• Alex Parry

Madcow 5x5 Review: The Pros and The Cons

Madcow 5x5 is a popular strength program, but is it actually any good? This complete Madcow 5x5 review looks at:



Let's jump straight in.



What is Madcow 5x5?


Madcow 5x5 is an early-intermediate strength program typically run by people once they have finished their novice linear progression on a programme such as stronglifts or starting strength.


The programme itself is essentially a slightly altered copy of Bill Starr's 5x5 programmes. Since Starr was a former Olympian, Olympic Team Coach and American Football Strength Coach, there's some solid strength training logic and pedigree on which Madcow is based.


The term 'Madcow' comes from the online name of a poster on the EliteFitness bodybuilding forums, who took Starr's 5x5 and made a few changes such as adding extra accessory work, as well as a wider selection of exercises.



Madcow 5x5 Program


I've noticed that a lot of online sources write Madcow 5x5 out in an over-simplified kind of way, which seems to lead to confusion. Instead, I've chosen to write the programme out fully, so that you can see exactly what a training week will look like.

Workout

Exercise

Sets x Reps

Recommended %'s of Monday's Top Set

Day 1

Back Squat

5x5 Ascending

50, 62.5, 75, 87.5, 100

Bench Press

5x5 Ascending

50, 62.5, 75, 87.5, 100

Barbell Row

5x5 Ascending

50, 62.5, 75, 87.5, 100

Day 2

Back Squat

2x5 Ascending + 2x5 at Same Weight

50, 62.5, 75, 75

Incline Bench or Overhead Press

2x5 Ascending + 2x5 at Same Weight

50, 62.5, 75, 75

Deadlift

4x5 Ascending

50, 62.5, 75, 87.5, 100

Day 3

Back Squat

4x5 Ascending + 1x3 + 1x8 Back-off

52.5, 65, 77.5, 90 + 102.5 + 77.5

Bench Press

4x5 Ascending + 1x3 + 1x8 Back-off

52.5, 65, 77.5, 90 + 102.5 + 77.5

Barbell Row

4x5 Ascending + 1x3 + 1x8 Back-off

52.5, 65, 77.5, 90 + 102.5 + 77.5

Madcow 5x5 Program Explained


As you can see, the base programme is built around 3 days per week. Day 1 is your higher volume day, day 2 is your 'recovery' day, and day 3 is your intensity day.


In this way, the volume-recovery-intensity structure makes it fairly similar to the texas method, which makes sense, given that Madcow was apparently friends with its creator, Glenn Pendlay.


The major difference, however, is that Madcow 5x5 has more total volume (more sets) throughout the training week.



Madcow Workout Breakdown


Madcow Ramped Sets / Ascending Sets


The use of 'ramped sets' or 'ascending sets' is a way to get you more volume in as you build towards your heavy set. So instead of building up to a heavy set of 5 by going...


5, 5, 3, 2, heavy 5 - as is common in most warm-ups


Madcow has you doing...


5, 5, 5, 5, heavy 5 - which has you doing more submaximal work.



Madcow Day 1: 5x5


Day 1 uses the 'ramped sets' approach described above to get you doing 5x5 in the squat, bench and barbell row. Your last set (top set) should be heavy and challenging, but still leave a little bit in the tank.



Madcow Day 2: 'Recovery' / Lighter Day


Although madcow day 2 is often called a 'recovery day,' a better term might be 'lighter' day, because it's lighter than day 1, but still definitely not a recovery day.


You'll perform 2 ascending sets + 2 sets of 5 at the same 'top weight,' so a session might look something like...


50kg, 62.5kg, 75kg, 75kg


Now, the key thing to note is that although it's your lighter day for squat and bench, it still has you building up in 5's into a heavy deadlift.



Madcow Day 3: Intensity Day


Day 3 is your heavier day, in which you'll build up to a heavy set of 3 reps.


Now, your heavier 'intensity' day still has plenty of volume, as you build up in 5's, and perform a back-off set of 8.


So it ends up looking something like...


