Bill Starr (MadCow) 5×5 Intermediate Routine

By JC Deen



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 calories 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.

51 thoughts on “Bill Starr (MadCow) 5×5 Intermediate Routine”

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

  2. 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?

  3. 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

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

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

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

  7. 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?

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

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

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

  9. 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.

  10. This is an amazing program. Been on it for 9 weeks and all my lifts have gone up, great strength gains. Just a quick question JC; what’s the best way to transition from a bulk to a cut? I’m planning on making a short cut when I stall on all my lifts and before starting a new cycle, but I’m not sure what’s the best way to do it to keep all my strength gains. Do I eat at maintenance for 1 week then start lowering cals? Do I use my new maxes or should I do a deload firtst (I’ll be using a 3x RPT routine, not madcow). Any tips are appreciated. Thank you!

    • I’d say it depends on how you’re feeling.

      If you’re feeling beat up, I’d deload and work back up to your new maxes for a few weeks (while eating at maintenance) and then go on the cut.

      If you’re feeling good, I’d stay with your new personal bests, and jump right into the cut.

        • exactly. don’t really see a huge need to eat at maintenance when going from a bulk to a cut. more so important when going from a cut to a bulk.

  11. JC, I was looking at this program awhile back most people told me I had to eat an assload on the volume day to recover. What do you think about just adding the 600 or so cals over maintenance on training days and staying right around maintenance on off days, can you recover from the program with the above plus adequate sleep or do you have to go for the GFH approach. Thanks.

    • I definitely wouldn’t do the GFH huge approach as that’s not suitable for most.

      I’d definitely add 500-600 on the volume day and add 300-400(I know it’s hard to gauge) on the other days and just maintenance on off days if you’re trying to keep from becoming a fatty for your powerlifting meets.

  12. Couldn´t start the programm because I am leaving my country in a few days time and would of had to interrupt the whole thing.

  13. Hey,
    Maybe this question is dumb but I want to run this program propably and don´t understand something. I have used the excel sheet and plugged in all my maxes. So far so good. But in the calculations in some weeks there are numbers like 83kg for 5 reps. Is it okay to actually repeat last weaks weight (82,5kg) or do I have to make the weight jump to 85kg?

    • is this merely a question about not having the plates needed? If so, just round to the closest KG. Do you have 1kg plates at all?

        • it’s not that big of a jump, really. Which movement is this for? I’d just make the jump and if it’s hard, stay at it for a week before increasing again…

          • well every movement on the programm has “unnormal” numbers… the way what can I expect in terms of strength gains?

            • I understand. It was similar during the times I’ve done it.

              I cannot promise anything but as long as you eat and sleep well, you should see some awesome gains. You must also consider how conservative your starting weights are as well.

              When are you going to start?

              • I was thinking of starting monday next week….my starting maxes are like they are suggested by madcow…5rms are in week four, so 3 weeks ramp up. I am looking forward to it. Stocked up on eggs, protein powder etc…..

                • Dude, that is sweet. Are you going to keep a log or anything?

                  I’d really enjoy following you. feel free to post a link here or email it to me. whatever works.

                  • you want I´ll keep you updated via the bodyrecompositon forums….username “German”….log starting monday…

    • heh, you clearly didn’t read the article, did you?

      And let’s be real. It would be plain retarded to have some guy/girl with shoulder issues, he/she incurred as a result of using the bench press, on a steady dose of heavy bench presses. Please tell me that is a good idea.

      I’ve had one shoulder issue and has slightly aggravated my other shoulder all because of the bench press. Now do you think I’m going to waste time on a movement that is NOT SUITED FOR ME? No; it just doesn’t make sense when you’re goal is to do this over the long haul.

      And really, do you think it would be a good idea for someone with limited ROM in the ankles/hips to be doing squats when they could easily be doing leg presses(which is much safer) and working on their flexibility in the mean time?

      The fact is, it doesn’t matter which variation of a movement one decides to do as long as they’re able to progress on that given movement.

      • Hey Harsh,

        Way to waste everyone’s time reading your stupid ass comment.

        Why don’t you look up the definition of the word “context”.

  14. Sweet thanks for the update on this program. Currently I am trying to gain size but strength is something I will probably aim for once I get to the desired weight. Programs like this and Texas Method really interest me.

    And yeah, I don’t know about him saying “best exercises” in that quote.

    • yea, thanks for your email a while back.

      These programs are tried and true. if you can stay healthy, you will turn into a strong dude with this setup.

      • Healthy is the key word, I got some tendonitis issues in my right arm right now, really only affects isolation exercises though.

        • yea, I had a quick scare the few days after I maxed out on bench. This was a couple weeks ago. Left shoulder was nagging for a few days and I just knew it was going to be like my right one when I injured it a year ago. However, I took it easy and got the hell away from the barbell bench press. Today’s workout was awesome.

    • hey is there any other back exercise to substitue for the deadlift , something like T- bar rows or maybe a Lat Pull Down .

      • those would be fine. the deadlift seems to get a lot done with only a few sets. a few sets of rows and chins would work.

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JC Deen is a nationally published fitness coach and writer from Nashville, TN. Currently living in the blistering Northeast. Follow me on X/Twitter