When creating a workout program, you first need to determine what movements will fit best with your goals, and then how many exercises you should be doing in a single workout.
It is common practice to do 2-4 exercises per muscle group on the day you are training that muscle directly. This means you could do 4-16 different exercises per muscle group in a given program depending on how many times a week you train (the more workouts per week, the more you different exercises you can add).
Below, we will discuss everything that goes into determining the right amount of exercise per muscle group and per workout.
I’ll also offer you a few workout examples to help you gain a better understanding of exercise programming for muscle growth.
However, if you want to take the guesswork out of your workout programs and start training with the Fitbod app! Every program is tailored to your goals, workout schedule, equipment, and performance. The Fitbod app tracks your progress weekly, and optimizes your workout design to keep you progressing week after week.
Does It Really Matter How Many Exercises You Do Per Muscle Group?
When it comes to building muscle, some of the most important factors for growth is training volume and progressive overload. What this means is that before you get lost in how many variations you should be doing for a muscle group, you first need to ensure you are doing enough training volume to get the growth you need.
Ideally, you would train 4-8 different exercises per muscle group in a workout program, with each exercise delivery 2-5 total sets.
This would deliver approximately 10-25 total work sets on a weekly basis to a given muscle group and offer significant volume and overload to promote muscle growth.
Below are a few common goals most people have, and how these goals may impact the number of exercises you need to do per muscle.
Bulking (Muscle Hypertrophy)
During periods where you are eating more and actively trying to gain muscle and weight, you should be training more.
Ideally, you are training a muscle group with 4-12 different exercises throughout the course of the week, as this allows you to train hard with each exercises (2-5 total sets per movement), yet also add in variety to your workouts and help keep you progressing across a wide range of exercises and joint movements.
Cutting (Fat Loss)
When cutting, you are eating less calories which means you may run the risk of losing muscle if you do not train hard with weights. Unlike bulking or maintenance phases, however, you may find you have limited energy or motivation to train, making exercise selection a key variable to help ensure you train hard, and often during this phase.
When cutting, the number of exercises you do per muscle group can vary, however is generally 4-12 different exercises per week. You may also find that bumping up that range to can be a great way to boost your motivation to train and help you push muscle fibers differ to stimulate as much muscle as you can.
It is important ot note that training during a cutting phase can be difficult, as energy levels will be low. The biggest thing you need to do is train and keep your training volume high, and not be concerned with how heavy you are lifting.
Training for a Competition
When looking at how many exercises to do in a program, your goals may have an impact on this if you are training for a particular sport or goal.
Powerlifters and weightlifters should train the main competition lifts 2-3 times a week on average (bench, squat, deadlift for powerlifters and snatch, clean and jerk for weightlifters), which may include some direct exercise variations as well (for example a squat and a box squat). When it comes to targeting the individual muscle groups, choosing 2-4 other exercises per muscle group in a given program.
Level of Expertise / Training Age
The level of expertise and training age of a lifter can also impact how many exercises you need to do per muscle group. Below we will discuss more in detail the direction between beginners and non beginner lifters.
Beginners (0-1 Years of Consistent Training)
When looking to add more muscle, research found that one of the most impactful ways to add muscle was to increase training variation (number of exercises).
How heavy a beginner lifts is often not as important to muscle growth as increasing training volume via increase the number of workouts you do per week, the number of exercise you do per muscle group, and the total number of sets you do per week per muscle.
If you are a beginner, aim to do 4-6 different exercise per muscle group per workout plan. This will allow you have variety in your program, learn more movements and skills, address muscle weaknesses and imbalances, and offer you different ways to push yourself.
Intermediate and Advanced Lifters
As a lifter becomes more advanced, they can still use exercise variation within a program, however they want to make sure that they are not constantly switching movements as this will not allow them to dial up the training intensity over time, as increasing loading becomes more significant over variation.
A program could include 4-6 total exercises per muscle group in a workout program, however this can vary based on other factors.
Training Split (full body, upper/lower, push/pull, Arnold split, etc.)
We will discuss a few common training slits, and how many exercises you should do per muscle group for best results.
Full Body Splits
When training full body splits, you are often training every muscle group every session.
To keep workouts from getting too long, or too overly fatiguing, you could do 1-2 exercises per major muscle group (quads, hamstrings, chest, back, shoulders) per workout (2-10 different exercises per muscle group per program).
