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)
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total RPE
Squat Variant 2 3 5 15 8 to 9
Hip Hinge Variant 3 3 5 15 8 to 9
Single Leg Variant 4 2 8 16 6 to 7
Standing Calf Raises 5 3 8 24 7 to 8
Day 2 – Upper Body (Strength)
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total RPE
Horizontal Push 6 3 5 15 8 to 9
Horizontal Pull 7 3 5 15 8 to 9
Vertical Push 8 2 8 16 7 to 8
Vertical Pull 9 2 8 16 7 to 8
Flys 10 3 15 45 7 to 8
Day 3 – Lower Body (Volume)
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total RPE
Deadlift Variant 11 3 8 24 8 to 9
Leg Press Variant 12 3 8 24 8 to 9
Leg Extension 2 12 24 7 to 8
Leg Curl 2 12 24 7 to 8
Seated Calf Raise 3 15 45 7 to 8
Day 4 – Upper Body (Volume)
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total RPE
Horizontal Push 3 10 30 7 to 8
Horizontal Pull 3 10 30 7 to 8
Vertical Push 2 12 24 7 to 8
Vertical Pull 2 12 24 7 to 8
Triceps Isolation 13 2 12 24 7 to 8
Biceps Isolation 14 2 12 24 7 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 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

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

Hi, I'm Andy, co-author of 'The Muscle and Strength Pyramid' textbooks and founder of This site 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 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, let's start the conversation. (You can read more about Andy here.)


  1. 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.

  2. 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?


    1. Andy Morgan says:

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

  3. David says:

    Hi Andy,
    I have been following your novice bodybuilding program for 12 weeks and have made some good progress. How long do you recommend following this routine before moving on to your Intermediate Bodybuilding Program?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      As long as you continue to make progress.

  4. John Parker says:

    Could this be used in a hyrbid training program, like those developed by Alex Viada? I’m currently training for an ultra. I know that my gains will be less this than if I wasn’t running at all. Are there any adjustments you’d make?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      I don’t have experience training dual-athletes (endurance + strength). This is what Alex specializes in, so follow his advice.

  5. Adnan says:

    Hi Andy

    I workout at home and don’t have access to a leg press/hack squat and leg extension machine. What will be good substitutes


  6. Carlos Vanegas says:

    Hi Andy,
    I have been training using full body workouts for several months now. And I noticed that I’m increasing the overall volume of work and I feel my body is recovering a lot better than a more traditional split (upper/lower or push/pull/legs) is there a reason why this program is built the way it is. Is there any advantage in hitting only upper or lower body muscles in a single day in non consecutive days, compared to hitting upper AND lower body muscles with HALF the workload every day.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      At some point, soreness may prevent you from doing so, but if you’re recovering fine and progressing well, don’t change anything.

      1. Carlos Vanegas says:

        So it’s a balance between accumulated fatigue (within the same day) and soreness (from one day to the next) to maximize total accumulated volume? Is that the ultimate goal?
        With the same question in mind, is there any benefit from splitting strength days from volume days?
        I think accumulating 2 full consecutive days of strength training can be very taxing on your CNS, when compared to spreading to 2 non-consecutive days full body, or even further splitting into 4 days.
        What do you think of these options in terms of spreading the workload thru the week to balance fatigue and soreness?
        Option 1: all 4 days: full body strength and volume
        Option 2: day 1 and 3: full body strength, day 2 and 4: full body volume

        Am I missing the forest for the trees?

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Not quite. You want enough volume to progress, without it being so much that it is detrimental. Given how interested in this you clearly are, consider getting my book, The Muscle and Strength Pyramid (Training) — forgive the website at the moment, it’s a mess because we’re re-doing it. If you get both books, you’ll get the second editions for free, which will be out by the end of December.

          1. Carlos Vanegas says:

            I already have both books – Training and Nutrition 🙂
            And it is from the Volume, Intensity, Frequency balance that I came up with the idea of full body workouts every day. But maybe I need to read that chapter again.
            Looking forward to see the second edition.

  7. Alister Hill says:

    Hi Andy,

    I’ve been looking for a routine like this for a while! I currently follow a barbell medicine routine, but will be switching to this!

    I’m curious as to how long this routine would generally last before moving on to the intermediate phase? I know this is probably extremely different for each individual, but it is easier to judge plateau with strength, and training like this is new for me, in the higher rep ranges. I’ve been doing my faaaahves for too long.

    Thank you again, I will be picking up your strength pyramid book around Christmas.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Everyone will be different. Do it for as long as you continue to progress and then switch to the Intermediate Program.

  8. Steve says:

    Hi Andy,

    Only just discovered your website and and its up there with the best i have seen. I have been training on and off most of my adult life and currently trying to work out a sustainable programme, so im working an upper/lower bodybuilding split with alternate strength & mass days as you have outlined here (the article is very helpful). Couple of questions, which i guess will be subjective;

    1. I train BJJ and Thai boxing three times a week (2+1 or vice versa) so im limited to the amount of volume i can fit in, but lifting is important to have in my routine. Would you suggest that doing these activities on REST days above would be counter productive? If so i will reduce the amount of weight days.

    2. If i reduced the amount of weights days to 2/3 then the routine i guess weekly woud look like this (A-D from your 4 split above)
    Week 1; A-B-C
    Week 2; D-A-B
    Week 3; C-D-A
    and so on, does that make sense?


    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Steve, thanks for the compliments.
      In short, you’re overthinking it. Work your way in slowly with the loads and I’m sure you’ll be fine.

      1. steven thomas says:

        Thanks for the reply, to simplify (as it was long winded), would you count BJJ/Muay Thai training as OK on rest days or would it slow muscle growth

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          That’ll be fine.

  9. Anthony Horsley says:

    Hi Andy, I am currently doing intermittent fasting and Keto and I don’t have a solid workout plan and I was wondering will this routine help me while I am cutting? I was wondering if the volume may be a bit much since I am in a caloric deficit.

    1. Anthony Horsley says:

      Thanks for the reply Andy, I am curious to what is the recommended rest period between each exercises and would it be ok to do Donkey Calf Raises rather than Standing Calf Raises for Day 1 Strength. Also wondering if it’s ok to do 20 min HIIT at least twice a week on this program on non workout days. This seems to be a solid program for Aesthetics and strength gains.

      1. Andy Morgan says:

        1. Three minutes for compound movements, 2 minutes for isolation work (or smaller muscle groups).
        2. Sure, it’s same muscle trained, just a different way of doing it.
        3. Sure, if you recover fine and it doesn’t impact your training performance. But it’s not something necessary nor recommended for those focused on physique goals. More on that here (Why Too Much Cardio Can Hamper Your Physique Goals).

        1. Anthony Horsley says:

          Yes, I am focusing on physique goals. I am usually finish within 30 minutes of my workout and for compound movements I do 3 Warmup Sets but I have tons of energy left even after I am done with routine. ASeems as if I should do more and I do understand more isn’t always better. When I was cutting with Keto I was exhausted after doing this routine but now I’ve reintroduced carbs and lifting and eating for mass gain, I am stronger and feel something is lacking when doing routine with RPE Number. I don’t want to change anything cause I enjoy and believe in this program to help me obtain the physique I am seeking out. Do you think maybe I should add an additional set or 2 to the exercises for more volume?

    2. Andy Morgan says:

      Nah, you’ll be completely fine.

  10. Sam says:

    Hello Andy
    I’ve been working out for approximately a 2 years but have never really followed a strict workout routine. I’ve had ups and downs with gaining muscle, and while my main goal is aesthetics, i’m wondering if this would be a good program for me ?
    Body Fat:18%

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