Madcow 5×5 Workout: The Official Guide for 2023

This is Madcow 5×5’s official workout guide for 2023.

If you want to…

  • Get stronger on Squats, Bench and Deadlifts
  • Build muscle while training only 3x/week
  • Alternate harder and easier workouts

Then you’re going to love the Madcow 5×5 program.

Let me show you how it works.

What is the Madcow 5×5 workout?

The Madcow 5×5 workout is a strength and muscle building program that’s been around for over two decades.

It alternates heavy, light and medium workouts (HLM). You do five sets of five reps on compound barbell exercises like Squat, Bench and Rows. There are optional assistance exercises in each workout.

Madcow 5×5 is a 3x/week training program. You rest one day between workouts. Most people do it Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Madcow 5x5 workout schedule

You can log Madcow 5×5 in the Stronglifts app. We’ll create workouts A/B/C for you by setting the exercises, sets and reps. We’ll calculate your starting weights and add weight over time.

Download Stronglifts then go to home – program – Madcow 5×5.

Who created the Madcow 5×5 workout?

“Madcow” created the Madcow 5×5 workout 20 years ago. He was an anonymous Internet user in the early 2000s.

  • In 2001 Madcow joined the oldest and biggest bodybuilding forum at the time, (1). Four years later he joined the forums where he wrote 2413 posts (2).
  • In 2005 Madcow created a website on Geocities (3). He wanted a backup of all the 5×5 workout information he had posted on Internet forums over the years so it doesn’t get lost.

In the early 2000s, most people, including myself, did body part split routines. We trained one muscle a day like the muscle magazines told us to do. Madcow was sick and tired of seeing that. He wanted to give us a better way to build muscle that also increased strength.

Madcow’s most popular work was “Bill Starr 5×5 linear version for intermediate lifters” (4).This was one of the first 5×5 workouts I did in 2004. I recommended it on Stronglifts later. I called it “Madcow 5×5” to avoid confusion with the 5×5 workout in Bill Starr’s book (5).

Madcow’s 5×5 workout was inspired by Chris Manrodt’s program (6). Bill Starr created this routine for Chris when he was a freshman in college. Starr was a weightlifter and coach (7). He wrote a book about 5×5 in 1976: “The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football” (5).

Bill Starr Deadlifting 666lb
Bill Starr Deadlifting 666lb at 198lb in 1968. He created the program Madcow 5×5 was based on.

Madcow modified Bill Starr’s 5×5 workout by removing the Olympic lifts. He substituted the Power Cleans by Barbell Rows and the High Pulls by Deadlifts. This made this 5×5 workout more accessible for regular lifters who wanted to build muscle and strength.

It’s not clear who Madcow was. He said he spent many afternoons on the phone talking about training with Glenn Pendlay (you might know him from “Pendlay Rows“). Pendlay was a weightlifting coach who established Wichita Falls Weightlifting in 1999 (8). Over the years he produced dozens of national champions. Pendlay knew Bill Starr.

Madcow disappeared late 2007. His website became inaccessible two years later when Yahoo shut down Geocities (9). Bill Starr passed away in 2015 (7). Glenn Pendlay passed away in 2019 (10).

I’ve recommended Madcow 5×5 to Stronglifters since 2007. When stuck or bored with Stronglifts 5×5. Madcow 5×5 is similar which makes the transition easy. But it adds variety to make further progress.

I’ve also added support for Madcow 5×5 in the Stronglifts app. As you’ll see, Madcow 5×5’s progression is more complex. It varies the sets, reps and weights. The Stronglifts app simplifies this by planning everything for you. Just follow what it says while you focus on lifting. Easy.