Every workout however, you would choose a new exercise for that muscle group, which means you could do 2-10 different exercises per muscle group, or higher, per week, depending on how many times you train during the week.
Training upper/lower splits means are targeting each muscle group at least twice a week, sometimes even three times per week.
Each workout could include 2-4 different exercises per muscle group on a given day, meaning that you could include 4-12 different exercises per muscle group per program.
Similar to the upper/lower body training split, the push-pull split will be training the muscles anywhere from 2-3 times per week.
Depending on how you program this, you can shoot to include 2-4 different exercises per muscle, per session, and up to 12 different exercises per muscle group in throughout the program.
The Arnold split is a 6-days a week program that trains every muscle group twice per week, with 1 full rest day at the end of the week.
Since you are training every muscle groups twice per week, and are training 6 days a week, you are able to really increase the number of different exercises that target a muscle group if you wanted to.
Each workout, you could choose 3-5 different exercise do to for a muscle group, which means you could potentially do 6-10 different exercises for a muscle group within a single workout program.
Isolation vs Compound Exercises
When training with isolation exercises, you can often get away with training more variations and movements, as the overall loading and stress on the body is less when doing compound, heavier movements.
Isolation and Machine Exercises (Compound or Isolation)
When using isolation exercises and machines, you could get away with training 2-4 total exercise in the same session for a muscle group, which could equate to 4-12 different exercises per muscle group per workout plan.
Because isolation exercises are often less stressful on the entire body as a whole, you can tend to train them in higher frequencies and volumes, making them great for increase muscle growth when you can train more times throughout the week.
Compound exercises are great for muscle growth, and can be a mainstay of your training. Ideally, you would train each muscle group with 2-4 different compound exercises per workout program (2-20) different compound exercises per workout.
This would allow you to then add some isolation exercise to increase training volume without adding extra stress to the surrounding muscle groups, while also helping to address muscle imbalances and kep workouts interesting.
Target Muscle Groups
For most people, training a target muscle group per session with 2-4 different exercises. This could end up being 4-12 different exercises per muscle group per week, depending on how many times per week you train the target muscle group.
When training a target muscle group, doing more exercises for a target muscle can increase training motivation, help keep overuse injuries at ease, and help you address weaknesses.
However, it is still important to remember that overall training volume and intensity are two key variables, and should not be outshined by excessive use of exercise variations.
Training Day vs Training Week: How To Think About Exercises Per Muscle
When training a muscle on a given training day, you want to think about doing 2-4 different movements, each allowing for 2-5 hard work sets, depending on your level and phase of training you are in. This allows you to accumulate roughly 8-15 total sets per muscle group per session.
When looking at how many different exercise you need to do per muscle group throughout the week, this can vary based on the individuals motivation levels, access to different equipment, and abilities.
Ideally, each workout should include a few different exercises for the same muscle group to help you address muscle imbalances, not overuse a joint or movement, and to keep workouts fun and challenging.
To recap, most people can see great results performing 2-4 different exercise per muscle group per training day, and include 4-12 different exercises paper muscle group per week as long as they are getting enough training volume throughout the week (15-20 total work sets for most people would suffice)..
Does The Number of Sets Matter?
Yes, the number of total sets per muscle group you do in a given week matters! The more sets you do, the more training volume you perform, and that is a huge factor for muscle growth!
The exact number of sets per muscle group can vary greatly, and really depends on your ability to push a given set to near failure or failure while still maintaining good form and isolating the muscle directly.
For most lifters looking to gain muscle, aim to perform 3-5 total sets (all of them done at hard intensity). Warm up sets and light sets do not count.
How To Know If You’re Doing Too Many Exercises Per Muscle Group?
If you are finding you cannot hone in on feeling a muscle working after a couple sets, you may not be training as intense as you should. While this isn’t exclusive to workouts that have too many different exercises in them, it could be a sign that you are not allowing yourself the opportunity to learn a few exercise and do them with intensity.
Focus on nailing down 4-8 exercises per muscle group per workout program, and attack them.
Trying to do more than that may mean your focusing on moving through a checklist of movements rather than training hard on a few of them.
How To Know If You’re Doing Too Few Exercises Per Muscle Group?
There is no clear answer to knowing if you are doing too many exercises or not enough for a muscle group, because everyone is different and some lifters may be able to get great muscle pumps and growth by doing the same exercises every other day whereas others need some more variety to tasty motivated and attack every workout with intensity.
