How many exercises should you do every workout?

How many exercises should you do every workout?

Staff Writer
8 minute read

How many exercises should you do every workout?

You know how important exercise is, not only for your muscle building or fat losing goals, but to your overall health. But there is a ton of information out there, lots of magazines and websites with hundreds of training programs and advice on training so it can be confusing to really know what to do at the gym, and how much you need to do to reach your goals.

So read on for today's article for our best tips backed by research explaining how many exercises you need to do on every training session, with recommendations on sets, reps, exercises and even how much you need to rest to get you to your goals in record time.

Volume, intensity frequency and rep ranges

Let’s first start by explaining a couple of concepts to take in to consideration so you can understand exactly how many exercises you need to reach your goals:

  • Volume: this refers to how much you do every week expressed in sets and reps per major muscle group. For example bench pressing, incline bench pressing, chest flies and pushups are all exercises for your horizontal pushing muscles, chest, triceps and front delts so all the sets you perform in a week of all those exercises added up is the volume of work you’re doing for your pushing muscles.

  • Intensity: basically means how difficult or “intense” the exercise is and how big the demand it places on your body to cause and stimulate a desired adaptation, when lifting weights the best measure for the intensity of the exercise is the weight that you lift, meaning that a heavier weight is higher intensity and lower weight is lower intensity. As a general rule, when the intensity goes up the volume will need to go down to prevent overburning and injuries, also to ensure you maintain proper form of execution on every rep of every exercise.

  • Frequency: refers to how often you train a major muscle group or body part. Common training programs that entail training one muscle group per week have lower frequency than training programs that are full body every single day. However research shows that the most important aspect here is total weekly volume and it doesn’t make much difference if you get all your sets and reps for a specific muscle group in one single session or several spread through the week.

  • Rep ranges: this refers to the amount of reps that you perform on each set and are determined depending on your goals and focus in what’s called the strength-endurance continuum. The lower rep ranges (3-5 or 4-6) are better suited for faster strength gains, rep ranges in the middle of the spectrum (6-10 or 8-12 for example) are best suited to stimulate maximum muscle growth, and higher rep ranges (12+ reps) are more efficient at building muscle resistance and endurance. However as being part of a continuum, rep ranges goals are not exclusive within each other so you can build muscle with lower rep ranges as well as building some strength with higher rep ranges.

The perfect volume for muscle and strength

As established on the previous point, the total volume of reps and sets that you perform during the whole week is more important than the frequency or other parameters. Having said that, you might be wondering how much is enough and how many sets and reps you should be performing every week and then how to spread them in your workouts.

First of all let's establish that the main focus for any person trying to build muscle and/or get leaner, losing fat should be on building more strength and muscle, or at least maintaining them while on a caloric deficit.

In order to achieve these goals in the most efficient and fast way research shows that the most effective weekly volume is of about 10-20 demanding sets per week per muscle group, where beginners should stay closer to the lower end and more seasoned lifters (over 1 or 2 years of training experience) would require to sta closer to the high end of that range. Another good way to measure the volume is staying in a range of 30-60 repetition per workout which is considered a moderate volume and has been shown to yield the best results.

With those two parameters you can then distribute your training load throughout your week in any way that suits your schedule and your ability to recover.

Building your perfect workout routine

So if you’re a bit confused on how to use all of this information, don’t worry you’re not alone. We’ll try to make it a bit more clear with a short summary, some examples and some parting tips:

  1. Define how many days a week you can realistically train: whether you train 3 days a week, 4 or 5 days or even more make sure that it is something sustainable that you can stick to for at least a few months so you can see the real benefits of your training program. If you’re a beginner you can stay on the lower end and train 3 or 4 days a week, so your training volume should be spread out during those days. For example take pushing exercises like bench press, incline bench press, and pushups. You could do 12 sets per week spreaded in 3 days like this:

    1. You could do 4 sets of bench pressing on monday, 4 sets of incline bench pressing on wednesday and 4 sets of push ups on friday. Then do the same for pulling exercises and leg exercises and you have 3 full body routines a week.

    2. Or if you decide to train each muscle group or body part once a week you can do your pressing on mondays with 4 sets of bench pressing, 3 sets of overhead pressing, 3 sets of chest flies and 1-2 sets of pushups. Then Wednesday can be devoted to pulling exercises and Friday to training your legs.

  2. Decide which exercises to do: as we’re focusing on gaining strength and building or maintaining muscle, your time at the gym would be better spent focusing the majority of your effort on compound lifts that allow you to lift the most weight in a safe manner. We already saw some good exercises for pressing with the bench press, overhead press and push ups, which can be supplemented with some triceps and shoulder isolation exercises. For pulling you can’t go wrong with deadlift, rows and pull ups plus some curls for your biceps, and for legs you should focus on squats, lunges and leg presses.

  3. Rep ranges: as mentioned before when intensity is higher volume should go down. So for big compound movements like squats, deadlifts and bench or overhead pressing, which again should be the main focus, you should stay on lower rep ranges like 3-5 or 4-6 reps per set, and for isolation or accessory exercise like curls, tricep extension, shoulder flies or leg curls you can do sets of 6-10 or 8-12 reps. This ranges mean that you should lift a weight that allows you to lift the lower end of the range, for example for 4-6 a weight that allows you to perform 4 reps with good form on every sets, then continue adding reps every workout, and once you’re able to get to the high en, in this case 6, you can add some weight for your next session and go back down to the low end, in this case 4. Keep in mind that you should not train to failure as it has not been shown to be more beneficial for strength and muscle gains, but only takes you closer to injuries, so make sure you have one or two good reps in the tank before finishing your set.

  4. Rest periods and recovery: You should feel recovered after every set before the next one to make sure you get all the reps and continue getting stronger. The recommended rest time for heavy lifts is 2-3 minutes up to even 5 minutes, and for higher rep range and lighter weight exercise 1 to 2 minutes should be plenty.

  5. Nutrition: All the effort in the gym and all the exercises in the world can not compensate for not giving your body enough nutritious foods to grow stronger, repair itself and help you achieve your goals. Remember the general guidelines of getting plenty of nutritious whole foods, lots of colorful vegetables, also a lot of protein, which is as important for building muscle as for maintaining it when on a caloric deficit to lose fat. If you’re not sure how to do this you can check our great resources and articles here or you can make your life easier by allowing us to guide you through the process with our amazing meal plans. 

If you’re still a bit confused with all this information you can always go back to our articles about training and exercise where you can find some good training programs to follow and take you to your goals in record time, like our beginner programs for ladies, our 4 day split or 5 day training programs.

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