How Madcow 5×5 works

Here’s the original Madcow 5×5 workout created by Madcow…

Workout AWorkout BWorkout C
Squat 5×5Squat 4×5Squat 4×5, 1×3, 1×8
Bench 5×5Incline Bench 4×5Bench 4×5, 1×3, 1×8
Rows 5×5Deadlift 4×5Rows 4×5, 1×3, 1×8

Unlike Stronglifts 5×5, there’s no Overhead Press in Madcow. Instead you do the Incline Bench Press. Set the bench at an angle of about 45 degrees. This works your upper chest and shoulders a little more (11)

If you don’t like the idea of not doing the Overhead Press, just substitute the Incline Bench Press in workout B. Like this…

Workout AWorkout BWorkout C
Squat 5×5Squat 4×5Squat 4×5, 1×3, 1×8
Bench 5×5OHPress 4×5Bench 4×5, 1×3, 1×8
Rows 5×5Deadlift 4×5Rows 4×5, 1×3, 1×8

Madcow 5×5 has Squats every workout. That may seem like too much. But if you count the weekly sets, you’ll see that you’re doing more work for your upper than lower body. Here’s the math:

MuscleLower bodyUpper body
ExercisesSquat, DeadliftBench, Incline/OHP, Row

Madcow 5×5 has 37% more sets per week for your upper body. You work your upper body more despite Squatting every workout.

Madcow 5x5 volume upper vs lower body

Add to this that Squats and Deadlifts aren’t pure leg exercises. Deadlifts work your traps and upper-back too. Squats work your upper-back and arms from holding the bar. Your upper body gets some extra indirect training effect from doing Squats and Deadlifts.

Madcow 5×5 has plenty of upper body work. If you think it’s not enough, there’s an option to add assistance work.

Workout schedule

Unlike Stronglifts 5×5, you don’t alternate Bench and Overhead Press each workout on Madcow 5×5. Nor do you alternate Barbell Rows and Deadlifts. You do workout A/B/C every week on Madcow 5×5.

Like this…

Madcow 5x5 workout schedule

You alternate heavy, light and medium workouts on Madcow 5×5. You Bench Press in the heavy and medium workouts A/C. You Incline Bench (or Overhead Press) in the light workout B. You don’t alternate Bench and Overhead Press each workout like on Stronglifts 5×5.

Most Stronglifters do Madcow 5×5 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This gives you one rest day between two workouts, and weekends off. But other schedules are possible too.

Madcow 5x5 different workout schedules

You could do Madcow 5×5 workout A and B two days in a row if needed. This schedule works better than on Stronglifts 5×5 because you’re not trying to Squat a heavier weight in workout B. The Squats are light.

Sets & reps on Madcow 5×5

Madcow 5×5 uses different sets and reps than Stronglifts 5×5.

On Stronglifts 5×5 you do straight sets. You Squat the same weight for five sets of five reps after doing your warm up. Like this…

Stronglifts 5x5 straight sets

Madcow 5×5 uses ramp sets. In workout A you Squat five sets of five reps with a progressively heavier weight. Like this…

Madcow 5x5 ramp sets

Say your one rep max on Squats is about 330lb. Here’s how a workout with straight sets would compare to a workout with ramp sets…

Straight setsRamp sets
WorkoutStronglifts 5×5Madcow 5×5
Set 15×250lb5×135lb
Set 25×250lb5×175lb
Set 35×250lb5×205lb
Set 45×250lb5×245lb
Set 55×250lb5×275lb

Notice the difference:

You can lift heavier weights if you do ramp sets. The first three sets are like warm-ups. The fourth set is challenging. The top set is the hardest. After that you’re done and move to the next exercise. So you can go harder on the top set. You don’t have to hold back.

Why didn’t we do ramp sets on Stronglifts 5×5 then? That program is for less experienced lifters. They need to learn proper form first. We don’t want them to go too heavy and almost max out. Straight sets prevent going too heavy so the form doesn’t break down.

