A Tried and True Bodybuilding Program Template
In my last two-part article series, I described my 11 principles for bodybuilding training. Now, I want to make things even simpler for you.
I'm now going to provide you with a couple of plug-n-play – make that plug-n-train – templates that you can use to quickly and easily design a slew of great, no-nonsense training programs.
Since I generally recommend training four or five days per week, I'll include both a four-way training split and a five-way split. That way you'll be covered either way.
As with my 11 bodybuilding training principles, I encourage you to use these templates either as-is, or as a base upon which you can build your own training program.
"I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times."
– Everett Dirksen
Nothing in these templates or the following exercise options is set in stone. For example, you may already have huge calves. If you happen to be so lucky, then you may want to opt to do no calf exercises at all.
Or you may be a recreational Mixed Martial Artist who needs to work on grip strength. Thus you'll want to add grip/forearm exercises to the templates below.
Whatever the case, just remember that while bodybuilding training is definitely a science, it's just as much an art – and even though you and I use the same science, your art may very well look different from my art.
"Life is indeed terribly complicated–to a man who has lost his principles."
– G.K. Chesterton
Although creative flexibility is welcomed, don't get carried away. Whether you use my 11 bodybuilding training principles (which are built into the following templates) or your own, you should definitely have some parameters to guide your decision-making, otherwise it's easy to venture too far from the tried and true.
For example, if you've ever seen a leg workout that consisted of 3 sets each of leg extensions, leg press, and leg curls, you've seen a lack of training principles in action.
The topic of rest intervals is a perfect illustration of the need to be flexible and rigid at the same time.
While walking around in the touristy part of San Francisco the other day, I saw a shirt that said, "Some say I have ADD, but they just don't underst....Hey, LOOK, a Squirrel!"
If your friends would say that shirt applies to you (or you already own said shirt), then you may very well get bored between sets, especially when you're focusing on strength and need to get copious rest between sets. In that case, you need to be more rigid, getting at least the minimum amount of rest prescribed between sets.
On the other hand, it's important to be flexible regarding your rest intervals between sets – at least flexible enough to allow common sense to prevail.
For example, if a workout calls for you to only rest 30 seconds between sets, yet your breaths per minute and the beats per minute of your heart haven't even begun to slow, then it's time to be flexible and use some common sense – take more rest.
With that said, here are the rest intervals that you should adhere to, unless you have a good reason not to – and getting bored isn't a reason!
- Short rest: 20-60 seconds (45 seconds on average)
- Moderate rest: 1-2 minutes (90 seconds on average)
- Long rest: 2-5 minutes (3 minutes on average)
Besides implementing a rest period that aligns with your goal of doing a given exercise (which I've done for you with the following template), the other thing to remember is to be consistent with your rest intervals. Otherwise, your performance will be inconsistent and impossible to monitor.
Sets & Reps
As a rule, we could say there are three general rep/weight ranges:
Low Rep / Heavy Weight: 1-6 reps (5 reps on average)
Moderate Rep / Moderate Weight: 7-12 reps (10 reps on average)
High Rep / Light Weight: > 12 reps (15 reps on average)
But I point out the above ranges more for illustration, as we're not going to stick precisely to those.
In the templates I'll lay out the exact sets and reps I'd typically recommend for that particular exercise, but don't get too hung up on being 100% consistent with what I've laid out. Instead, use them as a guideline to know what 'ballpark' to stay in.
For example, I may say do 5 x 5 (five sets of five reps), but instead you'd like to do 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. That's totally fine – you're still in the same heavy weight/low-rep 'ballpark' so-to-speak.
On the other hand, if I prescribe 3 x 6-10 and you instead do 3 x 12-15, then you're changing things a bit too much and essentially creating your own training template. Again, that's fine, but just make sure you have a legitimate reason to tweak things that much.
When In Doubt
When in doubt as to whether to stick to the plug-n-train template I've laid out or to tweak it, I'd highly encourage you to stick with the template as is.
