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German Volume Training vs. Jim Wendler 5/3/1 [Article]

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Feb 26, 2016 6:13:17 AM


German Volume Training vs. Jim Wendler 5/3/1

 In a nutshell, I personally think that 531 is a good option for intermediate lifters who are interested in developing general strength for sports while 10x10 is a good program for hypertrophy and muscle gains. Both programs are not recommended for complete beginners in my point of view as they work with percentages from one repetition maximums which are changing to frequently for beginners to really make a plan around them. 

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About Marathon Crossfit

Before you read any further some background on me and whether I am a credible source or not. I ran both of these programs and went through them myself. If you want to dig deeper on the my German Volume cycle and how it kicked my backside please read the corresponding review. At the time of writing this article I have run seven cycles of the 531 workout which equals to seven months of hard work. You can find the social proof for this on my Marathon crossfit Youtube channel and maybe you even subscribe for further updates, as I will run other programs like Madcow and Smolov in the future for an in-depth real-world review. Overall I aim to provide insight into the world of fitness to save you time and show you what works and what does not.

Some basics on lifting

For beginners who found this post a quick excursion on principles when developing strength. If you compare lifting programs you will usually come across building blocks of the following:

  • Heavy singles
  • Doubles
  • Triples
  • Sets of five
  • Sets of ten

Most beginner programs work with sets of five. Sets of fives usually give you a good mix of strength and muscle, which is needed for beginners in equal terms, while sets of tens are bodybuilding programs. The sets of 1 - 3 will usually move somewhere between 85% to 95% of your one-repetition maximum, while sets of five will work around 75% and sets of ten between 40 - 60%.

If you modify the number ofpetitions per set to more and th weight being lifted to more at the same time, this usually spells injury in mid to short term. You usually modify one of the two mainly to get the result you want. More repetitions for pumping up, heavier weight for strength. You can also consult Prilepin's table to dig deeper into these principles.

A good book to pick up to further your knowledge on basics is Practical Programming for Strength Training to equip you with the knowledge to dissect programs on paper rather than running them in the gym for months/years as I do ;).

What are German Volume Training and Jim Wendler 5/3/1 ?

Both of these are used to make it easier for you to train towards a specific goal. They are ways of thinking about lifting which are geared towards different results. While I personally would consider German Volume Training a training method, rather than a training program, the core routine of Jim Wendler 5/3/1 is a program in my opinion, as it is clearly defined and has stages, which German Volume training has not per se. 

The core method used in German Volume Training is to do 10 sets of 10 repetitions of a certain exercise with minimal rest between the sets. Usually this means 30 seconds. The load you will pick for any given exercise will be between 40 - 60% of your one-repetition maximum. If you run GVT for the first time I highly recommend getting in at the lower end of things as I struggled with 60% of my one repetition maximum. Once you get used to this type of training go up in weight to 60%. 

I look at German Volume training as a method of training especially suited for bodybuilders rather than a program because when you will do some research you will find all kinds of programs that have been mashed together using 10 sets by 10 repetitions. Leg Curls, Bicep curls, Deadlifts, Bench Presses and all kinds of variations thereof. The list is endless. This is good if you want to grow a certain part of muscles and do not care that much about the performance of that muscle. Just pump it and give enough rest to grow. That worked for me when I was on GVT. Still, as there are no cycles, deloads and different phases when in a cycle I am hard-pressed to call it a program. If look at Smolov, Sheiko, and 5/3/1 you will get what I mean by this. 

One of the core principles in Jim Wendler 5/3/1 is that you take advantage of different rep schemes and mix them up to keep the routine more interesting and motivating, while still developing strength and muscle. Another core building block is that all the loads are calculated from 90% of your real one repetition maximum to progress for longer and have less risk of injury. So you can make a case for 5/3/1 being a little bit of everything with all the good and bad that comes with being a little bit of everything.

The lifts in 5/3/1 are the overhead press, deadlift, squat, and bench press. With that setup, it is already more specific to powerlifting than bodybuilding as you will work a lot with a barbell and less with machines and dumbbells when on this program. 

The 5 stands for four sessions (deadlift, bench press, squat, overhead press) of six sets. The sets split in three warm-up sets and three work sets. The work sets are sets of five which culminates in an as many repetions as possible set at 85% of your calculated one repetition maximum. As many repetitions as possible means that you work until you feel that you will most likely fail the next repetition. 

As this is hard to grasp when written in a sentence here an example:

  • One repetition maximum = 100kg Squat
  • Calculated One repetition maximum = 90kg (90% of 100kg)
  • Load for AMRAP last set of the day = 76.5kg (85% of 90kg)

After the first cycle of four sessions is completed you follow up with another cycle of four sessions. This time you will work with warm up sets as in the cycle before, but change the three worksets to sets of three working up to 90% of your calculated one repetition maximum. Example:

  • One repetition maximum = 100kg Squat
  • Calculated One repetition maximum = 90kg (90% of 100kg)
  • Load for AMRAP last set of the day = 81kg (90% of 90kg)

The last cycle of Jim Wendler combines a set of five @75%, three @ 85%, and a heavy amrap at 95% of your calculated one repetition maximum.

