadlift and deadlift training contributes to increasing the squat through both indirect and direct mechanisms.” This effect includes the assistance exercises as well.

Accordingly, 5/3/1’s frequency is once per week for the Big Four, i.e. the squat, bench press, press, and deadlift. Compared to the Texas Method and the Novice Linear Progression, 5/3/1 significantly reduces volume for the squat, press, and bench press, but matches TM and SSLP on deadlift frequency. Both TM and SSLP have 300% as much squatting from a frequency standpoint when compared to 5/3/1. From a bench and press standpoint, which is best compared over two weeks given the alternating protocol of the press and bench press in TM and SSLP, 5/3/1 has 66% as much exposure to the press and bench press.

But when it comes to lower body slots, 5/3/1 matches SSLP and is one less than TM’s six. For upper body however, 5/3/1 commits six slots and this outnumbers the four and three slots seen in TM and SSLP, respectively.

Strength and Hypertrophy

So, what to make of this frequency and exercise slot comparison? It is clear that 5/3/1 relies on accessory exercise exposure to drive up the strength displayed in the main lifts, which comports with the volume and tonnage calculations when we include the accessory lifts’ contributions. That said, it is not clear whether lighter weight accessory lifts or movement patterns significantly different than the core lift will contribute significantly to strength improvement. Not all slots are created equal.

On the other hand, improvements in muscle hypertrophy – the increased size of the existing muscle fibers within the musculoskeletal system – are less affected by the two caveats listed above. Consider that in order for muscle hypertrophy to occur, a muscle must be stressed in a way that produces a net increase in muscle protein, and this must occur under the appropriate nutritional conditions. Put more simply, training needs to provide a stimulus that makes the muscle need to be bigger, and you need to have enough nutrition on board to allow it to happen. You cannot grow muscle while “cutting” or losing weight, and you can’t grow muscle without a stimulus that promotes increased muscle growth.

The stimulus needed to promote muscle growth can be the same stimulus needed to promote strength improvement, but it doesn’t have to be. Consider that after a significantly stressful training session, muscle protein synthesis rates increase for approximately 48 hours. By definition, any and all training that meets the physiological criteria for an “overload event” will elevate the muscle protein synthesis rate. This theoretical threshold does not always have to be met with significant loading, however. If the lifter is exposed to enough volume, loading, and range of motion to accumulate enough stress to qualify as an “overload event,” this exposure produces an increase in muscle protein synthesis rates.

Interestingly, it also appears that the body has an upper limit of muscle protein synthesis in response to a single training event, such that more reps, more sets, or more stress does not produce more hypertrophy. Rather, it produces a deeper hole the lifter has to climb out of to adapt to the new stress. Any stress in excess of that necessary to produce more hypertrophy is deleterious, because the excess stress does not provide additional adaptive stimulus, but does consume more recovery resources. And if muscle protein synthesis rates are elevated for approximately 48 hours post-training before returning to baseline, a lifter interested in maximizing hypertrophy should be sufficiently recovered to be able to train productively again after 48 hours.

For example, after the conclusion of the SSLP, German Volume Training (10 sets of 10 reps across) certainly meets the criteria for an overload event, and muscle protein synthesis rates will increase for the two days we’d expect. However, as we learned from the story of the over-ambitious Icarus who flew too close to the sun, the dramatic increase in training volume from 15 to 100 reps on the squat in a single session will leave any lifter cripplingly sore and unable to train productively 48 hours later. In this case, the added volume and resulting fatigue was not intelligently managed.

Managing Intermediate Programming: Volume

So what do we do with the comparative analysis of the two most popular intermediate programs, Wendler’s 5/3/1 and Texas Method? Let’s revisit the variables we compared above and provide the groundwork for making intelligent choices:

First, let’s consider volume and its cousin, tonnage. It is not possible to practically discuss volume outside the context of intensity because “volume” then becomes a meaningless number. 5 sets of 5 reps without a weight attached to it tells us nothing about the potential training effect, recovery demands, or even the feasibility of the workout. Consider a lifter with a 405 lb 1 rep max squat who is supposed to squat 5 sets of 5 reps at 225 lbs vs. 5 sets of 5 reps at 315 lbs. The loading differences and subsequent tonnage allow us to compare real-world training compared to the standard “5x5” prescription.

Intensity combined with volume results in tonnage. However, for clarity and the accurate description of training variables we will keep them separate here.

Training definition: Volume = sets x reps. Tonnage = sets x reps x weight used for each rep.

Contribution to hypertrophy improvement: Significant. For hypertrophy, volume is the nearly the sole determinant of a workout causing a resulting increase in muscle protein synthesis. This is limited by the body’s ability to respond to volume greater than that which maximizes muscle protein synthesis, however. Thus, volume must be managed appropriately. Tonnage is of minimal concern when it comes to hypertrophy.