After all, I'm putting in (literally) over 20 years of trial-and-error experience and the same amount of book learning into these templates – so, to say I'm confident the following templates work would be a serious understatement.
So my rule regarding tweaking the following templates is the same as Mrs. Mathews' (my eighth-grade English teacher) rule regarding comma use – when in doubt, don't.
It would be impossible for me to list every possible exercise for each body part. Instead, I'm going to list what I'd call the "No-Nonsense" exercises for each body part.
(FYI, when designing workouts for myself or clients, I rarely feel the need to venture outside of these.)
Although you've probably got some good, unique exercises up your sleeve, resist the temptation to use too many 'fancy' new exercises or machines. Otherwise you'll stray too far away from the meat and potatoes exercises, which happen to be the ones that we know work!
Primary and Secondary Exercises
To systemize everything, I'm dividing exercises into primary (1°) and secondary (2°) exercises.
Generally, primary exercises will be compound, multi-joint exercises, while secondary exercises tend to be more isolation movements. However, I've based this division on more than compound versus isolation.
Take dips for example. They're undoubtedly a compound exercise, yet I'd still consider dips secondary in terms of chest exercises.
Make no mistake, there will be times when you'll want to implement a secondary exercise in place of a primary one. Maybe you want to pre-exhaust your lats with pullovers, for example.
A more likely exchange would be doing another primary exercise where I've listed a secondary exercise.
For example, you may opt to do skull crushers – a primary exercise for triceps – last in your triceps routine. Nothing wrong with that.
Although this primary versus secondary thing is flexible, be more hesitant to swap a primary exercise for a secondary exercise than vice versa – otherwise your routine might not contain enough tough exercises that are easy to loathe yet highly effective, like barbell squats.
Without further ado, let's get into the specific exercises for each body part.
1° Chest Exercises
Incline Press (barbell or dumbbell)
Flat Press (barbell or dumbbell)
Decline Press (barbell or dumbbell)
2° Chest Exercises
Cable Fly/Crossover (high-to-low, low-to-high)
Dumbbell Fly (incline, flat, or decline)
Machine Press (incline, flat, or decline)
1° Back Exercises
Deadlift (full or rack)
Barbell Row (overhand or underhand)
Pull-Up / Chin-Up
One-Arm Dumbbell Row
2° Back Exercises
Cable Row (neutral, overhand, or underhand grip)
Reverse Fly (dumbbell/machine)
Pulldown (neutral, overhand, or underhand grip)
1° Shoulder Exercises
Overhead Press (barbell or dumbbell)
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
2° Shoulder Exercises
Overhead Press Machine
Front Raise – (barbell or dumbbell)
Rear-Delt Cable Kickback
Rear-Delt Dumbbell Raise/Extension
Upright Row – (barbell, dumbbell or cable)
1° Triceps Exercises
Close-Grip Bench Press
V-Bar Cable Pushdown
2° Triceps Exercises
Kickback (dumbbell or cable)
Straight-Bar/Rope Cable Pushdown
Overhead Extension (barbell, dumbbell, or cable)
Reverse-Grip Cable Pushdown
1° Biceps Exercises
Barbell Curl – (straight or EZ/cambered bar)
Standing Alternating Dumbbell Curl
Preacher Curl (EZ bar or dumbbell)
Dumbbell Hammer Curl
Dumbbell Concentration Curl
1° Ab Exercises
Hanging Leg Raise
2° Ab Exercises
1° Quad Exercises
2° Quad Exercises
Bulgarian Split Squat
1° Hamstring Exercises
Stiff-Legged/Romanian Deadlift (barbell or dumbbell)
Seated Leg Curl
2° Hamstring Exercises
Lying Leg Curl
Hamstring Ball Roll
Unilateral (machine) Leg Curl
Hamstring Rope Pull-Through
1° Calf Exercises
Standing Calf Raise (machine)
Unilateral Dumbbell Calf Raise
2° Calf Exercises
Calf Press (on leg press)
Seated Calf Raise
Training Split Templates
My goal in creating these templates is to completely take the guesswork out of designing your own training programs. That way you can use your precious energy for training instead of thinking.
