How many exercises per workout and per muscle group should you be doing when training for muscle growth?
How Many Exercises Per Workout Session Should You Do?
For most people wanting to build muscle, somewhere between 3-8 exercises per workout session is the ideal range.
Although the specifics will depend very much on your individual circumstances, a workout would start off with 2-4 compound exercises, such as:
- Overhead presses
- Bent-over rows
- Bench presses
These basic exercises hit multiple different muscle groups, and are best done at the start of your workout, when your energy levels are at their highest.
If you want to take a minimalist approach to your training, 3-4 exercises that hit all the major muscle groups will do the job.
However, if it’s maximum muscle gain you’re after, an effective exercise program will also include some isolation movements, such as leg extensions, lateral raises, hammer curls and so on.
These are typically done with a lighter weight and higher rep ranges (e.g. 8-12 reps or 12-15 reps).
How Many Exercises Per Muscle Group Should You Do?
If you want a short and simple answer, I’d suggest doing 1-3 exercises for each muscle group in a single workout, and somewhere between 2 and 5 hard sets for each exercise.
However, that’s quite a big range, so I want to dig into the subject in more detail, so you can narrow things down a bit.
When it comes to building muscle, your training volume is a critical factor affecting how quickly that muscle is built.
By training volume, I’m talking about the total number of work sets (not warm-up sets) you do for each muscle group, both in a single workout and over the course of a week.
Without enough sets, the “make me bigger” signal being sent to a muscle will be a lot weaker than it otherwise would be. But if you do too many sets, you’ll hinder the ability of that muscle to recover and grow.
Put differently, optimal muscle growth requires both an ideal number of sets per workout and sets per week.
However, counting the number of exercises you do for a given muscle group isn’t a particularly accurate way to quantify training volume.
That’s because the number of “hard sets” you do for a particular muscle group matters a lot more than the number of exercises.
For example, let’s say I told you that the best way to train for hypertrophy was to do three exercises for each muscle group.
Someone might run with that advice, and do two sets per exercise. Someone else might see the exact same recommendation, and do five sets per exercise. In other words, the same number of exercises can lead to a completely different number of sets per muscle group.
Why does that matter?
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There’s a ceiling, or upper limit, on the amount of stimulation your muscles can respond to in any given workout. The closer you get to this upper limit, the smaller the return on your investment of time and effort becomes.
However, everyone is different, and there’s no single, precise number of sets that’s going to be right for you, me and everyone else.
But as a rough guide, I’d suggest aiming for somewhere between 10-20 sets per week. For most people, most of the time, that will get the job done.
What’s the Optimal Training Volume for You?
As I mentioned earlier, there’s no single, precise number of sets that’s going to be ideal for everyone. There are so many factors to consider, all of which have a big impact on the total number of sets you should do. These include:
- The fitness goal you’re aiming for
- Your genetics
- The length of time you’ve been training
- Your age
- The exercises you’re doing
- The individual muscle group in question
- Your diet
- How much effort you’re putting into each set
- Whether you’re lifting heavier or lighter weights
Meaning, I can’t tell you exactly how many sets per week to do, because I don’t know you. But I can tell you how to decide for yourself whether you should be in the high, middle or low end of that volume range.
Let’s say you’re just starting out. In this case, you want to keep your overall training volume near the lower end of that range.
If your main goal is to build muscle, and you’re no longer a beginner, chances are you’ll need a higher volume of training to keep the gains coming. Somewhere in the middle-to-higher end of that volume range (13-18 sets per week) is about right.
However, a lot depends on you and your circumstances. If you’re in your forties, under a lot of pressure at work and short on sleep, you won’t be able to tolerate as much volume.
Psychological stress and sleep deprivation both make it a lot harder to recover from workout to workout, and you’d be best served by staying in the lower end of the volume range.
What if you’re trying to lose fat? How many sets should you do then?
If your main goal is to lose some fat, and you want to maintain (or possibly even gain) muscle while that fat is being lost, stick to the lower end of the volume range (10-12 sets per week). If you’re in a calorie deficit, which you’ll need to be if you want to lose fat, it’s harder to recover from workout to workout.
A given volume of training that’s about right when you’re in a calorie surplus can quickly become too much when you’re in a calorie deficit, and will need to be adjusted accordingly.
Should you train small muscle groups the same as larger muscle ones?
