The Novice Bodybuilding Program

If looking like The Hulk, Wolverine, or Batman is your primary goal, then a training program with a bodybuilding focus is what you need.

If you have been struggling to grow, this program may help by giving some balance to your routine. Don’t make the mistake of training your chest, arms, and abs each day, neglecting the majority of the musculature in your body. To have a thick chest, you need to have a well developed back. To have big legs, you need to train your hamstrings. To have shredded abs, you need to have enough muscle mass to make getting lean worth it.

In this article, I introduce the sample Novice Bodybuilding Program from our book, though with abbreviated instructions so as not to overwhelm. I’ll show you how to choose exercises and adjust things for the areas where you are more advanced. 

My advice is to resist the urge to skip straight to the Intermediate Bodybuilding Program just because you have been training for a while. Read through to consider whether this is more appropriate first. The less training experience you have, the faster gains you will make. You don’t need nearly as much work to make gains when you are a novice so enjoy this while it lasts.


The Novice Bodybuilding Sample Program Overview

The Novice Bodybuilding Program, unlike the Novice Powerlifting Program, is a four-day program. It has more exercises to ensure all muscle groups are adequately trained and has a higher total volume.

We have two ‘strength’ days and two ‘volume’ days. Strength development complements the accumulation of training volume and aids hypertrophy (muscle growth) by allowing heavier loads to be used over time.

Because skill development is not as important to a bodybuilder as it is to a powerlifter, and because greater volumes are performed on each day, a lower/upper split is used to balance out fatigue and recovery across the week.

Exercise preferences, limitations, and equipment availability differs from person to person. Click these to see your options and video→1. I’ve written more details on how to choose below.

Spread your workouts out across the week and try to have no more than two sessions back to back. This is better for recovery. Examples: Train-train-rest-train-train-rest-rest, or, Train-train-rest-train-rest-train-rest.

Rest ~2–3 minutes between sets.

Have a look at the program below and then I’ll explain the meaning of the ‘%1RM’ and ‘1st Set RPE’ notation and how to use it.

The Novice Bodybuilding Sample Program

Day 1 – Lower Body (Strength)
Exercise Sets Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Squat Variant 2 3 5 82.5% NA
Deadlift Variant 3 3 5 82.5% NA
Single Leg Variant 4 3 8 NA 8
Standing Calf Raises 5 4 8 NA 8
Day 2 – Upper Body (Strength)
Exercise Sets Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Horizontal Push 6 3 5 82.5% NA
Horizontal Pull 7 3 5 NA 8
Vertical Push 8 2 8 72.5% NA
Vertical Pull 9 2 8 NA 8
Flys 10 2 15 NA 8
Day 3 – Lower Body (Volume)
Exercise Sets Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Hip Hinge Variant 11 3 8 NA 8
Leg Press Variant 12 3 8 NA 8
Leg Extension 3 12 NA 8
Leg Curl 3 12 NA 8
Seated Calf Raise 4 15 NA 8
Day 4 – Upper Body (Volume)
Exercise Sets Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Horizontal Push 3 10 67.5% NA
Horizontal Pull 3 10 NA 8
Incline Push 13 2 12 NA 8
Vertical Pull 2 12 NA 8
Triceps Isolation 14 2 12 NA 8
Biceps Isolation 15 2 12 NA 8

If you have considerably more experience with the one lift than the others, you might consider adding an additional set to that exercise from the start. So, let’s say you’re fairly new to the squat and deadlift for example, but have a lot of experience bench pressing, (pretty much describes every dude on the planet when they start lifting seriously) perhaps start with four bench press sets for your horizontal push exercises instead of three.

Savvy readers may notice that this program has changed a little since the program in the first edition of the book. This is because newer meta-analyses have been released about training volume, and there were instances where we decided to reduce it as the first edition programs had volume that was too high based on current evidence. More on this in the first training FAQ item, here.

How To Choose Exercises

Choose an exercise option that you can perform confidently with good form, pain-free, with a full range of motion. My bigger guide to exercise selection is here, but below are the crib notes relevant to this program.

Squat Variants

This could be a high-bar, low-bar, front, or safety-bar barbell squats.

