5/3/1 Assistance

Today’s (incredibly long) topic is assistance.

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I won’t comment on any of the standard templates. In part that’s because I think too many people get hung up on the specific suggestions. As I’ve said before, those routines are just examples. They’re meant to give you ideas, not to dictate a specific routine. Mostly, however, it’s because, aside from the body weight option, I’m not convinced they really make sense for the novice lifter who is forgoing the traditional LP route, and jumping straight into 5/3/1.

Except for the microloading piece, the 5/3/1 novice has been my primary target with this series of posts. And that’s really the only kind of 5/3/1 lifter who needs advice on assistance. The experienced lifter should know what sort of assistance works for him, and how he can use assistance to fix problems, weaknesses, and imbalances.The novice lifter, however, likely doesn’t know what sort of assistance works best for him, and hasn’t been lifting long enough to recognize (or develop!) any problems, weaknesses, or imbalances.

Please note that I don’t use the term “accessory”. Assistance is my preferred term because it reminds me why I do these movements, and it serves as a heuristic to guide my priorities. Assistance assists the Big 4. If you can’t justify a lift as assistance to the Big 4, then you should drop it in favor of one you can justify.

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Some assistance movements relate directly to the Big 4. Others can be justified because they relate indirectly. Yet others should be done because they complement the Big 4 by promoting balanced strength development, or because they have prehab/rehab effects.

Let’s look at several different categories of assistance in detail, going from easiest to most difficult to justify.

  • Prehab & Rehab: These are typically light movements that are much more about health and mobility than strength. The best way to explain this is with a personal example. I’m a big believer in the power of face pulls to keep my shoulders healthy, and I do them at least twice a week. I was turned onto them while rehabbing my shoulder years ago, and I continue to do them today as “prehab” to prevent injury. The justification for rehab/prehab movements is obvious. (You could probably make an argument that some calisthenic style abdominal and lower back work should be listed under this category too.)
  • Dips and Chins: All assistance requires justification, but some assistance is easier to justify than others. These superb closed-chain, compound movements require only the most minimal justification. Weighted or unweighted, they are great for your overall development, and they will provide the perfect balance and complement to any 5/3/1 routine. (Indeed, I think you can make a pretty good argument that dips are a superior movement than bench.) As long as you keep your volume and weights reasonable, you’ll never go wrong doing dips and chins.
  • Olympic & Olympic-Style Lifts: 5/3/1 is all about strength. Some people like to add Olympic or Olympic-style lifts like power cleans to have a bit of power training in their routine. Like dips and chins, these require only the most minimal justification. The real problem is figuring out how to fit them into your schedule.
  • Big 4 (Variant) Volume: Now things get a shade more complicated. Sometimes it’s useful to do additional volume work for the Big 4. Boring But Big (BBB) is built around that idea. So is First Set Last (FSL), which has you repeat your first work set (i.e. either 65%, 70%, or 75% of your TM) for reps. Sometimes extra volume work turns out to be counter-productive. Sometimes volume on a closely related Big 4 variant (for instance front squat instead of back squat) is better than volume work for the Big 4 movement itself. Still, it’s relatively easy to justify volume, because so many respond well to it. The problem is figuring out exactly what sort of volume to use. The variations are endless, and there’s no one right way to do it. (See the addendum.)
  • Supplementary Strength: Here we’re talking about things like rows, glute-ham raises, direct tricep and bicep work, good mornings, shrugs, weighted abdominal work — basically any strength building movement that isn’t already listed above. When people think about 5/3/1 assistance, they’re usually prioritizing these movements. But when I look at all the options, it’s clear to me that these movements are the hardest to justify, and should therefore be given the lowest priority. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them. Some of these are great movements. (I love rows!) It just means your priorities should be elsewhere, and that you should be absolutely clear about why you’re doing them when you do include them.

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  • Hypertrophy and the over-30 lifter.

I’m not talking about curls for the girls. In fact, this isn’t about vanity at all. I’m talking about over-30 lifters who need to put emphasis on gaining and maintaining lean muscle mass. I’m stealing this one straight from a guy the over-30 crowd should be reading, namely Dan John: “As we age, the need for hypertrophy training increases compared to other training qualities.

