The Best Bodybuilding Programs for All Experience Levels


Flip open any muscle mag and you’ll easily find a bodybuilding routine championed by someone with a Herculean physique that is guaranteed to get you to their level.

It can be tempting to follow in the footsteps of your favorite pro bodybuilder, but to do so is perilous. If you’re in your first or second year of training, trying to hang with the guys or gals with a decade under their belts is likely reckless and probably ineffective.

bodybuilder doing curl
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Instead, it is wiser to look at how those with impressive physiques trained when they were where you are now. Bodybuilding is a fluid, highly individualized sport, and you have to earn your stripes if you want 18-inch biceps. 

Whether you’re a first-timer or five years in, we’re bringing you the best plans for physique development at any experience level. 

Best Bodybuilding Programs

Note: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to bodybuilding. These programs are meant to be templates that you can use to guide your approach to programming. If you have serious competitive aspirations, it is best to seek out a reputable coach or trainer. 

The Best Bodybuilding Program for Beginners

If you’re a fresh-faced trainee in your first months — or year — of training, you’re suffering from an embarrassment of riches that you may not even realize. Your strength skyrockets on a weekly basis, your mood improves as you adjust to the mental benefits of regular exercise, and, of course, you pack on meat like you work at a butcher shop. 

All of this and more is possible with the right program. Below you’ll find an outline for a beginner’s bodybuilding routine along with an explanation of its structure and guiding principles.

The Program

Beginners have the luxury of getting a lot out of a little. Where an experienced lifter might need higher volume or more advanced techniques, beginners can stay the course and make steady gains without all the bells and whistles of a fancy program.

new lifter doing bicep curl
Credit: Twinsterphoto / Shutterstock

A simple four-day split with two workouts each for the upper and lower body is effective for beginners without the need for complex daily workouts or excessive training volume. It also allows for a lot of attention to be given to compound movements to help develop a rock-solid base that you’ll lean on in the future.

Days 1 & 3: Upper Body

  1. Upper Pull Compound of Choice: 3 x 6 – 8
  2. Upper Push Compound of Choice: 3 x 6 – 8
  3. Bicep Isolation of Choice: 2 x 8 – 10
  4. Tricep Isolation of Choice: 2 x 8 – 10 
  5. Shoulder Isolation of Choice: 2 x 10 – 12

Days 2 & 4: Lower Body + Core 

  1. Quadricep-focused Compound of Choice: 3 x 6 – 8 
  2. Hamstring-focused Compound of Choice: 3 x 6 – 8
  3. Unilateral Movement of Choice: 3 x 8 – 12
  4. Core Movement of Choice: 3 x 8 – 10

An optional fifth day for extra ab work or some cardio is possible, but likely not needed — while you’re still establishing your personal relationship with training, it is best to start lean and build up rather than take on too much and have to cut back.

Exercise Selection

Pick movements that are comfortable and accessible for your body and what equipment you have available, but vary them regularly. Research indicates that as long as intensity is kept high — meaning you’re training relatively hard — exercise rotation is more beneficial for hypertrophy and strength in beginners than doing the same movements all the time. (1)

How to Progress

Take advantage of your susceptibility to strength gains by increasing weight used on a weekly basis when it is possible and safe to do so. There’s no reason to push too hard too fast, but science supports a strong correlation between muscular strength and size (2), so working with heavier weights over time will result in bigger muscles as well. 

The Best Bodybuilding Program For Intermediates

With a few years of training behind you, your shirts fit more snugly across the chest and you may have even had to give up your skinny jeans. However, the gains may not flow as freely as they once did.

Data published by Alan Aragon, a researcher with over two decades of clinical experience, attempted to model the muscle gain potential of trainees under optimal conditions. His findings suggested that after a year of training, a lifter may have their rate of muscle gain dampened by up to 25% per month. (3)

Fortunately, things are not as dire as they may seem if you still want to take your physique to the next level. Intermediate trainees do require a more refined approach than a rank beginner, but with the right routine — and proper nutrition — you can still add mass to your frame quickly and reliably. 

