It is time for us to begin reviewing more intermediate and advanced powerlifting programs. I suspect this is going one is going to be particularly popular; today we are focusing on Madcow’s 5×5 Routine also known as Bill Starr’s 5×5.
If you’re interested in learning more of the science behind proper programming for powerlifting, grab a copy of ProgrammingToWin. There are more than three dozen program reviews on this site and, unless you want to wade through all of them, you can find the answer to the question of “what is the best program for me” a lot more quickly if you check out ProgrammingToWin.
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Madcow’s 5×5: Some Context
As always, I like to provide context for the programs that I discuss. Let’s talk about the origins of the Madcow program. First of all, “Madcow” is the username of a poster from the old EliteFitness forums. Using the Madcow2 pseudonym, he unwittingly released one of the most popular internet lifting routines of all time. Let’s look at how that transpired.
Madcow’s program is a modification of Bill Starr’s 5×5 program for football which is presented in the book The Strongest Shall Survive.
Starr’s original program only made use of three exercises: the squat, the bench, and the power clean. The program was incredibly simplistic and made use of ramping sets of 5. Starr was trying to accommodate the fact he often worked with 10, 20, or 30 athletes simultaneously.
Now, Madcow, being a member of the EliteFitness BODYBUILDING forums, came up with a modification of that original 5×5 program for… the purposes of bodybuilding. Madcow wanted to give natural trainees a legitimate alternative to what Jason Blaha calls the “pump and fluff” routines that were so popular in that time period. Basically, he was looking to provide a hardcore program for naturals who wanted to build strength and muscle without wasting their time on silly body part splits from muscle mags.
As such, you need to keep in mind that the entire Madcow’s program was designed for natural bodybuilders. It is somewhat ironic that the program is most popular amongst lifters primarily interested in strength gains. Nonetheless, it is a unique and interesting program worthy of analysis.
Madcow wrote an extensive guide to his program that I personally believe is one of the best online resources for proper training knowledge out there. If you’re considering this program, reading through his site is a must. You can check it out here.
The Actual Madcow’s Program
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the actual program:
Let’s break down the basics of what is going on here. First, on Monday, you’re “ramping” up to a single top set of 5 on the squat, bench, and barbell row. After a few weeks on the program, the top set is intended to be a PR set. Using 12.5% jumps between sets, you’re going to end up doing 5×5. At the end of Monday, you do some “core” assistance movements.
On Wednesday, you do four “ramping” sets on the squat and incline bench (the original MC included incline NOT military press). Wednesday is a bit of a “lighter” day because you only do two sets of 5 at 75% rather than fully ramping up to a 100% set of 5. However, Wednesday isn’t that “light” because you’re also doing a 4×5 ramped deadlift workout! And that deadlift workout culminates in a 100% heavy set of 5 which is intended to be a PR after the first few weeks of the program.
Friday is crucial to understanding the innerworkings of Madcow’s. You’re going to do almost the exact same workout as Monday except every single set is going to be 2.5% heavier. Instead of a top set of 5, you’re only going to do a top set of three. This top set triple is going to feel “easier” than Monday, but Friday is actually more work because after you hit that triple you have to do a back-off set of 8 at 77.5% of Monday’s top set. Friday is the day on Madcow’s that primarily drives progress on Mondays.
It is also worth noting that there is a bunch of direct arm work on Fridays in Madcow’s program. Again, this is because the program caters to natural bodybuilders.
As far as the progression protocol of Madcow’s, you simply add 2.5% more weight to the bar every week. On Week Two, Monday’s top set of 100% becomes the same weight that you used last Friday. Compared to Week One, Week Two’s Monday top set is 102.5% and Week Two’s Friday top set will be 105%.
Now, it should be obvious that 2.5% jumps are not sustainable for a long time. Madcow’s is actually not intended to be run indefinitely like other intermediate programs. You’re supposed to stall on Madcow’s after 8-12 weeks! Remember that, you’re supposed to stall and reset. You can see that program actually accounts for this. Take a look at what I mean below:
As you can see, the program actually starts you on the first week at only 92.5% of your estimated 5 rep max. You don’t build back up to your regular 5 rep max until Week 4; you don’t go for a five rep PR until Week 5!