You’re not going to get the volume you need for hypertrophy from 5/3/1’s work sets. Those are really about muscular recruitment, which is ultimately neurological. The trick is to integrate hypertrophy into your assistance. That is why, unless I have a specific reason to do otherwise (see deadlift), I default to 5×10 on all of my dips, chins, volume, and secondary strength work. That doesn’t mean I always do 5×10 on my larger assistance lifts. (I love my 5×5 weighted dips, and to address specific issues, until just recently I had been doing 5×5 volume work for press and squat.) It just means in the absence of other factors, when you’re over-30, 5×10 assistance for hypertrophy makes good sense.

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  • “It’s assistance. It doesn’t fucking matter.”

That’s probably the best advice Wendler ever gave about assistance. Problem is it’s only mostly true. Still it is true in important respects, and it’s almost entirely true for 5/3/1 beginners, because they’re not yet using assistance work to target and correct specific problems. The overwhelming majority of your progress on the Big 4 will come from doing the Big 4. Assistance is only very rarely a game-changer. Mostly it just helps around the edges (if it helps at all).

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  • Assistance is more likely to break you than make you.

Especially when just starting out on 5/3/1, assistance is very unlikely to make a noticeable positive difference. But it can make a huge negative difference. In that sense assistance matters because it’s so easy (and so common) to cause yourself problems with a lousy assistance regimen. Doing too much assistance, or going too heavy on assistance, is far worse than doing too little assistance, or going too light on assistance. If your assistance is cutting into your recovery and undermining your progress on the Big 4, then it no longer deserves the name “assistance” at all. Never sacrifice the Big 4 for the sake of assistance.

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  • Progress and assistance?

The real question is whether you want (or need) to make progress on assistance at all. Sometimes you do, but when you get down to it, you’re not training to make progress on assistance. Still, assistance should be structured one way or another. So how should you manage your assistance work over time?

First, you can tie it to a training max (TM). For example, my 5×10 barbell row is set at 50% of my bench TM. It progresses only if my bench TM progresses first. And if I reset my bench TM, my row drops down too. (That’s OK! Why? Because it’s assistance. It doesn’t fucking matter.) Sometimes you do have to make adjustments with this method, but for the most part you just find a good percentage, stick with it, and don’t worry about it. This is my preferred approach to assistance these days.

However, for a long stretch in the past I actually pushed progress on some of my assistance quite hard by adopting a GSLP style progression. This worked especially well on weighted dips and chins, but I’m not sold on this approach for other types of assistance. I’ve also used the “I’ve been at this weight for a while, and now I feel like lifting heavier” method too. With some of my prehab work, I don’t really “progress” at all. Most of that is just about maintenance.

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  • How often to change assistance?

If assistance is going to help you progress on the Big 4 (or have any other clear complementary effects), it’s not going to happen quickly. You should give your assistance regimen plenty of time to prove or disprove its worth. It’s not something you should be changing every cycle. Maybe once or twice a year, and then only with definite cause.

 

Addendum

  • Vanilla 5/3/1

I’m sure some of you want an example template. I actually posted one on Reddit some months ago when I answered a question about assistance work from a 5/3/1 newbie. For assistance, he wanted “the most vanilla, tried-and-tested routine possible.” So I gave him my “vanilla,” suggestion, which was basically a hybrid of BBB and The Triumvirate. With a little expansion and just one amendment (I shouldn’t have told him to do deadlift BBB), I’m reposting that here. Let’s call it … Vanilla 5/3/1:

(1) The Big 4: 5/3/1 Sets

(2) Volume Work (or Olympic/Olympic-style Lifts)

  • Press, Bench, Squat: 5×10 at 50%, no higher.
  • Deadlift: 3×5 at 75%, no higher or 3×5 FSL or Power Cleans.

(3) Secondary Strength – choose one:

  • First choice: Dips and chins on alternate days (weighted and/or unweighted, you decide).
  • Distant second choice: Supplementary Strength

(4) Wildcard – choose one:

  • First choice: Prehab/Rehab
  • Distant second choice: Supplementary Strength

This is actually how I structure my assistance. I started out on the Triumvirate (with one movement being BBB), but I almost immediately expanded it from 3 to 4 lifts to make things a shade more flexible. The best thing about The Triumvirate is that it forces you to ration your assistance, and therefore to choose your assistance work with care. (One good assistance movement is better than two mediocre assistance movements!) I also like BBB’s emphasis on volume. Vanilla 5/3/1 preserves the best of both templates. It’s simple enough for someone just starting out, but still flexible enough for a 5/3/1 old-timer.