The Program

Just as how you prioritize muscle growth shifts over time, intermediate bodybuilding programming should also progress from broad to narrow. If you’ve noticed that your triceps don’t pop like you want them to, your workouts should be able to address that — and other “weaknesses” in proportion or size — while still facilitating overall muscle growth.

woman doing cable press
Credit: Aleksey Mnogosmyslov / Shutterstock

The broad rules of program design are still present. Train major muscle groups more than once per week, spend lots of time with compound movements, and recover adequately. By reorganizing your weekly training, you can give stubborn areas a bit more attention. 

Days 1 & 3: Chest + Back 

  1. Flat Press of Choice: 3 x 6 – 8
  2. Incline Press of Choice: 3 x 8 – 10
  3. Flye/Crossover of Choice: 2 x 10 – 12
  4. Vertical Pull of Choice: 3 x 6 – 8 
  5. Horizontal Pull of Choice: 3 x 8 – 10
  6. Upper Back Pull of Choice: 2 x 12 – 15

Days 2 & 4: Legs + Shoulders 

  1. Bilateral Squat: 3 x 6
  2. Bilateral Hinge: 3 x 6-8
  3. Single Leg Squat or Hinge: 2 x 8
  4. Machine Leg Extension or Curl: 2 x 12, with a drop set at the end
  5. Dumbbell or Barbell Overhead Press: 3 x 6
  6. Lateral Raise Variation of Choice: 3 x 12-15
  7. Rear Delt Movement of Choice: 2 x 15
  8. Calf Raise of Choice: 2-3 x 12-15

Day 5: Arms + Abs 

  1. Free Weight Curl of Choice: 3 x 6-8
  2. Cable or Machine Curl of Choice: 2 x 10-12
  3. Forearm Isolation of Choice: 2 x 12-15
  4. Tricep Extension of Choice: 3 x 6-8
  5. Cable Extension of Choice: 2 x 12-15
  6. Weighted Trunk Flexion: 3 x 10
  7. Hip/Leg Flexion: 3 x 12-15
  8. Plank: 2 sets for time

Exercise Selection

Exercise selection in intermediate bodybuilding is all about covering your bases. While still performing the major movement patterns such as the squat, hinge, or press, you must also tactically include movements that stimulate the target muscles as effectively as possible.

To keep training fresh and delay acclimation, don’t perform all your work with the same tools. Your first incline press of the week could be done with the barbell, but in the second session, head for the dumbbell rack. Performing similar movement patterns with different implements allows you to reinforce good technique while also challenging your muscles in new ways

A similar idea is applied to direct abdominal work. Since the rectus abdominis affects both the ribcage and pelvis, you shouldn’t double-down on crunches and neglect all movement at the hips. A weighted cable crunch, for example, paired with a hanging leg raise ensures you’re training the tissue throughout both its primary functions.

How to Progress

In your first year of training, it can feel like just looking at the weights will cause you to grow. After some time, you might need a more calculated approach. Where beginners benefit from changing things up, intermediates should exercise patience. Pick movements that suit your body and stick with them for a while. 

Although volume is a primary driver of hypertrophy, research indicates that it may not induce growth if it comes at the expense of intensity. (4)(5) This is the main reason your weekly chest work is broken up across two sessions — so you can push every set hard. Extra sets and reps can be added gradually, but only if the overall quality of your workout doesn’t suffer for it.

Finally, there is some science backing the inclusion of high-intensity training techniques. The surgical implementation of a few drop sets can boost workout intensity without adding another half an hour to an already-lengthy day in the gym. (6)

The Best Bodybuilding Program For Advanced Lifters

Some define “advanced” by the number of years spent in the gym. Others think that a big total separates the lions from the lambs. However, a more sensible approach to determining whether you’re truly an advanced lifter is to examine your rate of progress.

bodybuilder doing tricep extension
Credit: Lebedev Roman Olegovich

Beginners make gains quickly and easily. After a few years, intermediate trainees still enjoy a wealth of progress, but they may have to get a little innovative with their training to do so. If you’ve been in the gym for a while and have been consistently lifting properly and eating well, your muscle gain will inevitably slow down.

