My Review of 5/3/1: Hardgainers

Hey folks, I finished up Hardgainers last week and wanted to do another program reivew. I actually played around with Hyperlinks this time, so we’ll see how that works.


  • First, here is the program

  • 5/3/1 For Hardgainers was a program I always wanted to run, but the logistics of working the prowler into my training for the lower body assistance was always the limiting factor. I finally found a stretch of parking lot somewhere isolated enough that my 0400 prowling sessions wouldn’t wake anyone up, and managed to time a training cycle so that I wasn’t in the middle of winter and didn’t have to worry about snow/ice gumming up the works, so it was game on.

  • This go-round of 5/3/1 for Hardgainers was coming off the tail end of another VERY successful run of BBB Beefcake, wherein I had squatting 5x10x405. This was part of my “26 week gaining block” I had run twice in the past (BBB Beefcake-Deload-Building the Monolith-Deload-Deep Water Beginner-Deep Water Intermediate), and this time I decided to play around a bit more and see how things worked out. Rather than follow up Beefcake with the traditional Building the Monolith, I decided this would be an opportune time to use Hardgainers. I thought it would fill a similar role to BtM, as it contained BBS pressing, Squat Widowmakers, 5x5/3/1 for bench: almost like BtM spread out over 4 days vs 3. [SPOILERS: Nope. Jim, once again, is a programming wizard]

  • On yeah, and in between Beefcake and Hardgainers, I ran Dan John’s 10k kettlebell swing challenge…in one week…as my deload. Yeah, I’m not smart.


  • Prior to starting this program, my left bicep was in a pretty bad way. During the program, I partially tore it, which, in turn, limited my ability to execute my gameplan of taking all reps from the floor on the overhead day. This resulted in me making more use of the log vs the axle than I originally planned, as I could have better control of the clean of the former vs the latter.

  • I also came in recovering from a torn tricep/teres minor that I sustained on a set of deadlifts while running BBB Beefcake, and I hadn’t been able to pull heavy for a while. This resulted in me making use of low handle trap bar pulls for the 3s and 1s week of deadlifts, and axle deads for the 5s week. I also was limited in my ability to do chins. I could manage a handful of them, but not my glory days of 20+ reps. It made some of the circuits I was running take longer than I’d care.

  • Pretty much every single week got compromised in some manner, so I ran all 4 lifting days together back to back and would use the weekends to focus on conditioning.

  • I came into this after completing the 10k KB swing challenge in 7 days, which was fantastic, but most likely put in me an interesting state of fatigue.


  • Since each training day is different, I took to finding ways to make each training day uniquely challenging.


  • I played the main work straight. Once it was done, I’d do a 14 round circuit workout of t-bar rows and double kettlebell clean each rep and strict press. The goal was 7 reps per round, at 90 second rounds. This got me 98 reps in 21 minutes, which was me stealing from BBB Beefcake and trying to have a rule of only 20 minutes for assistance work. The rows were the pulling, the press was the pushing, and the DKB cleans counted as the KB swing. You’ll note I’m doing this BETWEEN the main and supplemental work: my goal was to steal from Dan John’s “Mass Made Simple” and use a complex BEFORE a high rep squat workout. I also took the squat widowmaker BEYOND 20 reps, going to very near failure. Approaching it under a heavy state of fatigue was a real game changer, and it honestly took me about 1 full cycle before I discovered my “second gear” on squatting. But the payoff was big. I also took to chasing the squat widowmaker immediately with a big dropset of belt squats, followed by reverse hypers, GHRs, and ab work…and then a conditioning workout later. I was playing by the rules that I couldn’t deviate from the program until AFTER I had done the whole program…because at that point, I was done “doing Hardgainers” and was now totally on my own.


  • With press day, my goal was to continue taking all sets from the floor, but I had to deal with what I believe is a partially torn bicep. I never got the bruising, and the bicep didn’t roll up, but it’s shorter than it was before, and I’d get frequent tugs/pulls. For the first cycle, I had to violate my ethos of taking all weights off the floor, and ended up having to take the topset of each week out of the rack. I also constantly switched between log and axle, depending on how healthy I felt. The log was good on days the bicep felt buggy, because I could slowly clean the weight compared to the explosiveness needed for axle cleans. When it came time to do the supplemental work, I’d take all REPS from the floor, so clean each rep. Once I was done with the set, I’d do a set of 5 chins and 10 dips, which, with 10 rounds, got me 50 chins and 100 dips. From there, I’d head out and knock out the prowler work, which was honestly pretty vanilla throughout (I’ll detail it later).


