Bill Starr (MadCow) 5×5 Intermediate Routine

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Something was brought to my attention a few weeks ago.  A reader sent a quick email to notify me of some broken links they’d found.  In past articles when discussing training, I’ve referenced and linked to a very popular 5×5 training program often referred to as the MadCow 5×5.  It’s an intermediate program by Bill Starr that focuses on weekly linear progress and is very well suited for the experienced trainee who’s gotten much stronger but struggling to make consistent strength gains well past their newbie phase.

As you might have realized, the MadCow 5×5 site was previously hosted on geocities but back in October 2009, many of the user-built pages were wiped out completely.  Thankfully, some folks out in cyberspace backed up the web pages and are now hosting them elsewhere.

I’ve since found sources with replicated pages of the program.  WackyHQ and StrongLifts both have the same information.  I am so thankful someone took the time to back everything up as there’s so much great information on this program and I honestly thought it was gone forever.

While I may or may not decide to do what they’ve done as far as mirroring and hosting the content, I’ve created this article to cover the intermediate version of the MadCow 5×5 program.


This program is very easy to understand.  If you can use an excel spreadsheet, you can utilize this program to its maximum benefit.  It’s built around the big movements: squat, bench press, overhead press, deadlift and the barbell row.  The workouts are on non-consecutive days and are full body (oh how I love thee).

The MadCow 5×5 is a strength program first.  It was designed by Bill Starr to elicit maximum gains in strength and was often utilized in off season football programs.  If any of you’ve participated in athletics, particularly those which incorporate strength training, this type of routine will be very familiar to you.  I remember them fondly; I just never knew who the author was.  I also remember puking at the end of my workouts while my coach yelled at us to stop being a bunch of sissies!  I would do it again, really.

Who’s It For?

Intermediate trainees; intermediates are generally those who have 1-2 years of solid training under their belt.  They’re finally to the point where progress has slowed a bit and discover that making gains from workout to workout is just impossible to recover from.  Maintaining that level of intensity is simply not feasible anymore.

In short, it’s not for newbies.  Newbs will make better progress using a workout to workout linear approach.  They need something that emphasizes making gains every workout whether they are in the form of weight lifted or reps achieved.  Of course, gains are not always going to be predictable and occur every time you train, but beginners will make strength gains much faster than an intermediate trainee will.  A good, simple remedy for this is Starting Strength.

Again, this program is for the intermediate trainee.

The Fundamentals

Of course the MadCow 5×5 is based around the big-boy movements.  Directly from the site:

Substituting Exercises:
Don’t fuck with this. Every bodybuilder seems to have Attention Deficit Disorder and an overwhelming desire to customize everything. The bottom line is that these are all the most effective exercises and just about anything one does will result in less gains. As a rule those people who want to change it don’t know enough to make proper alterations – those who do know enough, don’t have much to change. The guy who is responsible for this program is of the best on the planet at bulking lifters and making people stronger.

Now, I agree that Bill Starr’s ideas are wonderful and his programs are pure gold, but I disagree with the idea that if one chooses a different exercise, their gains will be inferior.  To put it simply, if you are not a competitive powerlifter, there is no reason why you have to do the flat bench, squat, or the deadlift.  You and I could be similar in anatomy and be built for squats but not necessarily deadlfits or vice versa.  This is why I choose RDL’s over conventional deads.

In lieu of that, there’s always room for exercise substitutions (not synonymous with additions) but DON’T add a bunch of extra crap.  You don’t have to do flat bench if there is a machine that suits your needs or if you’ve had previous shoulder injuries.  No need to add extra cable crossovers or some other BS movement.  The back squat can easily be replaced by the leg press but this is no excuse to do a bunch of extra leg work to make up for anything.  The leg press is sufficient.

Your main focus should be linear progression on a weekly basis.  Your job, week in and week out, is to add weight to that damn bar and do it like you mean it!

You must be ready to bust your ass because this type of program is not for the squeamish.  It’s really fun and I do it every now and then for a change of pace.

How It Works

The standard cycle can last anywhere from 8-12 weeks.  The first 3 weeks are submaximal and spent working up to your previous maxes on week 4.  Every week, there is a programmed 2.5% increase in the excel file.  Therefore, every gain you make after week 4 is a personal record. Those who manage to sniff enough ammonia and make it to week 12 and beyond are looking at a damn near 20% increase on their personal records.  How’s that sound for progress?

Here’s a chart of workouts as laid out.

And here’s the excel file you will need to set up your training.  All you do is download it and plug in your 5 repetition maxes.  It does the work for you; it’s not complicated.