The last cycle to conclude is a deload to recover and reset with increased load to do it all over. 

If this is too many numbers for you I have developed a Wendler calculator who does all the math for you. To fully understand this program I recommend to read the free article by Jim Wendler on T nation first. Than follow up by reading his two books as you have to able to understand your progress and adjust the program accordingly. This is not for beginners!

To sum it up GVT is 10x10 on any given excercise to create hypertrophy for mainly muscle gains, while 531 is designed to develop general strength for any given situation with suboptimal results for muscle growth (at least proven in my case). 

How much do I train on GVT and Jim Wendler 5/3/1?

This is a book with seven seals as there unlimited modifications out there between the two which can be compared. I will go with the most common forms of this training which I know.

In a general GVT template, you usually train three times a day with one day of rest in between and One core lift/muscle group per day. If you were able to do more than this I respect you, as German Volume Training will exhaust you and put you through considerable growth pains, if done right. You are destroying your muscles pretty hard with this program so that they rebuild bigger. 

With the normal Jim Wendler template, you will train four times a week to make one cycle meet with a regular workweek. I found this to very practical. You can train less as for example two times a week. This will prolong progress on a program that is not written very aggressively anyway due to the 90% calculated one repetition maximum rule. If this is how you want to train, be my guest, I would just question then why you are considering a strength template at all. 

So in total, whether being on GVT or 5/3/1, you will train 3 - 4 days a week.

What are the benefits of Jim Wendler 5/3/1 & GVT?

For Wendler I find the biggest advantages are

  • You are usually done in 30 - 45 minutes
  • The program stays interesting for longer as the AMRAPset always leaves you with a challenge
  • You develop strength and muscle at the same time
  • You are relatively pain-free compared to other programs, which is intentional

For GVT I personally find the biggest advantages are:

  • Easy to understand, just pick up anything and do 10x10
  • You will GROW
  • Can be done in any gym

How much preparation do Jim Wendler 5/3/1 and German Volume Training need?

Both programs are ideally started after a one-repetition maximum test to have a reference point. If push comes to shove it would be easier to try things out with GVT as with Jim Wendler, as there is not as much math to be done upfront.

With a good spreadsheet and a reference point, you can plan your Jim Wendler cycles in 1 hour to a day. German Volume training can basically be done by just walking to the gym and pick up what is there, although I would not recommend that.

The preparation time comes in somewhere different as I personally think that both programs are not ideally suited for absolute beginners. My personal impression is that GVT should be done when you have spent at least half a year in the gym, for Jim Wendler I would put this number to a year.

Why that? For Jim Wendler, you will need to know how your body behaves under stress, what the difference between a good day and a bad day of lifting is and how to adjust the program accordingly. If you do not have a coach who does the thinking for you, the only other option is your own experience. If you have slim to none you will be left with a program that is too complex for you yet to get your head around and execute.

What GVT lacks in sophistication compared to 5/3/1 it definitely makes up in intensity and here is why you should at least have some of a fitness base before entering the devil’s den. If you do not hate GVT at least once a week because of the growth pains you are experiencing and the sweat that will pour out of you from set six onwards, you are doing something wrong (which basically means you either rest too much between sets or the weight is not heavy enough).

Both programs are ideally started after a one repetition maximum test to have a reference point. 

Which program to pick ?

Highly depends on what you want to achieve and what your skill level is.

Pick GVT if:

  • Your main goal is muscle development
  • Your care more about looks than strength
  • You know how to perform the lifts you will do correctly
  • You are member of a commercial gym which does not allow / does not have the equipment to do programs which utilise the compound free weight lifts

Pick 531 if:

  • You are a professional athlete and want to develop strength with minimized injury risk
  • You easily get bored with other programs if you do the same over and over again
  • You have the experience and the will to do some of the thinking yourself
  • You are not in a rush to get stronger but prefer steady long term progress

Pick none of the two options:

  • If you are a complete beginner
  • If your aim is to compete in weightlifting / powerlifting competitions
  • You want to gain strength as fast as possible

For how long should I do them?

  • For as long as you progress towards your goal
  • Until first minor injuries show or progress stalls, then switch up the routine as you are seeing symptoms of over usage

Can I combine them?

Yes. As the core 531 routine usually takes not a long of time you can combine the principles of 10x10 and Wendler if you have the time. This can be done by spending roughly an hour to an hour and a half in the gym. There is an entire program called “Boring but big” which leverages the hypertrophy effects you gain out sets of ten and are explained in one of the posts on T Nation.


Both programs are not for beginners in my opinion. GVT is a good choice for everyone who is mainly about looks. Wendler is a good option for everyone who wants to develop general strength with minimizing the risk of having to explain to your coach why you tore your hamstring not on the pitch, but in the weight room (I said minimize not eliminate).

Further reading



Topics: Jim Wendler 5/3/1, Powerlifting, Bodybuilding, Strongman