The 15/9/3+ Program

What the hell is 15/9/3+?

In a nutshell, it is a combination of a couple different workout programs, developed by people a lot stronger and more experienced than I am:

  • Jim Wendler’s widely-praised 5/3/1 program
  • Mark Rippetoe & Lon Kilgore’s basic Starting Strength workout scheme (hands-down, the best book for the novice lifter I’ve ever seen)
  • Some other, less-formalized stuff

I don’t need to be outrageously huge and powerful, but I do want to be durable and fairly strong for my size, and my body, at this point in time, adapts more readily to a greater amount of direct training volume than 5/3/1 calls for.

This is where I admit to coming up with it by accident: I misunderstood the set and rep scheme the first time I took 5/3/1 for a test drive. It calls for one set of reps at each working weight, for a total of three sets in any given workout (not including warmups and supplemental work). I thought it called for three sets of reps at each weight, and went to town.

I’d normally say, “Oops,” but it worked, and kept working, and keeps working. So, here it is, for anyone who wants to play along at home.

Start by figuring out what your approximate one-rep max (1RM) is for each exercise: deadlift, squat, bench press, and overhead press. Those are the main four, but this plan can be used with pretty much anything you want to do: front squats, power cleans, curls, and so forth.

Now, take 35% off the top. This gives us room to make progress while we get stronger, without running up against weights we can’t lift.

You’ll exercise four days (I tend to go for M/W/F/weekend, since I play softball on Thursday). Try to get into a routine that you can stick with. If you have to cut it back to three days a week, you can double up by doing one upper and one lower-body move on the same day; put the one that you’re less proficient at first, so you’re not as tired, and can give it more effort.

Your first week’s workouts will look like this:


Lift of the Day:

Begin with an empty bar, then increase the load by modest increments (roughly 10% of your day’s max), decreasing the reps as you go. I typically start with ten or twelve reps, and step down to eight, six, and five, depending on how I’m feeling. If you’re tight, do more reps of the lightest weight to stretch out and warm up more thoroughly.


Lift of the Day:

3×5 @ day’s max minus 20%

3×5 @ day’s max minus 10%

3×5 @ day’s max

1x* (as many reps as possible (AMAP)) @ day’s max minus 30–35%


Whatever makes sense to you in the context of the lift of the day.

I’m not going to get caught up in saying you should pair X with Y every week, because not only does that get boring, but you’ll know how you feel on any given day, and will develop a sense of which moves complement one another. As a general rule of thumb, I stick to two basic principles:

    • Do things that help reach your goals (strength, conditioning, whatever)
      • If you want to get stronger, do exercises that work the same, or supporting, muscle groups as your main exercise after you finish it
      • If you want to work on conditioning, do things to keep your heart rate up while you recover between work sets
    • Don’t tire out the same muscles you’re using for the main exercise between work sets
      • If you are working on your upper body, do a leg exercise, and vice versa
      • If your main exercise is a pushing move, do a pulling one

Every week, keep the same rotation for your main exercise (for instance: squats on Monday, bench Wednesday, deadlift Friday, overhead press on the weekend). Each time around, add approximately 5% of your 1RM to your first work weight, and increment up from there for the second and third. Keep doing 3×5 reps for as many weeks as you can. When you hit a weight that won’t go up that 4th or 5th time, switch to 3×3 the next week. When you can’t get the 3rd rep up, ratchet back to 3×1 the following week.

Every time you get to the 1x* set, go back to the weight you used the first week; this serves two purposes. One, it gives you a really easy way to track your improvement apples-to-apples. Two, the long set serves as a “finisher” where you can really challenge yourself and develop muscular endurance as well as raw strength. When you’re able to do twenty reps, it’s time to adjust upwards. Chances are, this will happen at very nearly the same point as…

You’ll eventually hit a weight where just doing that one heavy rep takes everything you’ve got. Pat yourself on the back, because it’s probably a fair bit more than it was when you started, however many weeks before. Now, you can recalibrate using that new number, and go back to the beginning, using 65% of your newly-minted 1RM.

It’s entirely possible that a couple of your lifts will hit this point at just about the same time – in my case, both the squat and deadlift did so in late April this time, and the bench press and overhead press followed suit about three weeks later.

1 Scroll down to where Dave Tate talks about warming up like an idiot, halfway down the page


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  2. Just wanted to say — this shit is rocket science.

    Hit a new record on bench with it, in about 2-3 weeks. Very cool.

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