  • I’d follow up with bench day, which is already a deviation to run bench after press vs the more traditional lower-upper-lower-upper approach, but I found, through experimentation, that I function better having a LONG stretch between the squat and deadlift workout, so I’d bookend them like this. Since bench is 5x5/3/1, there’s no real main vs supplemental work to speak of, so I made this day challenging by having the shortest possible rest times I could. I’d do this by doing a set of 10 band pull aparts between sets of benching, and on the 5s week I’d just bounce between the two. I managed to be able to pull that off on the 3s week of the second cycle as well. For the 1s week, I’d eventually need an extra minute of rest between sets, but it was still VERY short periods. I’d then go knock out the prowler work and THEN come back for the upper body assistance, which was honestly the highlight of bench day: 100 weighted burpee chins. First week it was unweighted, next week 20lbs, then 30, then 40, then 50, and finally 60. This got the be VERY challenging, starting off more conditioning-esque and ending far more in the realm of assistance work. In turn, I gained a solid appreciation for weighted push ups as an assistance exercise.


  • Deadlifts moved in a similar way as pressing. I started the program recovering from an injury in my left tricep/teres minor that made me VERY unstable in heavy pulling, so I actually went with low handle trap bar lifts for my 3s and 1s week and the axle for my 5s week. This allowed me to still pull heavy without compromising my healing. But when it came to the supplemental work, I stuck with the axle and ran another circuit. This time, 5 rounds of 5 deads, and initially 10 chins and 20 dips. I found that the 10 chins were taking TOO long, primarily due to having to work around healing injuries (my ability to knock out chins was compromised, and I was lucky if I could get 3-4 done in a set), so after the first cycle I broke the workout into 5 deads-5 chins-20 dips-5 chins-repeat. This moved much quicker and had the desired metabolic effect I was going for. Once again, got in my 50 chins and 100 dips this way. For assistance, I spent a LONG time searching for the “white whale” of intensity and coming up short. I l kept veering toward lunges, thinking I wanted something with knee flexion that was still single leg, and I’d try for 100 reps per leg, thinking that it would be intense…but it just fell flat. I went with the Pendlay death mark for 100 paces, and still the same issue. So I settled with burpee KB swings, and that was far more in the direction I needed. My first go around was 100 burpee swings, and the second time I did 100 burpee swings with a push up, primarily because my injured rib made it so I couldn’t work the dips into my conditioning circuit like before, so I had some pushing reps to play with. I had a final week that was absolute madness of a burpee swing with a chin on top.

  • On the above, part of the reason I was shifting all the assistance to the back half was because of that weird rib injury I was dealing with that limited my ability to do chins. I settled on turning the 5x5 FSL workout into an EMOM workout, and THAT was absolutely money. I need to remember that for the future.


  • For prowler work, I kept it simple, and rarely went over 20 minutes. I know it’s unlike me to not push to the limits and go the full 30, but the logistics of the prowler was still not quite ideal. The spot I used was a 3 minute drive from my house, and then required me to unload my truck and assemble the prowler, then break it down and reload it when the workout was over. I had a LONG space of parking lot to play with though, so that was clutch. I took to a simple protocol of putting 2x25lb on the prowler for a low handle push down and high handle push back, then loading it with 2x45s and repeating that, followed by loading it with 140 total and pulling it with a harness down and reverse dragging it back, closing with an unloaded run of low handles down and high handles back. It would gas me, it sucked, and it got me better: what more could you ask for?



  • How I eat is already so bizarre and I’ve detailed it in plenty of places, but once again I stayed on the low-carb side. The exception was on my squat and deadlift workouts, I’d go with half a serving of Surge pre-workout fuel before the workout and another half during, which, in total, is still pretty light on the carbs. I stuck with frequent smallish meals outside of my bookended gigantic breakfast and pre-bed meal, but found that, through out the program, the “nutritional arms race” came back. I simply could NOT eat enough, and was finding ways to add calories to all sorts of dishes. Extra servings of avocado, more yogurt, added cream/dairy, slathering on heaping servings of nut butters vs a spread, etc. There was never “too big” a portion size.


  • This program whipped me into amazing shape, especially coming into it so hurt. I added 30lbs to my 8rm squat from the start, took a widowmaker squat from 23x320 to 24x345 in the span of 2 weeks, got through 100 burpee chins with a 60lb vest, added 2 reps and 20lbs to my initial set of 9 on the trap bar in the span of 4 weeks, etc. And it made me EAT.

  • I learned that weighted vest push ups are probably one of the most effective upper body assistance exercises out there and I’ve been neglecting them. Burpee chins are awesome too, but if I wanted to cut out the chin and focus on the push up, that’d be just dandy as well.

