The Madcow 5×5 Workout: The Complete Guide

There are dozens of effective strength training programs to help you build muscle and get stronger, so choosing the right strength routine for your needs can be a difficult process.

Oftentimes, the best approach is choosing from the most popular strength training programs, as these workout routines offer more of a “tested and vetted” approach to strength training.

In this guide, we will introduce one of these strength training programs, the Madcow 5×5 workout, so you can judge whether it’s the right workout for you and your fitness goal needs.

We will discuss what this workout program entails, how to follow it, the exercises involved, and the benefits of this workout plan.

We will look at: 

  • What Is the Madcow 5×5 Workout Program?
  • StrongLifts 5×5 vs Madcow 5×5
  • How Do You Do the Madcow 5×5 Strength Routine?

Let’s get started!

A back squat.

What Is the Madcow 5×5 Workout Program?

The Madcow 5×5 routine is a popular strength and hypertrophy workout program that has served strength athletes, power athletes, and bodybuilders for over 20 years.

It is a 3-day strength training program that involves performing five sets of five reps on the major compound barbell exercises like squats, bench presses, and rows while alternating between heavy, light, and medium workouts, using what is referred to as the HLM Madcow 5×5 structure.

Therefore, this routine alternates harder and easier days while focusing on most of the same big compound lifts per workout.

In addition to the big compound exercises with barbells in each workout, there are some optional assistance exercises to help target other muscle groups and support the major weightlifting exercises.

The Madcow workout was created by an anonymous Internet user who went by the eponym “Madcow” back in the early 2000s.

The official name “Madcow 5×5 Workout” was actually coined by the founder of StrongLifts to differentiate this 5×5 strength program from the Bill Starr StrongLifts 5×5 workout, from which Madcow drew much of his inspiration for what became known as the Madcow 5×5 Workout.

Bench press.

StrongLifts 5×5 vs Madcow 5×5

The Madcow 5×5 plan essentially is a modified version of Bill Starr’s StrongLifts 5×5 workout that removes the Olympic lifts and substitutes them for other barbell exercises.

This was intended to make the 5×5 strength plan more accessible to intermediate lifters and recreational weightlifters who felt intimidated by performing Olympic lifts or who did not have access to Olympic platforms while still being an effective program for increasing strength and hypertrophy gains and focusing on the big compound lifts.

The differences in the StrongLifts 5×5 vs Madcow 5×5 are as follows:

  • StrongLifts 5×5 workout power cleans are substituted for Madcow 5×5 barbell rows.
  • StrongLifts 5×5 workout high pulls are substituted for Madcow 5×5 deadlifts.
  • Another difference between the Madcow 5×5 vs StrongLifts 5×5 workouts is that the Madcow 5×5 program uses the incline bench press (use a 45-degree bench angle) instead of the overhead press.
  • Finally, another difference between the Madcow vs. StrongLifts 5×5 routines is that the StrongLifts 5×5 uses straight sets with the same weight for each set in the workout, and the Madcow 5×5 routine uses ramp sets with progressively heavier weights for each set, kind of like pyramid training.

Even though the Madcow workout is only a 3 day a week training program, it is still quite challenging, particularly because you are performing squats every workout, which means that you are squatting three times a week.

Bent over row.

How Do You Do the Madcow 5×5 Strength Routine?

The Madcow 5×5 program is a 3 days per week training plan.

In between each workout day, you are supposed to take a rest day to support adequate recovery and muscle protein synthesis between training sessions.

Therefore, most people trade Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, though you can do Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, etc. It is just important to take at least one rest day in between each of your workouts.

Here is the program:

Workout A

  • Barbell back squats: 5×5
  • Barbell bench press: 5×5
  • Barbell bent-over rows: 5×5
  • Assistance exercises as desired

Workout B

  • Barbell back squats: 4×5
  • Barbell incline bench press: 4×5
  • Barbell deadlifts: 4×5
  • Assistance exercises as desired

Workout C

  • Barbell back squats: 4×5, 1×3, 1×8
  • Barbell bench press: 4×5, 1×3, 1×8
  • Barbell bent over row: 4×5, 1×3, 1×8
  • Assistance exercises as desired
Heavy deadlift.

Interestingly, because the Madcow 5×5 workout program involves squatting three days a week, weightlifters often assume that this routine is a lower body dominant strength program.

However, if you actually calculate the number of sets per week for upper-body vs. lower-body exercises, you do 37% more sets per week of upper-body exercises than lower-body exercises.

For reference, the Madcow 5×5 routine lower body exercises are the barbell back squat and deadlift.

The basic routine without choosing specific assistance lifts involves 19 sets per week of lower-body exercises, which ends up constituting 42% of the total number of the routine’s sets per week.

The upper body exercises include the barbell bench press, incline press, and barbell row as the main lifts unless you add additional assistance upper body lifts to your routine.

These upper-body exercises total 26 sets per week, which aggregate to 58% of the total number of Madcow 5×5 routine week sets.

Incline bench press.

Therefore, you are doing 45 sets of the main 5×5 Madcow routine exercises per week, with a ratio of lower-body to upper-body of 19:26.

Plus, deadlifts, in particular, end up working some of the upper body muscles like the traps, lats, and rhomboids, so you will get plenty of upper body work in this routine.

Finally, it’s worth restating that even though there are the defined A, B, and C workouts in the routine, you can modify the basic Madcow 5×5 program with the specific assistance work that you choose.

If you want to place more emphasis on the lower body, you can add lower-body assistance exercises such as hip thrusts and seated calf raises, or you can add additional upper-body assistance exercises like the overhead press and skull crushers or biceps curls.

Back squat.

Madcow 5×5 Sets

Rather than performing straight sets for your Madcow 5×5 routine exercises, this program uses ramp sets with progressively heavier weights that approach your 1RM towards set five.

You should still perform three warm-up sets or so with a much lower weight, say 50% of your 1RM for the routine, and then get into your five sets.

The first three sets continue to be relatively light, while the fourth set in the 5×5 should be quite challenging, and the final set should be very difficult, though not your full 1RM.

For example, if you are squat 1RM is 300 pounds, you might do your squat sets on the medium workout (Workout A) with 5×140, 5×175, 5×200, 5×235, and 5×250.

The light day (Workout B) may ramp up to a max of 200 pounds.

Then, on Workout C, you have four ramp sets of five reps (4×5), one top-heavy set of three reps (1×3), and one final back-off set of eight reps (1×8).

Bench press.

So, on the heavy day (Workout C), you may hit a top-heavy set with 275 pounds and then do your back-off Madcow squat set with 8×200 pounds.

The benefits of the heavy, medium, light approach component of this routine, known as the Madcow 5×5 HLM approach, is that it helps prevent mental and physical fatigue by varying the volume of your workout days.

Workout A Is the medium workout in terms of volume, Workout B is your light day with fewer sets and lighter loads, and Workout C is the heavy day with the most volume.

If you train Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you have a full 72 hours after the heavy workout for training again the following week with the medium day.

The goal is to increase the weight you lift every Monday of the program for the week by about 5% for the major lifts and 2.5% for the incline bench (in workout B).

For another strength training program option, check out our guide to the Texas Method workout program here.

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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