Madcow 5×5: Workout Program for Intermediate Lifters

Madcow 5×5 is a workout routine for intermediate lifters looking to gain strength and muscle quickly.

The program has three full-body barbell workouts per week, where the weights increase on a weekly basis.

In this article, you’ll find an outline and description of the Madcow 5×5 program.

This program is 100% free in our workout log app, which you can download with the buttons below:

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What is Madcow 5×5?

Madcow 5×5 is a strength and muscle-building program for intermediate lifters.

Beginner lifters get stronger quickly, and most beginner programs increase the weight by a small step every workout. This is called linear progression, and is the quickest way for a beginner to advance.

(Two training programs that use linear progression are our beginner barbell program and our beginner powerlifting program.)

At the intermediate level, however, progress is slower, and you need to complete more training sessions before you have gained enough strength to increase your training weights.

Enter periodization.

In the Madcow workout program, you cycle between heavy, light, and medium workouts throughout the week (sometimes referred to as the Texas Method). You increase the weights on a weekly basis, rather than every workout.

The light and medium workouts “feed” the heavy workouts. Meaning that before every new heavy workout comes around, you have been doing two lighter workouts to boost your strength.

This type of progression is called wave progression, or wave periodization, and the concept can be illustrated like this:

Wave progression
In wave progression the load increases in rising and falling waves.

The program was written two decades ago by a training forum user called “Madcow” which explains its peculiar name.

It was inspired by strength coach Bill Starr’s classic 5×5 workout routines, but adapted for strength and muscle gain rather than sport and athleticism. One of the main differences is that the original program included power cleans every workout and no deadlifts.

Madcow 5×5 Workouts

Here’s how the three workouts look in the first week.

Note that the training weights are based on your one-rep max (1RM). If you’re unsure of your 1RM, calculate it with our 1RM calculator.

Workout 1 (Monday)

  1. Squat: 5 reps x 80% of 1RM
  2. Bench Press: 5 reps x 80%
  3. Barbell Row: 5 reps x 80%

Workout 2 (Wednesday)

  1. Squat: 2 sets x 5 reps x 65%
  2. Overhead Press: 5 reps x 80%
  3. Deadlift: 5 reps x 80%

Workout 3 (Friday)

  1. Squat: 3 reps x 82.5%
  2. Bench Press: 3 reps x 82.5%
  3. Barbell Row: 3 reps x 82.5%

All exercises have several warm-up sets which are not written out above. The sets specified above are only the top set of each exercise, and the number of sets per week is higher in practice.

You can pick other training days if you like, just make sure to complete all workouts within a week and get at least one rest day between sessions.

Progression in Madcow 5×5

Every week, all the weights above increase by 2.5%.

Sounds complicated?

It doesn’t have to be.

Download StrengthLog, search for Madcow 5×5 in the Programs & Workouts list, and follow it. You’ll get to enter your 1RMs for each exercise when you start the first workout, and then we’ll take care of everything from there.

Well, except for the actual lifting. You have to do that.

Madcow 5x5 app
You’ll get to enter your 1RMs for each exercise when you start the first Madcow 5×5 workout in our app StrengthLog. Downloading the app and following Madcow 5×5 is 100% free.
Madcow 5x5 workout calculator
When you’ve entered your 1RMs, we’ll calculate your training weights for each workout and automatically progress your weights next week.

The Exercises in Madcow 5×5

In this section, we’ll go over the main lifts included in the Madcow program.

For each exercise, we’ll include brief instructions on proper form and the muscles they work.

Exercises in the program:

  1. Squat
  2. Bench Press
  3. Deadlift
  4. Barbell Row
  5. Overhead Press

If you’re already familiar with all the exercises, click here to jump to the next section on what results you can expect from Madcow 5×5.

1. Squat

Often referred to as the “king of all lifts”, the barbell back squat works several of your largest muscle groups simultaneously: your quads, glutes, adductors, and lower back.

The barbell squat is the staple of the Madcow program and is at the start of every workout.

Below is a brief instruction for the exercise, but you can read a lot more in our guide on how to squat.

Muscles Worked in the Squat

Muscles worked by barbell squats exercise

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

More on the squat:

How to Squat with Proper Form

  1. Place the bar on your upper back. Inhale and brace your core slightly, and unrack the bar.
  2. Take two steps back, and adjust your foot position.
  3. Squat as deep as possible with good technique.
  4. With control, stop and reverse the movement, extending your hips and legs again.
  5. Exhale on the way up or exchange air in the top position.
  6. Inhale and repeat for reps.

2. Bench Press

The barbell bench press works the pressing muscles in your upper body: your chest, front delts, and triceps. Couple this exercise with barbell rows, and you’re working almost all the major muscle groups of your upper body.

You’ll be bench pressing on two workouts per week in Madcow 5×5: Mondays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, you’ll be doing the overhead press instead.

Read more in our guide on how to bench press.

Muscles Worked in the Bench Press

Bench press muscles worked

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Bench Press with Proper Form

  1. Lie on the bench, pull your shoulder blades together and down, and slightly arch your back.
  2. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Inhale, hold your breath, and unrack the bar.
  4. Lower the bar with control, until it touches your chest somewhere close to your sternum.
  5. Push the bar up to the starting position while exhaling.
  6. Take another breath while in the top position, and repeat for reps.