  • The “trick” for a program for hardgainers is to just make them so hungry from training that they FINALLY start eating. The prowler is great for that: you can run yourself into the ground yet the lack of eccentric loading means you won’t beat yourself down from it.

  • People that complain about 5/3/1 not being difficult enough are simply lacking in creativity. Jim gives you all the tools you need to make these programs as challenging as you need AND to also back off if that’s what you need. In that regard, running 5x5/3/1 on bench with effectively zero rest periods still ranks high for me to make bench day “worthwhile”. In a non-Hardgainers environment, I’d follow that IMMEDIATELY with weighted vest push ups or burpee chins to really get in a solid training effect.

  • Dan John’s genius should also be celebrated: high rep squats AFTER complexes are just awful.


  • Prowler for single leg assistance. That’s what drew me to the program in the first place, and also what kept me away from so long: I needed to figure out a place to push a prowler at 0400 that wasn’t going to wake up the world. But the prowler/sled is just an awesome tool, and using it in this manner is amazing…and, also, if you AREN’T using a prowler/sled, you AREN’T doing Hardgainers, so stop saying you are. It’s what makes hardgainers “hardgainers”. Because god DAMN does it make you hungry to run the prowler so often.

  • Hard rules and loose conditions. “Do 50-100 reps of upper body push, pull and single leg/core, pick ONE movement”. I LOVED that, because those were the ONLY rules, and with those I was able to come up with circuits and complexes and all sorts of nasty ways to make this program REALLY into something awful. Sure, if you wanted, you could just do 100 curls, 100 pushdowns and 100 crunches, but then it’s on YOU for coming up with a wimpy program. There’s SO much opportunity here. And let me tell you: doing 100 burpees with a 60lb vest has REALLY taught me the value of weighted push ups as bench assistance.


  • As a gaining program, 5/3/1 for Hardgainers does not contain what is typically present in my successful gaining programs: a defined end goal. BBB Beefcake had me set 5x10x405 as a goal, Deep Water will have me set high marks for short rest periods or 10 reps in 8 sets, Building the Monolith has goals for Widowmakers and 5x5 squats, but because so much of hardgainers is based around PR sets, it was on ME to come up with goals…and that just doesn’t have the same punch for me. I do better with that when calories are down, but to make the use of an excess of calories, I do better when I had a goal I need to eat FOR.

  • The upper body workouts are LONG. 20-30 minutes of prowler means you already know where 20 minutes of your program is going to go, minimum, to say nothing of the logistics of the prowler if you have to actually travel with it like I did. As much as I tried to make these workouts as fast as possible, I knew was in for a long haul on each of those days, and it typically meant reducing my post lifting conditioning to practically nothing. And yeah yeah, I know: “the prowler IS conditioning”: you know what kind of mutant I am by now.


  • This doesn’t belong in “where it fell flat”, because it’s a case of me mis-applying the program. I considered BBB Beefcake a “baseline” program, where I’d branch off into other directions (Monolith, Hardgainers, Deep Water, etc). After having run Hardgainers though, it would have made MUCH more sense to run it BEFORE Beefcake. Hardgainers got me in fantastic shape, so that’s a base of conditioning to get through the supplemental work in 20 minutes, and it gave me an opportunity to practice supplemental mixed with assistance with a time limit. It also helped me dial in training maxes and establish a solid baseline of strength to build from.
  • And that’s simply how it fits in with a gaining program. As far as Hardgainers in the overall scheme of 5/3/1, I feel (yes, this is theory) that this plays VERY well with SVR II. Hardgainers has you train each lift in it’s own specific way, but it remains in that specific format for the full cycle. SVR II has you train each lift the same way each week, but each week that method itself changes. Bouncing between the two would cover a LOT of different ground.


  • Under the right conditions: absolutely. I see this as “fight camp” training. This is the kind of program that gets you back into shape real quick. You’re constantly moving, improving, and getting stronger from lots of different angles. It would also be a great program to lead/ease into a very hard and heavy training block. Especially so because it ignites the appetite with all the activity, which is awesome to have established before you take on something aggressive. But I don’t see it as a valuable finisher.


  • Chaos is the plan! But as far as desires and hopes go: if my body can hold up, I want to give Super Squats a run soon. I have a cruise (like real deal “buffet on a boat” kind) starting 18 Dec, and if I want to get in a full 6 week run, that means starting on 7 Nov, so my traditional “7 week diet break) has turned into a 4 week fat loss pivot, and I am pushing an intensification program currently based around Zeno Squats, ROM progression Deadlifts, some sort of Kalsu WOD for overhead, and I just did 1000 dips in place of a bench workout…because bench still sucks.