To keep pushing the limits of your physique, you have to really buckle down your workouts and lace up your nutrition

The Program

To continue making muscle gains well into your second — or even third — decade of training, you should expect to spend many grueling hours in the gym. As it becomes harder to sufficiently tax your body enough to induce hypertrophy, focused attention on specific muscle groups and the employment of high-intensity techniques should become your new normal.

Day 1: Chest + Back

  1. Cable Flye: 2 x 20, to pre-exhaust the chest
  2. Dumbbell Bench Press: 4 x 6-12, as a reverse pyramid
  3. Incline Bench Press: 3 x 8, with a drop set at the end
  4. Dumbbell Pullover: 2 x 20
  5. Close-grip Cable Row: 4 x 8-12, as a reverse pyramid 
  6. Wide-grip Landmine Row: 3 x 12-15
  7. Dumbbell Shrug: 3 x 20

Day 2: Arms + Shoulders

  1. Dumbbell Overhead Press: 3 x 15 – 8, as a pyramid 
  2. Plate Front Raise + Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 4 x 15/15, as a superset
  3. Face Pull: 60 reps total, as a cluster set 
  4. Cheat Curl: 3 x 6
  5. Incline Dumbbell Curl: 3 x 8-15, as a reverse pyramid 
  6. Reverse-grip Preacher Curl: 2 x 12-15
  7. Dumbbell Skull Crusher: 3-4 x 8
  8. Rope Overhead Extension: 3 x 8-10, with a drop set at the end
  9. Cable Tricep Kickback: 2 x 12, with a drop set at the end

Day 3: Legs + Abs

  1. Lying Leg Curl: 3 x 15-20, to pre-exhaust the hamstrings
  2. Barbell Hip Thrust: 4 x 6-12, as a reverse pyramid
  3. Hack Squat: 3-4 x 8-12, as a reverse pyramid 
  4. Walking Lunge: 2-3 x 8-10 steps per leg
  5. Machine Leg Extension: 4 x 15, with a drop set at the end
  6. Smith Machine Calf Raise: 2 x 20
  7. Cable Crunch: 3 x 15

Day 4: Chest + Back

  1. Dumbbell Flye: 2 x 12-15, to pre-exhaust the chest
  2. Decline Bench Press: 3-4 x 8 
  3. Incline Hex Press: 3 x 12-15, with a drop set at the end
  4. Cable Flye: 2 x 15-20
  5. Chest-Supported Dumbbell Row: 4 x 8 
  6. Wide-grip Lat Pulldown: 4 x 8-15, as a reverse pyramid
  7. Straight-arm Pulldown: 3 x 15
  8. Barbell Wide-grip Row: 2 x 15 

Day 5: Arms + Shoulders

  1. Barbell Overhead Press: 3 x 15-8, as a pyramid
  2. Dumbbell Arnold Press: 3 x 8-15, as a reverse pyramid
  3. Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 50 reps total, as a cluster set 
  4. Rear Delt Raise: 2 x 1-20
  5. Cable Pressdown + Standing Dumbbell Curl: 4 x 8, as a superset
  6. Preacher Curl + Dumbbell Overhead Extension: 4 x 12, as a superset
  7. EZ-Bar Skull Crusher + Reverse Curl: 2-3 x 12-15, as a superset

Day 6: Legs + Abs 

  1. Cable Kickback: 3 x 15, to pre-exhaust the glutes and quads
  2. Leg Press: 4 x 8, with a drop set at the end 
  3. Deficit Stiff-Legged Deadlift: 4 x 8 
  4. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift + Step-Up: 3 x 10, as a superset 
  5. Machine Leg Curl: 4 x 15, with a drop set at the end 
  6. Barbell Calf Raise: 2 x 20
  7. Ab Rollout + Weighted Plank: 3 x 8/for time, as a superset 

Note: Do not begin this program with all of the prescribed intensity techniques at once. This template represents a full-fledged routine, but it is always sensible to ease into a new training plan, even at a high level. Add in the drop sets and cluster work over time. 

Exercise Selection

Unlike the previous programs where exercise selection is yours to determine, this program has made specific recommendations for exercises on each day. Since you must bring all your forces to bear to keep putting on lean mass, a variety of properly-placed implements and equipment is critical.

