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 highly-acclaimed 'Muscle and Strength Pyramid' books and founder of RippedBody.com. 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.)

124 Comments

  1. 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?

    Steve

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 ?
    Weight:165
    Body Fat:18%

  4. Dina Prince says:

    Hi Andy
    What do you think I should do for side delt work? There’s a good amount of vertical pushing but no lateral raises in this routine? Thanks

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      We don’t really see a need for it (an isolation medial-delt exercise) in a novice routine. It will be hit/built with the vertical pushing.

  5. John McNamara says:

    Hi Andy, I was wondering if it would make sense to do quick some arm work at the end of the lower body days, since I really want to grow my arms. Maybe something like 2×12 curls and 2×12 tricep pushdowns.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Probably not. 1) The training volume your arms will receive will probably be sufficient for now without that. 2) Adding that in may compromise performance on the upper body days if you’re not fully recovered.

      When in doubt, leave things as they are. Track your progress over a couple of months. Then add in variables one at a time to see how you go. This is a journey, there are no quick fixes. The best physiques take time to build.

  6. James says:

    Hi Andy.

    Great program. Can the routine be done as 3 times a week?

  7. Adit Dutta says:

    Hi Andy, this may seem like a very naive thing to say, but would it be possible to forgo the lower body volume day? I just came off of stronglifts and am somewhat happy with my leg size, also, since I workout at a home gym I lack the equipment for most of the exercises on that day. Thank you.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      You could, but you can probably find some good alternative exercises which will work. Here’s our guide to exercise selectiom.

      1. Adit Dutta says:

        Thank you for the response. Since I typically don’t enjoy leg volume work as much as I enjoy leg strength work, instead of skipping the volume day altogether could I instead do another leg strength day? Also how would you recommend incorporations deadlifts with that idea? Thank you

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          I’m going to assume that as you’re commenting here you are a novice. In that context, I think what you enjoy and what is best for you aren’t necessarily the same thing right now. Everyone hates higher rep leg work, but just get it done. Once you have more experience under your belt you’ll be able to make a more informed decision.

  8. Bob says:

    Hey, I have a tough time gauging RPE and i feel that if i stop with a full rep in the tank then i am under working. So for every one of my lifts i stop when the last rep is a bit slower than other reps, and also when i think i cant get the next rep. (Around RPE 9.3-9.5 ?)

    So i want to know that will doing this really affect or slow down my progress?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Probably not at this point. This fatigue management tool (RPE) becomes a lot more useful the more advanced you get.

  9. Ekin says:

    Hey Andy,

    I have had the pleasure to send an email to you before which (of course the meticulous Andy) you replied to.

    I don’t want to beat around the bush, but tell you that I have been running this program for over some time now and the last 2 months I have realized that I turned this into a powerlifting program. It is like a LP in the sense that I am doing 3×5 squats on one day, 3×5 bench on the other day and after a break I do a 1×5 deadlift, the last day being an upper volume day. I perform the accessories as well. Each week I try to add 5 lbs to the bar on each lift. I am 6.2 sitting at 88 kg at the moment. My SBD lifts are 115 kg/75 kg/140 kg at 3×5/3×5/1×5 scheme. I would say my goal is strength.

    Now comes my question, do you think I should go on with your intermediate bodybuilding program and follow it rigorously (I really think I need to get some hypertrophy) or follow a cookie cutter powerlifting program like TM which is doomed to miserably fail due to my past experience and strong intuition? Note that I really some mass on my upper body.

    Thanks in advance.

    Regards!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      No idea, Ekin.

      Your question boils down to: Why am I no longer progressing? This is an article in and of itself which I’ll have to write another day.

      1. Ekin says:

        Let me put it this way: do you think that my lifts suck that much (given my state obviously) that I can benefit off of an LP/Novice LP program? I have asked a similar question on the SS forums and they threw their tomatoes at me.

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Whether I (or anyone else) think your lifts suck is entirely irrelevant. Some people progress more quickly than others and will benefit from a novice program for longer than others. This is the genetic lottery, you gotta focus on being the best you.

          Now, if the people in the SS forum are being dicks to you, leave. This means there’s a culture where only the strong, or the lying keyboard warriors hang out, cause some people have it really hard.

          My advice to you is to give this program your all for a month. Then if you don’t progress, do the intermediate program. Simple. The only thing you need to do further is stop reading around the internet or you’ll just keep questioning yourself.

  10. Sol Kingston says:

    Hi Andy,

    Great program. I have been bodybuilding for 1 year now, and while I’ve made some nice gains using a PPL program, I’ve noticed my lifts are still weak and I think it’s affecting my gains. I like the idea of an upper/lower split and i’m thinking of trying this workout routine to try and gain some strength. My only concern is it’s less volume than what I’m used to, do you think that will be a problem?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Ask yourself this: Are you lifting like a bitch? Look around the average gym and you will see that most people do. They stop well before their sets are truly over, they could get a few more reps, but they don’t. The simplest solution to the vast majority of people’s frustrations is to put more effort in each and every set.

      Now, assuming this doesn’t apply to you, then the (perceived) lack of strength is not what’s holding your muscle growth back (hypertrophy allows for strength gains which drive hypertrophy). The evidence suggests that volume is the key driver of hypertrophy, so it would be a mistake to go with a lower volume program. Go with the intermediate program. Does that make sense?

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