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Optimization of the switching thresholds for constant-power adaptive five-mode M-ary quadrature amplitude modulation (M -QAM) transmission with an amplify-and-forward (AF) relay network is developed. The optimization criterion is the maximization of spectral efficiency subject to an average bit-error-rate (BER) constraint. This approach results in a constant-BER variable-rate M-QAM AF relay system, which requires feedback of log2(N) bits for N modes. The performance analysis is based on an upper bound on the total effective SNR. Expressions are derived for the outage probability, the achievable spectral efficiency, and the error-rate performance for the AF cooperative system over both independent identically distributed (i.i.d.) and non-i.i.d. Rayleigh fading environments. The tightness of the upper bound is validated by Monte Carlo simulation. Adaptive five-mode M-QAM with optimum switching levels is shown to offer performance gains of 2-2.5 dB compared with fixed switching in terms of the transmit SNR to achieve specific spectral efficiency. Furthermore, the spectral efficiency of adaptive five-mode M-QAM with optimized switching comes within ~6 dB of the theoretical Shannon channel capacity. However, this performance gain, which is obtained by employing adaptive M -QAM under cooperative diversity, comes at the cost of increased system complexity that is incurred due to the additional complexity of transmitter and receiver design.