When people are looking to get in shape and improve their bodies, there are many variables that factor into the mix.
How many calories are they eating?
How frequently are they eating?
What are they eating?
How hard are they training?
Which exercises are they doing?
And a whole lot more besides.
Getting in shape is not a quick and easy process, especially considering there is so much conflicting information available online for people to browse at their leisure.
Head to one personal trainer’s blog and he’ll swear blind that the best way to lose weight is by following the keto diet, whereas another personal trainer may simply recommend cutting calories and creating a caloric deficit.
For people looking to build muscle, though, it pays to know what to do, and indeed, how much of something to so.
Training volume is very important for people looking to make gains, which is why we’re looking at how many exercises per muscle group you should be performing if you’re looking to build muscle, lose weight, get stronger, get fitter, or anything else for that matter.
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When you’re listening to music, perhaps whilst you’re clanging and banging in the gym, the volume is used to dictate just how loud or quiet the music you’re listening to is played at.
The volume that we’re talking about today, however, is very different.
Despite the fact that it may seem complex, training volume is basically the amount of work that you happen to be performing during your training sessions.
Training volume is useful because you can use it to determine when it is time to scale up your workouts and perhaps do more working sets, more reps, or more weight in order for you to continue making progress.
Training volume can be figured out based upon the amount of weight you are lifting, multiplied by sets x reps x weight.
The number of exercises that you are performing for each muscle group will then affect the total number of sets you perform, along with your training goals.
For example, if you’re looking to increase your strength, you’d likely lift heavyweights in the 4 – 6 rep ranges, for 4 – 6 working sets.
For people looking to tone their muscles, the load would be lightened and they’d go with reps in the 8 – 12 range, perhaps even higher still.
Training volume is important because, without it, you wouldn’t be able to create an effective training program or routine.
The goal when exercising is always progression, regardless of what you’re trying to achieve, which is why training volume is so important.
There are a few variables to consider when it comes to training volume, including things such as:
In fact, out of those 4 variables, the one thing that has caused the most confusion for a lot of lifters is how many exercises they should be performing.
In a perfect world, we’d be able to give you a definitive answer to this question, but as is very often the way in the fitness community, nothing is ever black and white.
Basically, the number of exercises per muscle group that you perform will depend on a number of factors including how often you train, your goals, your strength, your fitness ability, and your personal preferences.
When it comes to training volumes, fitness levels are very important.
You see, it all boils down to the amount of work you are able to do per workout, how to fit you are, how quickly you recover, how strong you are, and how experienced you happen to be as well.
Those that are new to bodybuilding and/or resistance training, for example, should do fewer exercises per muscle group than somebody that has been training hard for decades, and who is clearly athletically gifted.
Now, if you were to speak to an online personal trainer looking to grow their list of followers on Instagram, they’d likely come up with a whole variety of different reasons for why this is, throwing complex-sounding phrases and terms in there for good measure, just to really make themselves sound as if they know what they’re talking about.
In truth, though, the reason for this is simply due to the fact that those new to lifting will not be as adapted physically to the stress being placed on their bodies as somebody that has been lifting heavy and training hard for decades.
It is, however, important to remember to continue to progress as time goes by, either by lifting more weights, doing more sets, doing more reps, or even doing more exercises per muscle group.
When it comes down to how many exercises per muscle group to perform, another very important variable to consider is your overall training goal.
If you want to burn fat, for example, you won’t follow the same workout routine as somebody that is trying to add 50-pounds to their deadlift max.
Of course, this does vary from person to person and goal to goal, but generally speaking, experts have found evidence which does suggest that those looking to increase lean muscle mass will likely need to increase their volume and spend more time training than somebody that is looking to increase their strength.
So, basically, if muscle growth is your goal when it comes down to how many exercises you should be doing, you will likely need to do more exercises than if you were trying to get stronger.
You may also need to increase working sets and reps as well.
It is very important to take training frequency into consideration.
How often you exercise on a weekly basis will also play a vital role in determining how many exercises per body part you should be doing.
If for example, you can only train one day each week, you would have to ensure that you hit every muscle group on that day, but also that you worked for each muscle group effectively enough.
If you are able to train, say, 3 days, for example, you may follow a full-body routine, which often actually only calls for one exercise per muscle group anyways, providing it is a heavy compound that really tests you.
What you need to remember is that, for each week, the number of exercises that you do per muscle group should remain consistent.
By this, we mean that you should ensure that you aren’t doing one exercise for chest one session, and then the next time you hit the chest you’re doing 5 or 6 exercises as your body won’t know what the heck is going on.
When it comes down to determining just how many different exercises per muscle group you are doing, you should also take the training routine you are following into consideration.
If you are doing a full-body routine, as mentioned before, per workout you usually only perform one exercise per muscle group anyways.
If, though, you are doing a 5-day split, you would train just one muscle group per day, which is where you would need to be doing multiple exercises.
On back day, for example, you wouldn’t just do lat pulldowns as your only exercise, you’d mix things up by doing lat pulldowns, pull-ups, deadlifts, dips, bent-over rows, t-bar rows, seated rows, and so on.
So, when it comes down to how many exercises you should be doing, one of the first things you need to consider is what kind of routine you happen to be following, as different training routines will call for different exercises.
In this next section, we’re going to be taking a look at several common myths which are surrounding training volume.
You see, in the world of bodybuilding, and health and fitness in general, it’s vital that you understand what it is that you should be doing, and when you should be doing it.
To avoid any confusion, here’s a look at several common myths surrounding training volumes.
When you talk to some so-called “experts” about how many exercises you should and shouldn’t be doing, a common myth surrounding training volume is that doing more than 5 exercises per muscle group is too many.
In reality, that’s complete nonsense because they’ve no idea which 5 exercises you are doing, and how hard you are working when you’re doing them.
By that logic, it would be perfectly acceptable to do 1 exercise and perhaps perform 60 sets of 20 reps with a heavyweight, yet doing 5 exercises consisting of 3 sets of 8 reps per exercise would be detrimental and could be classed as “overtraining” because you did more than the magic 5 exercises.
In truth, within reason, it doesn’t matter how many exercises you do, what matters is what you are doing when you’re training.
Another common myth when it comes to working out is that you can only build muscle if you perform 8 – 10 reps per working set.
Anything more or less is therefore considered detrimental and unproductive.
Yes, most bodybuilders will indeed aim for 8 – 12 reps per set on each exercise, and yes, that rep range has been found to be beneficial when it comes to muscle hypertrophy, but it is certainly not the only rep range for muscle growth.
You see, lower rep ranges with heavier weights can be effective for building muscle as it can place the muscles under more tension and create more microscopic rips and tears needed for hypertrophy.
At the same time, lighter weights and higher reps can also have a similar effect.
Basically, try to switch things up and mix things around so that you’re doing a lot of reps one session with lighter weights, and perhaps fewer reps with heavier weights in the next session.
For people that are looking to bulk up and build muscle, one of the main misconceptions surrounding the question of how many exercises they should be performing is whether or not you can build muscle with just one exercise.
It is indeed very possible to build muscle by performing just one exercise per muscle group, providing you to train hard and do the correct exercise.
Full-body routines have been found to be great for people short on time who are looking to increase overall strength and size, and they call for just one exercise per muscle group per workout.
The key is to perform heavy compounds that hit your target muscle group, and plenty of additional ones at the same time.
A typical full-body routine consisting of one exercise per muscle group could look something like this:
How long is a piece of string?
In reality, there is no one true answer because of all of the variables we’ve covered above.
If you want a very rough guide, then assuming you’re training to build muscle, 2 – 4 exercises per muscle group should be sufficient, providing your training routine will allow for it.
Reda is an ACE Certified Nutritionist, Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt and bodybuilder with 11 years of experience. He's been published on many influential websites such as lifehack.org, Wealthy Gorilla, Good Men Project and more.