Bigger, Stronger, Faster: How Many Exercises Should I Do Per Muscle Group?
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Professional bodybuilders and weekend warriors alike have long wondered about the most effective ways to build muscle, get stronger, and look better. Yes, there are specific exercises you must do, and yes, their ones you probably shouldn’t. But when it comes to working out, the most important, yet often ignored, the fact is that what matters most is the number, volume, and intensity of your workouts—even more so than the individual exercises. I’ll take a guy who goes hard on a 50 dumbbell, doing everything he can for an hour a day, then someone leisurely strolling around the gym doing a set here and a set there on the fancy machine after fancy machine any day of the week. Thankfully, though, there is a middle ground: You can and should train both hard and smart, and that means figuring out how many exercises per muscle group is optimal for your goals.
Defining Your Fitness Goals
Before getting into how many exercises per muscle group, you have to define your fitness goals. Someone who is overweight and looking to shed some fat is not going to have the same fitness regime as a thin person looking to build muscle. Just as the two groups should be eating differently, they should also be working out differently.
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on three common types of weight room goals:
- Getting Stronger
- Getting Leaner
- Losing Weight
When we refer to the “volume” of your exercises, what that means is the number of sets you do per muscle group, and then the number of reps you do per set. While generally speaking, the higher volume gets more and better results; there is a point of diminishing returns. You wouldn’t, for example, want to do fifteen sets of 10 bicep curls, that would be overtraining—which not only is not ideal for getting stronger, it can actually hurt your muscle growth.
Another thing to consider is that it is best to think about the volume on a weekly rather than daily basis. This is especially true when your primary fitness goal is strength. Why? Because in order to get stronger, you need to lift heavier weights for lower reps. This style of working out will give you big strength gains, but it is very strenuous and does not go well with the high volume all at once. For example, if you are trying to strengthen your lower back and legs, one of the main exercises you are going to be doing is deadlifting. Even three to four sets of heavy deadlifting are very difficult. This means that you are not necessarily getting in a lot of volumes—but again, if strength is your goal, these high-weight / low-rep days are a must.
Three to four sets of 80-100% of your max weight per muscle group about twice per week is ideal for building strength. In other words, if you are trying to strengthen your chest, you will want to do heavy, low-rep chest workouts about twice a week. Each workout should include between six and ten exercises for a total set count of between 12-20. Some people might prefer to break things up into three separate chest days, in which case you can easily increase your volume, still, though, you don’t want to go much higher than 20 sets per muscle group per week, any more and you are diminishing your returns.
Still focusing on chest strength, here is what a good week in the gym will look like (Obviously I’ve excluded all other exercises):
- Sunday: Heavy Flat Bench—1 set warm-up, 1 set about 70% max, three sets as heavy as you can go for two to three reps. Then you would throw in some exercises for other muscles to give your chest rest and finish up your workout with three heavy sets of decline bench, go as heavy as you can for five reps.
- Monday: Skip Chest. If strength is your goal, on days you aren’t benching, you should try either deadlift and or squat. Deadlift, squat, power clean, and other such compound exercises are the key to getting your upper body and lower body stronger.
- Tuesday: Heavy Incline Bench. This should look identical to your flat bench day. If you use dumbbells instead of a barbell, still go heavy, but be careful about your shoulders. Generally speaking, if you are using dumbbells, you are better off decreasing the weight slightly and increasing your reps. This may not be ideal for strength, but it will help you avoid injuries. Also, on this day throw in heavy dumbbell flat bench. Go for four sets pyramid-style. So, first set go as heavy as you can for eight reps, then as heavy as you can for 5, then 3, then 2.
- Wednesday: Skip Chest. Remember that if you are trying to gain overall strength, you want to try and hit every major body, part two, or more times per week. Once a week only is more in the “maintenance” range – if gains are what you are after training volume is key and for training volume, you need to do upper body and lower body exercises as often as you can. For more advanced weightlifters, one solution to working each major body part as often as they need is to experiment with regular full-body workouts. Doing a full-body workout may not be the best solution for everyone, but for lifters trying to get stronger, it represents a good alternative training program.
