What Joker Sets in the 5/3/1 Program Are and Are They Effective?

The 5/3/1 Training System

training in the gym
training in the gym

The 5/3/1 method for Weight training designed by the coach and author Jim Wendler uses a combination of variations, RPE monitoring, constant progress, and personal records to ramp up the intensity of your lifts and hit new Personal Records (PR). 5/3/1 is widely used by trainers of all levels of expertise. Coaches, as well as athletes, express their content with the system as it is easy to implement, keep track of, and helps inspire them to push to the limit.

If you are looking to add in Joker Sets to your training sessions, chances are, you’ve implemented 5/3/1 for a while and by now you are meaning to add some flavor to your workout sessions perhaps because you’ve plateaued and don’t see any observable improvement. Joker sets, though a bit confusing at first, are simple and easy to understand if you know when and how to implement them. Read on to find out what Joker sets are, whether they are effective, and how to make the best use of them.

What are Joker Sets? 

powerlifting
powerlifting

The concept of “joker sets” was introduced in the book “Beyond 5/3/1” by Jim Wendler, designer of the 5/3/1 program, to allow athletes to lift heavier weights on days they were feeling especially strong and resilient. Joker sets help autoregulate your 5/3/1 framework and define good and bad days. They work by increasing the weight of your top set by 5-10 percent and aiming to complete the repetition max (RM) for the day. 

In joker sets, the rep count is kept the same as that day’s top working set (Training max/ TM). Try to hit a rep record in the final set of your 5/3/1. Then you can take a quick break before you increase the weight by 5-10% and complete another set of the relevant number of reps for that workout. 

For example, on the “3” week, after completing AMRAP (As Many Reps as Possible) with your top set, if you feel like you can push, you would do a further set of 3 reps by increasing the weight of your top set by p set by 5-10%. If your top set was 200lbs, your joker sets should be between 210 and 220 lbs. If you get those 3 reps without a struggle, the bar moves quickly and if the reps feel light and crisp, then you can decide on adding another joker set in with another 10-20 more pounds in addition to the previous weight. This can go on until one of the following happens:

  1. You don’t complete all reps or you barely complete them.
  2. You get fatigued.
  3. Maintaining your form becomes difficult.

How to use Joker Sets Effectively?

weight training
weight training

Joker sets are an important addition to the 5/3/1 program that even Wendler proposed that they should be part of the standard program. One of his regrets, however, is that people find the concept a bit confusing and therefore deploy them in the wrong scenarios. Here are seven guidelines and recommendations to maximize the effect of your joker sets:

  1. Save it only for the days you feel like a beast: Joker sets are not something you program in and expect to do in your training sessions every day.  Implement joker sets only when you can work through your sets without much struggle and without missing a set or a rep. Wendler says autoregulation is key. Hit those high notes only if you feel comfortable. Don't push if you feel drained.
  2. Or for days when you hit a Personal Record (PR): Jokers weren’t meant to be done regularly either. It’s ideally used when you hit a PR.
  3. Increase the weight and keep the reps constant: Wendler advises against trying to hit PRs in your joker sets:  “Always push the last set of the 5/3/1 workout (not the Joker Sets) for a PR”, he says. The idea of Wendler 531 is not to randomly set PRs mid-cycle. The idea is to eventually be doing a set of 5 with your 1 Rep Maximum.
  4. Don’t compromise on your 5/3/1 just to get jokers in: Holding back on your top set or lowering the Training Maximum just to go for a joker set is not going to give you any results. Rather complete the AMRAPs with your maximum effort and then consider performing jokers.
  5. If your 5/3/1 wasn’t perfect, don’t add jokers: The minimum requirement in 5/3/1 is to never miss a single rep or set. If that turned out to be a struggle, adding joker sets would make your training unproductive.
  6. Do not Overuse joker sets: It can be tempting to always go for a joker set at the end of your session, but overindulging in joker sets can undo the work you’ve done for months. If you are going to employ them every so often you might end up injuring yourself. 
  7. Use 5% increments for your 3s and 10% for the singles: It is recommended that you avoid using joker sets on your “5” days. You shouldn’t be able to. Your top set, most often, would drain you fully on your “5” days. On your 3-repetition days, increase the weight of your joker sets by 5%, and on your singles use 10% increments to maximize the effect of your joker sets.

Joker sets prove to be highly effective additions to your 5/3/1 training program. They enable you to make the best use of days you feel like a beast helping you build size and strength. Keep in mind the guidelines we’ve given you and employ this technique to boost your training sessions. 

If you are a Powerlifting enthusiast yourself and benefited from this article, you should definitely check out our other blog posts on these related topics:

  1. How To Build a Weightlifting Platform
  2. Best Readymade Deadlift Platforms
  3. 9 Best Budget Olympic Barbells ($200 and under)