Do you ever find yourself slaving away in the gym and thinking, “Should I really be spending this long training one muscle?”
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Or do you sometimes feel your workouts are much shorter than others around you and think you must be missing something?
While there’s no set length of a workout, as people have different goals and their bodies react to stimuli in different ways, it is important to make sure each muscle is receiving a sufficient workload.
Hitting that sweet spot ensures they get worked hard enough to encourage growth but not so much that you end up overtraining them, which at best will waste your time and could potentially even do more harm than good.
Well, if you are one of those people who is a little unsure, then don’t fear, I am going to try and help you out.
In today’s article I am going to show you how many exercises you want to be doing to get the best results possible, whatever your goals may be.
What Are the Muscle Groups?
While this may seem self-explanatory to some, there are others who will know what the individual muscles are but be unsure about what “groups” they are split up into.
While some people may have their own unique groupings, traditionally, the way we divide our bodies when training them is as follows:
Now, if you are looking at this list and thinking, “But calves are part of your leg,” then that is exactly why this section is important.
Calves are obviously part of your legs and will get worked to an extent by some “leg” exercises—such as lunges—but will still need to be directly targeted in order to fully develop them.
The same could be said of traps, as people still argue as to whether they’re a part of your back or your shoulders. Again, while technically it attaches to both, it is a big and unique enough muscle to warrant specific attention of its own.
Unique Considerations For Powerlifters, Bodybuilders & Strongmen
Now, people involved in powerlifting or strongman styles of training may not worry about breaking the groups down quite as far.
Their reliance on compound movements and sole focus on overall strength makes them less worried about how developed their bicep’s inner head is compared to the outer, for example.
As long as it gets the job done.
On the other hand, bodybuilders will need to break every group down as much as possible to ensure every inch of their body is trained to the same standard.
No matter how important it may seem in the grand scheme of things.
And the Answer Is…..
So, now that we have established the groups, it’s time to answer the question:
How many exercises per muscle group?
Unfortunately, as with most things related to your body, there is no one size fits all answer.
In order to pinpoint exactly how many exercises you should be doing for an individual muscle group, we need to answer three other questions first:
- What are you training for (strength, hypertrophy, tone, etc.)?
- What muscle group are you training?
- What is your body type?
Once we have answered these questions, you will have a much easier time determining exactly how many exercises YOU should be doing per muscle group.
So with that in mind, let’s get to it.
What Are You Training For?
As I mentioned earlier, people training for strength have significantly different priorities than those training primarily for appearance.
Big compound movements with heavy weight and long rest times lead to a dramatic increase in the time and energy put into each exercise.
The multi-joint nature of compound exercises also means that secondary muscles will be worked on almost every exercise (for example, triceps and front delts during a bench press).
This leads to a greater workload without giving them specifically-targeted exercises.
As a result, many people in this category will feel 2-3 exercises per muscle group is sufficient. Some will even go as low as 1 exercise per muscle group if they are training for a 1 rep max.
Hypertrophy & Tone
When it comes to hypertrophy or toning, on the other hand, things look very different.
The name of the game here is volume, as you want to hit a muscle from as many angles as possible to stimulate growth in every available fiber.
Thankfully, the use of lower weights and shorter rest times allows for these additional exercises and greater division of muscle groups to be achieved without having to spend an age in the gym.
That is why you’ll often find people in this group utilizing 5-7 exercises per muscle group.
This will, however, fluctuate based on our next question.
What Muscle Group Are You Training?
It doesn’t take a qualification in human anatomy to be able to see that certain muscle groups are much bigger than others.
When you compare some of the larger muscles in your body, like those in your back or upper legs, to say your biceps or deltoids, the difference is quite obviously massive.
It should, therefore, come as little surprise that those smaller muscles don’t need the same workload as the larger ones to achieve a similar level of growth.
In fact, they usually aren’t even capable of it.
If I were to expect the same output from my delts that I do from my quads, I would be sorely disappointed and probably end up causing myself an injury.
That’s why it is important to scale the number of exercises you use based on the muscle group in question.
Small Muscle Group Considerations
As I previously mentioned, powerlifters and strongmen focus on the biggest compound exercises that allow them to move the most weight.
The 2-3 exercise estimate I gave in the previous section is good for the larger groups but is possibly a little much for some of the smaller ones.
