When you’re trying to get more fit there are a lot of variables that come into play.
Your workouts should be challenging enough to create a change, whether that be in your performance or your physical appearance.
However, it shouldn’t be so rigorous that you’re always fatigued and having a hard time recovering.
But how do you figure out how many exercises per muscle group are enough and how many are too much?
After all, It is an important variable in figuring out an adequate training volume.
This is especially important for beginners, as doing too much too soon can cause you to see fewer results down the road.
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What is your training volume?
Training volume is the amount of work you’re doing during your workouts.
It’s a great way to figure out how and when to scale up what you’re doing in order to keep your progress steady and prevent it from stalling or stopping altogether.
Your training volume can be calculated by figuring out the total amount of weight lifted by multiplying sets x reps x weight.
The number of exercises you’re doing per muscle group will affect your total number of sets, as will your goal.
Why does volume matter?
In order to create an effective workout program, there are some things that need to be considered and they all play a role in adjusting your training volume.
Some primary things that affect your total volume include
- Frequency of training
- Number of exercises (per body part and per workout)
These numbers will vary from person to person depending on your level of fitness, your goal, and the frequency of your workouts. Let’s see why.
Your fitness level is essentially determined by how long you’ve been working out, and how much you can do while still being able to recover and adapt.
Beginners who are just starting to work out should do fewer exercises per muscle group and per workout than someone who is at a more advanced or experienced fitness level.
The reason for that is relatively simple.
If you’re a beginner, your body is not yet adapted to the challenges you put your muscles through during the workouts.
As such, you don’t need to do much for the body to start adapting and, in turn, your muscles to grow.
As you progress, however, you need to increase these challenges by either increasing the number of exercises or some other training variables.
Your goal is the result that you’re trying to achieve and will determine the types of workouts that you do, as well as how you go about structuring them.
For instance, if your goal is to build muscle then your workout will be a little different from a strength-focused workout.
A meta-analysis showed that if you’re trying to build muscle it will take a bit more time in the gym than if you’re trying to build strength. This likely includes doing more exercises, sets, and reps.
But, if you’re trying to get stronger then you may only focus on multi-joint movements like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses.
How often you work out will also affect the number of exercises per muscle group that you’ll want to do per session.
If you work out only 1 day a week, you’ll have to try to fit them all in during that session.
If you’re able to fit in 3 workouts per week then you can divide the number of exercises per body part up according to that metric.
Either way, the number of exercises that you’re doing per muscle group should stay pretty consistent from week to week.
When you’re ready to progress, you may manipulate one of the variables to keep your body challenged and changing.
What’s right for you?
As I mentioned previously, the goal that you’re working toward will play a vital role in determining how many exercises you should do per muscle group.
Let’s take a look at some different options based on the training effect that you’re aiming for.
If you want to build muscle, you may want to aim for 2-4 exercises per muscle group.
This normally includes both compound and isolation splits where you work 2-3 muscles per day on most days of the week.
Beginners should start with 1 exercise per big muscle group and increase from there as your fitness level improves.
For the smaller muscle groups, like your biceps, triceps, and calves you generally don’t need to do as much.
One exercise per smaller muscle group should be sufficient, even if you do it once a week.
As a beginner, you may want to stick to the lower weight and higher reps in order to ease into it and give your body adequate time to adapt.
Multi-joint movements are great for improving your strength but they also place a lot of demand on your central nervous system.
For this reason, your volume won’t be as intense as it would be for a muscle-building goal or bodybuilder-style program.
If your focus is to get stronger then prioritizing multi-joint exercises at lower reps would be the most effective path to follow.
In this situation, you wouldn’t necessarily be targeting one muscle group, but multiple muscle groups at the same time which is why you wouldn’t need as many exercises.
For example, deadlifts mainly work your quadriceps, hamstrings, back, and glutes.
Let’s say that you have an endurance goal and just want to lift in order to improve your work capacity and stamina.
In this case, you’d benefit from doing more exercises per muscle group in order to train your body to be able to do more work for longer.
This would be more of a Crossfit style workout.
My recommendations and examples
The number of exercises that you’ll want to do per muscle group can be divided throughout the week according to the type of workouts that you’ll be doing.
Below I put together some basic guidelines to give you an idea of what this may look like for the following two examples of full-body split and bodybuilding style split.
If you’re doing a full-body split, which is very effective for burning fat and getting leaner, then you’ll probably work out 2-3 days a week.
Since you’re working out for fewer days, you can do more exercises per workout and still have adequate recovery time.
Start with 1 exercise per muscle group, 2-3 times a week
1 exercise per muscle group, and maybe 2 exercises for lagging muscle groups or a body part that you’re trying to improve
1-2 exercises per muscle group, though as an advanced lifter you’ll benefit more from other types of training splits.
If you’re doing a bodybuilding split, then you’re probably trying to sculpt your body by building muscle and burning fat.
In this case, you’ll want to aim for about 4-6 days a week and train each muscle group twice a week.
For example, I currently work out 4 times a week with an upper/lower training split that looks like this:
- Monday: Legs, abs
- Tuesday: Chest, back, shoulders
- Thursday: Legs, abs
- Friday: Back, chest, triceps, biceps
Since I train each major muscle group twice a week, the number of exercises per muscle group can be lower than if I were to train them once a week.
Focus on the lagging parts
Usually, if there’s a certain body part that you want to focus on then you’ll want to do a little extra work on that one area.
Starting your workout with the lagging body part will generally allow it to respond more to your training.
You may also add an extra couple of exercises that are specific to that body part.
As a beginner, doing one exercise per muscle group is enough at first so don’t rush it.
Then, as your body adapts, you can gradually increase the number of exercises you’re doing per muscle group based on your particular goal.
Less is more, so start with the least amount to elicit a change and then add on incrementally over time.