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How many exercises should you do per workout?

So, something we’re asked a lot by our readers is “how many exercises should I do in a workout”.

Firstly we need to break that down into a few questions;

Once we have the answers to those questions, we’ll need to look at the maximum number of sets that you’re able to recover from per muscle group per week and the maximum effective volume of sets for a muscle group within a session.

Now, traditionally, people used to programme 3-4 working sets of an exercise for a muscle group within a session, however, that is no longer perceived to be the best way forward. 

The reason for this is, when you’re completing 3-4 sets at a high enough intensity, you’ll no longer after the first set (if you’re training hard enough) be able to hit the same number of reps in any of the following sets. As you can see below, it’s just too much volume. 

As such, the way we now programme is for an all out top set and potentially a back off set, with a slightly lighter load, but higher rep range. So taking that into account, we can assume a set volume per exercise of 2 working sets per exercise. 

In terms of the general rule of thumb of set volume per week, one would suggest somewhere in the region of 10-15 sets per week. So for a smaller muscle group like biceps 10 sets per week, a larger one i.e. back, 15 sets per week.

If someone is training a muscle group more frequently, (which is more optimal at twice per week), we would then be putting in between 5 and 8 direct sets of work on that target muscle in a given session.

The next thing to do is look at the grouping of muscle groups. For this example we’ll utilise a PPL or push pull legs programme. 

In a push group, the muscles trained are chest, delts and triceps. The delts (anterior) and triceps are utilised in press movements. So we’ll need to programme less direct work there. 

In a pull grouping, we’re recruiting rear delts, the back (lats, traps, rhomboids etc), and biceps. Where biceps get a lot of work in all pull movements.

In legs, we’re recruiting hamstrings, calves, quads and glutes. 

So here’s an example of the way we’d structure in terms of set volume for each;

Total – 12 working sets – 6 exercises

Total – 14 working sets – 7 exercises

Total – 14 working sets – 7 exercises

On some days, you may have higher volume for some muscle groups than others or vary dependent upon your body parts for example, but as you can see here, any more than something in the region of 6-8 exercises in a given session would just be unnecessary work.

With this kind of structure, you’re hitting the required set volume for the muscle group in the week, you’re able to hit the intensity you need and also working at a recoverable volume. 

You’re also not going to be spending 3 hours in the gym, all of your work is specific and effective and you can cut out a lot of the fluff work and focus on what really matters. Incrementally increasing rep volume and load to progressively overload your sessions. Once you have that nailed, you’ll progress. 

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