It's no secret, resistance training ("lifting weights") is essential for overall health and wellness as well as building your ideal physique.
But, the problem for many individuals is that they don’t know where to start or what to do in the gym.
Common questions people face daily are:
- What’s the best training program?
- What are the best exercises to build muscle or burn fat?
- How many days should I work out?
- Do I have to train for failure?
Do a quick Google search for any of the above questions, and you’ll be inundated by endless websites all telling you slightly different things.
Today, we'll cut through the noise and give you the important takeaway points for how many exercises per muscle group I should do.
How Many Exercises Per Muscle Group Should I Do?
The answer to this question is going to depend on a whole host of factors, including:
- Training Experience
- Response to Training (high responder vs. low responder)
- Time Available to Train
Something else to consider is how much weekly volume do you need to perform to build muscle. The current body of evidence suggests that between 10-20 “hard sets” yields optimal hypertrophy (muscle building) for most individuals.
FYI, a "hard set" describes a set that is performed with a high level of relative intensity whereby you're within 1-3 reps of a technical failure (7-10 RPE = rate of perceived exertion).
Now, some might say that 10-20 sets per muscle group per week is a fairly wide range, and it is. So, how are you supposed to know what the right amount of volume per muscle per week is right for you?
That will take a bit of experimentation. But, generally speaking, it's best to start on the lower end of the volume spectrum, especially if you're new to resistance training and still getting used to training hard consistently.
As you get more experienced, you'll typically need more volume, as doing the "same old thing" won't yield the same results the longer you train and the closer you get to your genetic potential.
How many exercises should you do for that muscle group once you've dialed in your weekly volume per muscle group?
For instance, let's say that you want to perform 12 hard sets back each week. You could do 12 sets of hard deadlifts, but that in all likelihood would leave you sore beyond belief and unable to even bend over to pick up the food you dropped on the group when trying to get your chicken and rice out of the fridge.
Plus, doing 12 hard sets of the same exercise can get incredibly boring, and if you’re bored with your training program, the chance that you’ll push each set as hard as possible and/or even show up to work out consistently is slim to none.
Moreover, the "back" contains several muscle groups (lats, rhomboids, rear delts, etc.) with muscle fibers running in different directions. As such, if you want to maximize muscle growth, it's prudent at least to include a few different exercises for that muscle group.
That will depend, in part, on individual preference and recovery capacity, injury history, and biomechanics. But, generally speaking, between 2-4 exercises per muscle group is sufficient. This helps stress the muscle from different angles and force vectors, helps reduce overuse injuries, and provides enough variety to prevent you from getting bored.
Taking our 12 sets per week for back example, this could be divided across:
- Cable Rows
- 1-arm Dumbbell Rows
- Lat Pulldowns
If you're following an Upper/Lower split where you train each muscle group twice per week, you can put two back exercises on each "Upper" session and perform three sets of each exercise... thereby performing 12 hard working sets per week.
How Many of Each Exercise Should I Do?
Once you've planned out how many exercises per muscle group you're going to do each week, you then need to decide how many of each exercise you're doing to do (i.e., the number of sets of each exercise you're going to do).
This will largely depend on how many total sets you're going to do within the workout and how many sets you're doing for a given body part per week.
Classic rep and set schemes that have stood the test of time and continue to be used to this day include (but aren’t limited to):
This list goes on, but as you can see, a wide variety of set and rep schemes can be used to accomplish muscle growth.
Generally speaking, you’ll end up performing between 3-4 “hard sets” per exercise for larger muscle groups (chest, back, shoulders, quads, hamstrings) and 2-3 “hard sets” per exercise for smaller muscle groups (biceps, triceps, and calves...for those of you that actually train calves, that is).
How Many Exercises Should You Do a Day?
As we’ve said a couple of times already, “it depends.”
That’s not the sexiest answer (or the one that sells the most programs on social media), but it’s the honest answer.
How many exercises you do per training session will depend on how much training volume your body requires and how many days you're training per week.
For example, if you like following a "bro split" where you train 1-2 muscle groups per training session (e.g., chest and tris, back and bis, quads and hams, etc.), you may perform a different number of exercises than if you were performing a full-body workout.
Assuming that you're following a fairly standard (i.e., "practical and effective") training program, you're looking at performing between 4-6 exercises per training session and doing 3-4 sets of each exercise. This gives a total of 12-24 sets for a workout.
Again, that seems like a fairly wide span, but that’s how it can vary from one individual to another.
To help give you greater clarity, here’s an example of what a typical chest and tricep workout may look like if you’re following a split routine:
- Flat bench press - 3 sets x 8 reps
- Low incline dumbbell bench press - 3 sets x 10 reps
- Cable crossovers - 3 sets x 12-15 reps
- Tricep pushdowns - 2-3 sets x 10-12 reps
- Overhead tricep extensions - 2-3 sets x 12-15 reps
Now, if you're following a full-body routine, you aren't going to perform nine sets for each body part; otherwise, you'd be in the gym for 2-3 hours and feel like you've been hit by a Mack Truck.
You would most likely perform 2-4 sets per exercise and perform only one exercise per body part each workout.
Here’s an example of a full-body workout:
- Back squats: 3 sets x 8 reps
- Incline DB press: 3 sets x 10 reps
- Chin-ups: 3 sets x AMRAP
- Side laterals: 3 sets x 12-15 reps
- EZ Bar curls: 3 sets x 10-12 reps
- Dumbbell skull crushers: 3 sets x 10-12 reps
- Calf raises: 3 sets x 15-20 reps
Again, how many exercises and how many sets of each of those exercises you perform will hinge upon how often you like to train, what training split you want to follow, and how much time you have to devote to training.
Can I Workout Everyday?
Theoretically, yes, you “can” workout every day, but the real question you should ask is, do you "need" to work out every day to get results?
The answer to that is not.
You can get results from training as little as 2-3 times per week, provided you're getting in enough total volume and you're taking those sets close to muscle/technical failure.
Also, while it’s good to be physically active each day, your goal when hitting the gym for a resistance training session isn’t simply to “work out,” it should be to make progress and overload the target muscle group, which is essential for building muscle and gaining strength.
Make sure that when you’re hitting the weights, you’re sufficiently recovered and can really “bring it” to your workouts. If you don’t feel like you can bring a high degree of effort and intensity to your training session, take an active recovery day where you go on a hike, do some low-to-moderate intensity cardio, or foam roll.
What to Take to Help Sore Muscles Recover Faster
Muscle soreness is a foregone conclusion if you're pushing yourself to the max in your training sessions.
As such, you must prioritize proper nutrition and get enough sleep every night (yes, even on weekends). Consuming the right amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat and sleeping 7-9 hours each night is essential to recovery, getting results, and continuing to push hard in your workouts.
One of our favorite peri-workout stacks to fuel performance, optimize recovery, and support muscle growth is: