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Tokars 5x3 System

Written by tokar

The 5x3/3x2/2x1 system is a simple and flexible way of training specific lifts for strength. The basic idea is this: regardless of how often you train a lift (although it should be at least once a week), you do 5 sets of 3 at the first workout, 3 sets of 2 at the second, and 2 sets of 1 at the third – with the working weights getting heavier each time. After the two singles you just go back to the beginning and do 5 triples again, but with a heavier weight than you lifted last time.

For example, six weeks of front squatting (1RM=140kg) might look like this:

Weekweight x reps x sets

As a rough guide, start the 5x3 at 80%1RM, the 3x2 at 85%1RM and the 2x1 at 90%1RM – but this will depend on various factors, including how long the cycle will be (start lighter for longer ones) and what the relationship is like between your performance at reps and your performance at singles. If you’re particularly good at singles, for instance, you might have a 5% gap between 5x3 and 3x2 weights but an 8% gap between 3x2 and 2x1 weights. The exact weights you use are up to you; the progression and cycling is what is important.

Let’s say you squat twice a week. Your workouts might look like this:

1 110x3x5 120x2x3
2 130x1x2 115x3x5
3 125x2x3 135x1x2

At this stage you will probably have to consider your recovery capacity. On the above matrix you will end up lifting 90%+ weights in consecutive weeks, which over several weeks can lead to overtraining. If the cycle is to be prolonged, deloading sessions have to be scheduled in. So the twice-a-week squat schedule might end up looking like this:

Week MondayThursday
1 110x3x5 120x2x3
2 130x1x2 deload
3 115x3x5 125x2x3
4 135x1x2deload

Or you might prefer to have a whole week’s deload:

Week MondayThursday

Deloading will mean cutting back on intensity. The volume of work in each session is not high on this program anyway, so a deload doesn’t necessarily mean cutting back on volume in terms of number of lifts. 60%1RM is a fairly good level of intensity to work at during a deload session or week. No more than triples should be performed, and doubles are better in my opinion. “Light” high rep work is definitely out.

Exactly how your training pans out will depend on how long your cycle is (are you training towards a competition for example?), how you like to train, how good your recovery rate is, and how you feel from workout to workout. For instance, you might feel especially strong at one session and do 7x3 instead of 5x3, or 4x2 instead of 3x2. Adding the odd set here and there is fine, but it should be carefully managed – don’t do 10x3 and then find yourself burned out and unable to complete 3 doubles at the next session. The basis of the program is 5x3, 3x2, 2x1. So add sets if you want, where able – but don’t add reps. 5x5 is not an acceptable substitution for 5x3. Recovery and rep speed will both suffer. The only exception to this could be near to a competition where you might substitute a max double or triple in the 2x1 week if you find this useful for gauging your progress, your opener, or your 1RM. Hopefully, though, you will have tested your 1RM at some point anyway. If you think you can hit a PB in one of the 2x1 sessions, go for it. (If you hit a PB, you can drop the second single!) But this should be as you come towards the end of a cycle – and a cycle is unlikely to continue long after a PB has been achieved.

Over 9 weeks, then, back squat training (assuming a 1RM of 190kg) towards a powerlifting competition might look like this:

WeekMonday Thursday
2175x1x2130x2x6 (deload)
4180x1x2130x2x6 (deload)
7180x2x3190x1, 195x1 PB
8155x2x5 (taper)145x2x4 (taper)
9no squat135x2x3 (taper) Sunday: competition

Week 3 is clearly a good week – perhaps the lifter has had a lot of rest, or just feels the lifts are easy, so he adds a couple of sets to both workouts. At week 5 it starts getting harder so no extra work is done. Week 6 doesn’t have a deload. This is because there is a competition coming up and it makes more sense to carry through to the next week, go for a big single and then taper over the final two weeks. These last two weeks don’t follow the pattern. This is just how I like to taper (with thanks to Boris Sheiko), but it fits in very well.

You can use the system for more than one lift. You might use it for squat and bench press, training each two days a week:

WeekDay 1Day 2Day 3Day 4
1Squat 5x3Bench Press 5x3Squat 3x2Bench Press 3x2
2Squat 2x1Bench Press 2x1Squat 5x3Bench Press 5x3
3Squat 3x2Bench Press 3x2Squat 2x1Bench Press 2x1
4deload deloaddeload deload

Or you could include other lifts, such as overhead presses or power cleans. Any compound barbell lift should be well suited to the 5x3/3x2/2x1 system. My next cycle will probably look something like this:

WeekDay 1Day 2Day 3Day 4
1Squat 5x3
Bench Press 5x3
Overhead Press 5x3
Deadlift 5x3
Squat 3x2
Bench Press 3x2
Power Clean 5x3
Overhead Press 3x2
2Squat 2x1
Bench Press 2x1
Overhead Press 2x1
Deadlift 3x2
Squat deload
Bench Press deload
Power Clean 3x2
Overhead Press 5x3
3 Squat 5x3
Bench Press 5x3
Overhead Press 3x2
Deadlift 2x1
Squat 3x2
Bench Press 3x2
Power Clean 2x1
Overhead Press 2x1
4 Squat 2x1
Bench Press 2x1
Overhead Press 5x3
Deadlift 5x3/deload
Squat deload
Bench Press deload
Power Clean 5x3/deload
Overhead Press 3x2

The deloading in this example is based on my judgement of my own recovery capacity in the different lifts. In the 4th week I could either go straight to 5x3 on deadlifts and power cleans – after all, there’s only been one really heavy week of each – or I could drop the weight and make the 4th week a light one pretty much across the board (after the singles at the beginning of the week). Usually I find that if I manage the workload in individual lifts well enough I don’t need a whole week of deloading. Overhead presses don’t seem to take that much out of me so there’s no deloading scheduled for them. You have to find a pattern that works for you – and the flexibility of the system should enable that.

Finally, a word on assistance: it isn’t part of this system. Most people will have their own ideas about what remedial strength work or hypertrophy training they need, and it should be possible to fit plenty of assistance programs into this layout. Personally I prefer simple linear progression for assistance – 3-4 sets, hard but not to failure, ramping up the weight and lowering the reps each week.


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