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 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)|
|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)|
|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)|
|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)|
|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.
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.
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.
This last point brings us on to the ‘RPE’ section in the program.
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.
|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.
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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Smith machine, Leg Press.↩
Seated Leg Press, 45° Leg Press, Hack Squat.↩