Another difference with Stronglifts 5×5 is that Madcow 5×5 varies the sets, reps and weights through the week. Here’s an example of what you’d Squat in each Madcow 5×5 workout…

Squat (lb)Workout A
Workout B
Workout C
Set 15×1355×1355×135
Set 25×1755×1755×175
Set 35×2055×2055×205
Set 45×2455×2055×245
Set 55×2753×280
Set 68×205

The sets and reps vary in each Madcow 5×5 workout. Like this…

  • Workout A has five ramp sets of five reps (5×5).
  • Workout B has four ramp sets of five reps (4×5). One set less because that’s the light day of the week.
  • Workout C has four ramp sets of five reps (4×5), one top set of three reps (1×3) and one back off set of eight reps (1×8).

Here’s how the sets and reps of Madcow 5×5 workout C look like…

Madcow 5x5 ramp sets + back off set workout C

The Stronglifts app calculates your sets and reps for each Madcow 5×5 workout. Just start the program, enter your best lifts and let it do all this math for you. Focus on lifting while the app does all the thinking.

HLM: Heavy, Light, Medium explained

HLM means heavy, light, medium. Madcow 5×5 is an HLM program. It alternates heavy, light and medium workouts.

  • Workout A is the medium workout
  • Workout B is the light workout
  • Workout C is the heavy workout

Let’s take a look at the volume-load for Squats first. You can calculate the volume-load by multiplying set × rep × weight.

Squat (lb)Workout A
Workout B
Workout C
Set 15×1355×1355×135
Set 25×1755×1755×175
Set 35×2055×2055×205
Set 45×2455×2055×245
Set 55×2753×280
Set 68×205

Here’s the difference:

  • Workout A is medium volume. You do five sets of five.
  • Workout B is lowest volume. You do less sets.
  • Workout C is highest volume. You do more sets.

Unlike Stronglifts 5×5, you’re not trying to Squat a heavier weight every workout on Madcow 5×5. You alternate heavier and lighter sessions. Here’s how your Squat volume-load changes over time…

Madcow 5x5 weekly workout volume

This heavy light medium approach gives you plenty of recovery…

  • You have three days between workout A and C. There’s a workout B in between. But it’s a light Squat session. So you could say you have three rest days between A/C.
  • You have two rest days between the heavy workout C and the medium workout A of Madcow 5×5.

Here’s how the Madcow 5×5 schedule looks like if you train Monday, Wednesday and Friday like most Stronglifters…

Madcow 5x5 workout schedule

The Squats in workout B won’t make your legs tired and sore. You’re just repeating the three first ramp sets from workout A. This flushes blood into your muscles and removes waste products. You recover faster for workout C. You also get to practice Squat form with an easy weight.

Here’s another way to look at heavy, light, medium…

Squat (lb)Workout A
Workout B
Workout C
Set 15×1355×1355×135
Set 25×1755×1755×175
Set 35×2055×2055×205
Set 45×2455×2055×245
Set 55×2753×280
Set 68×205

You Squat the heaviest weight in workout C. You Squat the lightest weight in workout B. And you Squat a “medium” weight in workout A. You’re not Squatting heavier every workout like on Stronglifts 5×5.

The same thing happens on the Bench Press. You’re not trying to bench a heavier weight each workout. You Bench a lighter weight in workout B. Say your Incline Bench is about ~85% of your flat bench. Notice how you alternate heavier and lighter bench sessions…

BenchWorkout A
Workout B
Workout C
Set 15×955×1055×95
Set 25×1205×1255×120
Set 35×1455×1455×145
Set 45×1705×1655×170
Set 55×1953×200
Set 68×145

Alternating harder and easier workouts also give you a mental break from lifting heavy weights every time.

Why didn’t we do all of this on Stronglifts 5×5? It wasn’t needed. The weights were lighter because you had less strength and experience. You could progress without using heavy, light and medium workouts. Using HLM workouts would have added complexity for no extra benefit. You could progress faster by adding weight each workout.

The Stronglifts app automatically alternates Madcow’s heavy, light and medium workouts for you. It calculates your weights for every exercise and set while you focus on lifting.

Rest between sets on Madcow 5×5

Rest as much as you need to complete all your reps on the next set.

