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

Why We Built It This Way

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, so, I’ve written more details on how to choose below. I’ve explained the ‘RPE’ notation below also.

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.

Click these to see your options and video→1.

Day 1 – Lower Body (Strength)
ExerciseSetsRepsRep TotalRPE
Squat Variant 235158 to 9
Hip Hinge Variant 335158 to 9
Single Leg Variant 428166 to 7
Standing Calf Raises 538247 to 8
Day 2 – Upper Body (Strength)
ExerciseSetsRepsRep TotalRPE
Horizontal Push 635158 to 9
Horizontal Pull 735158 to 9
Vertical Push 828167 to 8
Vertical Pull 928167 to 8
Flys 10315457 to 8
Day 3 – Lower Body (Volume)
ExerciseSetsRepsRep TotalRPE
Deadlift Variant 1138248 to 9
Leg Press Variant 1238248 to 9
Leg Extension212247 to 8
Leg Curl212247 to 8
Seated Calf Raise315457 to 8
Day 4 – Upper Body (Volume)
ExerciseSetsRepsRep TotalRPE
Horizontal Push310307 to 8
Horizontal Pull310307 to 8
Vertical Push212247 to 8
Vertical Pull212247 to 8
Triceps Isolation 13212247 to 8
Biceps Isolation 14212247 to 8

Note: 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.

For convenience, I made this to save to your phone:

For more useful graphics check out my Instagram.

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

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.

This last point brings us on to the ‘RPE’ section in the program.

What The RPE Guidelines Mean

The ‘RPE’ notation 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.

I say ‘ideally’ because as a novice it can be hard to gauge how many more reps you have left in the tank. So, if you are totally new to it, ignore it for now. Just do not train to form failure, which means the point where you can no longer move the weight lifted without compromising your form.

We don’t want to train to failure every set because that will limit the amount of volume we can perform. Counter-intuitively, a 7 on the scale means to have 3 reps in reserve, 8 means to stop when you have 2 reps in reserve.

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

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.

When you’d like to learn more, you can check out our book, from which this sample program is taken.

Questions welcomed in the comments. – Andy

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

  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, Dumbbell Press, 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. Conventional Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, Romanian Deadlift, Good Mornings.

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

  13. Cable, machine or free weight.

  14. Cable, machine or dumbbell.

About the Author

Andy Morgan

I am the founder of, this is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've been doing online, via email, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one nutrition and training coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let's start the conversation.