Hypertrophy Comparison: For hypertrophy, 5/3/1 as written may appear better on paper, but it’s severely lacking in frequency for optimal muscle growth because there are only two lower body and upper body days, and this limits total muscle growth overall. Additionally, high volume accessory movements produce significant amounts of soreness and subsequently compromised training that does not contribute to increased muscle size. Texas Method and SSLP, with their 3x/week frequency and significant amounts of volume (relative to the demographics they’re meant for) meet or exceed 5/3/1’s hypertrophy potential. Additionally, since folks running SSLP are supposed to be less advanced than those using 5/3/1, the growth response to an adequate training stimulus dosed at a more optimal frequency is better than 5/3/1.

Contribution to strength improvement: Significant. Volume at the appropriate intensity is one of the most important programming variables when it comes to strength development. In general, volume should increase as the level of training advancement increases. Similarly, the more advanced a lifter becomes the more volume they can tolerate, relatively. An interesting exception appears to be larger lifters who, for whatever reason, tend to poorly tolerate the volume that their lighter counterparts can use effectively. Still, volume requirements trend upwards with training experience. Tonnage by itself is not terribly important unless viewed through the lens of volume.

Strength Comparison: It’s kind of a toss-up here, in my opinion. First, we cannot run SSLP forever because it no longer works when the ability to recover and adapt quickly from training stress is exceeded by the training loads that can be handled by the now-stronger lifter. Second, a significant decrease in training volume, when 5/3/1 is compared to the SSLP that (hopefully) preceded it, is unlikely to produce significant improvements in strength.

Intensity

Training definition: Percentage of 1RM, an indicator of the effort necessary to complete the rep or reps.

Contribution to hypertrophy: Moderate. Intensity is important for hypertrophy because it helps determine, to some extent, the volume necessary to maximize the muscle hypertrophy response from training. It also influences fatigue levels, obviously, since lifting a high volume at high intensity produces a much higher level of fatigue than high intensity at low volume or low intensity at higher volume. Still, volume is the name of the game in hypertrophy and while intensity is still a player, it is not the star of the show.

Hypertrophy Comparison: Recalling the fatigue levels mentioned earlier, 5/3/1 actually does a reasonable job of programming hypertrophy work given the exercise selection and the resulting intensity of these exercises at given the rep range. However, considering the volume prescription, we have a potential problem. What are the odds that doing 5 sets of 15 on leg press, dips, or dumbbell bench press doesn’t represent a dramatic increase in volume for a new intermediate? The 5/3/1 prescription for accessory work is excessive volume.

And changing the discussion to 5/3/1 for a more advanced lifter – even a bodybuilder – who could actually tolerate and potentially benefit from all the volume, 5/3/1 is still not optimal because the exercise frequency and total volume of the core lifts are not enough for that application.

Contribution to strength improvement: Moderate to significant. Much like tonnage, intensity cannot be discussed outside the context of volume. Strength improvements as measured by performance of 1, 3, or 5RM tests in the Big Four are best improved by progressive overload and the proper application of the stress-recovery-adaptation cycle. It is possible to progressively overload the lifter by adding intensity at a constant volume with sufficient recovery. Alternatively, progressive overload can be achieved by adding volume while keeping the intensity constant. While there are no universally accepted definitions for low, medium, or high intensity, I would suggest that low intensity is 70-80% of 1RM, medium intensity is 80-90% of 1RM, and high intensity is anything greater than 90% of 1RM.

Strength Comparison: On a program like SSLP or TM, intensity increases while “doing the program” are not quite as clear as they may appear. The absolute load on the bar is increasing, but the strength of the lifter is also increasing – the relative intensity may stay the same if not adjusted appropriately. If a lifter on SSLP recovers very well from Day 3 to Day 1 of the following week and doesn’t take a big enough jump in weight, then intensity has increased minimally. This usually washes out when “bad” training days are also considered, since these produce extra stress and may actually require more time for the stress-recovery-adaptation cycle to operate.

With that out of the way, 5/3/1’s intensity is woefully inadequate from a strength development standpoint given its low volume in the core lifts. Low intensity (70-80% of 1RM) can be used to drive progressive overload provided the volume is high enough, and 5/3/1 doesn’t get anywhere close to this. Texas Method on the other hand, has a healthy dose of volume and intensity spread out over the week, though it might actually be too much to tolerate in a single exposure.

It’s like a Texas Method cemetery on the forum these days. A large number of people report “literally dying” after a hard volume day. It should be stated again, Texas Method as written is a young man’s program. You’ve been warned.

Frequency and Slots

Training Definition: Frequency = the number of times per week a specific exercise or closely related variant, either upper-body or lower-body, is programmed.

