I love Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 program. The simplicity, the progression, and the start-slow principle all appeal to both my personality and my exercise philosophy.

However, I train athletes, not powerlifters. Would it still be effective with my clients? Here's what happened when I tried it.

I started off using 5/3/1 "as written" for about a year with my athletes. Afterwards, I examined the workouts, the lifts, and the results. While they got much stronger, I determined that I needed a little more volume to match the needs of their sports.

The obvious solution was to do more sets, but due to equipment and time limitations in our team settings, this simply wasn't possible. So to keep the system intact, I decided to adapt the set/rep progression to accomplish the goal I was after. And with that, 8/6/3 was born.

While monkeying with one of the great programs might seem like heresy, keep in mind that most coaches will say that you're free to adjust and experiment with their programs provided you understand the underlying principles first. Wendler is no different – after you perform a few good cycles as written, he actually encourages you to make it your own.

At any given time in our gym there are groups of athletes of varying levels of experience and ability. The 8/6/3 adaptation allows my rookie athletes and my most experienced athletes to get in additional quality volume in only 3 sets.

To keep the integrity of the percentages (the heart of Jim's system), I made two additional modifications:

  1. Each week I subtracted roughly 5% off the third set.
  2. While Jim gives two options for percentage progression from set to set, I chose to make the biggest leap from set 1 to set 2. This allowed for a smaller jump from set 2 to set 3.

Note: Extremely high-level lifters can subtract 5% from set 1 and set 2 (instead of 10%) to keep this more consistent with the original program, if they so choose. However, non 500-pound bench pressers (i.e., almost everyone) can follow the program as I present it and get great results.

  • Just as with the original, you use 8/6/3 with major, compound movements, like bench press, squat, deadlifts, and overhead pressing.
  • Just as with the original, you base the program on a percentage of your 1RM. After you determine your 1RM in any major lift, you multiply it by .9 (90%) to calculate your base number. In other words, if your true 1RM in the bench press is 300 pounds, you multiply it by .9 to arrive at 270. That's the number you'll use to calculate your poundages.

As an example, set 1 of week 1 requires you to do 8 reps at 65% of your base number. You'd simply multiply 270 by .65 to arrive at 175.5 pounds. For your next set, you'd multiply 270 by 75% for 202.5 pounds (rounded up).

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Set Reps Base Number Set Reps Base Number Set Reps Base Number
1 8 65% 1 6 70% 1 8 75%
2 8 75% 2 6 80% 2 6 85%
3 8 80% 3 6 85% 3 3 90%

The week 4 de-load remains essentially the same as the original – 40%-50%-60% – for 8-10 reps.

After completing the 4-week cycle, you add 5 pounds to the base number and repeat the cycle.

In the two years since switching to 8/6/3, every one of our athletes has gotten stronger with each 4-week cycle. Yes, every athlete, without fail, has gone up in their primary lifts since starting this experiment. I'd call that a win.

If you need a little more volume per set, give this tweak of Jim Wendler's genius program a shot for a cycle or two. Let me know what you think!