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The Complete Guide to the Madcow 5×5 Program (2022)

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A 5×5 program is one where lifters perform five sets of 5 reps with loads at 80 to 85 percent of their one-repetition maximum (1RM). Such programs are typically based on linear progression and designed for strength gains. Despite the simplicity, 5×5 is an effective method for improving the core lifts (bench press, squat, and deadlift), and you can leverage the principles to reach respectable numbers.

Madcow 5×5 is an intermediate program based on the original 5×5 plan developed by Bill Starr––a pioneer in the strength training world. Bill’s methods and approaches are the base of countless modern training programs, including Madcow’s version.

 Bill Starr’s original 5×5 plan consisted of three workouts, each including three movements. For example, trainees would do power cleans, the bench press, and squat on Monday. Wednesday would feature lighter power cleans, incline presses, and squats. On Friday, trainees would work with moderate weights and do power cleans, overhead presses, and squats.

Madcow was a member of the EliteFitness forums and developed his version of the 5×5 program for strength and bodybuilding. He wanted the program to be equally suitable for building strength and muscle mass without wasting people’s time on irrelevant exercises. 

 Despite the original intent, the program gained a lot of popularity and is now known as an effective intermediate program for powerlifters. The Madcow program can also work for advanced lifters looking to build up their strength on the press and deadlift. It’s unclear who Madcow is but rumors suggest that he was a friend of Glenn Pendlay (yes, the same person who developed the Pendlay row). Glenn and Bill had worked together in the past.

What is the Madcow 5×5 Workout?

The original 5×5 plan by Bill Starr only included a limited number of movements, so Madcow took things a step further and tweaked the program to train the entire body more evenly. He kept the original 5×5 structure, added some accessory work, and made changes to prioritize recovery for optimal strength gains. The primary movements in the program are the squat, bench press, barbell row, overhead press, and deadlift. Madcow has also included specific accessory work in each session. We’ll discuss them more in-depth below.

Accessory lifts are those you perform to accumulate more training volume and support your performance on the main movements (overhead press, squat, etc.). How much weight you use on supplementary exercises matters far less than your progression on the main lifts. Examples of accessory activities include push-ups, chest flyes, leg extensions, leg curls, seated cable rows, lateral raises, and such.

Make tracking your progress simple by creating and logging workouts on a weightlitfing tracker.

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Trainees can skip the accessory work and only do the main lifts, but that would make it challenging to do enough sets to build muscle (1). The exercise lifts are necessary for hypertrophy, muscle coordination, and strength, but assistance movements put the finishing touches on all major muscle groups and optimize progression.

One of the most significant differences is that Madcow’s version uses progressively heavier sets of 5 reps. You begin with a lighter load and progress it gradually until the last set, which serves as a top set. We’ll go over how that looks in a practical sense below.

Weight progression occurs weekly instead of workout to workout, which is common among most 5×5 programs. You follow a linear structure, but progression happens more slowly since you’re no longer a beginner. Increasing the weight from workout to workout can be too much and lead to a breakdown in technique or failure to complete all the repetitions.

Many people draw similarities between Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 and Madcow’s 5×5 programs, claiming they feel identical in practice. The primary difference is that Jim’s approach is more suited for beginners, whereas Madcow’s version works better for intermediate and advanced trainees.

Workout Breakdown – Madcow 5×5

Here are examples of two Madcow 5×5 workouts:

Man Barbell deadlift
Workout 1Workout 2
Squat (Barbell)
2×5
Overhead Press (Barbell)
1×5
Deadlift
1×5
Squat (Barbell)
1×3
Bench Press (Barbell)
1×3
Bent Over Row (Barbell)
1×3

Here are a few notes about the above set and rep recommendations:

  • 1×5 means doing a final heavy set that pushes you to your limits after increasing the load steadily from the first to the fourth set
  • 2×5 means doing two heavy sets close to your limits after increasing the weight on the bar between sets one and three
  • 1×3 means gradually increasing the load from sets one to four and doing a heavy set of three reps to finish off

The workout structure is nothing special. You should start by warming up and proceed to your working sets (2). Begin with lighter and more manageable loads, gradually increasing the weight on the bar with each set. Depending on the specific exercise (e.g., 1×5, 2×5, etc.), your last set or two should be close to your limits. The final of the three workouts, which occurs on Friday for most trainees, includes a lighter ‘back-off’ set of 8 reps for all main lifts.

Recovering between sets for at least 2.5 minutes is crucial for maintaining your performance and getting stronger (3). There is no point in rushing through your workouts because it would impair your performance and increase the risk of technique breakdown.