Many powerlifters will pick a single exercise for a smaller muscle like delts, and many will avoid individual arm exercises altogether, as they feel they get enough work during their other lifts.
When it comes to bodybuilding, this omission is not possible if you are going to achieve the desired results.
However, while they certainly use less volume on the smaller muscles, it is still dramatically increased compared to that of a powerlifter.
You will usually find a bodybuilder training the bigger groups in the 5-7 exercise range while the smaller ones may clock in at around 3-5.
Now, so far, everything probably seems pretty straightforward, but we still have one question left to answer.
What Is Your Body Type?
Of all the questions on the list, this will be the toughest for you to answer.
While you will almost certainly know exactly what muscle you’re training and what your goal is, you may not be so sure on what your body type is.
In fact, you may not even be sure exactly what the body types are.
There are three main body types, and these are:
- Ectomorphs: Ectomorphs are naturally very slim and small framed people, who will usually struggle to put on weight of any kind.
- Endomorphs: Endomorphs have an average-sized frame and can gain size at a reasonable rate. Unfortunately, they will also put on fat just as easily as muscle if they are not careful.
- Mesomorphs: The holy grail of body types for lifters, especially bodybuilders. Mesomorphs are large framed and can build muscle incredibly easily, with barely any fat gain, regardless of what they eat.
Now, while this should help you to determine which body type you have, you need to be aware that sometimes you won’t fit perfectly into one box and may lie somewhere between two categories.
For example, I have the build of a mesomorph but gain fat like an endomorph. This means I have to be much more careful with my diet than a traditional mesomorph, but not to the level of an endomorph.
When it comes to our initial question, then, it should come as no surprise that mesomorphs can get away with doing the least work and still getting great results.
The lucky devils.
If they are looking to build strength, they can use the traditional 2-3 exercises per muscle group.
Even when looking at bodybuilding, a mesomorph can often get away with as little as 3-4 exercises per muscle group.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it will be easy for a mesomorph to gain muscle, however.
While you may have to do a little less work, you still have to go at it with the same drive and intensity as everyone else if you want to be successful.
If you’re a mesomorph looking to make the most out of your workouts for rapid gains, you may want to check out the Rise and Grind workout.
Endomorphs are probably the most common body type, so the answer here may be what you are most used to seeing.
The 4-7 exercise range is ideal for bodybuilding, with the lower end for the smaller muscle groups and the upper end for the larger.
When it comes to strength training, you might be able to push it to the 2-3 exercise range, but I would personally suggest maybe adding an extra one to really make sure.
You also want to make sure you do at least one exercise for the smaller groups, like biceps, to ensure they don’t get left behind.
For all the ectomorphs out there, I am afraid to say you definitely have the toughest road ahead when it comes to building muscle.
You won’t gain much fat, though, so there is always that.
When looking at bodybuilding, you are realistically going to need to be doing up to 8 exercises for bigger muscle groups and potentially even 5 or so for the smaller ones.
While you may still be able to get away with 3 sets when training for strength, 4 is probably a better option.
You likely even want to do 2 exercises for the smaller muscle groups, as you want to give yourself every chance possible to get the results you’re after.
So How Many Exercises Should You Be Doing Per Muscle Group?
As you will have gathered by now, there is no one size fits all answer to such an important question.
There never is in fitness, unfortunately, but I guess that’s why we’re so proud of what we do achieve.
The optimal amount of exercises per muscle group will change from person to person and will even change for an individual depending on what their goals are.
To try and make it a little easier for you to determine exactly how many exercises you personally should be doing, I have constructed the table below.
(Small Muscle Groups)
(Large Muscle Groups)
(Small Muscle Groups)
(Large Muscle Groups)
While this should make it much more straightforward to get you to roughly where you need to be, you still need to remember that none of this is written in stone.
What I am doing is merely giving you the starting point.
You need to be able to listen to your body and adapt accordingly.
Like I previously mentioned, you may lie in between two of the predetermined body types. You may have certain muscles that grow at a much faster rate than others. You may even be trying to achieve more than one goal at the same time.
At the end of the day, as knowledgeable as personal trainers like myself are, no one will ever be able to understand your body like you can yourself.
You just need to learn how to understand what it’s telling you.
Hopefully, this guide will give you the first steps to getting you and your body on the same page. That way, you can decide for yourself how many exercises YOU should be doing per muscle group.