This is where the concept of “reset” and “run-up” comes into play. On Madcow’s, you’re only expected to be able to set 2.5% PRs for ~4-8 weeks. The program is not even designed to allow full recovery at the end of each week like other intermediate programs. In fact, you only fully recover on Madcow’s during the resets.
So, unlike other programs, Madcow’s is literally designed around the idea of purposely overreaching for a few weeks followed by purposely underreaching for a few weeks in order to allow for supercompensation and full recovery between each “cycle”. Madcow’s is NOT a weekly program! Madcow’s is a cyclical program.
Let’s now take a look at the relevant aspects of the program as it pertains to usefulness for powerlifting.
Being a bodybuilding program, Madcow’s is completely devoid of a competitive plan for powerlifters. In fact, the program doesn’t lend itself well to a meet peak whatsoever. On Madcows, the volume is layered fairly equally throughout the week and the entire program relies on accumulated fatigue to drive progress. Unlike the novice programs we looked at, you can’t just take a light week and then compete.
As a powerlifter, Madcows should strictly be used in the off-season. It isn’t appropriate for a meet peaking cycle because you never know when you’re going to stall and it just isn’t easy to adapt the program to a meet peak scenario. This is a major drawback of the program in my opinion.
Madcows makes no real use of periodization in terms of focusing on different physical qualities at different times. You do the exact same training every single week. Every single session focuses on sets of 5.
Madcow’s can be defined as an intermediate program because you only increase the weights once per week – the mesocycle is a full week in length. In actuality though, as we discussed above, the program is truly intended to be run in 8-12 week cycles rather than as a “weekly increase” type program. This actually biases it more towards the “advanced” or “late stage” intermediate program category. It isn’t an advanced program because it doesn’t employ true periodization.
In theory, the program is broken up into a “heavy” – “light” – “medium” structure in terms of the workouts.
On Madcows, Monday is actually the “heavy” day where you work up to a PR set of 5 on the squat, bench, and barbell row. Monday is the day you display your progress.
Wednesday is theoretically a lighter day because you only do a few light sets of squats and a lighter pressing variant such as the incline bench. However, you also deadlift for a max set of 5 on Wednesday. So, although the overall volume is down on Wednesdays, you’re still going through a very substantial training session. Working up to a heavy set of 5 on the deadlift is not exactly my idea of a true light day.
Friday is the “volume” stimulus. Strangely, a lot of people skip the 8 rep set on Madcow’s. They fail to realize this set is included not only for additional hypertrophy gains, but also to drive the volume higher. The Friday triple is heavier than Monday true, but it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to hit a slightly heavier weight than you did on Monday for a set of 5 when you only have to do it for a set of 3 this time. In other words, Friday actually helps drive progress on Monday by providing the main “stressor” workout and the backoff set of 8 is a key component of that stress.
If you’re familiar with the other reviews I’ve done in this series, you know that I’m going to say that the program inherently lacks specificity because it wasn’t designed explicitly for powerlifting purposes. While the heavy emphasis on rows is tremendous for bodybuilding purposes, rows are not tremendously useful for powerlifting – at least not to the extent where you’re doing more rowing than deadlifting.
However, unlike other intermediate programs, Madcows does at least feature a 3x/wk benching frequency. The original program calls for incline bench on Wednesdays although many people alter Wednesday to overhead press instead. I’d recommend against that for both powerlifting and bodybuilding purposes. Incline is more specific for PL and building the upperchest is mandatory for bodybuilding success.
Overall, the main issue, in terms of specificity, is the predominance of the barbell row. Any program that features more rowing than deadlifting is not specific enough to powerlifting to be optimal. Still, Madcow’s is better in terms of specificity than the programs which feature 1:1 overhead press to bench ratios.
Madcows employs good ‘ole basic progressive overload. You simply add 2.5% to the bar every week. There is virtually no change in the amount of reps you do nor the amount of volume on a weekly basis. You just add weight once per week and the additional weight serves as the adaptive stimulus. The only variable manipulated is intensity.
For most intermediate trainees, this method of overload is completely adequate. Early intermediate trainees don’t need variation in volume from week to week. They need variation in volume from session to session, but Madcow’s provides that. Now, for true novices, variation in volume from session to session is inappropriate and the once weekly increases are going to result in needlessly slow progress.
Overall, the overload method in Madcow’s is appropriate for intermediate trainees.
