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 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.
|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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|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|
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.
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.
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.
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
Smith machine, Leg Press.↩
Seated Leg Press, 45° Leg Press, Hack Squat.↩
Can be dumbbell, barbell, or machine.↩