Main Lifts

Squat (Barbell)
The barbell back squat is a full-body movement that primarily works the quadriceps but also develops the glutes, back, midsection, and shoulders (4).

Bench Press (Barbell)
The barbell bench press is an upper body exercise that develops your pushing strength and builds up the pectoralis major (chest), deltoids (shoulders), triceps, serratus anterior, and midsection (5).

Bent Over Row (Barbell)
The barbell row is an excellent compound movement that targets and overloads the entire back, biceps, forearms, and midsection (6).

Overhead Press (Barbell)
Standing barbell presses are one of the most challenging compound movements. It primarily develops the shoulders and triceps but also works the entire back, midsection, and glutes, which flex isometrically to provide torso stability (7).

Deadlift
Deadlifts are one of the most popular weight training exercises. The movement strengthens a range of major muscles in the body, makes you more athletic, and reduces the risk of injuries (8).

Madcow 5×5 Routine

The following is what the Madcow workout plan looks like with no additional accessory work:

Monday (Heavy Day)Wednesday (Light Day)Friday (Moderate Day)
Squat (Barbell)
1 x 5
Bench Press (Barbell)
1 x 5
Bent Over Row (Barbell)
1 x 5
Squat (Barbell)
2 x 5
Standing Shoulder Press (Barbell)
1 x 5
Deadlift
1 x 5
Squat (Barbell)
1 x 3
Bench Press (Barbell)
1 x 3
Bent Over Row (Barbell)
1 x 3

Schedule 
Monday – Full Body
Tuesday – Off
Wednesday – Full Body
Thursday – Off
Friday – Full Body
Saturday – Off
Sunday – Off

Lifters often struggle with determining what load to use during their workouts. Doing so gets easier when you take the time to decide on your starting weights for Madcow 5×5. You must then stick with the prescribed loads, even on days when you feel that you can lift more. It’s normal for strength to fluctuate because it depends on your sleep, nutrition, excitability, the stress outside the gym, and more. 

The Madcow 5×5 calculator is suitable for calculating how much weight you should lift. It’s best to start conservatively because that would allow you to complete all prescribed repetitions. You can always bump the load slightly if you feel that you’ve underestimated your strength level. 

Another option for determining your starting loads is to use a simple 1RM calculator and begin with around 75 percent of the value. You can also go by feel, given that you should have some idea of what heavy weight you can handle comfortably for five reps.

Madcow 5×5 Progression

Progression is a massive part of any strength program, and things are not different for the Madcow 5×5 workout plan. The objective is to steadily add weight to the bar and keep yourself challenged without having to grind reps to complete your sets. Use your best judgment before worrying about the rules.

Your sets and reps will remain the same even after weeks of following the program. The only variable is the load on the bar, and Madcow’s 5×5 plan follows a linear progression model: you must complete all the reps with a given weight before increasing it further. 

Here is what progression might look like if you did a heavy set of 5 (top set) with 315 lbs on the squat during the week:

Week 1 – Workout 3 (e.g., Friday)

Squat:
Set 1 – 165 lbs for 5 (52.5 percent of top set)
Set 2 – 205 lbs for 5 (65 percent of top set)
Set 3 – 245 lbs for 5 (77.5 percent of top set)
Set 4 – 280-285 lbs for 5 (90 percent of top set)
Set 5 – 322.5 lbs for 3 (top set; 102.5 percent of top set)
Back-off set – 245 lbs for 8 (77.5 percent of top set)

You progress the weight for your top set by 2.5 percent or 5 lbs. Once you’ve hit your reps across all sets, adjust the values for the next week:

Week 2 – Workout 1 (e.g., Monday)

Squat:
Set 1 – 160 lbs for 5 (50 percent of top set)
Set 2 – 200 lbs for 5 (62.5 percent of top set)
Set 3 – 240 lbs for 5 (75 percent of top set)
Set 4 – 280 lbs for 5 (87.5 percent of top set)
Set 5 – 320 lbs for 5 (top set; 100 percent)

Here is what progression might look like over eight weeks. The following only refers to one exercise in the first of the three weekly workouts:

RepsWeek 1Week 2Week 3Week 4Week 5Week 6Week 7Week 8
5157.5160162.5165167.5170172.5175
5195200205205210212.5215217.5
5235240242.5247.5250255257.5262.5
5275280285287.5292.5297.5302.5307.5
5315320325330335340345350

​​As your top set loads progress weekly, so does the weight you lift on all other sets, given that it is all percentage-based. The standard option is to go from 50 to 100 percent of your top set weight in 12.5-percent increments, but you can do it more conservatively at first.