As I’ve mentioned early, Madcows is fairly unique in that the program is explicitly designed to cause you to overreach and reset. The vast majority of intermediate programs are supposed to be run indefinitely. The Texas Method assumes you fully recover inside of one week. On the Texas Method, you’re supposed to just keep doing week after week; you want to avoid stalls at all costs. 5/3/1 deloads every 4 weeks so you can run cycle after cycle as well. 5/3/1 also does everything possible to avoid “stalls”.
However, on Madcows, fatigue is managed through resets and run-ups. You’re not supposed to fully recover at the end of each week. You only recover during those first few weeks of each reset. You’re supposed to stall.
This said, I personally don’t think Madcows offers enough upperbody volume to cause overreaching in all trainees. The program features only seven upperbody sets above 60% of your 1RM. In my experience, this just isn’t enough work for most people to make optimal progress on the bench. You need to do more work in most cases. In some instances, there are people who will actually make zero progress with this level of upperbody volume.
Madcow’s completely ignores individual differences entirely. This is the single biggest weakness of the program. There is absolutely no room for a “bad” day on Madcow’s. Your only recourse is to try the workout again the next week.
Now, of course, as an advanced novice/early intermediate program, this isn’t the worst thing in the world. Nevertheless, completely ignoring individual differences is a mistake for any trainee, but even more so as you become more advanced.
On Madcow’s, everyone does the same volume, everyone progresses at the same rate, and there is simply no attempt whatsoever to address individual differences.
Madcow’s Review: Final Thoughts
Madcow’s is one of the single most popular “transition” programs for trainees who are just finishing up their novice phase. For this purpose, particularly if the trainee has been doing multiple heavy sets of five, Madcow’s serves as a nice “break” from the grind of 5×5 or 3×5.
But, in the long run, reducing overall volume will eventually result in stagnation. Over time, volume must increase to continue to produce adaptation. Remember, the body adapts to the stress you put it through. Eventually, going backwards in terms of the total stress is going to cause you to go backwards in performance as well. The amount of “stress” (volume) you put your body through must trend upwards over time for sustained progress.
To conclude, I think Madcow’s is a solid choice to run for a few months after you finish StrongLifts 5×5, Starting Strength, or some other novice 5×5 program. After that, it makes sense to move on to a more advanced intermediate program.
However, that said, Madcow’s is definitely not my intermediate program of choice for powerlifters. First of all, the program was designed for natural bodybuilders. Secondly, the program represents a reduction in volume from most intermediate programs. This doesn’t bode well for long term progress. Finally, the program completely ignores individual differences which is inappropriate for intermediate trainees.
The next program we’ll set our sights on is the Texas Method. I am intimately familiar with the Texas Method and I am excited to discuss the intricacies of the program with the PowerliftingToWin community.
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Table of Contents
Powerlifting Programs I: Scientific Principles of Powerlifting Programming
Powerlifting Programs II: Critical Training Variables
Powerlifting Programs III: Training Organization
Powerlifting Programs IV: Starting Strength
Powerlifting Programs V: StrongLifts 5×5
Powerlifting Programs VI: Jason Blaha’s 5×5 Novice Routine
Powerlifting Programs VII: Jonnie Candito’s Linear Program
Powerlifting Programs VIII: Sheiko’s Novice Routine
Powerlifting Programs IX: GreySkull Linear Progression
Powerlifting Programs X: The PowerliftingToWin Novice Program
Powerlifting Programs XI: Madcow’s 5×5
Powerlifting Programs XII: The Texas Method
Powerlifting Programs XIII: 5/3/1 and Beyond 5/3/1
Powerlifting Programs XIV: The Cube Method
Powerlifting Programs XV: The Juggernaut Method
Powerlifting Programs XVI: Westside Barbell Method
Powerlifting Programs XVII: Sheiko Routines
Powerlifting Programs XVIII: Smolov and Smolov Junior</a
Powerlifting Programs XIX: Paul Carter’s Base BuildingPowerlifting Programs XX: The Lilliebridge Method
Powerlifting Programs XXI: Jonnie Candito’s 6 Week Strength Program
Powerlifting Programs XXII: The Bulgarian Method for Powerlifting
Powerlifting Programs XXIII: Brian Carroll’s 10/20/Life
Powerlifting Programs XXV: The Coan/Philippi Deadlift Routine
Powerlifting Programs XXVI: Korte’s 3×3
Powerlifting Programs XXVII: RTS Generalized Intermediate Program