There are several different variables that come into play when structuring your workouts, one of the most common being how many exercises to do per workout.
How many exercises per workout session is optimal to obtain the best results? How many different exercises per workout should you be doing to build muscle? How many exercises per workout are recommended for beginners?
In this article, we will discuss factors that affect how many exercises per workout you should be doing to reach your goals and provide some recommendations for how many different exercises per workout you should do.
We will cover the following:
- How Many Exercises Per Workout Should You Do?
- Factors that Affect How Many Different Exercises You Should Do Per Workout
- How Many Exercises Per Workout Is Optimal?
Let’s dive in!
How Many Exercises Per Workout Should You Do?
The FITT principle, which stands for frequency, intensity, type, and time, is an acronym that is used to help guide workout programming and set recommendations for how much exercise you need to do per week.
For example, the guidelines for physical activity for adults set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the British Heart Foundation are to accumulate either 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio exercises per week plus at least two full-body strength training workouts.
From these recommendations, you can determine the frequency or how many days per week you should be exercising based on the length of your workouts and the intensity of your workouts in order to meet the guidelines.
Intensity is built into the recommendations with moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise, each receiving different minimum guidelines for total physical activity minutes per week.
The type of exercise is separated into aerobic exercises and strength training, and the time refers to how long each workout is. This can be determined based on dividing the recommended number of minutes per week by the frequency that you choose.
Furthermore, there are specific recommendations for strength training workouts based on common strength training goals.
For example, if your primary goal is to increase strength, the recommendations are to perform 3 to 5 sets per exercise, with one to six reps per set, using anywhere from 85 to 100% of your 1RM based on the number of reps you have chosen to do.
The fewer reps, the higher the relative percentage of your 1RM you should use for the weight.
If your goal is hypertrophy or building muscle, the recommendations are to perform three sets of 8 to 12 reps per exercise, using a weight that corresponds to 65-85% of your 1RM. Again, the fewer reps you perform within this range, the closer to 85% of your 1RM you should use for your weight.
With muscular endurance, you should perform at least three sets per exercise, at least 15 reps per set, using a weight that is about 65% of your 1RM.
However, while these guidelines for weightlifting are pretty clearly spelled out and accepted by the strength training community, there is very little information about how many exercises per workout you should do based on your goals and fitness level.
For example, how many chest exercises per workout do you need to do to increase strength or build muscle?
How many chest exercises per workout should beginners do? Or how many chest exercises per workout do you need to do if you are doing total body workouts vs. body part splits with a chest workout day?
Ultimately, there isn’t a straightforward answer to how many different exercises per workout you need to do because there are quite a number of factors that can confound the answer based on your personal situation.
Factors that Affect How Many Different Exercises You Should Do Per Workout
Before we aim to answer how many exercises per workout session you should do, let’s look at factors that affect how many exercises per workout is best.
#1: Fitness Level
As can be expected, your fitness level is one of the primary factors that affect how many different exercises per workout you should do.
Beginners or those who have not been active for quite a while should do fewer exercises per workout until they have increased muscular strength and made significant neuromuscular adaptations.
Doing too many exercises per workout session can increase the risk of injury because your form and technique may break down as you tire.
#2: Experience Level
Your experience level is slightly different from your fitness level.
If you have a background in strength training but have not been training consistently, your body may be able to handle a few more exercises per workout as long as you keep the weight a little lower and the number of reps and sets down.
This is because your body has a stored memory for the proper movement mechanics.
#3: Workout Structure
Aside from your fitness level, the structure of your workouts is probably the factor that has the most significant bearing on how many different exercises per workout is ideal.
There are several different components of workout structure that come into play here.
The first consideration is whether you are doing total-body workouts or body parts splits.
With total-body workouts, you will likely do a higher number of different exercises per workout because you need to target all of the major muscle groups in your body, and you are probably only doing two workouts per week.
Aim to do 1-2 exercises per major muscle group with total-body strength training workouts; with two weekly workouts, this works out to 2-4 different exercises per muscle group per week.
With upper/lower splits, or push/pull/legs, do 2-4 different exercises per muscle group per workout, aiming for 4-12 different exercises per muscle group per training week.
For Arnold Splits, usually doing 3-6 different exercises per workout is ideal, so about 6-12 exercises for each muscle group per week.
The second consideration with your workout structure is the number of sets and reps you do per exercise. This is usually closely associated with your primary training goal (increasing strength, building muscle, or increasing muscular endurance), as described above.
Workouts geared towards increasing muscular endurance usually include more exercises per workout than those focused on increasing strength because the intensity of strength-based exercises is significantly higher. Hypertrophy falls somewhere in the middle.
#4: Frequency of Training
The fewer workouts you do per week, the more exercises you will need to do per workout to train all of your muscle groups with an adequate stimulus each week.
The higher the relative weight you are using, or percentage of your 1RM, the fewer exercises you will do per workout because the focus is on quality and not quantity, and you do not want to overdo it or reach complete central nervous system or muscular fatigue.
#6: Training Goal
As mentioned, your training goal will affect how many different exercises per workout session you should do since the training goal affects the weight that you are using as well as the rest intervals between each exercise.
Strength-based workouts are very high-intensity and involve longer rest between sets, so doing a lot of different exercises per workout is usually too time- and energy-intensive.
#7: Type of Exercises
Lastly, the types of exercises included in your workout will affect how many exercises per workout is ideal.
Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that involve multiple muscle groups.
They are more efficient since they target numerous muscles simultaneously; plus, they are more demanding from a neuromuscular standpoint due to the coordination and force production necessary.
In contrast, isolation exercises are less exhausting for the body and require less neuromuscular control and precision.
If your workout is focusing primarily on challenging compound exercises, it’s usually best to do fewer exercises in a workout, but if you are focusing more on isolation exercises, you can do more exercises in a workout session.
How Many Exercises Per Workout Is Optimal?
Ultimately, based on the aforementioned factors, most strength coaches recommend doing 4-12 different exercises per muscle group per training week, with 2-5 total sets of each of these exercises.
This wide range takes into account the factors mentioned above.
Per workout, when doing body part splits for strength or muscle building, aim to do 2-4 exercises per muscle group, and more if you are a competitive weightlifter or bodybuilder.
Overall, adding a greater variety of different workouts for each muscle group in your training week is ideal for providing your muscles and central nervous system with greater variety in the training stimulus.
For more information about how to structure your strength training workouts, check out our guide to how many reps and sets you should do to build muscle here.