Select the variant that is pain-free, a low injury risk, one that you enjoy, that you are confident that you can master, and that suits your biomechanics. For example, if you find that you are very bent over when you perform a low-bar squat to full depth, you may wish to choose one of the other variations that allow for a more upright body position to ensure more even lower-body development.

If an injury prevents you from performing a barbell based squat of any type, a leg press variant can be used in the place of a squat variant.

Hip Hinge Variants

Hip hinge variants include movements such as a barbell hip thrusts or glute bridges. Cable or machine hinges can also be used.

Single-Leg Squat Variants

Bulgarian split squats, lunges, or single-leg squats with a kettlebell or dumbbell on the floor or off a plyo-box (also known as pistol squats). These are primarily in place to ensure equal development across legs, and to ensure adequate coordination and even contribution of force when performing bipedal exercises such as squats or leg press to reduce the risk of injury. You can select a machine based movement such as a single leg leg-press, but this will only help you ensure equal force production between legs, and not necessarily coordination and balance. Thus, the injury prevention effect will be reduced.

Deadlift Variants

Conventional, sumo, or Romanian deadlifts, or good mornings. If you select a sumo stance deadlift, do not perform it ultra-wide if you only compete in bodybuilding, rather use a stance just slightly wider than your hand position. This can be a great position for a bodybuilder to perform a deadlift as it allows a straighter back, more upright torso, thereby reducing injury risk, while also mimicking the biomechanics of a conventional deadlift. The advantage of selecting a Romanian deadlift or a good morning is that the eccentric will be automatically controlled, however, these movements take more kinesthetic awareness and time to master and perform properly with heavy loads.

Vertical & Horizontal Pulls

For the horizontal row, choose an exercise that doesn’t fatigue your lower back. I would advise a cable, single arm dumbbell, chest supported dumbbell, seal/bench, or machine row.

For vertical pulls feel free to select what you would like, however, if you do choose to do chin ups or pull ups, make sure you can perform them with the right range of motion for the required number of reps. If not, try band-assisted pull ups until you are strong enough. Then add weight when you need.

Vertical & Horizontal Pushes

For horizontal pressing, you can use the bench press, a decline, or incline press. Just don’t use a very severe angle in either direction. For vertical pressing, feel free to do either standing or seated presses. Barbells or dumbbells can be used.

Isolation Exercises

Bicep curls, triceps extensions, leg extensions, leg curls and other single joint movements should be performed with a full range of motion and in a safe manner that is pain-free. Whether you use free weights, machines, cables or some other variation you would like to employ is entirely your choice, just ensure that you are able to perform it pain-free and with a full range of motion.

Flys can be performed with cables or dumbbells or machines and can be performed at incline or decline angles if preferred.

Standing calf raises don’t necessarily need to be standing, they just need to be straight legged (for example a calf raise on a leg press).

Shrugs and direct abdominal work are not included for reasons covered here.


How to Progress with the Novice Bodybuilding Program

Choosing an Initial Weight to Lift With

The %1RM notation stands for percentage of 1-rep maximum. It is a guideline for how much you should load the bar the first time you start the program (only) and we will use this with our main compound barbell competition lifts. 

So, where you see Squat 3*5 (82.5%), this means you should put 82.5% of the weight of your maximum single-rep squat on the bar, and then perform 3 sets of 5 reps. 

So, let’s say that your current 1RM in the squat is 200 lbs (~90 kg). You’ll load the bar so that the total weight is 82.5% of that, 165 lb (~75 kg) and then perform 3 sets of 5. This might feel relatively easy, but resist the temptation to do more. Some people can get substantially more than 8 reps at this percentage, but our goal is to be submaximal as you’ll be making linear increases in load every time you repeat this session. Subsequent sets you will more than likely find to be a harder than the first due to cumulative fatigue. If you don’t know your 1RM you can use this calculator I created for our book readers which will show you how to calculate your 1RM.

If you don’t have a lot of experience with the lift, you are new to it, or you are coming back after time off, just warm up adding weight to the point where you can comfortably squat 3 sets of 8. Then for each successive session add a little weight each time while maintaining good form.

