Workout Routine - 5x5/3/1 with Giant Sets

Posted on Sun 02 August 2020 in Fitness • 7 min read

The Basis For This Routine - 5/3/1

For the past 4 years or so, I've been using different variations of Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 program. As I wrote about in my lifting history blog post, this program has a few components that have really meshed with me:

  • Submaximal weights
  • Exact weights to use for the main lift sets
  • Rotation of light, medium, and heavy weeks
  • Full-body accessories that let you "do whatever"
  • A combination of strength, endurance, size, and athletic ability

This combination of exactness and freedom really helps me enjoy the workout without getting bored or stalling. Since I'm not competing in a specific sport or planning on being judged on olympic or powerlifting events, then I don't need to be as specific in my exercise selection. Thus, my goal of having better work capacity, health, and strength matches well with the tenants of the 5/3/1 program.

Giant Sets

Giant sets are usually 3-4 exercises clustered together into one set. This means you do a set of exercise A, a set of exercise B, a set of exercise C, then rest briefly before going back to exercise A. As I've been experimenting with giant sets, it seems like having one "main" lift in that cluster should be the goal, and the other exercises should be as antagonistic as possible to minimize the effect on that main lift. An antagonistic exercise usually inolves completely different muscles, which is often achieved by working in a different plane of motion or going the opposite way in the same plane.

I feel that supersets are a common enough concept in workouts, but I don't know how many people take it one step further to put 3+ exercises in a set. I'm not sure if Brian Alsruhe was the first person to coin the term "Giant Set", but he certainly seems to be the one to make it popular in the last 5 or so years. Note that Brian runs his own gym, and I workout in my home gym, so mixing a bunch of exercises together is easier than in a commercial gym. I think there's some combinations that work without hogging equipment or running all over the place, but it certainly is going to be more difficult if you're not by yourself in your own gym.

Main lifts

The 5/3/1 program is typically used with 4 main lifts, including bench press, standing overhead press, back squat, and deadlift. I like to keep those 4 general movements as my main lifts, but I've been doing SSB squat instead of back squat and trap bar deadlift instead of straight bar deadlift. This is mostly due to personal preference and injury history. If I were trying to actually compete in powerlifting, I'd make sure to do the powerlifting events. The SSB has been amazing for making sure my shoulder mobility doesn't limit my squat, and the trap bar has helped keep my back straighter during deadlifts.

While 5/3/1 has seemingly endless variations available across the multiple books and articles, the version I keep coming back to is Rhodes 5x5/3/1 from 5/3/1 Forever. The main difference in this from other variations is that when you work up to your top set for the day, instead of just doing a set of AMRAP (as many reps as possible), you do 2 sets of 5 before doing a third set of AMRAP at that weight. What that looks like for each day is the following (all percentages are based off of your training max weight for that lift, which is 80%-90% of your "true max"):

  • All weeks, warmup sets: 40%x5, 50%x5, 60%x5
  • Week 1: 65%x5, 75%x5, 85%x5, 85%x5, 85%xAMRAP
  • Week 2: 70%x5, 80%x5, 90%x5, 90%x5, 90%xAMRAP
  • Week 3: 75%x5, 85%x5, 95%x5, 95%x5, 95%xAMRAP

Even though the program is called "5/3/1", I find that setting my training max closer to 80%-85% means that I can aim for 10 reps on the last set of week 1, 8 reps in week 2, and 6 reps in week 3. If I can get more then I absolutely try for it, but having a mental target has helped on the days where things are feeling heavy.

I have specific days that I do specific lifts, but this is entirely dependant on the person. I feel that overhead press is the least taxing, so I'm OK having it be a day after another lift without rest. I like having upper body lifts as separate as possible, with the same for lower-body lifts. Deadlifts are the most taxing for me, so I like having a day of rest before and after them. This makes my layout be squats on Sunday, overhead press on Monday, deadlifts on Wednesday, and bench press on Friday.

Secondary Lifts / Accessories

I've adapted the accessories I use over time, but my general approach is to have a push movement, a pull movement, a leg movement, and a core movement every day. I also add in "smaller" movements as I can, like band pull-aparts, curls, and skullcrushers. I try to have unique ones each day so I'm hitting muscles in different ways, but I've had great success with doing the same thing every day as well (like dips, chin-ups, goblet squats, and ab wheel). The reps for these are highly exercise-dependant, but I basically try to do as many as I can without gassing out.

