No matter what your health and fitness goals are, you’re probably already aware that if you want to make progress, putting in regular time at the gym is important.
However, while setting up a regular lifting routine is a good first step, actually making the kind of progress you’re after requires understanding just how many exercises you should be doing per workout in order to see optimal results.
How Many Exercises Should You Do Per Workout?
When it comes to resistance training, the optimal number of exercises you should be doing per workout session is 3-5. No matter whether you’re looking to build muscle, lose, weight, or just get back into shape, three to five exercises each session is plenty if your training regimen is programmed appropriately.
If you have the right exercises in place and approach your workouts with the right amount of intensity and volume (which will depend on your goals and experience) 5 exercises per workout is more than enough to see steady, reliable progress.
With that being said though, there are some other things you’ll need to take into consideration if you want to make sure that you're getting the most out of each and every workout session.
From understanding which exercises and muscle groups you should be focusing on each training session, to figuring out how many reps and sets you should be doing on each exercise, we’re going over everything you need to know.
But before we dive further into the details, let’s first talk a little more about why 3-5 exercises per workout is the optimal range.
Why is 3-5 Exercises Per Workout The Optimal Range?
There are ultimately many reasons why doing three to five exercises per training session is the ideal range for most lifters.
On one side of the coin, 3-5 exercises per workout is enough to give your body and your muscles the stimulation they need to react and adapt to your training. If you don’t do enough exercises each training session it will be very difficult to see any progress at all.
Conversely, there are all sorts of reasons why going over that 3-5 target can also be detrimental to your overall progress. From hampering your workout performance to increasing your risk of injury, here are some of the main reasons why you don’t want to go overboard.
Your Workout Will Become Unnecessarily Long
While it may seem like a noble feat – spending hours at a time in the gym – the reality is that it’s not a very good use of your time. The fact of the matter is that if you’re going over 5 exercises per workout, chances are, you’re giving away time that could be better spent elsewhere.
However, sticking within that range of 3-5 exercises per session will help to make your workout quick and efficient. In fact, there’s no reason for most people to spend any more than 30 to 45 minutes per lifting session with proper training protocols in place.
Your Performance Will Suffer
On top of wasting your time, doing more than 5 exercises per set will ultimately hamper your performance in those subsequent exercises.
At the end of the day, with the right intensity in place, you’ll only be able to do 3-5 sets before you’ve burnt up all the energy your body has to perform efficiently and effectively, leaving you too fatigued to reap any kind of real benefit from performing that six or even seventh exercise.
The Risk of Injury Will Increase
Not only will doing too many exercises each session hamper your performance in the later stages of your workout, but it will also increase your risk of injury.
That’s because when your body is overly fatigued, it becomes just about impossible to maintain good form on the exercise your doing, and if you’re not lifting with good form, it’s only a matter of time before you get sidelined.
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How to Set Up Your Routine With 3-5 Exercise Per Session
Ok so now that we’ve talked about the ideal number of exercises to do each workout, let’s talk about things like sets and reps, exercise selection, and how to go about pairing together the right exercises in each of your training sessions.
How Many Sets and Reps For Each Exercise?
When it comes to the number of sets and reps you should do each training session – and on each exercise – the answer is going to be a little bit more dependent on your goals.
With that being said, in general, 3-5 sets per exercise for a total of 9 - 25 total sets each training session should be sufficient no matter whether you're trying to gain strength, build endurance or build muscle.
The number of reps you should shoot for per set, per exercise, and per session, however, is going to vary pretty significantly. On one side of the spectrum, building strength requires higher intensities and lower numbers of reps and most strength training programs require 1-5 reps per set.
On the other side of the spectrum, building muscle endurance requires lower intensities and many more reps compared to strength training – we’re generally talking 15+ reps per set.
And then in between the two, you have the muscle-building process, which is oriented around working at challenging intensity for 8 - 12 reps per set.
Finding a Training Split
First things first, any well-rounded training program should be regularly hitting all 6 of your major muscles groups. But with that being said there are many different ways to split up the 3-5 exercises you’re doing each workout across your training sessions.
⫸The Upper/Lower Split
On popular split – primarily for intermediates and above – is the upper/lower split, where you’ll focus on exercises that hit all of the major muscles in your upper body in one training session and then move on to exercises that target the major lower body muscles in another. In many cases, you’ll be doing 2 upper body workouts and 2 lower body workouts per week for a total of 4 training sessions.
⫸The Push/Pull Split
Another option is the push/pull split, which may also not be ideal for beginners. With this one, your focus will be shifting between muscle groups that push and muscle groups that pull.
In one training session, you’ll focus only on exercises where you're performing a pushing movement – like the bench press – and in another, you’ll be focusing only on pulling movements like the row.
⫸The Full-Body Split
The full-body split is the ideal split to go with if you’re just starting out in the weight room. With this one, you won’t necessarily be targeting every single muscle in your body, but you’ll be trying to hit a lot of different muscles across both your upper and lower body in each training session.
⫸The Body-Part Split
On the other end of the spectrum is the body-part split, which is a more advanced technique and a staple amongst bodybuilders. With this approach, you’ll usually be training at least 5 times a week, focusing each training session on a specific body part. So for example, you could do something like your chest on Monday, your back on Tuesday, Your Legs on Wednesday, your shoulders on Thursday, and your Core on Friday.
Focus on Compound Lifts For Max Results
Another important component of getting your training routine set up with 3-5 exercises per session is exercise selection and you ultimately have to choose the right kinds of exercises to do each session if you want to see the most progress.
No matter what your training goals are, compound exercises should be the primary focus of your resistance training routine – compound lifts are exercises that engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously.
Start your workout off with heavy compound lifts like the bench press, squat, overhead press, and row when you’re fresh, and then move on to lighter isolation exercises – like bicep curls and tricep extensions – at the end.
For most people, 3-5 exercises per training session is plenty to see significant progress without going too far overboard. If you do more than that, you run the risk of everything from wasting your time to increasing your risk of injury.
However, for optimal results, you’ll also have to focus on more than just how many exercises you’re doing each workout. The total number of sets and reps you’re doing each training session is also important and should ultimately be informed by your goals.
On top of that, you’ll also need to figure out your training split and how you’re going to go about selecting the exercises you’ll be doing each training session. And don’t forget, whatever training split you chose to go with, make sure to center your workouts around compound lifts.