5, 5, 5, 5 + 3 + 8


You'll do this for the squat, bench press and barbell row.



Madcow 5x5 Accessories


Madcow 5x5 has a list of recommended accessory work attached to each day of lifting. These are as follows:


Day 1:


  • Weighted Back Extensions (aka: Hyperextensions): Two sets of 10-12 repetitions

  • Weighted Sit Ups: Four sets of 10-12 repetitions



Day 2:


  • Situps: three sets of max reps

  • Weighted situps: three sets of max reps



Day 3:


  • Weighted Dips: Three sets of 5-8 reps each

  • Barbell Curls: Three sets of 8 reps each

  • Triceps extensions: Three sets of 8 reps each



How Do I Increase Weight? Progression on Madcow 5x5


Progression on Madcow 5x5 is in small weekly increments of around 2.5% for each lift.


The idea is that you start deliberately light so that you only start to hit new personal bests at around week 4.


It's also suggested that you run the programme for about 12 weeks before taking some form of deload or rest week.



Madcow 5x5 Template


Many proponents of Madcow 5x5 will say that you have to stick very strictly to the exact exercises, sets, reps and structure as written. Personally, whilst I think this is true to some extent, Madcow can be altered to suit your own needs (provided that you know what you're doing)


In essence, Madcow 5x5 can be thought of more like a template than as a very specific recommendation.


  • Day 1 (Volume): 5 Ascending sets of 5.

  • Day 2 ('Recovery'): 2 Ascending sets of 5 + 2 straight sets of 5 capped at 70-80% of Monday's lifts

  • Day 3 (Intensity): 4 Ascending sets of 5, plus a top set of 3, and a back-off set of 8.


You can then use this Madcow 5x5 template to create different programme variations to suit your needs. A couple of examples include:



4 Day Madcow:


If you want to split your workouts up to have 4 shorter, less fatiguing sessions, you could do something like this:


  • Monday: Squat 5x5 volume, Deadlift 5x5 volume

  • Tuesday: Bench 5x5 volume, Row 5x5 volume

  • Thursday: Squat 4x5+1x3+1x8

  • Friday: Bench 4x5+1x3 +1x8 , Row 4x5 + 1x3 + 1x8



3 Day Madcow for Olympic Weightlifting


If you want to combine Olympic weightlifting practice with Madcow's strength progression, you could use something like this:


Day 1: Light Cleans, Squat 5x5, Push Press 5x5, Barbell Row 3x5


Day 2: Light Snatches, Front Squat 2x5+2x5, Bench 2x5+2x5


Day 3: Heavier Snatches and Cleans, Squat 4x5+1x3+1x8, Pull-Ups 3x8


 

Order a Custom Strength Program


custom strength program

If you're struggling to choose the right strength programme for you, why not consider having me design and write one specifically for you?


You send in your details, answer some questions about your training numbers, goals, training history, equipment etc, and then I craft your program custom to you.


I also throw in a check-in each month, just to make sure that everything is working well, and to make any adjustments if needed.



 

Madcow Review: The Pros


Alright, so now that we've covered the madcow 5x5 program, explained how it works and looked at the workouts in detail, here's what I like...


  • Madcow 5x5 Has Great Program Resources


As a popular programme, Madcow 5x5 has a solid selection of resources to help you move through it, including a...


Madcow 5×5 calculator

Madcow 5x5 Spreadsheet

And Madcow 5x5 App



  • The Madcow programme allows for simplicity, with just enough variation to keep stimulating new progress


Many intermediate programs end up massively overcomplicating the training process and throwing way too many variables in far too quickly. In my mind, Madcow 5x5 gets this balance right. With the slight variances in sets, reps and intensity being very well balanced.


  • Madcow is a flexible template


Although madcow purists might argue that you have to follow the programme exactly, the reality from a strength and conditioning perspective is that Madcow 5x5 is a flexible template that you can play around with and tweak to suit your individual needs.



Madcow Review: The Cons


And now that we've covered the good elements, here are some of the things that I'm not so keen on...