The 1st Set RPE notation is there to tell us the intensity of effort with which we should lift. It is a guideline for how much you should load the bar every time you train.

‘RPE’ stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion based on Reps in Reserve. It is a means of managing fatigue which can help recovery and growth, telling you how many reps, ideally, you will stay short of failure.

While you will aim to add load each session, on a scale of 1–10, a 7 means to stop the set when you could perform 3 more reps, an 8 means to stop when you have 2 more reps in reserve.

You’ll notice the RPE values for the novice programs are always “1st set RPE 8”. Meaning, you should be able to do all the prescribed sets for the day by sticking with your initial set’s load if it matched up correctly with the target RPE (close to an 8 RPE). If you “miss reps” on subsequent sets at the same load as the RPE climbs past 10, you either started too heavy, didn’t rest long enough, or perhaps made a technical fault; all of which are learning experiences for your next session.

RPE Number Meaning
10 Could not do more reps or load without form failure
9.5 Could not do more reps, could do slightly more load
9 Could do 1 more rep
8.5 Could definitely do 1 more reps, chance at 2
8 Could do 2 more reps
7.5 Could definitely do 2 more reps, chance at 3
7 Could do 3 more reps
5-6 Could do 4-6 more reps
1-4 Very light to light effort

Progression Rules 

Add a little weight to each exercise every session whenever you are able to do so. I have given detailed examples in the linear progression section here. Do this for as long as you can and then move on to the intermediate progression rules. Do this independently for each exercise.

Note that if you choose to perform the same exercise on the strength and volume days (the bench press on both, for example), the load on the bar will be different. This is because the number of reps performed on each day is different. (You can bench more for 5 reps than you can for 10 reps, right?) So progress each day independently.

Though you will get stronger over time, your strength will fluctuate from session to session. This can happen if you didn’t sleep well, you are stressed, your diet wasn’t on point, you had 10 pints the night before, or it could just be some cumulative fatigue build up. So, keep in mind that you will be stronger on some days than others.

  1. Do not get frustrated with yourself and add weight to the bar when you shouldn’t.
  2. Don’t be afraid to lift a little less if you need to.
  3. Always lift with good form so that you stay safe.
  4. Do not go to form failure so that you don’t get injured.

If you would like to learn more Eric and I have put together a free email course which you can sign up for in the box at the end.

An Important Concluding Note

This is just one example of many programs that will work for a novice bodybuilder. Individuality is key to long-term success, and just like it’s not a good idea to use someone else’s diet regardless of whether your maintenance calorie intake or initial body-fat percentage is similar to theirs or not, it’s also not a good idea to jump into a program regardless of how the volume, intensity, or frequency of the program compares to what you are currently adapted to.

The Muscle and Strength Pyramid: Training v2.0

If you have found this helpful, you might be pleased to know it is just a small section taken from my Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book, written with my co-authors Eric Helms and Andrea Valdez. The second edition, along with the Nutrition companion book, was released this January 3rd, 2019.

Join 16,000+ other readers, get your copies here.

Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.

– Andy, Eric, and Andrea

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  1. Good job!

  2. Barbell Back Squats (either low or high bar position), Front Squats, or Safety-bar Barbell Squats.

  3. Conventional Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, Romanian Deadlift, Good Mornings.

  4. Bulgarian Split Squats, Lunges, or Single-leg Squats with a Kettlebell or Dumbbell (also known as Pistol Squats).

  5. Smith machine, Leg Press.

  6. Bench Press, Dumbbell Press.

  7. Seated Cable Rows, Dumbbell Rows, Seal Rows, Machine Rows, TRX Rows.

  8. Overhead Barbell Press or Dumbbell Press (standing or seated), Landmine Press.

  9. Chin-ups or Pull-ups (Use bands to assist you if too hard to reach the required number of reps, add weight if they are too easy), Lat-pull Down.

