Knowing how many exercises per muscle group to do is a really important factor in achieving success with your workouts. The answer to this question is dependent on you as an individual and what your goals are with exercising. Don’t worry though, I will walk you through everything you need to know below when it comes to figuring out how many exercises per muscle group you should do based on your skill level and goals!
Throughout this article, I am going to speak as if your goal is to increase your strength and muscle size. If you are curious about this for other purposes such as flexibility, weight loss, or athletic performance, let me know in the comments below!
How many exercises per muscle group as a beginner
If you have never worked out before with weights or if you haven’t worked out with weights in a long time, you should consider yourself a beginner. Even if you have exercised with weights in the past, studies have shown that men and women will have noticeable strength loss in just two and a half weeks after stopping exercise. So, if the last time you lifted a weight was with a high school coach and you are now in your 40s, it’s safe to say that you have had noticeable strength losses! You have to separate knowledge of exercising from the recency of exercising.
Why is this the case? Because as your body loses strength and deconditions, its tolerance for stress diminishes as well. Because of this, we have to take you back to baseline and build you back up.
The good news for both categories of beginners is that you will see massive progress with very little work which leads me to our topic at hand: how many exercises per muscle group should a beginner do?
The best place for you to start is trying to hit 3-6 sets per muscle group per workout. How you organize that is largely up to you and your lifestyle, but for most people with full-time jobs and families, I usually recommend doing three full-body workouts a week. If you would like to see how a plan like this works, I have a full-body program for beginners that is completely done for you with workouts and video demonstrations that is only $5! You can purchase and download it here.
Why only 3-6 sets per muscle group per workout? Remember that your body does not have a high tolerance for weight lifting at this point. If you push your body too far too soon, you risk injuring yourself or at the very least being unbelievably sore for several days following. In either case, it’s unlikely you will return to the gym anytime soon to rework those muscle groups which is bad news for trying to build the habit of going to the gym.
How many exercises per muscle group as an intermediate
Determining when you are classified as an intermediate weight lifter is a tricky subject. There are many different ways to determine when someone is in between being a beginner or an expert and they all have their flaws.
For the sake of simplicity, I typically call someone intermediate when they have been consistently lifting weights for a year. After a year of consistently lifting weights, any individual should be pretty well-versed in most major lifts, have a good intuition of what muscles they are working given an exercise, and have good enough form that they haven’t had an injury from weight lifting and can demonstrate good form without much help.
At this point in time, you will start to notice plateaus in your strength; that is one of my main signifiers. During this phase, you will need to start ramping up the work that you put into your muscles because they are now at a point where 3-6 sets a workout is too tolerable to cause any real change; your muscles are merely going through the motions.
In order to break through the plateaus and start to see some new growth like you once did, I really like to see intermediates scale up to 9 sets per muscle group per workout.
At this point in time, you have two good routes to take as far as workout scheduling goes. The first, and optimal way, in my opinion, would be to go to a push/pull/legs split or an upper body/lower body split in both scenarios, you’ll want to do 1-2 ab exercises per workout as well. Both of these splits should be done at least 4 times per week. The beauty of them is that you are now focusing a little more acutely on your muscular system. During full-body workouts, you end up working muscle groups that are totally unrelated like biceps and legs. That isn’t bad, but it does mean that each muscle group only has to work for a small period of time before they can take a long break. During push/pull/legs or upper body/lower body, you will be working out a system as a whole which means that the muscles in that system will be working for the entire workout either directly or indirectly.
For instance, if you are doing a push day, the muscle groups you will be working out will be your shoulders, triceps, and chest. A bench press is for the chest, but the shoulders and triceps are heavily involved. After you do bench, you still have workouts to do that will involve your chest, shoulders, and triceps. Your biceps aren’t getting any work, your legs aren’t doing anything so it’s all shoulders, triceps, and chest. This actually adds to the amount of work each muscle is doing beyond the reps you are already doing for it which adds to the stress each muscle endures.
How many exercises per muscle group as an expert
If you are at this level, you have reached a point where you are hitting plateaus at an intermediate level and have started to become accustomed to the volume at the intermediate level.
At this point in time, you should be thinking about more creative ways to add stress to a body part without tacking on too much more time to your workouts. You do still want to keep your workouts to under an hour if you can just for the sake of your body’s recovery.
It’s during this period of time when utilizing super sets, tri-sets, and giant sets is a must unless you can work out five days a week. You should know now creative ways of “turning off” a muscle in order to work out another that is still in the same group. For instance, doing a bench press and then super setting that with an overhead dumbbell extension. Your chest and triceps are working during the bench press, but only your triceps are working during the overhead extension. Your triceps are doing double duty while your chest has to pick up the slack from tired triceps during the bench press.
If you can, hit 12+ sets per muscle group per workout. To accomplish this, I think the only time-efficient way to do this is with the classic 5-day-a-week body-part split. You can do a push/pull/legs or an upper body/lower body split, but those could definitely take up a lot of time.
split your workout up for each body part and include 1-2 ab exercises at the end of each day: arms, shoulders, chest, back, and legs.
If you are a beginner, which is someone who is brand new to weightlifting or hasn’t lifted in years, you should stick to 3-6 sets per muscle group per workout and try to achieve three full-body workouts a week. Once you have been working out consistently for a year, you start to see plateaus in your strength, and your form has been good enough thus far that you haven’t injured yourself, I believe that you can start to call yourself an intermediate.
Once you are intermediate, I would challenge you to start hitting 9 sets per muscle group per workout. I would also transition you to a push/pull/legs or upper body/lower body split just to get some extra work on all the muscles involved in an indirect way. Make sure to tack on 1-2 ab exercises at the end of each workout.
As we get into the advanced stages, the best route to take to really gain some size is to go to a body-part split and try and hit 12+ sets per workout and hit 1-2 ab exercises at the end of each of the workouts. Time management is critical at this point or else you could be in the gym for 2 hours which may not be sustainable.
Again, these numbers are for the sole purpose of gaining strength and muscle size. There are many different goals with fitness other than having big muscles and for some people who want something like athletic performance or just general fitness, my answer will be different.
Jordan Tank, Personal Trainer, Columbus, Ohio
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