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  • The Most Vanilla “Vanilla 5/3/1”

Using the template above, what would I personally do as a pure 5/3/1 beginner?

  1. Press (5/3/1), Press (5×10 @ 50%), Chins, Wildcard
  2. Deadlift (5/3/1), Deadlift (3×5 @ FSL), Dips, Wildcard
  3. Bench (5/3/1/), Bench (5×10 @ 50%), Chins, Wildcard
  4. Squat (5/3/1), Squat (5×10 @ 50%), Dips, Wildcard

The wildcard is up to the lifter, but he should choose carefully. For dips and chins I’d go with bodyweight alone until I could do 5×10. After that I’d consider adding weight, and going 5×5. I’d suggest doing this for six cycles before evaluating how to proceed.

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  • What about the more advanced 5/3/1 lifter?

The more advanced 5/3/1 lifter should have enough experience to figure things out for himself.

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  • Joker Sets

I’ve been asked about these more than once. Joker sets make zero sense to me within the 5/3/1 framework, because they violate the principle of training (almost always) at sub-maximal weights. I think their inclusion in Beyond 5/3/1 is a mistake. Maybe I could imagine doing them on a whim after a « 1+ » day every once in a great long while, but that’s it. To me they’re ego sets, not joker sets, and I’m not in the weight room to train my ego. Because joker sets lie in blatant contradiction to the usual 5/3/1 approach, I cannot recommend them.

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  • Does all “assistance” really count as assistance?

Technically, all those band pull-aparts I do between sets are assistance, but I never count them. Same for the ab-roller I use at home before foam rolling. What can I say about this except, perhaps — just perhaps — some assistance truly doesn’t matter.

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  • Volume Examples

To give you a sense of the different ways you can approach volume work, I thought I’d tell you what I’m doing:

  • Press: I just switched from 5×5 at 75% of my press TM (which I had been doing for more than a year) to 5×10 at 55% of my press TM.
  • Deadlift: 3×5 2-inch deficit deadlifts at 65% of my deadlift TM.
  • Bench: 5×10 dumbbell bench at 60% of my bench TM, divided by 2.
  • Squat: 5×10 front squat at 40% of my squat TM (a recent switch from the 5×5 pin squats at 65% of my squat TM, which I had been using to address some problems coming out of the hole).

Notice all my volume work is tied directly to a Big 4 TM.

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  • Freely sacrifice assistance for the sake of the Big 4

It’s inevitable: you’ve been doing 5/3/1 for a long time, your TMs are going higher and higher, and they’re now above your true 1RM. You’re really close to your limit, and you can see a reset coming very soon. Still, you at least want to complete this last cycle, and maybe — just maybe — squeeze out one more if you’re lucky. I’m right there at least once, sometimes twice a year. (And usually it’s more than one lift that’s really getting heavy!) To survive those periods I dump assistance like a man throwing cargo off a sinking ship. Those 5×10 sets go down to 3×10. I’ve dumped the weighted dips entirely for the third week of a heavy cycle. Sometimes I swap weighted lifts out for bodyweight work. If I have to interrupt my assistance work for a couple weeks to preserve continued progress on the Big 4, then that’s what I’ll do. But then I quickly reset and everything goes back to normal.

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  • Did assistance really solve that problem?

Theoretically, assistance can help you resolve specific problems you’re having on the Big 4, particularly when they’re related to weak points and strength imbalances. Unfortunately, it’s often hard to know if your assistance solved the problem you wanted to address. Was that extra triceps work really the decisive factor for my recent bench progress? I’d like to think so, but maybe not. That’s probably why as I look back on my history with 5/3/1, I can only come up with a few examples in which I’m completely certain my assistance work made all the difference, and even there the difference assistance made was sometimes subtle. Or maybe I’m just skeptical. On the other hand, when all those heavy weighted chins are destroying you, that’s usually pretty damn obvious.

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That’s it for now. This thing is long, but I know it’s not comprehensive. That’s why we’ve got the discussion below.

Well, that, and also so some of you folks can yell at me!

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