Except for workout minimalists, most lifters train their muscles with multiple exercises. They combine compound and isolation exercises and different movement patterns to work their muscles from numerous angles.
- Flat barbell bench press
- Incline dumbbell bench press
- Decline chest press machine
- Incline dumbbell flyes
- Pec deck
This is known as holistic training.
However, there is no set number of exercises per muscle group, and where some people do just 2-3, others will do six or more.
Both approaches can work. However, given how valuable your training time and energy are, you may be interested to know the ideal number of exercises per muscle groups. After all, doing more exercises than necessary probably won’t deliver better results.
The bad news is there is no definitive answer to how many exercises you need to do for the best training results. That’s because we all respond differently to training, and what works for one person may not work for another.
However, there are several factors to consider when deciding how many exercises to do per body part, including muscle anatomy, muscle fiber bias, and strength curves. Taking these details into account will help guide you away from random exercise selection and toward a more personalized training program.
We show you how to use this information to choose which and how many movements to do for each muscle group.
- Muscle Anatomy
- Muscle Fiber Orientation
- Bi-Articular Muscle Theory
- Stretch-Mediated Hypertrophy
- Strength Curves
- Indirect Training Effect
- Practical Programming Guidelines
- How Many Exercises per Muscle – Closing Thoughts
All muscles generate force by shortening. For example, some muscles, such as the biceps, pull your joints into a flexed position. In contrast, others pull your joints into an extended position, such as your triceps.
However, some muscles are more structurally complex than others and, as such, have more functions. The more functions a muscle group has, the more exercises you need to do to develop it fully.
With over 600 muscles in the human body, it’s impractical to discuss every available muscle movement. Still, most bodybuilders aren’t interested in developing every muscle equally. Instead, there is a relatively short list of muscles and body parts that they want to build.
These muscles and their primary movements are:
|Knee flexion and hip extension
|Shoulder extension and adduction
|Shoulder elevation, depression, and retraction
|Shoulder horizontal flexion and adduction
|Shoulder flexion, extension, and abduction
|Spine flexion and lateral flexion
|Elbow flexion, forearm supination
Simple muscles with only one function probably don’t need to be trained with as wide a range of exercises as muscles with multiple functions. For example, your back requires more exercises than your triceps, and your chest needs more than your calves.
Takeaway: The more functions a muscle performs, the more exercises you need to do to develop it fully. In contrast, muscles with fewer functions may not need as many movements to maximize hypertrophy.
Muscle Fiber Orientation
Muscles are known by a single name but are sometimes made up of several groups of fibers called heads. These heads work together but can also be emphasized by adjusting the angle of your limbs.
Examples of this include:
- Pectoralis major – clavicular, sternal, and costal heads
- Deltoids – anterior, medial, and posterior heads
- Trapezius – upper, middle, and lower heads
There are also muscle groups made up of several individual muscles, such as:
- Quadriceps – rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius
- Hamstrings – biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus
- Triceps surae – gastrocnemius and soleus
The more heads and different fiber orientations a muscle has, the more varied your exercise selection needs to be to develop it fully. For example, it’s common to train the pecs with incline, flat, and decline movements. The back needs horizontal AND vertical pulling exercises.
The more heads and different fiber orientations a muscle has, the more exercises you need to do.
Takeaway: Muscles made up of multiple sets of fibers or heads usually need more exercises to develop them fully than simple muscles. Muscles with a more basic structure can be trained with fewer exercises.
Bi-Articular Muscle Theory
Muscles that cross and affect two joints are called biarticular muscles. Examples include the rectus femoris of the quadriceps, the biceps, the hamstrings, and the triceps (long head).
Bi-articular muscle theory suggests that a muscle cannot work to its fullest potential when its function is antagonistic to the movement being performed.
For example, squats are often seen as a powerful leg exercise. However, as you descend into a squat, the rectus femoris is involved in the movement at the hip, not just the knee. As such, it doesn’t contract as hard as it could.
This means squats ARE very effective for developing vastus lateralis, medialis, and intermedius but are less helpful in building rectus femoris. To target the rectus femoris maximally, the hip needs to be stationary, e.g., leg extensions.
Takeaway: Biarticular muscles won’t be fully developed unless they’re trained using multiple exercises using different movement patterns. However, uniaxial muscles that cross a single joint usually require fewer exercises.
Exercises that put a muscle into a loaded stretch tend to be better for hypertrophy. This happens naturally for some muscles and exercises, e.g., dumbbell flyes for the pecs, but is less common for others, e.g., the triceps.
Because of this, bodybuilders should include exercises that involve a loaded stretch.
These exercises will probably be additional to your main movements for each muscle group. This is because these types of exercise tend not to allow you to lift the heaviest weights. Instead, they’re often viewed as secondary or finishing movements.
Takeaway: It may be necessary to include additional exercises for some muscles to ensure you train them in a stretched position. Stretch-mediated hypertrophy exercises may help make your workouts more productive.
Different exercises stress your muscles at different parts of the movement. For example, some put more tension on your muscle at the start of each rep, while others put more tension on your muscles at the end of each rep. This variance is called the strength curve.
Because of this, it may be beneficial to train some muscles with exercises with different strength curves. Different strength curves tend to hit different parts of a muscle, so combining exercises may produce more significant hypertrophy throughout the entire muscle belly .
Takeaway: Using exercises with different strength curves may enhance hypertrophy compared to doing fewer exercises or using exercises with similar strength curves. Seek out exercises that overload your muscles during different parts of the movement to maximize hypertrophy.
Indirect Training Effect
Several muscles are often trained indirectly during bodybuilding workouts. For example, the triceps are involved in all chest and shoulder pushing exercises, and the biceps are involved in all back pulling exercises.
Depending on how much indirect training they receive, some muscles may not need many exercises to maximize their development. In fact, doing a high volume of training could lead to overuse injuries and unbalanced development.
This effect is particularly pronounced for the deltoids, which are involved in every upper body exercise you do. If you train your chest or back, you train your deltoids by default, so they probably don’t need much additional training.
Takeaway: The indirect effect means that some muscle groups may need fewer exercises and less volume than others. Examples include the deltoids, biceps, and triceps. However, muscles that receive no indirect training will probably benefit from additional exercises.
The final reason there is no “one size fits all” solution to how many exercises you should perform per muscle is individuality.
While almost everyone has the same muscles, the orientation and position of those muscles can vary significantly . Things like origin and insertion points, muscle fiber makeup, and tendon and muscle belly length mean that different people respond to exercises and workouts in different ways.
Takeaway: Because YOU are an individual, it may be necessary to individualize your workouts based on your unique anatomy and physiology. Cookie-cutter programs cannot take your uniqueness into account, and you’ll need to experiment to determine how many exercises YOU need per muscle group.
Practical Programming Guidelines
As you can see, you cannot safely say that all muscles need the same number of exercises to develop them fully. For example, doing four exercises for your legs, back, shoulders, and arms means that some muscle groups may be undertrained while others are overtrained.
Programs that fail to take things like bi-articular theory, strength curves, indirect training, etc., into account may produce the results you want, but their effectiveness is based more on luck than planning!
However, because of individuality, it’s also impossible to tell you precisely how many exercises you should do per muscle group to optimize your progress.
That said, we CAN give you some guidelines based on all the criteria and considerations outlined above. Use the following to determine how many exercises you need to do per muscle group. Although please note that this is merely your starting point, and it will be necessary to finetune your selection based on your actual results.
Because of its functionality and the alignment of the muscle fibers, the chest usually benefits from multiple exercises. Training the chest from several angles will ensure that the upper, middle and lower pecs are developed equally.
- Flat press
- Incline press
- Decline press
However, it’s worth noting that the decline fibers may receive adequate stimulation from the flat pressing movement, so consider decline presses as optional.
The back is a large group of muscles. Still, it can broadly be divided into horizontal pulling (trapezius, rhomboids) and vertical pulling (latissimus dorsi) muscles. There are overlaps, but each movement emphasizes a different part of the back.
