How many exercises per muscle group?

written by Philip Stefanov  |  FEBRUARY 21, 2023

Last week, we explored the idea of doing a single exercise for each muscle group and if that could be effective. Feel free to read it here in case you missed it.

This week, we’ll go over how many exercises you should actually do, why more isn’t always better, and how frequently to swap movements.

Let’s dive in.

How Many Exercises Per Muscle Group?

Doing more than one movement per muscle group is generally best in almost all cases. Here are some bare minimum recommendations for each muscle group:

  • Back - a horizontal (e.g., bent-over row) and a vertical (e.g., pulldown) pull
  • Chest - a flat (e.g., barbell bench press) and an incline (e.g., incline dumbbell press) press
  • Shoulders - an overhead press variation, a lateral raise, and a rear-delt move (e.g., face pulls)
  • Biceps - a wide and narrow-grip bicep curl for the short and long head
  • Triceps - an overhead extension and an extension with your arms at your sides
  • Glutes - at least one hip extension (deadlift, hip thrust, etc.)
  • Hamstrings - one hip extension (e.g., Romanian deadlift) and one knee flexion (e.g., lying hamstring curl)
  • Quadriceps - a squat variation (e.g., high-bar back squat) and an accessory activity (e.g., lunge, leg press, etc.)
  • Calves - a standing and seated calf raise variation

For instance, doing a flat and incline bench is necessary for targeting the lower, middle, and upper portions of the chest. Similarly, a horizontal and vertical pull ensures more thorough upper back development.

When More Stops Being Better

There is certainly an argument for performing at least three to four sets per exercise. Doing multiple consecutive sets on each exercise promotes good technique and teaches you to engage the correct muscles.

For example, the first set of an exercise probably feels awkward, and you struggle to engage the correct muscles. But as you do more sets, you get in the groove and find it easier to establish a mind-muscle connection.

By the third, fourth, and fifth set, you’re in the zone: everything clicks right, and the correct muscles are working hard. If you stop after the second set and move to a different exercise, you lose out on these potential benefits. Instead, each exercise feels a bit off, and you struggle to hit the target muscles well.

Of course, the alternative here is to do many exercises and many sets per exercise, but that’s just a recipe for overtraining.

Changing movements too often is also not ideal because it makes it challenging to track your progress. For example, how can you compare your performance if you’re doing lat pulldowns this week, seated cable rows next week, and bent-over rows the week after? The answer is, you can’t.

Lastly, doing too many exercises is simply not ideal from a practical point of view, especially if you work out at a public gym. Switching from one piece of equipment to the next often means waiting for someone else to finish up before you get your turn. Sometimes, that might mean waiting for someone to do three or four sets.

Why would you wait all this time to get a piece of equipment, only to give it up a couple of sets later and wait for another machine or free weight? Getting as much out of a single piece of equipment as possible would be much better.

A Simple Way to Determine How Many Exercises You Should Do

I recommend deciding how many total sets you want to do for a muscle group and dividing them by 4 or 5. For example, do you plan on doing 16 weekly sets for your chest? Divide by 4 to get the number of exercises you should do. That way, you get to do four sets on each movement.

Also, stick with your exercise choices for at least six to eight weeks unless a particular activity simply doesn’t feel good on your body and does more harm than good. That way, you can more effectively track your performance, keep your training relatively fresh, and have enough time to optimize your technique and create a solid stimulus.

Once an exercise stops feeling effective, be it within the context of one workout or a long-term training plan, swap it for another and repeat the process.

Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,


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