If you can honestly say you are getting great muscle pumps with the exercises you are doing, but still not getting enough muscle growth, you could try adding an extra exercises per muscle group in a given week. This could be a great way to increase overall training volume and add a new exercise to the mix.
Workout Examples: Exercises Per Muscle Group
Below are a few example workouts for various muscle groups during various phases of training (bulking vs cutting vs sport specific). The below examples offer some insight on how programming can be manipulated based on the information discussed throughout this article.
Bulking Leg Day
In previous articles we talked about the best leg exercise to do when bulking, and what you will find is they are very similar, actually almost identical to the ones done during cutting. The main difference is that during a bulk you can typically handle heavier loads and more volume at heavier to moderate loads than cutting, since your energy levels and recovery are much higher (because you have more calories).
- Front Squat: 3 sets of 5-8 reps
- Hack Squat: 4 sets of 8-15 reps
- Goodmorning: 3 sets of 8-15 reps
- Seated Hamstring Curl: 3 sets of 12-15 reps
- Sled Push: 4 sets of 45-60 seconds of hard effort
Bulking Arm Day
In a prior article we shared with you our favorite arm building excuses to do during a bulking cycle, and below we will create an arm day bulking workout that delivers high volumes to the biceps, triceps, and even forearms. This workout delivers 12 total sets of biceps and 12 total sets of triceps.
- Barbell Curl: 4 sets of 5-8 reps
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl: 4 sets of 8-12 reps
- Cable Curl: 4 sets of 15-20 reps
- Weighted Dip: 4 sets of 5-8 reps
- Cable Overhead Extension: 4 sets of 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell Kickbacks: 4 sets of 15-20 reps
Cutting Leg Day
The below workout still includes some heavier rep training to stimulate fast twitch muscle fibers and maintain as much strength as you can during a cutting phase, it then delivers a ton of volume with lighter to moderate weights to keep joint stress and fatigue low, and muscle pumps and muscle stimulus high. This specific workout delivers 9-10 total work sets for the quads and 7-8 sets of hamstrings.
- Back Squat: 3 sets of 5-10 reps
- Romanian Deadlift: 3 sets of 5-10 reps
- Belt Squat: 4-5 sets of 10-15 reps
- Seated Hamstring Curl: 4-5 sets of 10-15 reps
- Seated Leg Extension: 2 sets of 20-30 reps
Cutting Upper Body Day
The below workout aims to train the upper body, with the larger muscles like the chest and back getting 8 total sets per week, and the smaller muscle groups like the biceps, triceps, and deloids getting 5 total sets. This workout delivers enough volume assuming you are training the upper body 2-3 times a week.
- Incline Bench Press: 4 sets of 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell Flat Bench Press: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
- Pull Up / Assisted Pull Up: 4 sets of 8-12 reps
- One Arm Dumbbell Row: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Bicep Curl: 5 sets of 10-15 reps
- Cable Triceps Pushdown or Overhead Extensions: 5 sets of 10-15 reps
Powerlifting Strength and Muscle Growth (Squat Emphasis)
When training for strength, you need to train with heavier loads, as the adaptations for max strength sports are highly neurological, and often need to be developed with loads above 85%.
To do this, you are often training in lower rep ranges for your heavier, sport specific lifts (squat, bench, and deadlift) and the direct variants (deficit deadlift, board press, box squat, etc).
You can use machines, isolation exercises, and even free weights to drive muscle hypertrophy and increase overall training volume after your main lifts during muscle growth blocks, which is detailed out below.
If you were peaking for an event, you would often decrease the amount of overall volume (higher rep work) in a program to allow for max recovery for high percentage work (peaking strength)
The below workout is a squat emphasis day, and trains the lower body and core muscles as well.
- Low Bar Back Squat: Work up to a 3 rep daily effort set, then do 2 more sets of 2-3 reps with 10-15% less weight
- Leg Press or Hack Squat: 3 sets of 5-10 reps
- Belt Squat: 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps
- Glute Ham Developer: 4 sets of 10-15 reps
- Cable Crunch: 4 sets of 15-20 reps
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We have made it clear that the number of exercises you do for a muscle group has much less impact on your results than the overall training volume and progressive overload, however adding variety does help with increasing motivation to train, addressing weaknesses, and minimizing overuse injuries.
With the above guide, you have everything you need to design your next training program, or you can let Fitbod do it for you and take all the guesswork out of your training!
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.