- Vertical pulls, e.g., lat pulldowns and pull-ups
- Horizontal pulls, e.g., seated and bent-over rows
The quads are a bi-articular muscle. Squats are an excellent exercise, but if you want to develop all four quads equally, you also need to perform exercises that involve knee extension without much movement at the hips. With this in mind, a balanced leg workout should include compound and isolation exercises.
- Squatting variation, e.g., barbell squat, leg press, lunges, step-up
- Leg extensions
Like the quadriceps, the hamstrings are a bi-articular muscle affecting the hip and the knee joint. So, to develop the hamstrings to their greatest potential, they need to be trained using both hip-hinge and knee flexion exercises.
- Hip-hinge variation, e.g., Romanian deadlifts, conventional deadlifts, kettlebell swings
- Leg curls
The glutes are intensely involved in both quadriceps (squats) and hamstring (deadlifts) training, so they get quite a lot of indirect work. As such, they may not need a lot of additional attention. That said, if you want to perform extra training for your glutes, 1-2 additional exercises should be all you need.
- Hip extension, e.g., hip thrusts
The deltoids are heavily trained during most upper-body exercises. That’s especially true for the anterior deltoid, which is involved in all chest exercises. As such, you may not need to do all that much direct shoulder training to maximize shoulder size and strength.
Because of this, your workout should emphasize the deltoid heads that don’t get a lot of indirect stimulus, i.e., the medial and posterior deltoids.
- Shoulder abduction, e.g., cable and dumbbell side raises
- Horizontal extension, e.g., reverse flys, face pulls
- Shoulder flexion, e.g., overhead presses, front raises
Any curling exercise should be sufficient to develop the biceps, especially given the strong indirect stimulus they receive during most back exercises. That said, the biceps are especially responsive to stretch-mediated hypertrophy. They’re also responsible for forearm supination, so dumbbell exercises involving wrist rotation can be beneficial.
- Biceps curls, e.g., dumbbell curls, preacher curls, cable curls
- Curls in a lengthened position, e.g., incline curls
Any elbow extension exercise will train your triceps. They’re also exposed to a lot of indirect training whenever you work your chest or shoulders. However, like the biceps, the triceps also respond well to exercises that involve a pronounced stretch, so it’s worth including overhear triceps extensions in your arm workouts if you want to maximize triceps hypertrophy .
- Elbow extension, e.g., triceps pushdowns, kickbacks, skull crushers
- Extensions in a stretched position, e.g., overhead dumbbell and cable triceps extensions
The calves are made up of two muscles – the gastrocnemius and the soleus. However, despite this complexity, standing calf raises do an excellent job of targeting both of them. That said, seated calf raises emphasize the soleus muscle, so if you wish to target this muscle preferentially, you may want to include them in your lower leg workouts.
- Standing calf raise
- Seated calf raise (optional)
While you probably don’t train your abs for hypertrophy, you should still ensure they’re developed according to their biomechanical functions. This will ensure your abs are strong in all directions, which is essential for athletic performance and the health of your spine.
- Spinal flexion, e.g., cable crunches, leg raises
- Lateral flexion, e.g., side bends, side planks
- Spinal rotation, e.g., wood chops, Russian twists
How Many Exercises per Muscle – Closing Thoughts
There are two common extremes in bodybuilding program design – the “all you need is the big three” approach and the “kitchen sink” approach. The first is all about exercise minimalism, while the other often involves lots of exercises for every muscle group.
While both approaches can work, the best way to build the body of your dreams probably lies somewhere in between.
Using the information in this article, you should now be able to see how different muscle groups may benefit from more or fewer exercises.
For example, unmodifiable factors such as muscle anatomy, structure, and indirect training effect mean that you may experience better results by allocating exercises on a muscle-by-muscle basis. Just because you do four chest exercises doesn’t mean you must do four biceps, triceps, and shoulder exercises, too.
Use this article to help you create your own unique workouts or modify existing programs to produce better results.
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