You only need 1 to 2 minutes rest between lighter ramp sets. For the heavier sets and top sets, you should rest 3 to 5 minutes.

How hard was the last set?Rest period

Here’s what this means:

  • Rest 1-2min after easy sets like the first two ramp sets.
  • Rest 3min before doing heavier sets (like ramp set 4-5) or before doing your back off sets of eight reps in workout C.
  • Rest 5min before doing your heaviest set of the day, especially if you expect it to be hard.
Madcow 5x5 rest between sets

Shorter rest times are fine during the first weeks of Madcow 5×5. The weights should be light. You don’t need to rest that long between sets to complete all your reps on the next set.

After a few weeks, you’ll need to rest longer before doing your top set of the day. Longer rest periods help you achieve more reps (12, 13). You’re more likely to complete your top set if you rest 4-5min before doing it.

The Stronglifts app has an automatic rest-timer. Simply log your set by tapping the circles. The timer starts and notifies you when it’s time for your next set. It works with Apple Watch.

How to progress on Madcow 5×5

Workout A of Madcow 5×5

On Madcow 5×5 your goal is to add weight every workout A.

Say you use 5lb increments on the Squat. Here’s how your weight will progress each workout A…

Squat workout AWeek 1Week 2Week 3
Set 15×1355×1405×140
Set 25×1755×1755×180
Set 35×2055×2105×215
Set 45×2455×2455×250
Set 55×2755×2805×285

Here’s how this works:

  1. You completed five reps with 275lb on set five of workout A.
  2. Next workout A, increase the weight by 5lb on the top set. Add a plate of 2.5lb on each side of the bar. Do 280lb for five reps.
  3. You completed five reps with 280lb on set five of workout A in week two. Add 5lb in workout A of week 3. Do 285lb for five.

This means you try to add weight every time you do workout A. Since you do workout A once a week, you add weight once a week. You don’t add weight every workout like on Stronglifts 5×5.

What if you didn’t complete five reps on the top set of workout A? Then you don’t add weight next workout A. You repeat it. Like this:

Squat workout AWeek 1Week 2Week 3
Set 15×1355×1405×140
Set 25×1755×1755×175
Set 35×2055×2105×210
Set 45×2455×2455×245
Set 55×2753×2805×280

Why not add weight in this case? Because you couldn’t lift 280lb for five reps. You only did three reps. You probably can’t lift 285lb for five reps yet. So you stay at 280lb until you can lift it for five reps.

Bench Press and Barbell Rows progress like Squats in workout A. But they work smaller muscles than the Squat.

Bench workout AWeek 1Week 2Week 3
Set 15×955×955×100
Set 25×1205×1205×120
Set 35×1455×1455×145
Set 45×1655×1705×170
Set 55×1905×192.55×195

Bench and Rows progress better if you use smaller increments of 2.5lb (1.25lb/side). This is called “microloading”. You need fractional plates for that – small plates that weigh 1lb and 0.25lb.

Fractional plates for microloading

You can find fractional plates here:

Workout B of Madcow 5×5

Here’s how to progress on Squats in workout B:

  1. Repeat set one to three of workout A
  2. Do set three two times
  3. Skip set four and five of workout A

Like this…

Squat workout BWeek 1Week 2Week 3
Set 15×1355×1405×140
Set 25×1705×1755×180
Set 35×2055×2105×215
Set 35×2055×2105×215

The weights you Squat in workout B won’t increase every week.

Here, set one of week three is the same as in two. It’s calculated off your top set in workout A, using 12.5% set intervals. We round the result to a weight you can put on the bar. That doesn’t always result in a higher weight than you lifted in last week’s workout B. This is fine.

Deadlift and Incline Bench / Overhead Press

In Madcow 5×5 workout B you also Deadlift and Incline Bench (or Overhead press if you pick that instead).

You don’t do these lifts in workouts A/C. Deadlifts and Incline Bench progress independently. You try to lift more each workout B.

