Updated: Jan 20, 2022
It's a common misconception that doing more exercises and more volume indefinitely will lead to the most gains. This is partially true, but up to a certain point. And that point comes much, much sooner than most people think.
I see far too many beginners, and even intermediate lifters who haven't done their research going into the gym for upwards of 2 hours a at a time, without really even thinking about the exercise choices that they're making. They just go in and aimlessly go through exercise after exercise.
And while I can definitely see why people think that doing more and more volume and exercises will lead to more gains, it's important that we look into the science behind training that we're lucky to have access to, and make judgements on our own about how much we need to be training.
That's why in this post, Ill be going over the ideal number of exercises that you do each week, looking into some of the science behind this and helping you apply it into your own training.
Ideal Number of Exercises Per Session
First, let's look at some science behind this. A study conducted by Bruna Daniella de Vasconcelos Costa tested two groups of subjects, where one group did a single exercise per muscle group three times a week, and another worked each muscle group with a different exercise from workout to workout.
Total training volume and training intensity were kept the same between both groups, for all of the workouts. After 9 weeks of this, gains in muscle size were tested, and similar overall gains were seen between the two groups.
However, there was a small trend towards more and better muscle gains for the group that did several different exercises per muscle per week, as opposed to the one that just did one exercise per muscle group.
Different parts of each muscle group or 'sites' were also assessed for muscle growth. The group that did several different exercises per muscle was able to experience significant gains in all parts of their muscle groups, whereas the group that did one exercise per muscle per week failed to experience significant growth in a couple of the 'sites' that were assessed. The study concluded: "Our results suggest that to perform different resistance exercises can induce hypertrophy of all sites assessed in detrained young men."
And other studies have shown this as well. Now what does this suggest? Well, it serves as an indication that training with several different exercises for each muscle group may be better for overall growth than just training with a singular exercise. Perhaps this is due to different exercises biasing and targeting different parts of the same muscle group.
For example, a dumbbell spider curl may hit parts of the bicep well that the hammer curl doesn't, and vice versa. In this case, the spider curl would work the short head of the bicep a little more, and the hammer curl would bias the long head of the bicep more. Therefore, it makes sense that targeting a muscle group through the use of several different exercises will likely lead to more overall growth over time.
The same can be sad for the chest, which can be split up into three portions. The upper, middle and lower portions of the chest are all biased in certain exercises, depending on the angle of the upper arm relative to the torso. It's true that the flat bench press will work he entire chest, but it's still important to incorporate some incline bench pressing to make sure that the upper chest doesn't fall behind.
So the science supports the idea of utilizing more exercises per muscle group for more overall growth. However, this does not mean that you need to be hammering away with every exercise ever created either. You have to take into account the total training volume that you're doing each week and your training frequency as well.
We have a full article on this which you can read here, but basically, the ideal training volume per week for most people falls somewhere between 10 and 20 hard working sets per muscle per week. By this, we man sets taken within 3 reps of failure. This was found in a study conducted by Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues, along with expert opinion.
You can choose to hit your chest with 5 exercises in a single session, but you'd likely go way over the recommended weekly volume if you were to hit chest again for a second time during the week. And yes, science does support the idea of training each muscle group at least twice per week as well, shown in this study conducted by Brad Schoenfeld, which concluded that: "It can therefore be inferred that the major muscle groups should be trained at least twice a week to maximize muscle growth".
Once again, other studies have shown similar results.
It can then be inferred from all this that ideal number of exercises per workout is different from person to person. There's no definitive, one size fits all answer. Sorry to disappoint. However, we can give you some rough tips to help you out. For starters, the ideal number of exercises that you perform per session should definitely be higher than one.
You also need to make sure that you're doing the right and enough exercises that hit all the sections of a muscle group to a large degree. For example, if you were to do just a bunch of flat barbell and dumbbell bench pressing, dips and high to low cable flyes for your chest, you'd sure be getting a lot of different exercises in, but your upper chest would quickly fall behind and start to lack.
For rough guidelines, the number of exercises you do per muscle per session would usually be 2-3 if you're running a classic split, and 1-2 if you're running a full body split. Over the course of the week, you could look to do 3-6 exercises (some can be the same) over two sessions to do all of three things:
Hit all the different parts of each muscle group (pick exercises wisely)
Hit all the muscles through their different functions
Reach ideal training frequency
Reach ideal training volume
However if you're working more than one muscle in a single session (which most of you will be), you also need to realize that your body has limitations when it comes to recovery. In a 'push' workout, it doesn't make sense to do three exercises each for the chest, shoulders and triceps.
Not only do many of the compound exercises work them all together, but you're likely not training hard enough if you can get through that many exercises and that any sets.
Instead, for most workouts, keep the number of exercises you perform between 4 and 6. Sometimes you can go up to 7 if you're doing a lower number of sets per exercise.
If you check out our training programs, or some of our workouts in our blog feed, you'll find that our workouts very rarely go above 6 exercises. This is just to keep the workouts at a reasonable length, without causing too much fatigue and excessive volume that doesn't lead to any extra gains. Just more recovery costs.
Applying to Your Training
Applying this knowledge into your training is actually pretty simple. First of all, we'd recommend switching to a workout split that has you training each muscle group at least twice a week. If you're running a bro split, you're likely leaving some gains on the table.
Then, pick 3-6 exercises to do across the week, some can be the same. Make sure your exercise choices hit all portions of a muscle group, and take that muscle group through all its functions to ensure you're training with a well rounded program.
Next, look to spread your volume for each muscle group out across the week and assign set and rep schemes to ensure you're reading the optimal training volume. Also ensure you're doing both heavy and moderate lifting to train for more well rounded athleticism and ensure you can keep progressing as quickly as possible.
For example, you could take a classic chest day workout like the one below, and split it up into two workouts, and pair each one with a couple of exercises for the triceps and shoulders for well rounded 'push' workouts instead.
Barbell Bench Press - 4 x 5
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press - 3 x 12
Weighted Dips - 3 x 8-10
Cable Flyes - 3 x 12-15
Turn this into:
Barbell Bench Press - 4 x 5
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press - 3 x 10
Low to High Cable Flyes - 3 x 12-15
Cable Lean-Away Lateral Raises - 3 x 10-12
Lying EZ Bar Skullcrushers - 3 x 8
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press - 3 x 12
Barbell Military Press - 4 x 6-8
Weighted Dips - 3 x 8-10
Close Grip Bench Press - 2 x 10
Upright Rows - 2 x 10
Cable Pushdowns - 2 x 8
Overall, hitting the right number of exercises per session doesn't have to be as confusing as some people make it out to be. This number will differ from person to person, but follow the rough guidelines in this post, pick your exercises wisely, train hard, recover well and you'll be well on your way to achieving your dreams in fitness, whatever they may be!
We wish you the best of luck on your training and thank you for your continued support! As always, if you found this post helpful, consider sharing it with a friend so that we can reach more people! We're on a mission to help as many as possible in their fitness journeys!
And for a boost in your gains with a fully personalized workout program catered to you and ONLY you, check out our custom programs feature.