Assistance Lifts – These are the lifts you perform that will assist your primary lifts.  There is no need to max out on these or aim for continuous progression like you do on the main lifts.  Pick a weight you can do comfortably in the rep ranges suggested and make increases when you can.  Quality reps and resistance is what we’re going for with these.  These are also what Bill called “Beach Work”.  DO NOT DO MORE THAN THE RECOMMENDED AMOUNT FOR ASSISTANCE WORK.  AGAIN, DON’T DO IT.

Rest Time

This is easy.  If you can recover in between sets with 1 minute, rest for 1 minute.  If you need more time than this, um, rest longer.  It shouldn’t take more than 3-5 minutes in between sets to be roaring and ready to go on the next set.  If it does, your work capacity sucks; work on that.


Oh goodness, the most dreaded question that’s been asked a million times regarding this program is “how much should I eat?”

I always say enough and leave it at that.  Okay, that’s a bad answer.

To me, enough is an ample amount of protein (1-1.5g per pound of bodyweight or 3.3g/kg), a good dose of dietary fat, followed up with lots of fruits/veggies and starch to fuel one’s energy needs.  In short, if you even dare to be doing a program like this, you better be eating at least enough calories to maintain your bodyweight.  I’d much rather you eat slightly over maintenance for sake of recovery.

This is not a bodybuilding program.  This is a strength training program that produces results, period.  If you are seeking to make the most gains in muscle mass over 8-12 weeks, I’d suggest you pick another routine.  I’m not saying this won’t produce muscle gains but it’s not the best program for it.

However, I am sure you’ve seen powerlifters that are super jacked.  Yes, they do exist and it’s due to a myriad of factors – mainly because they’ve focused on getting stronger over time(progress overload, what do you know!?).

Again, if you wish to spend your time bodybuilding, do a bodybuilding routine like Lyle’s Bulking Routine, DC Training or HST.

I will cover the advanced version of this 5×5 routine in a few weeks.

February 2, 2010

  • Joe March 05, 2014

    So that I am clear I am just suppose to do 1 set x 5 rep for each line in the excel spreadsheet? Thanks

    • JC Deen March 05, 2014

      I haven’t looked at the spreadsheet in a long time. can you post a screenshot?

  • Myers May 04, 2013

    I am just getting off a really rigorous 4 month lifting program with the heaviest reps and sets being done here in the past few weeks. I centered my program around the 4 main lifts, squat, bench, deadlift, and BB shoulder press. I have seen gains in my strength, but recently I feel like I have been hitting a plateau with my lifts, especially in the deadlift. Would this program be ideal for me or is there something else I should try?

  • B April 22, 2013

    I’m pretty new to lifting but have recently started a 5×5 stronglift program with a friend of mine
    i dont see many ideas woman lifing so we figured that we would give it a try.
    we of corse do not want to get bulkey and eat whole foods/ paleo but want lean strong muscle .
    is there anything else should be doingl

    • JC Deen April 24, 2013

      not really. we are putting up a new muscle building guide for women soon, tho.

  • Sally Struthers' nephew April 04, 2013

    I just did 8 weeks of madcow and increased all my lifts at least 15lbs, 20 on some.

  • rocky balboa March 06, 2013

    can you do assitance inbetween the 3 compound movements or are they to be done at the end ???

    • JC Deen March 07, 2013

      save them for after

  • Daniel January 12, 2013

    Hey – I’m on week 3 on this madcow program andi was wondering . Howmany reps should you do in every set of assistance Exercise ?

    • JC Deen January 14, 2013

      aim for 10-12

  • Ant V January 06, 2013

    Hey JC,

    Would you recommend this for a cutting program… ?

    Thanks Ant

    • JC Deen January 06, 2013


      • Ant V January 07, 2013

        haha nice and blunt!

        What would be your top cutting program? I really enjoy lifting for strength.. but i guess madcow is more for bulking!


        • JC Deen January 08, 2013

          i don’t really have a favorite. just focus on maintaining strength and slowly losing body fat

  • Paulo scholini April 22, 2012

    Hey i have a doubt…..when should the assistance exercises be done?should they be performed during warm ups?also,is it compulsory to do the assistance exercises?

  • JP January 18, 2012

    So you wouldnt add any extra arm workout or ab workout to this??? how about cardio? i must run, im in the military

    • JC Deen January 18, 2012

      no. I’d not add anything to the training aspect.

      run if you have to, just make sure you eat up for recovery.

  • chris January 05, 2012

    On week eleven now. Went from benching 270 to 315. Thinking of taking next week off and resetting the weights the following week. Feel pretty dinged up after giving my all these last nearly 3 months.

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