Progress on Deadlifts by adding 5lb on the top set each week. The first three ramp sets are calculated using the 12.5% set interval setting.

Deadlift workout BWeek 1Week 2Week 3
Set 15×2105×2155×220
Set 25×2555×2605×260
Set 35×2955×3005×305
Set 35×3405×3455×350

Incline Bench Press or Overhead Press progress the same way. But both lifts work smaller muscles than Deadlifts. Microload by adding 2.5lb per workout (1.25lb/side). Like this if you OHPress…

OHPress workout BWeek 1Week 2Week 3
Set 15×705×755×80
Set 25×855×905×95
Set 35×1005×1055×110
Set 35×1155×117.55×120

Using 5lb increments on Overhead Press will make you plateau early. The jumps in weights are too big. Get a pair of fractional plates.

Workout C of Madcow 5×5

Here’s how workout C works for Squats:

  1. Repeat set one to four of workout A
  2. Do set five with 5lb more than in workout A. But instead of doing set five for five reps, you do it for three reps.
  3. Finish by doing the third set again but for eight reps

Like this…

Squat workout CWeek 1Week 2Week 3
Set 15×1355×1405×140
Set 25×1755×1755×180
Set 35×2055×2105×215
Set 45×2455×2455×250
Set 53×2803×2853×290
Set 68×2058×2108×215

Isn’t that hard to Squat 5lb more in workout C than A?

Not at all. Just look at the one-rep max chart:


You can Squat ~5% more weight for three reps than five. On a 300lb Squat, that’s a difference of 18lb. Here’s what this means:

  • 5x260lb in workout A is 86.6% of your max (300lb)
  • 3x265lb in workout C is 88.3% of your max (300lb)
  • But your true three rep max is 92.9% of 300lb or 3x277lb. Squatting 3x265lb is therefore 12lb below your max.

That’s why your top set in workout C is easier than in workout A despite being heavier. That’s also why you can do an extra back off set.

Madcow 5×5’s double progression

Madcow 5×5 uses a double progression in workouts A and C for the Squat, Bench Press and Barbell Row. You alternate adding weight in workout C with adding reps in workout A. Like this…

Madcow 5x5 double progression

On Stronglifts 5×5 you usually progress by adding weight. If you fail to complete five sets of five reps, you repeat the weight while trying to do more reps. But you mostly try to lift more weight.

On Madcow 5×5 you add weight in workout C. You repeat that weight in workout A. But you do it for more reps (five vs three). After that you add weight in the next workout C. Like this:

2A5280+2 reps
3A5285+2 reps

Workout C is like a feeler for workout A. You lift the weight for three reps. It’s easy because it’s a lower percentage of your max. In workout A you repeat that weight. But you try to do two more reps.

It’s quite clever and shows the genius of Bill Starr.

Back off sets on Madcow 5×5

In Madcow 5×5 workout C, you do a back off set of eight reps after doing the top set of three reps. Like this…

Madcow 5x5 ramp sets + back off set workout C

The back off set increases the volume of workout C. Without that set, workout C would be lower in volume than workout A. Skipping the back off set changes the program and can cause you to plateau.

Workout CWithout back off setWith back off set
Set 15×1355×135
Set 23×1755×175
Set 35×2055×205
Set 45×2455×245
Set 53×2803×280
Set 6Skip8×205

The back off set also trains your muscles under fatigue. You get better at doing a lot of reps. This helps doing five reps in workout A.

This back off set is NOT a drop set. Here’s the difference:

  • Drop sets are where you rack the bar, drop the weight and then quickly do another set. You might only rest for 30 seconds.
  • Back off sets are where you rack the bar, lower the weight but then rest 2-3 minutes before doing that set.

In workout C of Madcow 5×5, you do back off sets. You do your heaviest set of the day for three reps. You then rack the bar, drop the weight, rest 2-3min, and then do your back off set of eight reps. Like this…

Madcow 5x5 ramp sets sequence

Why rest 2-3min before the back off set? Why not do the back off set right after the top set? Because you might not make the eight reps. You might fail. You achieve more reps if you rest after hard sets (11, 12).

