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

I am the founder of RippedBody.com, 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.

89 Comments

  1. aditya Tewari says:

    but then arms it’s not in the 80 to 120 rep range not even close to it and I don’t think that your bis are doing that much work that could compensate for the reps not their same things with tris. I’m saying this in regard to the novice program

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      In terms of direct work, yes, but the bis are worked with the pulling actions (vertical and horizontal) so we’ve counted that volume as well. Experience tells me that for most people suited to a novice program, this will be perfectly sufficient. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating they say, so try it and then add more if it doesn’t work for you.

  2. Joe says:

    Hey Andy,
    Would recovery be an issue if on the lower body volume day you do squat variants instead of leg press variants..?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      You’ll be fine.

  3. Bob says:

    Hey
    When would you consider someone a novice…?
    I understand that its “when you can still make week to week progress” but around what strength ranges can you expect that to end..?
    I heard people say you should be able to get a 225 bench, 315 squat and 405 deadlift…(or somewhere around those numbers) by the time your linear gains tap out.
    Whats your thoughts on this ..?

    BTW thanks for answering my other questions 🙂

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      It’s not possible to put people into neat categories like ‘novice’, ‘intermediate’, and advanced’, by simply looking at their lifts. Body size and genetics play a huge role.

      If the question you’re wondering is whether the program above is suitable for you, look at the training volume you are currently performing and compare it. Is it similar? If yes, then it’s a good place to start. If you’re doing considerably more then start with the intermediate program.

  4. Bob says:

    Lol this will be weird but
    Is it ok if i run a power lifting type split on my lower body and the regular bodybuilding split on my upper body…?
    Becasue i dont really want the hypertrophy and volume for my legs, Id rather be just strong on my squats and deadlifts
    I really just want the extra volume on my upperbody

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Without getting overly long-winded, there shouldn’t be a problem with using higher rep ranger and higher variety for the upper body only.

  5. Bob says:

    Hey,
    For the strength days Is it ok if I swap the horizontal pull with vertical push
    Meaning I’ll do 3×5 with vertical push
    and 2×8 with horizontal pull..?
    I say this because i feel my arms overshadow my shoulders… so I want to place more emphasis on them

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      You could, but this is a novice program so I’ll assume you’re a novice. In that case, it’s probably best to not worry about weaknesses (real or perceived) for now and just train with this balanced program. You can bring address any after you’ve given yourself a chance to grow as things usually fix themselves.

  6. Andy says:

    Hi Andy,
    Abs? I’ve followed the idea of basic, heavy movements (squats, OHP, DL) being all you need for a strong core and my abs are often sore after heavy squats, but they still seem weak and I’d like to incorporate some specific training. What would you recommend? Also, any tips for recovery for us old guys (I’m 50).
    Thanks for the great programs.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      There is no one-size-fits-all answer for this. However, it was decided to omit direct ab work from the programs because we haven’t experienced most people benefiting from them. In your case, if your abs are sore after heavy squats, that is a sign they are working and I’d just recommend you keep it up as they will get stronger like everything else. They aren’t going to be a limiting factor either so there is no need to address it directly for the squats.

  7. Sergej says:

    Hello Andy,
    I am done with Starting Strength program and I want to transit to The Novice Bodybuilding Program. My body fat level is little to high at this point (probably between 17-20%), and I am wondering is it appropriate to start The Novice Bodybuilding Program and dieting/cutting at the same time? Thanks!

  8. Dani says:

    Hey Andy,

    Just read The Training Pyramid, and I gotta say,it was an amazing read.
    I came here to see if you have answered the question I have ,but I haven’t found it.

    If I wanted to do dips,just because of pure enjoyement purpose, is there a “better” way to add them in. I could be overthinking it,but im wondering if I could treat it as horizontal push, or remove flyes for example ( although I know they’re not the same ),or something different,thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Dani, glad you found it so useful.

      You’re right to consider dips a horizontal push but they are a compound movement, the cable flyes more of an isolation movement, so I wouldn’t consider them a straight swap.

      Dips are more difficult to load than most other horizontal pushing compound movements and carry with them a higher injury risk. As staying injury free is one of the keys to carving out a great physique over time, I wouldn’t recommend you do them. Sure, they feel cool to do, but more often than not people find that pain comes one day and doesn’t seem to go away easily.

  9. Christian says:

    Hello Andy,

    Once again thank you for the excellent content.

    Is there a specific reason that the lower body day is before the upper? I find I’m a lot more gassed after the lower body day than upper making my upper body day suffer somewhat. Do you have any problem with doing upper day 1, lower day 2 than rest day, repeat.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Feel free to switch.

  10. David says:

    Great routine, love the attention to effort and recovery balance!

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