Simply plug-in the appropriate exercise and you're off!
4-Day Training Split
The following 4-day training split is, as you likely surmised, for those of you who are going to train four days per week.
Notice I didn't say "might train four days per week" or "will often train four days per week."
It's important that you decide, in advance, how many days per week you can commit to. Otherwise you're going to compromise the effectiveness of the program. So if you're thinking, "I can consistently train four or five days per week," then go with four, because it needs to be something doable week in and week out.
Note: Sure, we can design training splits that are more flexible in nature, allowing you to train on a more random schedule, but that's a topic for another article.
No-Nonsense 4-Day Training Split
Day 1 (e.g., Monday) – Chest & Biceps
Day 2 (e.g., Tuesday) – Back & Abs
Day 3 (e.g., Thursday) – Shoulders, Triceps, & Abs
Day 4 (e.g., Friday) – Legs
Chest & Biceps
|A||1° Chest (press)||5||5||Long|
Back & Abs
|A||1° Back (vertical pull)||4||6-10||Long|
|B||1° Back (lift/row)||3-4||6-10||Long|
Shoulders, Triceps, & Abs
|A||1° Shoulder (vertical press)||4||5||Long|
|B||1° Shoulder (abduction)||4||8-12||Moderate|
|F||2° Triceps||3||10-15 (up to 20)||Short|
Quads, Hams, & Calves
|E||Ancillary Leg (as needed)||2-3||8-15||Short/Moderate|
5-Day Training Splits
For those who can commit to training five days per week, this is a great training split.
Note: If you're a bit savvy, you can reconfigure the following template to use with a different 5-day training split.
No-Nonsense 5-Day Training Split
Day 1 (e.g., Monday) – Chest & Calves
Day 2 (e.g., Tuesday) – Back & Abs
Day 3 (e.g., Thursday) – Shoulders & Hams
Day 4 (e.g., Friday) – Quads & Abs
Day 5 (e.g., Saturday) – Arms
Chest & Calves
|D||2° Chest (weak point isolation)||3||10-15||Short|
Back & Abs
|A||1° Back (vertical pull)||3-4||6-10||Moderate/Long|
|B||1° Back (lift/row)||3-4||4-8||Long|
|E||2° Back (weak point isolation)||4||10-15||Short/Moderate|
Shoulders & Hamstrings
|A||1° Shoulder (press)||4||4-8||Long|
|B||1° Shoulder (abduction)||4||6-10||Moderate|
|D||Shoulder Health (i.e., ext rotation)||3||12-15||Short|
|E||1° Ham (knee flexion)||3-4||6-10||Moderate|
|F||1° Ham (hip ext)||2-3||6-10||Moderate|
Quads & Abs
Biceps, Triceps, & Forearms
|G||Forearms (as needed)||3||8-15||Short/Moderate|
Ancillary Exercises to Consider
Here are some smaller/more specific body parts that you may want to give some attention, along with the exercises to accomplish that task.
As needed, simply plug these into your split where they fit best, as illustrated above with the ancillary leg, forearm, and shoulder health exercises.
Curls/Flexion (Barbell or Dumbbell)
Wrist Extension (Barbell or Dumbbell)
Shoulder External Rotation
Side-Lying DB External Rotation
Cable External Rotation
|Target Muscle||Sets||Reps||Rest Interval|
|Shoulder External Rotation||4||8-15||Short-Moderate|
I'll be the first to admit, there's nothing revolutionary in this article, but that's sort of the point – we're not trying to reinvent bodybuilding training here.
Instead, these templates are meant to be something more like elegantly simple, yet extremely effective.
With that in mind, I'd encourage you to print them out and take 'em to the gym with you. That way, you'll always have the information you need to construct a badass training program on the spot.