One exercise per muscle group for optimal growth?

written by Philip Stefanov  |  FEBRUARY 14, 2023

You’ve probably heard the advice, “Do a few exercises for each muscle group for more balanced growth.”

But how relevant is it, and might there be a simpler way to train for optimal results?

Is One Exercise Per Muscle Group Enough?

In one paper from 2013, researchers put 11 active men on a 12-week training program targeting the quadriceps (1). Researchers measured the size of all four quad muscles and examined two to four regions per head before and after the experiment.

Rectus femoris experienced the most significant growth in the upper and lower region, whereas the vastus lateralis saw significantly less development, but growth was relatively even across the muscle.

Interestingly, the vastus intermedius, which lies underneath the rectus femoris, developed well in the lower region, but there was almost no growth in the upper portion.

These findings suggest that leg extensions, while excellent for isolating the quadriceps, cannot develop all areas of the muscle evenly.

In another study, researchers split 22 de-trained men into two groups (2):

  • A non-varied group performing the same six exercises three days per week
  • A varied group performing a different set of six activities during each workout

All subjects did three sets of 8 to 12 reps per exercise. The experiment lasted nine weeks, with researchers taking measures of several muscles before and after. Specifically, the folks behind the study measured bicep, tricep, vastus lateralis, and rectus femoris thickness in the upper, middle, and lower regions.

Rectus femoris growth was identical between the two groups and balanced in all areas, but the same wasn’t true for other muscles. Across all muscle groups, growth occurred more evenly for the varied group, though all subjects experienced decent hypertrophy.

Interestingly, lean mass gains were identical between the two groups, but looking closely at the findings shows different outcomes for the two training approaches.

The study further suggests that, when applied intelligently, exercise variety can promote more balanced muscle development.

Plus, we’ve known for a while that different angles of attack can emphasize specific areas of a muscle. Take the bench press as an example. The horizontal (flat) press trains the pectoralis major but fails to activate the upper region to a significant degree. Fortunately, EMG data shows that performing the exercise at an incline (30 to 45 degrees) produces greater upper chest activation (3).

Three Arguments Against Exercise Minimalism

I’m all for simplifying complex things and making them more sustainable. Unfortunately, simple doesn’t always mean better within the context of weight training.

Here are three reasons why it might be better to do more than one movement per muscle:

1. More Balanced Development

Research and anecdotal evidence favor a more varied training approach because it leads to more balanced development.

Regional muscle growth is an entirely valid concept, which means we must vary the training stimulus by doing multiple exercises and switching up the angle of attack.

2. More Engaging Workouts

I’m all for simple and minimalistic training, but let’s face it:

Doing the same exercises month after month can get tiresome. You might love the high-bar back squat now, but do it 12, 16, or even 20+ weeks in a row, and you might not feel as enthusiastic about it.

Of course, I can guess what you’re probably thinking:

“Working out isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s hard work that makes you better, so suck it up!”

Yes, I agree, but not entirely. Unless you’re training to be a professional bodybuilder or athlete, you should pay attention to the enjoyment factor.

In other words, don’t do exercises just because someone says they are ‘the best.’ Pick movements you enjoy doing because that will keep you more engaged, push you to train harder, and likely lead to better results.

3. Possibly Lower Risk of Overuse Injuries

Each exercise stresses your tissues (muscles, bones, joints, etc.) in a specific way. Doing many sets of just a few exercises could increase the risk of tissue damage because you’re stressing the same areas in specific ways.

Over time, such stress can result in inflammation that could develop into overuse injuries.

Have you ever heard of tennis elbow? It is a condition characterized by elbow pain resulting from inflammation. It occurs as a result of overuse due to repetitive motions: swinging a tennis racquet in several identical ways thousands of times. Similar issues can result from weight training if the workout approach is too rigid for too long.

In next week’s newsletter, I will share a practical way to tell how many exercises to do per muscle group, how often to swap movements, and why more isn’t always better. Stay tuned!

Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,


Sign Up Today

Thank you for taking the time to read my weekly newsletter. Each week, I share one insightful and actionable piece of content like the one above. Over 10,000 people receive it every week. Sign up below to join the community.

No spam. Enjoy the content for free and unsubscribe any time.