The “meat and potatoes” movements are placed early into the training day so you can hit the big lifts hard while you’re fresh, tapering down to specific isolation movements towards the end to truly burn your muscles to a crisp. Similar movement patterns are maintained across each body part, but used with different equipment or at a slightly different angle. 

Finally, exercises are ordered such that they “feed” into each other. For example, on Day 1, exercise #4 is the dumbbell pullover — a unique movement that isolates both the chest and back, making it well-suited to finish off your chest work and prime your lats at the same time.

These exercise selections are not absolute, but should serve as a decent starting point. Veteran lifters probably don’t need to hear this, but it bears repeating — almost nothing in bodybuilding is written in stone. 

How to Progress 

Since you can’t simply add five pounds to your barbell every session for the rest of your career in the gym, making progress as an advanced athlete requires inordinate amounts of grit and ingenuity.

Fortunately, there’s a healthy amount of literature dissecting hypertrophy mechanisms on trained subjects. The science seems to support the idea that most training should be high-intensity, although some lighter work has a place, provided the reps are kept high. (7)

Further, there’s plenty of evidence corroborating the need for heaps of volume in each workout. If you’re many years into your training career, you probably shouldn’t be doing the same amount of work as you did in year two. Hypertrophy and volume appear to follow a strongly-correlated dose-response relationship. (8

dumbbell rack in gym
Credit: Kiselev Andrey Valerevich

Hand-in-hand with higher volumes comes the need for extra rest periods. If you’re working harder, longer, and heavier in the gym, you’ll need more time to rest between sets. Further, muscles with larger cross-sectional areas are generally stronger, but that does mean you’ll need to take more of a breather during your workouts. (9)

To cap it all off, a variety of intensity techniques are likely required to some degree. Since there are limits — both in terms of time spent and effort required — to what the body can do in the gym at a high level, research suggests that including various “burnout” training techniques can effectively stimulate growth in well-trained lifters. (10)

Understanding Exercise Selection

Where powerlifting or weightlifting programs are rigidly composed, bodybuilding training is flexible. Since bodybuilders are judged on big biceps and not bench press strength, you don’t necessarily have to work with the barbell if it doesn’t feel comfortable for you.

Compound vs. Isolation

All movements fall into one of two categories regarding what joints are used. Compound lifts involve more than one joint flexing or extending, while isolation exercises target one joint only.

Squats involve movement at the hip, knee, and ankle joints, making them a compound movement that recruits many muscles — the glutes control hip extension, the quadriceps extend the knee, and even the calves help control how much your ankle bends. 

Conversely, a bicep curl only requires action from the elbow joint. As the biceps are one of the only muscles that can bend the elbow, all the tension goes directly to them every time you perform a curl.

Compound movements should be your best friend since you can use heavier weights and get more muscle involved, but isolation exercises are essential for zoning in on weak points or developing muscles that are stubborn about growth. 

Push and Pull

Movements are also grouped into either pushes or pulls. In plain terms, push exercises usually involve the musculature in the front of the body, while pulls work your posterior chain from head to heel. They also tend to share an antagonistic relationship — your lats work to pull your arm back towards your body, directly opposed to the role of your pecs. 

woman doing dumbbell row
Credit: Maksym Fesenko / Shutterstock

To grow a balanced physique, it is best practice to roughly equate your push volume with your pull volume. Synergistic growth between antagonistic muscles can help ensure your joints are primed for performance long term, as well as creating a physique that’s nice to look at. Nobody wants to be all quad and no hamstring

Exercise Library

Bodybuilding training is a nearly-infinite library of techniques and tools. From the ubiquitous barbell to kettlebells, cable machines, sandbags and even sleds, there are enough options available that anyone can find the right exercise for the right muscle group. Here’s a decent — but far from comprehensive — list of exercises to plug into a bodybuilding routine.