As discussed above, recovering for at least 2.5 minutes between sets, especially as you get close to your top set, is necessary for optimizing your performance and progression (3).

Organize and log your workouts using the Hevy app to ensure you are increasing the weight on each set.

Hevy – Workout Tracker

Create your own Madcow 5×5 with Hevy, and track your progress – for free

Assistance Exercises on Madcow 5×5

Unlike the traditional 5×5 strength program, Madcow’s version includes recommended assistance movements for each workout.

Workout 1Workout 2Workout 3
Back Extension (Weighted Hyperextension)
2 sets of 10 to 12 reps
Sit Up (Weighted)
4 sets of 10 to 12 reps
Sit Up
3 sets, max reps
Sit Up (Weighted)
4 sets of 10 to 12 reps
Chest Dip (Weighted)
3 sets of 5 to 8 reps
Bicep Curl (Barbell)
3 sets of 8 reps
Tricep Extension
3 sets of 8 reps
man sit up

Here is what the third workout will look like with the assistance exercises included:

Squat (Barbell) – 1×3
Bench Press (Barbell) – 1×3
Bent Over Row (Barbell) – 1×3
Chest Dip (Weighted) – 3 sets of 5 to 8 reps
Bicep Curl (Barbell) – 3 sets of 8 reps
Tricep Extension – 3 sets of 8 reps

As discussed above, your primary focus should be to progress on the core lifts by following the structure we’ve outlined above. Assistance movements support your performance on the core lifts and help you accumulate more sets to build muscle.

You can swap some of the above accessory movements but keep the sets and rep ranges the same. The strength training program is demanding, and adding too many additional exercises can impair your recovery and slow down the progression.

Difference Between the Madcow 5×5 and StrongLifts 5×5

StrongLifts 5×5 is a training program developed by Mehdi––a training enthusiast and coach from Belgium. The training plan is designed for beginners and consists of two workouts (A and B). Trainees must work out three times per week, alternating between the two workouts. One week would include workouts A, B, and A, and the next would consist of sessions B, A, and B. 

Madcow and StrongLifts are similar in a few ways. First, both training programs include three weekly workouts, and trainees must recover for at least a day between sessions. Second, both programs leverage linear progression: completing all prescribed repetitions before increasing the load for the next session or training week. Third, both routines are based around core lifts: the bench press, squat, deadlift, overhead press, and bent-over row. You must take advantage of heavy weight training to make progress.

At first glance, the two programs seem identical and interchangeable. But, as discussed above, Madcow 5×5 is for intermediate lifters and is a more advanced program. In contrast, StrongLifts 5×5 is great for beginners looking to develop a foundation. Both can be called powerlifting programs but they also aim to build a fitness foundation and help you gain muscle.

The first notable difference between the two programs is that StrongLifts features load increases from workout to workout. As a result, trainees progress much quicker. 

man bent over barbell row

Another difference is that StrongLifts includes straight sets of 5 reps: you train with the same load from the first to the last set. In contrast, Madcow 5×5 is about gradually working up to a top set, which tends to be more sparing and easier to handle. 

The next difference between the two programs is that StrongLifts is only based on the core barbell lifts: squats, deadlift, bench press, barbell row, and overhead press. Madcow 5×5 includes these movements but also takes advantage of assistance exercises.

The creator of StrongLifts suggests switching to Madcow once you’ve built strength with his program. According to Mehdi, the average person should move to Madcow once they reach a 300-pound back squat. You can also switch to Madcow if you feel you cannot progress as quickly on StrongLifts.

Difference between Madcow 5×5 and Texas Method 5×5 

The Texas method and Madcow are intermediate-level programs that feature three weekly workouts. Madcow’s primary purposes are to help trainees develop strength and muscle mass, whereas the Texas method is more geared toward explosive strength training.

The Texas method was initially meant to be used by Olympic weightlifters and athletes looking to develop their strength. As time went by, more and more powerlifters began adapting the Texas method in one form or another to aid their performance on the big three: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Mark Rippetoe and Glenn Pendlay played a massive role in popularizing the training approach among strength enthusiasts.

One of the most significant differences between the two programs is that Madcow is a strict training plan, but the Texas method is more of a template you can adjust to fit your needs. Madcow outlines everything down to the specific exercises you should do, how many reps you should perform, and how you should calculate the load for every set. In contrast, the Texas method is more flexible, and each week’s training depends on your previous performance. 