Bench Press and Barbell Rows progress the same way as Squats do in workout C. But Bench and Rows work smaller muscles than Squats. Best is to microload by adding 2.5lb per workout (1.25/side).

Starting weights on Madcow 5×5

Madcow 5×5 uses an on-ramp period. You start with easy weights and add weight each week. Like this…

Madcow 5x5 starting weights

Here’s how the on-ramp works…

  • Week 1-3 you lift light and easy weights.
  • Week 4 you match your previous best.
  • Week 5 you set new personal records.
  • Week 6+ you continue to set records.

The goal of the on-ramp is to familiarize yourself with the program. Your body gets used to Squatting 3x/week and Benching 2-3x/week before the weights get heavy. You get less sore by starting with easy weights. You can work on improving your form. You have room to progress.

Here’s how to choose your starting weights on Madcow 5×5…

  1. Take your 5 rep max. This is the most weight you can lift for five reps. Let’s say that’s 5x300lb on Squats.
  2. Pick your on-ramp. This is how many weeks before you match your current max of 5x300lb. 4 weeks is recommended.
  3. Pick your increments. This is how much weight to add each week. 5lb/week is recommended for Squats.
  4. Subtract 5lb per week from your five rep max. Your starting weight becomes 5x285lb.

Like this…

4300Match PR
1285Starting weight

How to know your five rep max?

If you did Stronglifts 5×5 before, you can use your last 5×5 weight as your five rep max. For Incline Bench Press, start with about 80% of your best flat bench (5x160lb if your flat bench is 5x200lb).

Isn’t that too light? Isn’t your five rep max ~5-10% higher than your 5×5? Yes, and that’s fine. Your on-ramp will be 2-3 weeks longer. You get an extra deload and will be able to do Madcow 5×5 longer.

If you don’t like this idea, you can also test your five rep max before you start Madcow 5×5. Here’s how to test it…

  • Hit the gym on Monday. Do Madcow 5×5 workout A. Check what your five rep max is on the Squat, Bench and Row. Make sure you do four ramp sets of five first so your five rep max is relevant.
  • Hit the gym on Wednesday. Do Madcow 5×5 workout B. Check what your five rep max is on the Incline Bench/Deadlift. Here too, do three ramp sets of five before testing your five rep max.
  • Take the rest of the week off. Plug your five rep maxes in the Stronglifts app (enter 90-95% of what you did to give you extra room to progress). Start Madcow 5×5 next Monday.

Another way is to estimate your five rep max. You can do that in the Stronglifts app (home – program – Madcow 5×5). Enter your most recent best rep × weight × rpe. We’ll estimate your max and calculate your starting weights for Madcow 5×5.

Make sure you enter recent bests. Don’t enter something you did last year. Don’t enter something you’d like to lift. Enter what you’ve been able to lift in the past 3-4 weeks. If you enter wrong numbers, your starting weight will be too high and you’ll plateau quickly.

If you’re not sure what to start with, pick something easy. Start light so you can progress for several weeks without issues.

  • There’s no downside to starting a little too light. Your on-ramp will be longer. But that gives your body more time to get used to the program. You’ll get less sore and can work on form. At worst you waste a few weeks at a lighter weight.
  • If you start too heavy, you’ll get more sore, your form will break down, and the volume will be too much. Worst case you waste all your time by completely getting stuck and having to restart the program. This is a common mistake people make.

Focus on the numbers that you could lift in 12 weeks. Say your best Squat is 5x240lb. If you start with 5x225lb you could hit 5x280lb in 12 weeks. That’s an increase of 15% over your max.

WeekTop set AGain %

Note that Madcow 5×5 isn’t a 12 week program. Some lifters have done this for 20 weeks or longer. If you’re making progress, then continue the program. If you’re stuck or bored, then stop Madcow 5×5.

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