  • Bench Press (barbell or dumbbell, decline, flat, or incline, wide-grip or close-grip)
  • Flye (dumbbell or cable, seated or standing, upright or bent over)
  • Dip (weighted or unweighted, machine or free)
  • Push-up (weighted or unweighted, decline, flat, or incline)
  • Pullover (dumbbell or cable)


  • Vertical Row (barbell, landmine, or dumbbell)
  • Horizontal Row (cable or machine)
  • Vertical Pulldown (cable or machine, wide-grip or close-grip)
  • Straight-arm Pulldown (cable, upright or bent over)
  • Shrug (barbell, dumbbell, Smith machine, or cable)
  • Pullover (dumbbell or cable)


  • Overhead Press (barbell, machine, or dumbbell)
  • Arnold Press 
  • Front Raise (dumbbell, weight plate, or cable)
  • Lateral Raise (dumbbell or cable, upright, prone, or leaning)
  • Face Pull 
  • Rear Delt Raise (dumbbell or cable)


  • Barbell Curl (standing or preacher)
  • Dumbbell Curl (standing, sitting, preacher, cable, or reverse-grip)
  • Skull Crusher (dumbbell or barbell)
  • Push-up (close-grip)
  • Pressdown (cable, with bar or rope)
  • Overhead Extension (dumbbell or cable)
  • Kickback (dumbbell or cable) 


  • Bilateral Squat (barbell, dumbbell, Hack machine, back or front, high-bar or low-bar)
  • Unilateral Squat (walking or static lunge, step-up, rear-foot supported split)
  • Deadlift (sumo or conventional, barbell, trap bar, or dumbbell)
  • Romanian Deadlift (barbell or dumbbell)
  • Stiff-legged Deadlift (barbell or dumbbell)
  • Hip Thrust (barbell or dumbbell, single-leg or both legs)
  • Leg Press (single-leg or both legs)

There are far more exercises out there than what’s listed here — including some very unique movements you might consider trying. While most of these lifts should probably be your bread and butter, they should be tailored and tweaked to fit your body. 

Putting It All Together 

Bodybuilding is a mad science. What begins as a free-flowing fountain of gains morphs into a true challenge as time goes on. If you’re dedicated to developing an awe-inspiring physique, your approach to training — both mental and physical — has to change with the times as well.

Strength athletes have a litany of programs available to stay on the gain train, but the roadmap isn’t paved as well for physique enthusiasts. The inherent individuality of the sport requires a meticulous level of craftsmanship, nearly-impeccable nutrition, and heaps of high-quality rest. The reward, however, is worth it — a chiseled physique that turns heads and drops jaws. 


  1. Fonseca, R. M., Roschel, H., Tricoli, V., de Souza, E. O., Wilson, J. M., Laurentino, G. C., Aihara, A. Y., de Souza Leão, A. R., & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2014). Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 28(11), 3085–3092. 
  2. Herman J.R., Rana S.R., Chleboun G.S., Gilders R.M., Hageman F.C., Hikida R.S., Kushnick M.R., Ragg K.E., Staron R.S., Toma K. Correlation Between Muscle Fiber Cross-Sectional Area and Strength Gain Using Three Different Resistance-Training Programs In College-Aged Women. J. Strength Cond. Res. 2010;24:1.
  3. McDonald, Lyle. (2009) What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential?
  4. Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., Grgic, J., Delcastillo, K., Belliard, R., & Alto, A. (2019). Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 51(1), 94–103. 
  5. Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., & Krieger, J. (2019). How many times per week should a muscle be trained to maximize muscle hypertrophy? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies examining the effects of resistance training frequency. Journal of sports sciences, 37(11), 1286–1295. 
  6. Schoenfeld, Brad & Grgic, Jozo. (2017). Can Drop Set Training Enhance Muscle Growth?. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 40. 1. 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000366. 
  7. Schoenfeld, B. J., Peterson, M. D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., & Sonmez, G. T. (2015). Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 29(10), 2954–2963. 
  8. Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., Grgic, J., Delcastillo, K., Belliard, R., & Alto, A. (2019). Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 51(1), 94–103. 
  9. Maughan, R.J., Watson, J.S. & Weir, J. Relationships between muscle strength and muscle cross-sectional area in male sprinters and endurance runners. Europ. J. Appl. Physiol. 50, 309–318 (1983).
  10. Schoenfeld, Brad. (2011). The Use of Specialized Training Techniques to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 33. 60-65. 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182221ec2. 

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