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.

Lastly, despite the name, this training program isn’t for those who are new to lifting (or new lifting properly). Rank beginners will probably find their time best spent learning the big compound lifts first, which is the purpose of this Big 3 Routine. When you’re competent with the bench press, squat and deadlift, come back to this.


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

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

Follow me on Instagram for more useful graphics like this.


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

Read Next:


  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.

190 Comments

  1. Abdulla says:

    Hi Andy,
    Thank you for the amazing contents, my questions are
    1- not sure if I should start with the novice program, I have been training for a year doing upper lower split and my volume is the same as the one in the intermediate program, I can still make progress every week and I want to know if lowering the volume will benefit me what do you think ?

    2- I’m around 12% or 13% bodyfat and a modest amount of muscles,I’m trying to do a recomp with 300 calorie deficit, my goal is to build more muscles but I want to be around 10% bodyfat, should I stick to my approach or I should try lean bulk for now ?
    2-Will replacing the vertical press in the volume day with lateral rise will yield a bigger side delts since mine is a little lagging
    3- which is better for the side delts. the barbell OHP or the machine OHP ?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Abdulla,
      1. I have a guide to choosing a program here.
      2. See here: Should I Cut or Bulk? — The Definitive Guide.
      3. The vertical press trains all heads of the delts, definitely do not get rid of it to target just part.
      4. You’ll get similar activation from both.

  2. Abid says:

    Hi Andy,
    I had a back injury and Sciatica few months back and was out of training for more than a month. Now i want to get back to gym with your novice program, however I don’t feel confident with dead lift and hip hinge movements . Is there any alternates for these workouts or shall i skip them for now ? Your suggestion will be valuable.
    Thanks
    Abid

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      There are isolation exercises, but it’s best to speak to your doctor/physio about this so you’re not guessing.

  3. Mike says:

    Hi there,
    What incline push exercises would you suggest given that I’m flat bench pressing on the hypertrophy day? Can it really be anything? Thank you, guys!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Simplest would be to go with a DB incline press. But yes, as long as it allows you to train in a full range of motion, pain-free.

  4. Arturo Gascon says:

    What changes should we make to use this program for cutting to 10% BF? Thanks in advace.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Potentially, none at all. Have a read of the section titled, “The Difference Between Cutting and Bulking” of this article: How to Choose the Most Effective Training Program for YOU.

  5. Sam G says:

    Hi Andy/Eric,

    Hope all is well with you. I am starting the Novice BB Program and am in the process of creating my custom program. I could use some help with programming exercise selections for Day 3 – Lower Body. I train at home and have most everything I need (Power Rack, DB’s, BB’s and Plates). My issue is for Day 3 – Lower Body, I don’t have anything to train Leg Curls or Leg Extensions. Could you recommend alternative exercises to plug in for these 2 selections?

    Thanks for all the great content and work you put in. With so much misinformation on the web, it’s refreshing to see you and your colleagues telling it the way it is. It is greatly appreciated.

    All the best,
    Sam G

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Sam,
      Glute Ham Raises or RDLs / Lunges or Bulgarian Split Squats.

  6. Jared says:

    Hey Andy!

    Thank you for all you put into helping to educate others (like myself)!

    My question is around hypertrophy. To put it simply, I almost don’t experience it. Which of the following (that I’m doing) would you say is the culprit:
    – Lifting in the 4-6 rep range, 3 sets per workout. 5x / week.
    – Focusing on compound lifts (bench, squat, deadlift, chips, military press)
    – Eating at a surplus of 500 calories / day
    – Eating 1.2g protein / lb of body weight / day
    – Supplementing with 5g creatine monohydrate / day
    – Sleeping 7.5 hours / night
    – Starting at 12% body fat
    – I track every calorie, gram of protein, and lift.

    I know that a lot can go into what results you get. However, I’d expect that with these basics in place, that I’d progress. I do progress (relatively consistently) in strength, week after week. But the only thing that ever grows is my stomach. I put on a lot of fat doing the above from August – December. I’ve now been cutting for a while to get to 9% body fat to start again. Really want to avoid repeating the same thing!!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Jared,
      Sounds like you have an issue with your training. This guide should help: How to Break Training Plateaus.
      Additionally, this one might be useful: here.

  7. Ahmed Mishal says:

    Hi Andy,

    Do you think using barbells for strength days for upper body days (Eg-Barbell Bench Press) and using dumbbells for hypertrophy days (Eg-Dumbbell Bench Press) is a bad idea as you’re not practising the same movements throughout the week? Or is it fine as long as I keep progressing on both consistently over time. I’ve heard dumbbells are more beneficial to hypertrophy as they take the muscles through a greater range of motion. What do you recommend? I’d like to hear your opinion on it

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      I’ve heard dumbbells are more beneficial to hypertrophy as they take the muscles through a greater range of motion.
      I disagree with this. The range of motion will be very similar, unless you’re forcing it past a natural range of motion, in which case you risk injury.
      That aside, you can progress with either barbells or dumbbells. Barbells will be easier to do that with because the incremental jumps in load you can make are smaller (2.5 kg vs 5 kg, typically).

  8. Benjamin says:

    Hi Andy,

    Just downloaded your free nutrition guide (thanks for making this available) and would like to purchase the nutrition book from your muscle and strength pyramid book.

    I would like to learn about optimal nutrition but I train mostly with bodyweight/ calisthenics exercises and was wondering if all the principles in those two books apply to calisthenics practitioner all the same?

    Can you please let me know,

    Best Regards,

    Ben

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Benjamin,
      Yes, the tools are different but the principles remain the same.

  9. Cody says:

    Hey Andy.

    Just to clarify the RPE guide..
    Where it says “first set rpe 8”, does that mean that the subsequesnt sets for that exercise are at a 10? Or are all sets to 8?

    Cheers

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      “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.”

  10. Mábio Medeiros says:

    Hi Andy,

    Looking at the The Novice Bodybuilding Program I see that in the days 2 and 4 the exercises of chest and back are alternates and I didn’t understood why. I always have listened that is better do first the exercises a muscle and after do the exercesis of the other muscle because this way you don’t loose the blood that is already in the muscles you are training.

    OBS: I am from Brazil, so i dont speak english very well. Sorry if it’s hard to understand what I wrote.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      This allows for better recovery between exercises, which allows for more load to be lifted, and is arguably more important than keeping blood in the muscles (also known as the ‘pump’) which you have read about.

Questions welcomed. (Over 16,000 answered)

For the sake of other readers, please:
  • Keep questions on topic,
  • Write clearly, concisely, and click reply when responding,
  • Don't post diet calculations or full training plans asking me to critique them as it depends too heavily on context.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.