More on the bench press:

3. Barbell Row

The barbell row works your upper body pulling muscles: your lats, traps, rear delts, and biceps.

If the bench press works one half of your torso, the barbell row works the other half. As an added bonus, the barbell row adds isometric (static) work for your low back, strengthening your deadlift start.

You’ll be training barbell rows on the same days that you bench press: Mondays and Fridays.

Muscles Worked in Barbell Rows

Muscles worked in barbell row exercise

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Barbell Rows

  1. Grip the bar with an overhand grip, and lean forward with the bar hanging from straight arms.
  2. Inhale and pull the bar towards you.
  3. Pull the bar as high as you can, so that it touches your abs or chest if possible.
  4. With control, lower the bar back to the starting position.

More on the Barbell Row:

4. Deadlift

Another contender for the title of king of all lifts, the deadlift is the lift in which you lift the heaviest weights, and it works almost your entire body.

There is considerable overlap between the squat and deadlift regarding muscles worked. In particular, your glutes and low back. You’ll be training the deadlift once per week, on Wednesday (the light squat day), but all the squat training you will do will carryover to your deadlift as well.

Read our long guide on how to deadlift if you want to dig deeper into the technique.

Muscles Worked in the Deadlift

Deadlift muscles worked

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Deadlift with Proper Form

  1. Step up close to the bar so that it is about over the middle of your foot.
  2. Inhale, lean forward, and grip the bar.
  3. Hold your breath, brace your core slightly, and lift the bar.
  4. Pull the bar close to your body, with a straight back, until you are standing straight.
  5. Lower the bar back to the ground with control.
  6. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

More on the Deadlift:

5. Overhead Press

On Wednesdays, you’ll rest from the bench press and instead train the overhead press. It is a classic shoulder exercise that develops your front and middle delts, upper chest, and triceps.

Stand firm with a solid base, rest the bar against your torso, and press it straight up. It’s beautiful in its simplicity.

Muscles Worked in the Overhead Press

Muscles worked in overhead press exercise

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Overhead Press

  1. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Inhale, lightly brace your core, and unrack the bar.
  3. Let the bar rest against your front delts while you take a step back from the rack.
  4. Press the bar up to straight arms, while exhaling.
  5. Inhale at the top, or while lowering the bar with control back to your shoulders.
  6. Repeat for reps.

More on the Overhead Press:

What Results Can You Expect From Madcow 5×5?

While any strength training program will stimulate both strength and muscle gain, they can be more geared towards one or the other. In the case of Madcow 5×5, it is more geared toward strength.

You should expect to add some muscle mass to your largest muscle groups from following Madcow 5×5, but you should especially expect to make rapid strength gains.

The squat is the foundation and the most practiced lift in the program, and this is where you can expect to make the most progress.

The deadlift sits on the backburner compared to squats, but with one session per week, you will still make decent progress. More importantly, with the strength and muscle mass you gain from progressing your squat (and barbell row), you will increase your future potential deadlift strength. This sets you up for rapid progress later on, if you follow a deadlift specialization program.

The bench press and barbell row are the second most worked exercises in the program, and you can expect to get stronger in these lifts as well. The bench press volume is not quite as high in Madcow 5×5 as it is in our intermediate powerlifting program (where you bench press 3x/week), but still enough for the intermediate lifter to gain strength.

Couple this with the extra press work you get from the overhead presses, and your pressing strength and muscle mass will surely increase.

Accessory Work in Madcow 5×5

Madcow 5×5 has a list of recommended accessory exercises tied to each workout. These are:

Workout 1 (Monday)

  1. Weighted Back Extension: 2 sets x 10–12 reps
  2. Weighted Sit-Up: 4 sets x 10–12 reps

Workout 2 (Wednesday)

  1. Sit-Up: 3 sets x max reps
  2. Weighted Sit-Up: 3 sets x max reps

Workout 3 (Friday)

  1. Weighted Dip: 3 sets x 5–8 reps
  2. Barbell Curl: 3 sets x 8 reps
  3. Triceps Extension: 3 sets x 8 reps

Note that these exercises are optional, and we have chosen not to write them into the default program.


Because when you try to “improve” an already good program, you risk diluting the good stuff too much and end up with a worse program.

The important and effective stuff that makes Madcow 5×5 a good program is the three barbell lifts in each workout. If you really want to do more: fine, do so. Choose among the recommended assistance exercises above, or pick your own. I recommend you rest from the heavy weights in your accessory lifts and stick to a higher number of reps.

Just make sure you don’t lose focus on successfully completing the hard and heavy core lifts that will yield the brunt of your results.

Madcow 5×5 for Advanced Lifters

Does Madcow 5×5 work for advanced lifters?


The definition of an advanced lifter is that they are so highly trained that they need an even longer training period than the intermediate lifter before they can see a significant strength gain.

If the beginner lifter gets stronger from workout to workout, and the intermediate lifter gets stronger from week to week (or bi-weekly), then the advanced lifter needs a month or more (perhaps a training block of several months) before he or she notices a significant strength gain.