The Texas method includes three unique workouts: volume day, light day, and heavy day. Each cycle lasts for two weeks, and the Texas method includes squats, deadlifts, the bench press, overhead presses, power cleans, and back extensions. You squat three times weekly, perform power cleans on Monday, and deadlift on Fridays. The Texas method has you alternate between the overhead and bench press from session to session. You do the bench twice and the overhead press once in week one, and week two has you overhead press two times and bench press once.

Given that deadlifts are more challenging to recover from, the Texas program has you do them once per week. The rationale is that squats have a good carryover to the deadlift, and doing them three times per week would allow trainees to develop strength effectively.

Both training approaches are similar, especially regarding the exercises, weekly schedule, and workout structure. Madcow might be easier to grasp and apply, whereas the Texas method involves more critical thinking and forces you to make training decisions based on how you respond to each session.

Pros and Cons of the Madcow 5×5 Workout 

Pros

Simple to program: A notable benefit of the Madcow workout plan is that it is simple to program. You only have five core lifts and a handful of assistance movements, making it easy to put together the workouts.

Based on effective movements: The squat, bench press, deadlift, barbell row, and overhead press are some of the most effective compound lifts for building muscle and gaining strength.

Gradual progress: Another benefit of the Madcow 5×5 program is that it is based on a more gradual progression than other programs. As a result, trainees don’t feel overwhelmed and can make progress without risking technique breakdown.

Emphasis on recovery: Madcow 5×5 is a program dedicated to intermediate lifters. Because of that, there is a greater emphasis on recovery, and the progression model isn’t as aggressive as beginner programs like StrongLifts. 

man sitting recovery green bottle

Cons 

Not much variety for assistance exercises: Sit-ups make up a big chunk of the prescribed assistance work, which is odd. The movement can be beneficial, but there is no need to limit yourself to a single exercise. Planks, reverse planks, cable woodchops, and leg raises are some fantastic movements you can add to your strength training.

Progression on the program can be confusing: It takes time to wrap your head around Madcow 5×5 and understand how progression works. The program is relatively straightforward, but not everyone understands that the top set is of the most crucial importance and all your sets stem from that value.

Workout 2 can be challenging to complete: Workout 2 includes squats, shoulder presses, and deadlifts. The first two work well in combination, but you might struggle to complete your five sets of deadlifts after squatting.

Importance of Recovery

Recovery is essential for any 5×5 program because it allows you to build muscle and get strong in response to the heavy lifting. Not recovering well would lead to a drop in performance, technique breakdown, and higher injury risk. 

One of the best ways to ensure good recovery is to follow the Madcow 5×5 program without adding extra assistance exercises. The five core movements are challenging enough, and adding too many additional activities could impair your recovery and prevent you from attacking each session in a fresh and recovered state. 

You must also take care of your life outside the gym: sleep well and eat a balanced diet.

Sleeping for at least seven hours per night is necessary for supporting protein synthesis, muscle repair, and growth (9). Good tactics for improving your sleep include:

  • Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool (65 to 70 degrees F; 18 to 21 degrees C)
  • Invest some money in a quality mattress and pillow
  • Avoid alcoholic drinks within one to two hours of your bedtime
  • Avoid caffeine (sodas, energy drinks, coffee, certain teas, etc.) within six to eight hours of going to bed (10)
  • Limit screen use within an hour of going to bed
  • Have a relaxing routine before bed: read a book, take a bath, stretch, meditate, write in a journal, etc.

Good nutrition is also crucial for making the most of Madcow or any strength program. First, maintain a slight calorie surplus for steady weight gain or eat at maintenance. Madcow isn’t designed to work while dieting for fat loss. Second, consume enough protein (at least 0.7 grams per pound of body weight) because the nutrient supplies your body with the amino acids it needs to repair muscle and build it up (11).  

Final Thoughts

Madcow 5×5 is a training plan designed by an EliteFitness forum user and based on the original program by Bill Starr. Unlike the original 5×5 method, Madcow’s version includes more exercises with the goal of training the entire body in a more balanced way. Aside from the five core barbell lifts, the program features assistance exercises that support your training performance and allow you to do more work for muscle growth.

It’s unclear who Madcow truly is, but sources speculate that he was friends with Glenn Pendlay, who has worked with Bill Starr. 

The Madcow 5×5 workout plan is aimed at intermediate and advanced lifters, which is why it is slightly different from other versions of 5×5. First, progression occurs more slowly than in programs like StrongLifts. Second, you’re not doing straight sets (using the same weight) but are gradually working up to a top set for each movement.

As a whole, Madcow’s training method is simple and useful for getting you strong and muscular. Basing your training around the core barbell lifts is a fantastic way to develop your physical capacity and build all the major muscle groups in your body.

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