The second giant set each day uses a variation of the previous day's main lift as the "secondary" lift, and I aim for 5 sets of 5-8 reps using around 50%-60% weight. This is definitely where we get into the "do whatever" portion of my program, as my goal for secondary lifts is just to get the work in without completely killing myself or setting new PRs. That being said, if I ever feel like I'm being complacent, I'll try to push the weights up to slightly more than I did last time. On heavy weeks, I'm more willing to make this be 3-4 sets instead, but I try to do 5 sets on light and medium weeks (even when I don't want to).

Current Giant Set Layout

Before my main giant set each day, I do a warm-up consisting of:

  • 8 pull-ups (helps get the lats working)
  • 10 box jumps on an 18" box
  • 10 slamball throws (I just toss it up over my head in different ways)
  • 5 dead bugs (gets the core working)

At the end of each day, I do some conditioning:

  • 100ft Farmer's Walks
  • 3 miles on a stationary bike

Sunday is squat day:

  • Main Giant Set
    • SSB Squat
    • Calf raise (just have a block of wood on the platform in front of me, with the same weight as that set of squats)
    • Ring neutral-grip pullups
  • Secondary Giant Set
    • Incline barbell bench press
    • One-arm dumbbell rows
    • Dumbbell side bend
  • Tertiary Giant Set
    • Weight vest chin-up
    • Weight vest dips
    • Weight vest lunges

Monday is overhead press day:

  • Main Giant Set
    • Standing barbell overhead press
    • Romanian deadlift (same weight as the set of OHP, just drop the bar down to hanging position)
    • Single power clean (just to get the weight back up to the rack)
    • Band pull-apart
  • Secondary Giant Set
    • SSB front squat
    • 5 Chin-ups
    • 10 Push-ups
    • 5 Ab wheel rollouts
  • Tertiary Giant Set
    • Standing overhead tricep extensions
    • EZ curl
    • Dumbbell lateral raises

Wednesday is deadlift day:

  • Main Giant Set
    • Trap bar deadlift
    • 10 dips
    • Band pull-apart
  • Secondary Giant Set
    • Landmine row
    • Standing landmine shoulder press
    • Landmine 180s
  • Tertiary Giant Set
    • Half-kneeling one-arm landmine shoulder press
    • Bulgarian split squats (I use the SSB but have done with dumbbells)
    • Reverse crunch

Friday is bench press day:

  • Main Giant Set
    • Bench Press
    • Bent-over row (with the same bench press weight)
    • Barbell shrugs (with the same bench press weight)
    • Band pull-apart
  • Secondary Giant Set
    • Rack pulls
    • 10 dips
    • Goblet squat
  • Tertiary Giant Set
    • Skullcrushers
    • EZ curl
    • Dumbbell lateral raises

Strict Timing

Even while writing this out, it seems like a lot. The first giant set is 8 sets, the second giant set is 3-5 sets, and the tertiary giant set is 3-5 sets. Along with the initial warm-up, farmer's walks, and 12 minutes of biking, it generally takes me about an hour and 20 minutes to complete. I could potentially do this faster, but this pace seems to keep my rest times short enough to work up a sweat while making sure my strength is there to perform the lift.

I used to use a cheap timer that was meant for boxing rounds, but have upgraded to a dedicated clock/timer that is programmable. I time my sets by having a repeating 4 minute timer going. When the countdown starts, I start the set. Generally, it takes me about 2 minutes to do the 3-4 exercises, another 30 seconds to change the weights, and then 90 seconds of rest. This has a bit of a built-in incentive for me, as if I start my set on time and get the exercises done, I can have a longer rest.

The one exception to this is for the top sets of my main lift. Generally, when I get to the 6th, 7th, and 8th sets of the first giant set (where the weight is the highest for the day), I pause the timer while doing the set. This has the dual benefit of allowing me more rest for my max weights, and letting me focus on making sure I don't rush the setup and movement. It adds a few minutes to the workout, but seems to be worth it.


Overall, I've been very happy with this setup. I feel like I get more work in with a relatively shorter time period. I think my work capacity has increased from this, and it ends up being a form of conditioning by keeping things moving. Exercises within a giant set have limited impact on each other, so I can hit all muscle groups each day. This has the added benefit of being modular, so any new exercises I want to try or changes I feel like making can be done with little negative effect on my overall training goals.