  • The accessory/assistance recommendations aren't great


Our understanding of the core has come a long way since the 1970's type recommendations on which this programme was based. There's no reason to prescribe sit-ups 3 times in 1 week when we could build a more balanced programme with weighted carries, planks, side planks, paloff press and other useful exercises.


Similarly, 3 sets of 8 on curls, dips and tricep extensions are incredibly arbitrary. What if a lifter needs WAY more volume to grow? What if they need less? What if different exercises altogether would have a better carryover?


It's an easily solved problem, but it needs mentioning.



  • Some people find deadlifts on day 2 too fatiguing


Since day 2 is supposed to be lighter, it can be surprising to find heavy deadlifts placed there. Many people will recover just fine from these, but there are also lots of people who struggle with this set-up, as evidenced by plenty of madcow 5x5 Reddit threads.



  • The Texas Method requires less work for the same rate of progress


All those ascending sets and back off sets are a great way to get extra volume in when you need it, but plenty of people don't. In fact, many people could make the same rate of weekly progress just hitting a single top set on their intensity day with no ramped sets and no back-off.



Review Summary: Is Madcow 5X5 good?


"Madcow 5x5 is a solid, well-designed strength program that I would happily recommend to most intermediate lifters. "

It's simple enough to follow, and yet has enough variation and versatility to keep progress coming for many months.


Personally, instead of dogmatically following the exact recommendations listed with the program, I would slightly individualise to meet my own needs, most likely by changing the assistance/accessory work, and perhaps rethinking the placement of the deadlift in the week if that became an issue.


I might also try the Texas Method for a few months first to see if I could make progress with fewer total sets.



Madcow 5x5 Frequently Asked Questions


What Are the Main Lifts Used in Madcow 5×5?


You'll mainly be using the back squat, bench press, barbell row and deadlift. On your lighter day you'll have the option of using an incline bench press or overhead press.



Rest periods on madcow 5x5?


I would say anything from 90s up to 5 minutes is acceptable, so long as you feel recovered and ready to attack the next set. With your first 1 or 2 ramped sets you might be closer to 90s, whereas after your heavier 4th and 5th sets you may need to rest closer to 4 or 5 minutes.



Does madcow 5X5 build muscle?


Madcow 5x5 can build muscle, and over many months and years will certainly do so. However, it is FAR from an optimal way to go about it. If building muscle is your goal, I strongly recommend you read my article on hypertrophy, and maybe consider having a look at my 4 day upper/lower hypertrophy programme.



Does madcow have enough volume?


Madcow almost certainly has enough volume for most intermediates to make good progress in their strength.



Is Madcow good for beginners?


No, Madcow 5x5 is a poor choice for beginners as it only allows for progress on a weekly basis. Most beginners can progress every single session, and so would make faster progress following something like stronglifts or starting strength.



How Long Should You Use the Madcow 5×5 Program?


Like any programme, use it until it stops working. If you've hit a wall or plateau, take a full week's deload (very easy training) fully recover, and then get back at it. If you still can't progress, then it's very likely time for a change.



Madcow 5x5 Diet?


There's no specific diet recommended for Madcow 5x5, but I would suggest eating at maintenance calories or ever so slightly above them. I would also suggest getting plenty of protein and carbs for recovery and muscle building. Beyond that, just use some common sense.



Is there Anyone Out There Who Shouldn’t Try Madcow’s system?


Yes, Madcow is a poor choice for beginners, as well as for advanced lifters who need more complex programming. Madcow might also be a poor choice if you're currently dealing with or just coming back from a hip, knee or back injury.



Next Steps


Alright, that's enough reading for today, time for some action...


1) If Madcow sounds like the intermediate strength programme for you, get in the gym and start working through it. If not, check out the texas method, or consider having a look at custom programme options.

2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.


3) And if you're looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching you can find more information about my services by clicking that link.

'Til Next Time


Alex


Alex Parry, MSc, BA


Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.


His experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.


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