  10. Cable or Dumbbell 

  11. Barbell Hip Thrusts, Barbell Glute Bridges, Cable Pull Throughs.

  12. Seated Leg Press, 45° Leg Press, Hack Squat.

  13. Can be dumbbell, barbell, or machine.

  14. Cable, machine or free weight.

  15. Cable, machine or dumbbell.

About the Author

Eric Helms, Andy Morgan and Andrea Valdez

Eric is a coach, athlete, author, educator, and researcher. Andrea is a lifelong athlete, experienced coach, and content creator. Andy is an online training and nutrition coach. Together they are the authors of The Muscle and Strength Pyramid books. RippedBody.com is Andy's website, his sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire him to coach them, which he has been doing full-time, online, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one coaching to help you crush your physique goals, find out more here.

159 Comments

  1. Wesley Rezende says:

    Hi, Andy

    Did you change the program? I noticed some slightly changes in the days 1 and 3, can you explain why?

    Thanks for the outstanding program

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Wesley, yes, we did! Well noticed.

      The weight of the evidence suggests 10–20 hard sets per muscle/group or movement is an appropriate volume to prescribe when no fore knowledge of individual needs/tolerance/genetics exist.

      Previously, the first edition programs were based on a 12-year old systematic review (Wernbom 2007) that looked at reps per body part, per week vs. the current meta analyses we have today, based on ‘hard sets’ per body part/movement per week. Thus, in the present programs, there were instances where we decided to reduce the volume as the first edition programs had volume that was too high based on current evidence.

      We have brought volume in line such that the novice programs provide a number of sets per movement/muscle group towards the low end of 10-20, intermediate towards the middle, and advanced towards the upper end.

      This may or may not be less volume than what you are already doing, what you like to do, what ‘feels’ right, or compared to other popular programs or what your favorite athlete or influencer does or suggests. But, unless you are an experienced lifter who knows from well recorded observations over years what your specific volume needs are, I’d advise at least trying to progress using similar volumes to what we recommend first, before deciding it’s too low.

      If you don’t make progress and it’s too easy… fantastic, just do more volume and now you know more about your body’s needs. But in my experience as a coach, it’s just as likely (if not more likely) that you could progress just as well, if not faster, with a lower volume. If that ends up being what happens for you, you also just learned something very valuable; and when you do stall moving forward, you know you’ll easily be able to handle a volume increase to keep progress going as it was an amount you used to (unnecessarily) perform.

      ^ This is from Eric after we just discussed it. You actually caught me in the few days between editing all the programs and I will be emailing this out in the next few days letting everyone know the programs are updated.

  2. Ron Drummond says:

    Hello,
    I am most definitely a novice lifter but am not a total beginner in the gym. My lifts are weak but I do know the proper form of the exercises.
    Over the past year, I trained very inconsistently trying a variety of programs (major program ADHD…my bad).

    I’m looking to get started again and train seriously and really stick with a program. I bought the M and S pyramid books as a Christmas gift to myself. My goals are split pretty evenly between strength and size…would the novice bb program be appropriate for me? Or should I go with an outright beginner routine that trains full body 3x a week?

    Any advice would be much appreciated.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      I think this fits the bill nicely, Ron. Work your way in slowly. Thank you for getting the books!

      1. Ron Drummond says:

        Thanks for the quick reply, Andy. I look forward to running this program.

        So glad I got the books. Y’all really knocked it out of the park.

        One more quick question: I don’t have the book open, but I think it says that you can sub in a DL variant for a hip hinge movement, keeping in mind the potential for greater lumbar fatigue. Is that true? For example, a conventional DL on day 1, and RDL on day 3…is that acceptable?

  3. Steve says:

    I was wanting to add in a Olympic lift like snatch/power clean and maybe something like jump squat. Is there a good place to add those in? I know that this program is more geared for novices but even still where would be a good place if you could add them in? Thanks

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Steve,

      There isn’t a single answer for this, but wherever you find you can do so, still recover and progress.

  4. Oscar says:

    Hello,

    I recently purchased the new training pyramid yesterday, and I must say that I have thoroughly enjoyed it thus far. I do however have a question and since you haven’t opened the support page yet I thought I’d ask it here if it is OK.

    In the breakdown for the new sample novice bodybuilding program total sets per muscle group are listed as 11 for pecs, and 11 for quads.