- Thursday: Repeat your Sunday workout but instead of doing a decline bench substitute in incline press. Incline, generally, is more important than decline. Although both are necessary for building strong and aesthetically complete pectorals, you are better off hitting incline and flat bench twice a week and decline probably only once. If, for example, on Tuesday, you did incline dumbbells than today do barbell incline. If you did barbell incline on Tuesday, then do dumbbell today. Keeping things new and occasionally mixing things up is very important to muscle growth.
- Friday: Skip Chest. On one or two of your non-chest days, you should throw in heavy tricep exercises. These can help your bench press max and ultimately help you build muscle.
- Saturday: Skip Chest and focus on other muscle building.
The workout routine described above will, no doubt, grow your pecs. But focusing on one muscle group to the exclusion of all others is typically a mistake. Remember that for true strength, you need to work moth the smaller muscle groups as well as, the larger muscle groups. If you only work the larger muscle groups like the pectoral muscles, the quadriceps, the shoulder muscles, and others, you will look good, but your strength will lag behind.
The takeaway here is that weightlifters can get stronger by increasing the number of exercises in their resistance training over the longer term, this will lead to significant muscle gains in terms of muscle size and muscle mass. You also need to understand that nutrition plays a massive role in getting stronger and building muscle. My favorite protein supplement is Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard Whey. You can’t beat this product. Also, you can use “CODY15” at checkout to get a discount because I am one of their athletes!
When it comes to getting along, lean look, you still are going to need to do a lot of weightlifting. The difference comes mainly in the number of reps per set. Rather than doing sets of 5, 3, 2, and 1 rep, if strength is not your objective, but looks are still important to you focus more on doing 15, 12, 10, and 8 reps per muscle group. You can also increase the number of sets. But remember, even if you are going for leanness, you don’t want to go more than 20-sets per muscle group every week, but you can significantly increase the reps per-set. As you can see, there isn’t an exact answer to how many exercises per muscle group when it comes to getting lean. But these are general guidelines to be coupled with proper nutrition.
Losing Weight at the Gym
One thing many people don’t appreciate is how effective weightlifting is at burning calories. In the long term, weightlifting beats just about every form of cardio when it comes to losing weight. Why? Because building muscles through weightlifting assures that you will burn more calories over time because muscle burns more calories than fat. So for this goal, there isn’t an answer to how many exercises per muscle group because you just need to get into a caloric deficit to lose fat.
A Note on Functional Fitness
Weightlifting is great; it’s a keystone habit that you need to include in your overall fitness routine. However, don’t forget that whether you are going for strength, looks, or just overall health, it is critical to include some forms of functional fitness into your exercises. You don’t want to become one of the inflexible meatheads in your gym who can bench in the 400s and yet can barely bend his arms to scratch his head. Being a professional bodybuilder is one thing, but as a physically fit person who has to remember that keeping the ability to move quickly, agilely, and with strength is a necessary part of being in great shape. This is why it is so important to mix up your exercise routines. If your main goal is strength, obviously you should be going heavy on the weights as often as possible. You should also, however, make sure to throw in a high-rep, low weight day a few times a month for every muscle group. Also, you should make sure not to neglect cardio. There are many cardio exercises you can do that will not hurt your muscle growth and will, actually, improve your overall appearance by burning fat, building your leg muscles, and give you more energy throughout the day and while you are in the gym. If you aren’t used to doing cardio, start small. Try doing 5-minutes of easy, low-impact cardio at the end of every workout. Even that small amount can make a tremendous difference. Eventually, you can increase the amount of cardio you do daily, depending on your goals. But remember, just like everything else, you should eventually test your cardio, so a few times a month go a long run, or make sprints, or something challenging to keep your cardiovascular system fit and healthy. Cardio is often overlooked when trying to answer how many exercises per muscle group because it isn’t looked at as a “lift”. But as I stated before, sprinting has so many benefits and shouldn’t be neglected.
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