The Perfect Beginner Full Body Workout Program
What’s the ideal workout routine for beginners just taking up resistance training?
What beginners do in the gym can be the difference between making gains, and making RAPID gains!
Just going to the gym and lifting weights is probably going to result in muscle gain for a complete beginner if done consistently.
That does not make it a good routine, nor does it mean that routine is balanced or optimal.
You may have the following questions:
- What is the ideal workout frequency?
- How much volume should I be doing?
- What is the ideal lifting intensity?
- How many times per week should I be training each muscle group?
- What are the best exercises?
- How many rest days should I have?
- How do I progress as a beginner?
Read on to find out how to devise your own full body workout program that is perfect for beginners!
Beginners should keep things SIMPLE
First point – no workout program will work to build muscle if you get everything else wrong! You need to apply certain principles to this (or ANY) program in order for it to actually work. Those principles are usually not mentioned in workout programs. Growing muscle requires certain ingredients to be present. What you do in the gym is just one ingredient in the recipe.
DO NOT copy workouts from magazines, mainstream fitness websites or advanced bodybuilders!
Many workout programs recommended by fellow gym-goers, popular websites and magazines, will result in muscle groups being worked once per week – usually for an insane amount of volume on one specific day of the week.
This is not ideal for a beginner. You are potentially leaving a lot of gains on the table by waiting a whole week to train a body part again.
I do not recommend the following types of programs for beginners:
Tuesday: Biceps and calves
Wednesday: Triceps and abs
Thursday: Quads and shoulders
Friday: Hamstrings and Back
These programs can be found all over the internet, and they’re usually much better suited to more advanced lifters than beginners. They’re often put together by pro body builders who are at a completely different stage of their muscle building journey and therefore are more likely to require 20 sets of different biceps exercises to stimulate a muscle building response. There’s a reason why they might be doing a weird split that sees them training forearms directly, or working shoulders 3 times a week. That might be their only weak points. They also are more likely to have some “extra help”.
You Don’t Need to BLAST a Muscle Group In One Session!
For a beginner (and even intermediate and experienced trainees) this way of training is likely going to take you well past the required volume to stimulate a muscle building response for each muscle group. 25-30 sets on one muscle group in one session is completely unnecessary for almost everyone. You’re probably not doing much except eating into your recovery with at least half of those sets.
A better way to train would be to cut down the volume within individual sessions, but keep the same, or similar, volume throughout the week by combining muscle groups within a session and training each one more than once per week.
That way you end up with something like this:
Monday: Upper body (chest, back and indirect shoulders and arms work)
Tuesday: Lower body (various compounds hitting quads, hamstrings, glutes)
Thursday: Upper body (Back, shoulders and indirect chest & arms work)
Friday: Lower body (various compounds hitting quads, hamstrings, glutes)
This set up could result in the same overall volume per muscle group as the first plan where body parts are trained once per week. The key difference is you split the training up across the week, so you do a greater amount of useful work. The sets in the second half of the week come when you are fresh and recovered, and can elicit a new muscle building response. This is much better than sloppy work done in the second half of a training session that amounts to flogging a dead horse.
Do this every week with 2 weeks off and you’ll end up with 100 useful training sessions per muscle group that promote a muscle building response, rather than 50.
Full Body Programs Give the Most Bang for Buck for Beginners
For beginners, I usually recommend a 3x per week full body program utilising two different alternating workouts.
This is because beginners need even less stimulus per muscle group to get a response, so it makes sense to train the entire body in one session. Now you can adequately stimulate each muscle group THREE times per week! This is a faster route to gains!
These workouts focus on compound movements that hit multiple muscle groups at once so the whole body is worked more efficiently.
Beginners are going to see their biceps grow from barbell rows and chinups, even though these primarily target the back. Beginners’ triceps are going to grow from bench press and overhead press, even though these primarily target the chest and shoulders. Your traps, abs, forearms, hamstrings etc. are going to grow from deadlifts, and your quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, abs etc. are going to develop from squats.
Perform the following two workouts in an alternating fashion – with always at least 1 day between workouts. Perform 3 total workouts per week. One week you will perform Workout A twice, with Workout B sandwiched between. The next week you will perform Workout B twice, with Workout A sandwiched between.
You might do:
Or You Might Do:
Here’s how the workouts look:
Beginners Full Body Workout A:
Barbell back squats, 3 sets of 8 – 12
Pull-ups/chin-ups (use assistance if necessary – machine or bands) – 3 sets of 8 – 12
Overhead Press (seated or standing, dumbell or barbell), 3 sets of 8 – 12
Dumbell single arm row, 3 sets of 8 – 12
Bench press (dumbell or barbell), 3 sets of 8 – 12
Beginners Full Body Workout B:
Romanian deadlift, 3 sets of 8 – 12
Barbell bent over row, 3 sets of 8 – 12
Dumbell walking lunges (or barbell reverse lunges), 3 sets of 8 – 12
Lat pulldown, 3 sets of 8 – 12
Incline bench press (dumbell or barbell), 3 sets of 8 – 12
A few things to note:
- There is a deliberate lack of emphasis on chest. Chest is only worked with one exercise per workout. This is because too many beginners focus too much on chest, and end up building up the anterior deltoids too much. This causes the shoulders to overdevelop on the front, pulling them out of alignment. Not only does this look bad, giving a slouched, round shouldered look, it also causes shoulder problems later down the line.
- Arms are not a focus. As previously mentioned, they’ll get enough work from the rows and presses. If you REALLY want to, you can add ONE biceps exercise to workout A, and one triceps exercise to workout B, to be done at the end.
- There are no ab exercises. These will be worked enough from squats, deadlifts, pull-ups and military press. To see them, you don’t need to work them, you need to lose fat from your midsection by being in a calorie deficit
- Every exercise is performed for 3 sets of 8-12 reps. You do not gain muscle by trying to hit new 1 rep maxes, you gain it by being in a calorie surplus and by lifting more volume, with greater load under tension.
This next one is really important!
- TRACK WHAT YOU LIFT. Pick a weight you can do 8 good reps with for 3 sets. Write down what you did or record it in your phone. Next time, pick the same weight but try to do 3 sets of 9. If you can’t, try to do 2 sets of 8, and one set of 9. Keep increasing the reps like this until you’re doing that weight for 3 sets of 12. Then up the weight and go back to 3 sets of 8. This shouldn’t take too long at the beginning because your nervous system adapts first as you learn how to do the movements. If the weights aren’t going up fast at the start, you’re probably not eating enough or not sleeping enough.
- Pull-ups/chin-ups can be done assisted if needed (you probably will need to if you’re a beginner). Your gym should have a machine that has a platform that supports your knees while you do these exercises. This connects to adjustable weights that mean you lift less than your own bodyweight.
What if I can’t do the exercises in the program?
I understand not everyone starts with the same starting level of strength, level of general fitness, ease of movement, proficiency, etc.
Some people may not be able to bench press the bar, or feel comfortable trying to do back squats. Others are unable to do pullups (see image and video below for help with that).
How to do Pullups and Chinups if You’re Not Strong Enough for them Yet
Some gyms have assisted chinup/pullup/dip machines. If you have one of those, these work great. This is like a pullup station with a platform you rest your knees on, which moves up and down as you do pullups, chinups or dips. You choose how much assistance it gives you by selecting weight plates in a stack. The more weight you choose, the more it helps you by offsetting your own weight. I used one of these to get my first unassisted pullups. Over weeks and months I progressively reduced the weight that was assisting me, until I could do them with no weight.
Make sure you get the right type of resistance bands. You’ll also probably want multiple different “weights” or thicknesses, as these provide more/less assistance so you can swap them you as you get stronger. You want the long resistance bands, not the small ones that are meant to go round your legs and are intended for adding resistance to squats and glute exercises.
If you’re using resistance bands to do pullups at home, you’ll obviously need a pullup bar.