    But in the program there are 6 sets of total horizontal presses, 2 sets of flys, and 2 sets of incline. Wouldnt that make for 10 pec sets instead of 11?

    And for quads there are 3 sets of squats, 3 SL sets, 3 leg press, and 3 leg extensions.
    That is 12 quad sets if my math is not horrible.

    Im sorry if I’m overanalyzing but I’m just trying to make sense of this and perhaps help if there has been any errors.

    Best regards,
    Oscar

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Oscar, a typo. Thanks for pointing that out. We’ll have the support page open to questions soon.

  5. Petros Ximerakis says:

    Hi Andy,

    Let me start by saying that I love your work and have been a follower of your website and the nutrition/training advice for quite some time.

    Now to my question, which came from a comment in this article from Carlos Vanegas, and some reading I’ve done in the past on training for natural lifters. What is your view on the “optimal” training frequency for natural lifters who are novice or intermediate? I see that there are quite a few proponents of training each muscle 3 times a week – Christian Thibaudeau, Brian Haycock (HST), etc. – mainly due to increased protein synthesis. So let’s say that someone was to train either with 3 full-body workouts or 6 upper/lower or push/pull split workouts a week, keeping the total weekly volume similar to a more “traditional” split like your Novice BB Program, would that produce greater results?

    I understand that the extra frequency may hinder recovery as someone becomes more “advanced”, at which point a split will probably become necessary. But do you think that until that point, a high frequency would be better?

    Thank you in advance, and my apologies for the long comment.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Petros,
      I see frequency as a means of arranging the appropriate training volume for a lifter across a working weak in a way that allows for ample recovery. It’s something to decide after volume targets have been set. Have you considered checking out our book? We just launched the second edition today. We cover this in detail.

  6. Dave says:

    Andy, just a quick question regarding lower body days. Would it make sense to program the lower body days as I have described below? I picked the movements that fee…

    [deleted]

    What are your thoughts on that particular way of implementing the program?

    Thanks,
    Dave

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      I’mn sorry, Dave. I can’t offer to critique a program you’ve put together for yourself, everyone would start asking. I’m happy to answer any specific questions concerning the content of the articles, however. This one on exercise selection might be useful.

  7. Alex says:

    Isn’t the volume a little low when Wernbom showed on average, an optimal hypertrophy response at 40-70 total reps per muscle group per session?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      It’s on the lower end, but still in range. Perhaps we’re counting a little differently. Here’s what we make of it:

      The Novice Bodybuilding Program – Breakdown

  8. Jan says:

    Hi Andy,

    would you recommend the novice bodybuilding program for endurance athletes in the off season?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      No, this is not written with the endurance athlete in mind and I can’t make any blanket recommendations in this regard.

      Any resistance training you do should be seen as something to support and compliment your endurance training, and you need to balance recovery and be careful not to train in a way that causes undue soreness, preventing you from your endurance training commitments. (This is true even in your offseason.) I don’t have experience working with endurance athletes.

      Now, if you’re not actually an athlete and this is more of a hobby, then I’m sure you’d be fine to just run this program. Basically, the more advanced of an endurance athlete you are the more the balance needs to be considered.

  9. Carlos Vanegas says:

    Hi Andy
    Is there any specific reason for training lower body on day 1 vs upper body. What are the trade offs?
    I’m used to train chest on day 1 and since I started this program 4 weeks ago I noticed decrease in performance on my bench press during day 2 workout.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Mainly because you’d want your back to be fresh as possible to deadlift on the first day, rather than having it after an upper body pulling day.

      1. Carlos Vanegas says:

        Deadlift takes place on day 3, not day 1. Do you meant to say “… want your back to be as fresh as possible to squat …”?

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Ah, I confused days 1/2 with 3/4. No, I meant deadlift but the same applies to the squat, just a lesser extent.

  10. Oscar says:

    Hi Andy,

    In my past training I have enjoyed deadlifting in a lower rep range, typically 5 reps per set. Is it ok if I do 5 rep sets on deadlifts on the lower body volume day, and 3×8 RDL for the hip hinge movement on the lower body strength day?

    Regards

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Only one way to find out: try it and see if it works for you.

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