That is, do you need an equal number of sets for smaller muscles like your biceps and triceps compared to larger ones like your lats or pecs?
In most cases, no.
Smaller muscle groups, such as the biceps, don’t need as many sets, mainly because they’re involved when you use compound lifts to train other muscle groups.
Pull-ups, pulldowns and rows, for example, work the muscles in your back. But the biceps are also involved at the same time. They’re still going to grow even if you did nothing but rows and pulldowns, and didn’t train them directly.
It’s the same story with your triceps. When you train your chest and shoulders with various pressing exercises like the bench press, dumbbell shoulder press and so on, the triceps are also getting some growth stimulation.
So there is a degree of overlap, which you need to factor in when deciding how many sets to do for each muscle group.
As a rule of thumb, do roughly half the total number of sets for smaller muscle groups compared to what you do for the larger ones.
For example, if you’re doing 16 sets per week for your upper back, you’d do around 8 sets for your biceps. Because your biceps are doing plenty of work when you train your back, they won’t need as many sets to make them grow.
Why Training Frequency Matters
The number of exercises you do for each muscle group in a single workout will depend largely on:
- How many weekly sets you do.
- How often that muscle group is being trained.
If you’re doing a full-body workout three times per week, for example, just one exercise per muscle group will do the job.
But if you’re training a muscle group only once a week, you’re probably going to end up doing 2 or 3 exercises for each muscle group.
Let’s say that you decide to do a total of 12 sets for your chest each week. And let’s also say that you decide to follow a bro split, which involves training your chest once a week. In this case, you’d do all 12 sets in a single workout.
- Flat Bench Press 4 sets
- Incline Bench Press 4 sets
- Dumbbell Flyes 4 sets
But with a full-body workout routine, that training is spread across three workouts rather than one, meaning that the number of chest exercises is reduced to a single exercise per workout.
Flat Bench Press 4 sets
Incline Bench Press 4 sets
Dumbbell Flyes 4 sets
In both examples, you’re still doing a total of 12 weekly sets for the chest. But the number of exercises you do for each muscle group in a given workout will vary depending on how often that muscle is being trained.
In most cases, I think you’re better off training a muscle group 2-3 days per week rather than just once.
Let’s say that you train each muscle group twice a week. In this case, here’s what each workout would look like in terms of sets and exercises.
Major Muscle Groups
- 5-10 sets
- 2-3 exercises
Small Muscle Groups
- 2-5 sets
- 1-2 exercises
If you’re training each muscle group three times per week, here’s what each workout would look like in terms of sets and exercises:
Major Muscle Groups
- 3-7 sets
- 1-2 exercises
Small Muscle Groups
- 1-4 sets
- 1-2 exercises
As I mentioned earlier, somewhere between 3-8 exercises in each workout will work fine for most people.
In some cases, just three exercises will be enough to get the job done. For example, an upper/lower split comprising just three exercises in each training session might look like this:
Upper Body Workout 1
Upper Body Workout 2
Incline Dumbbell Press
That comes to 12 exercises per week, comprising a mix of both compound and isolation exercises. That is, in some of the workouts, you’ve got a compound lift (e.g. squats or deadlifts) followed by an isolation exercise (e.g. leg extensions or leg curls).
But if you were training your whole body in one workout session, you’ll need 5-6 exercises in order to stimulate gains in muscle tissue across the entire body. Here’s what a full-body training session might look like.
You could also add in some additional exercises for your arms and abs, depending on your personal preferences, time available, and so on.
You also need to consider the type of workout you’re doing. If you’re doing a lot of pure strength training, with an exercise routine that revolves around 4-5 sets on the various compound lifts, heavier weights and long rest periods between sets, you’re not going to have the time or the energy to do more than 3-5 exercises per workout.
There are no rigid guidelines that specify exactly how many exercises you should do for each muscle group in each workout. Some of the things you need to consider include:
- How many days a week are you weight training?
- How often is each muscle being trained?
- What’s your overall weekly training volume?
- How many sets are you doing for each exercise?
- How hard are you pushing yourself in each set?
- Are you talking about a small or large muscle group?
- Are you a beginner, intermediate or advanced lifter?
As a rule of thumb, I’d suggest doing 1-3 exercises per muscle group, and 2-5 sets per exercise. If you’re training hard, and putting a lot of effort into each set (which you’ll need to if you want to build muscle), you’re not going to need more than 2 or 3 exercises for a muscle group in any given workout.
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