How to use a Resistance Band to do Pullups and Chinups
Loop your resistance band around the bar and through itself, so it will remain in place. Depending on its length and the amount of space you have, you can put your knee or you foot in the other end. This will mean that the band will be stretched when you’re at the bottom of the pullup or chinup. This tension will help to boost you back up as you perform reps, therefore making them easier.
It looks like this:
Here’s a video that will show you the best way to do pullups and chinups, and also how to use resistance bands to assist you until you can do them unassisted:
You should ensure you’re progressively overloading the work on your muscles by reducing the amount of assistance you are getting from the band. You do this by using lighter and lighter bands, or doing more reps.
It might look like this:
First time: 8 reps with 2 bands (thick and medium). Adding 1 rep per week until:
Next level: Back to 8 reps but now using a thick band and a light band. Adding 1 rep per week until:
Next level: Back to 8 reps but now only using a thick band.
And so on, until you’re using medium and light bands, then eventually just light bands, then no band.
You can buy something called a chinup max, which is essentially 1 piece of equipment with multiple different bands built into it. You can change the amount of assistance without needing a load of bands.
Basic Version of the Beginner Full Body Program
You may not have access to a gym, or you may not feel ready to approach some of the more intimidating or technically challenging exercises like barbell back squats. Here’s a regressed version of the beginner full body program that will work just as well, but is at a less advanced level.
Basic Workout A:
Bodyweight squats, or goblet squats if you can manage them
Dumbell walking lunges
Lat pull downs
Dumbell bench press (your gym should have some light dumbells that you can start with before progressing up)
Seated cable row
Basic Workout B:
Dumbell Walking lunges
Seated dumbell shoulder press (use light dumbells)
Lat pull downs
Single arm dumbell row
What if You’re an Intermediate Lifter?
Past a certain point, lifting “straight sets” isn’t the most effective way to build muscle or strength.
“Straight sets” means you use the same weight and the same number of reps, for all of your sets. For example, 3 sets of 10 reps, all with 225 lbs (100kg).
If you’re able to hit 10 reps with the same weight on all 3 sets, then the first 2 sets weren’t challenging you as much as the last set.
A more effective way to train (for intermediate and advanced lifters) is to utilise something called Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT).
When you use an RPT approach, you start with a heavier weight on your first set and lift lighter weights for the subsequent sets. As the weight comes down, the number of reps per set goes up. All sets are taken close to failure, so every set is challenging, not just the first one.
It might look like this:
First Set: 225 lbs x 4-6
Second Set: 200 lbs x 6-8
Third Set: 180 lbs x 8-10
Fourth Set: 160 lbs x 10-12
If you’re an intermediate lifter who’s struggling to continue making progress, I highly recommend adopting this approach.
Keep track of everything you do. You don’t need to increase the weight on every set every week. Just stay within the rep ranges for each set. If you only manage to hit 4 reps on the first set, just try to hit 5 the next time OR add 1 rep to one of the other sets.
Try to add a rep on every set, then increase the weight when you reach the top of the range (for example 6 reps on the first set). If you only add 1 rep to just one of the sets every session, that is still progress.
Remember! None of this will work if you don’t follow all of the other principles of building muscle too. What lifts you do in the gym is 1/10th of the puzzle. Find out the rest here.
There you go, two full body programs for beginners, one more basic than the other AND direction to adapt this for intermediate lifters.
Keep that up for 3 to 6 months and eat in a calorie surplus and you should see great muscle gains. You’ll then probably be ready to move on to another program like upper/lower or push/pull/legs.
Remember, to build muscle you need to eat in a calorie surplus, and sleep to recover. If you’ve got fat to lose and you’d rather lose this before focusing on gaining muscle, then you need to eat in a calorie deficit. This will limit how much muscle you gain.
If you have a bit of fat, but not that much, you can focus on building some muscle and it will look like you’ve lost fat. This is because the fat you had now has to cover more of you due to increased muscle size so you’ll look bigger AND leaner!
Looking for another guide? Check out Mike Vacanti’s guide here. You should follow his stuff, he’s brilliant.