Contribution to Hypertrophy: Significant. Exercise frequency is very important to optimizing hypertrophy. The volume per training session needs to be sufficient to increase muscle protein synthesis rates, and the frequency of training needs to be sufficient to elevate this rate as often as is effective.

Hypertrophy Comparison: Ah, what could have been! 5/3/1, battered and bruised by our previous discussion, could have dominated this conversation, but instead it only exposes the lifter to hypertrophy stimuli for the upper and lower body twice per week. The Texas Method does this three times per week, but there are not enough upper body exercise slots to maximize hypertrophy. While the volume of core-lift training in Texas Method is higher, 5/3/1 has six upper body slots compared to TM’s three. The lower number of slots compromises overall upper body volume on TM compared to 5/3/1, but 5/3/1 got the frequency wrong.

Contribution to strength improvement: Significant. Since training volume, especially “directly attributable volume,” is important for improving strength, it is no surprise that the number of exercise slots and exercise frequency play a large role in strength development. Exposure to a lift, particularly a core lift or similar variation, e.g. paused squats for the squat, tends to increase the ability of the lifter to recover from doing that movement. This is called the Repeated Bout Effect (RBE). Additionally, frequent exposure to the core lifts make you better at performing the core lifts via the SAID Principle.

Strength Comparison: Since exercise frequency matters when it comes to strength, it needs to be intelligently programmed. Unfortunately, both Texas Method and 5/3/1 appear to have missed the memo for a big chunk of the intermediate population. Texas Method commits 3x/week to training the squat and pressing slots, which may be appropriate if the concentrated volume can be tolerated. However, for older lifters, that may not be the case. For younger lifters, the upper-body frequency is usually enough, but the number of upper body slots may not be, depending on the individual.

Then there’s the deadlift, receiving one training session per week on both 5/3/1 and TM, albeit with higher volume (at lower intensity) on 5/3/1. This is suboptimal for deadlift development after the weekly increase in the deadlift stops working. That said, neither 5/3/1 or TM have additional pulling frequency that is directly attributable to the deadlift.

Overall, for a young man with abundant recovery resources, the squat frequency from Texas Method is good, the upper body frequency and slot allotment may be low, and the deadlift frequency is not optimal. For an older person with compromised recovery, the squat frequency is not manageable at the prescribed intensity, the upper body programming may be appropriate, and the deadlift programming is probably suboptimal when considering its volume and intensity.

5/3/1 is awful for all of the lifts, except for maybe the deadlift in an older person, though the AMRAP set is not ideal from a risk/benefit standpoint. As the set drags on, more and more fatigue occurs and technique can break down. Any benefits from more volume are immediately cancelled out by an injury, and performing AMRAP sets are not advisable, especially for a recent novice graduate.

Overall

It should be no secret to anyone who has read this far – both of you – or anybody who has been exposed to one of my social media Q&As that I think Texas Method is inappropriate for most, and that 5/3/1 is one of the worst programs available. So, what do I think the intermediate should do? My recommendation is the 4-day Upper/Lower Split found in Practical Programming for Strength Training. Another option would be a correctly implemented Heavy, Light, Medium (HLM) program advocated by Starr. It might also be reasonable to run one of the different modified Texas Method programs or the General Intermediate program I’ve published on my website. The general trend you’ll see is that these variations allow for an adjustment in training volume, fairly specific exercise selection, intelligent intensity recommendations, and reasonable frequency prescriptions. While nothing is ever perfect, they are significantly better choices than stock 5/3/1 or TM for the majority of people.

But this range of options raises a very important point – one that should not be taken lightly. If a newly-minted intermediate trainee were able to assess and tweak a stock programming template with aplomb, there would be no reason for this article. I would argue that most new intermediates are not yet equipped to perform such a task, and should, if possible, look to the Community Elders for advice. Look, there are highly trained, highly qualified, and highly invested coaches just waiting to help you. Andy Baker, for instance has put out a huge amount of free information on programming relating to Starting Strength and the Texas Method, and he has a successful coaching practice open to new clients at this time. Another option would be Starting Strength Online Coaching, which presently works with folks all over the globe. Other Starting Strength coaches who do remote coaching include, but are not limited to Tom Campitelli, Leah Lutz, and yours truly, of course.

This article is not meant to be insulting to the reader, the authors of the programs assessed, or those who are running 5/3/1 or Texas Method right now. Rather, it has explored the drawbacks of these programs based on physiology, training theory, and practical experience. If you still want to give 5/3/1 or TM a shot, I won’t be offended in the least. We’ll be here when you need us.


Discuss in Forums

More from Starting Strength and the Forums



Starting Strength Weekly Report

Highlights from the StartingStrength Community. Browse archives.