That’s right, I don’t care how big you are, if you aren’t strong you’re a sham. Having big muscles and no strength is the training equivalent of wearing a strap-on. All show and no go. End of story.Jim Wendler
Lift big, eat big, and GET big: those are the goals of any true hardcore gym goer (and the aspirations of the sometimes gym goer).
Now more than ever there powerlifting is reaching higher levels of popularity. People have finally started to see some sense in the idea that getting physically stronger leads to a healthier life and more fit body.
Numerous beginner books and programs flood our brains. We have so many good options to choose from.
Then there’s Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1. What’s interesting about the 5/3/1 program is that it was developed more for an intermediate lifter than a beginner or advanced lifter, but it’s highly adaptable and can be used by lifters of all levels.
When a lifter might begin to stall out on a Starting Strength program, for example, that lifter could start a 5/31/ program and continue using that program for months if not years.
How does 5/3/1 Work?
If you already know how the 5/3/1 program works, you might want to just skip down to the section explaining joker sets and the best time to use those in your training. Otherwise, keep reading to learn more about the basic 5/3/1 program itself.
But, understanding the overall 5/3/1 program and how it works is necessary to knowing how joker sets fit into the 5/3/1 program.
5/3/1 is similar to many other powerlifting programs in that it focuses on the big lifts.
Squat, bench press, standing shoulder press, and deadlift are all emphasized above all other exercises. These are the most basic human movements and have stood the test of time. If you find you can do no other exercises, these are all you need at the end of the day.
Emphasis is placed on starting LIGHT even if you can move a lot of weight. The point is to both build up over the few weeks in the program and test yourself at different weights, reps, and ranges.
Importance of Calculations
Above everything else, 5/3/1 is different than other similar programs because of one thing.
Starting Strength and Stronglifts both have lifters doing deadlifts, squats, and presses.
Wendler makes his program stand out because of the necessity of calculations.
There are a lot of numbers involved in the 5/3/1 program. Your beginning numbers are suppose to be based off 90% of the your one rep max (1RM).
Then that new 90% “max” is used to create what you will be doing for the program. 65% of your new “max” for 5 reps, 70% of your new “max” for 3 reps, and so on like that.
Program Cycles and Duration
The 5/3/1 program goes in micro cycles of four weeks that look like this:
Week 1 3×5
Week 2 3×3
Week 3 3×5, 3, 1
Week 4 Deload (weights are lowered to allow body to heal and reset)
Then for the next cycle, you would use heavier weights for your loads.
The point is to have your 90% max reps eventually surpass your previous full, true one rep max rep.
A typical workout will look like this:
-Warm up set: 5×50%
-Warm up set: 5×55%
-Warm up set: 5×65%
-Work set 1: 5×75%
-Work set 2: 5×80%
-Top Set: 5+ x 85%
The last top set is for as many reps as possible and is considered the most challenging and interesting part of 5/3/1.
Where do Joker Sets Come in?
Joker sets are being used by more advanced lifters to help them break plateaus and increase their strength.
They are basically additional sets performed after the main 5/3/1 sets.
This is based off a criticism of 5/3/1 that it’s too robotic, rigid, and doesn’t allow for auto regulation.
What is Auto Regulation, and how does it affect good days and bad days?
Autoregulation basically takes into account how your body feels on a given training day and allows for you to adjust your training based on your body.
This is also known as “listening to your body” (something powerlifters and the powerlifting community in general are not always known for doing).
A good way to determine is how hard your last set on your last training day felt.
Did your last set feel easy?
Were you struggling to get the bar off the ground on your last set?
These are questions that become more important and more frequently asked the more experienced a lifter you become.
Other factors also include your daily stress level, busy at work, family problems, came down with a cold, weren’t able to eat much that day – many things can affect your body and your strength levels.
It won’t always be possible to blindly follow numbers and percentages. This will affect your top set the most.
What is a Top Set And How Does it Affect You?
A top set is the hardest set in your work out that day.
For your top set you are either lifting the heaviest or busting out the most repetitions of any set before. It’s also after all other sets, so your body is most likely beginning to get fatigued.
So, What is a Joker Set and How Can You Do One?
A joker set is a set after your top set that is 5-10% heavier than the top set weight done for the same amount of reps.
So, let’s say your top set is 255 pounds for three reps. Your first joker set will be 268 (rounded up) for three reps.
Then, if you’d like, you can do further sets basing the next joker set off the last joker set weight.
So here’s a breakdown of what your full workout for the day would look like:
-Warm up set: 5×50% for 150
-Warm up set: 5×55% for 165
-Warm up set: 5×65% for 195
-Work set 1: 3×75% for 225
-Work set 2: 3×80% for 240
-Top Set: 3+ x 85% for 255
-Joker Set 1: 3×267.75 (268)
-Joker Set 2: 3×281
As you can see, the joker sets would continue building off each other to increase the weight further and further. This would go for whether or not you are doing five reps, three reps, or one reps, or if you want to go all out, try and match a multiple repetition top set.
So what are our final thoughts on joker sets?
Use them if you are experienced AND having a very “on” day.
Here are our quick reasons why:
Beginners won’t find anything extra in joker sets. A beginner will experience enough gains following the basic 5/3/1 core program. Although overtraining is overplayed, if you are a beginner who doesn’t know what you are doing or doesn’t have the necessary muscle and strength to lift a joker set will hurt your body.
You should be experienced enough to know your limitations. The only way to know this is through a long time of lifting weights.
“Listening to your body” is something all smart long time lifters learn how to do.
Instead of grinding out reps and numbers like a robot, you are able to balance your daily workouts so your body stays fresh and injury free.
5/3/1 is an amazing program for lifters of all ages and experience levels. It has it’s flaws like any other program, but adding more sets and weights in when you don’t have the proper knowledge will only lead to injury.
Lift smart so you can continue lifting heavy.
Only use joker sets if you have years of experience in the gym or with the 5/3/1 program, or you have a coach who knows what they’re doing.
PS: you can download the Jim Wendler spreadsheet here