In Madcow 5×5, the weight increases weekly, which is typical of an intermediate program. It does, however, take a few weeks before you reach your maximum strength level in Madcow, which means that an advanced lifter might be able to hang on for a while.

Another scenario where it would work is for the advanced lifter coming back after a short training cessation. Like a week or two of sickness or travel, where you need to get back in the swing of things gradually. In that scenario, the Madcow progression rate might be a nice way to ramp your training up again. You could also enter slightly lower 1RMs into the program to get an even easier start. It gets heavy soon enough.

In that scenario, after you’ve followed Madcow for a month or two and feel that the weights are getting excessive, you can shift gears to an advanced program with higher training volume and a rate of progress adapted to the advanced level, such as our advanced powerlifting program.

Madcow 5×5 FAQ

Let’s wrap up with some of the most frequently asked questions about Madcow 5×5.

Is Madcow 5×5 a Good Program?

For getting stronger and building muscle mass along the way, absolutely!

It’s not a good program for the beginner; our beginner barbell workout or beginner powerlifting program is better at that stage.

Follow a program with linear periodization until that becomes too difficult. At that point, a program like Madcow 5×5 is the best way to take your strength and muscularity to the next level.

It should be noted that Madcow is not a bodybuilding program. If a bodybuilder’s physique is your goal, you should check out one of our bodybuilding splits. Madcow is a program for strength and power, and you will add muscle mass in the necessary muscle groups along the way. As such, Madcow is a good strength program.

When to Start Madcow 5×5

You should start Madcow 5×5 after you’ve exhausted your “noobie gains” on a beginner training program.

As a novice lifter, you can progress quickly. Quicker than the progress rate in Madcow. There is no reason for you to waste your time following a slower rate of progress when you could move faster. Check out our beginner barbell workout or beginner powerlifting program and follow one of those for a few months.

When you can no longer gain on a beginner’s program, it’s time for intermediate-level training, and Madcow 5×5 is a great option if strength is your goal.

Does Madcow 5×5 Build Muscle?

Yes, Madcow 5×5 will build muscle. Especially in your quads, glutes, back, chest, and shoulders.

These are some of your largest muscle groups, and as such, you will look larger and be more powerful after adding mass to them. You can also add additional accessory exercises to further develop muscle groups that don’t get enough work in the base program.

That said, Madcow is not a bodybuilding program, and if your goal is a bodybuilder’s physique, you should look into a bodybuilding split.

How Long Can I Use Madcow 5×5

You can use Madcow 5×5 for as long as it works. Most people who jump on it after they’ve completed their beginner stage, can probably follow Madcow for several months before the weight increases become too much.

At that point, you could also try doing a week or two of free training (or maybe a dedicated hypertrophy phase?), before jumping on Madcow 5×5 again. Just make sure to start a few weeks down in weight from where you left off, to give yourself time to get used to the programming again.

You can also use Madcow 5×5 intermittently in your training career, as both an intermediate and advanced lifter. For instance, if you feel lost and want to get back to the basics, a program like Madcow 5×5 offers amazing clarity and focus in your training. You can use it as a launchpad for more advanced training later on.

It is also a great option of programming if you’re coming back after a training pause. Just adapt the weights you enter into the program, so that you get a good starting point.

In the StrengthLog app, we’ve written Madcow 5×5 as an eight-week program, but if you want to follow it beyond eight weeks, just adjust your entered 1RMs to generate the correct training weights for the next block of training.

Can I Max Out on The Madcow 5×5 Program?

After a few months on the Madcow routine, you are probably hitting personal records in your five reps sets consistently. But what if you want to try out your maximum strength and go for a new PR in a one-rep max?

The best way to peak for a PR attempt is to lower your training volume slightly to be well-rested, and to practice heavy lifting in a low rep range: submaximal singles or doubles around 85–90% of your estimated max.

After a few weeks of practicing lifting heavier weights, you can go for a new PR. I suggest you use this warm-up calculator to get a good idea of how to warm up for a one-rep max.

When you’ve completed your PR attempts, you can plug your (hopefully) new records into the Madcow workout program and get back to building your strength.

What to Do after Madcow 5×5

When you can no longer keep up with the progress rate in Madcow 5×5, you have a few different options.

You could take a break and do a hypertrophy block to build additional muscle mass and get a little variety in your training. We have a list of bodybuilding programs here. After a hypertrophy phase, you could hop on Madcow 5×5 again (but a few weeks back) and see if you can squeeze out a few more weeks of progress compared to last time.

Another common tactic when you hit the wall is to jump back a few weeks or a month in the program. The idea is that a few lighter weeks will enable you to recover more fully, making you fresh and strong enough to blaze through a few more weeks of progress.

A third option is to consider your intermediate lifting phase over, and that it’s time for more advanced training. We have an advanced powerlifting program on the site and many more advanced programs in the links below:

All training programs, including Madcow 5×5 are available in our workout log app StrengthLog.

Download StrengthLog for free:

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Good luck with your training!

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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and international-level lifters. Daniel regularly shares tips about strength training on Instagram, and you can follow him here.