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March 26, 2020 10 min read

So, you’ve gone to the gym a few times now, maybe you’ve hit some of the machines and some of the free weights. In the mornings you’re getting up and feeling that tension in your muscles—the tension that says that you’ve been working hard. Or maybe you already have a training routine but want to step up your game with your own gym regime. The number of tools you can use at the gym, the amount of movements you can do with them, and the weights you can move them at, is overwhelming, to say the least. So, you’re left with the question, “How many exercises am I supposed to do per muscle group?”.

This question is extremely loaded. What you’re asking is how much you should focus on each muscle group—not necessarily the number of exercises. When it comes to this, an exercise is an arbitrary term; its effectiveness can change based on the number of sets, the repetitions, and the amount of weight. You obviously want enough volume being put on your muscles to warrant some change in your body’s composition—that is, after all, why you’re going to the gym. But you also don’t want to hurt yourself or over train. So, keeping in mind the arbitrariness of the term “exercise” when trying to account for the volume you should be putting your muscles under, we often use the idea of sets per week. But why is this important, and how do you choose to refine your workout volume? It all depends where you’re at, and where you want to get to.

Why You Need Goals

Why are you going to the gym? The earlier you commit to your “why”, the easier you’ll hit your fitness goals. Whether your “why” is strength, size, endurance, or weight loss—the way you program your time in the iron temple will change. And with this change will come results. A bench press isn’t just a bar and a weight you have to lift, it’s a tool you decide when to use and how often. The decisions you make around this will set you on different fitness paths. So, before you buckle up and delve into the battleplan, you’re going to want to sit down and decide what your goals are. A strategy is supposed to get you somewhere, but if you don’t know where you’re going then you might not like where you end up.

Not only will setting goals help you come up with a strategy to hit them, but it’ll also keep you accountable for your routine. Especially when you set benchmarks, you can see the improvements over time in your body. And this will help during those times where it feels impossible to get up and go to the gym—the times when it’s most critical that you summon all your willpower and train. These points in your training—where you feel the most tired, hungover, lazy, whatever—your reactions to these moments will snowball, and you’ll look back a year from now not recognizing the person who began training all those reps ago. 

A man and woman doing push-ups in the gym.

The Basics Behind Training Volume

When it comes down to the science, at its core training is essentially about putting micro-tears in your muscle tissue. Although it might sound kind of gnarly, these tears are what cause your muscles to grow stronger and larger. The way you program exercise will inform how your body and your muscles react to training. While it’s obviously important to train with a high enough volume to create these tears in the muscle fiber, it’s also just as important (but less obvious), that you need to give these muscle fibers enough time to heal in between workouts targeting specific areas. So, once you hit one muscle group, it’s generally a bad idea to train it again the next day. The days you allow your muscles to heal properly are the days that your muscles actually grow and get stronger, so you want to organize training to make it as efficient as possible for your muscle development.

This means that it’s important to stay within a minimum and maximum training volume. Where things get more complicated is when we look at everyone individually. Each person has a very specific bodily composition—and although some people can have similar makeups, your body contains a ton of intricacies and idiosyncrasies. In theory, the perfect workout routine would take into account all of these—something that you can only come close to by getting a personal trainer.

Otherwise, we’re left with some general rules that’ll help us measure the frequency and intensity that you should be focusing on with each muscle group. The good news is that there is a general guideline for the minimum and maximum repetitions you should do in a week if you want to get closer to your goals. For larger muscle groups, you’re looking at 60 to 120 total reps per week. For smaller muscle groups, this translates to about 30 to 60 repetitions per week. These groupings can be further broken down to; 

Large muscle groups:

  • Chest: 60 – 120 reps per week
  • Back: 60 – 120 reps per week
  •  Quadriceps: 60 – 120 reps per week
  • Hamstrings: 60 – 120 reps per week

Small muscle groups:

  • Calves: 30 – 60 reps per week
  • Abs: 30 – 60 reps per week
  • Shoulders: 30 – 60 reps per week
  • Biceps: 30 – 60 reps per week
  • Triceps: 30 – 60 reps per week

The reason you don’t need as many reps for smaller muscle groups simply comes down to the fact that they just won’t benefit as much from a higher volume of training than other muscle groups. More importantly, however, is the fact that while you’re training those larger muscle groups, you’ll already be indirectly training the smaller muscles. These smaller muscles get a lot of indirect volume—for example, there’s a lot of chest exercises which also secondarily activate the shoulders and triceps. The amount of overlap with some exercises means that your optimal training volume is going to be different for different muscle groups.

The Importance of Frequency in Your Training Regime

So, what about the frequency of going to the gym? The way you split the repetitions throughout the week falls entirely to you, but obviously there are recommended ways of doing this. The most common splits are between 1 and 4 days, which give your muscles plenty of time to heal in between training. The more often you go to the gym in a week, the less reps you do in that specific training block since it’s being split up between more days. The intensity of the volume, however, can vary from day to day.

So how do you know how often to go? That depends entirely on your experience level and your goals (which we’ll go over in-depth further below), but it’s important to remember that it’s the reps per week what you should be focusing on when training with weights. You can split these reps however you want when it comes to individual training blocks, but there are recommended ways to do this. But hold on a second. Not only have we hit you with a lot of numbers, but a wide range of them to boot. What do those numbers mean to your training routine, specifically? Well, that comes down to fitness level and what you’re working towards.

The Beginner

As a beginner, you’ll see a lot of muscle and strength gains in the first few weeks of hitting the gym. Your body will still be getting used to the movements and the pressure you’re putting your muscles through. In most cases, it’ll be enough to stick to the lower end of the 60-120/30-60 rep spectrum for the week. This will prevent you from potentially hurting yourself and will also allow you to focus on form and the correct movement and muscle activation necessary to get the most out of the exercises.

In terms of how you want to split the exercises per muscle, it’s recommended to do a full-body routine when in the gym. As we mentioned, as a beginner your muscles will be experiencing new tensions and forces and therefore you should see a large amount of improvement at the beginning. Doing a 3-day split each week will help you in avoiding burnout and will lead to better muscle mass results (if you’re just starting out) than a once-per-week workout.  

The Intermediate

So, you’ve been going to the gym regularly for a while now. You’ve been sticking to pumping iron, and now your movements and form are perfect. You’ll definitely have seen a slow down in building muscle mass, and you quickly had to escalate the weights to heavier and heavier ones. But you’re getting more serious about this and you’ve gained an understanding of how your muscle groups act with one another—it’s time to change your training regime.

You’ll be wanting to stick to the middle-higher end of the set range per week most likely, as your body gets used to the weights and the movements. In terms of how you want to split this however, the difference lies in which body parts you focus on in each training block. For example, this could look like upper body exercises on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and lower body exercises on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday—with some rest days sprinkled in there. It’s a good idea to also include cardio or some type of aerobic exercise in the programming. Most people include this on their rest days.

The more advanced you are in your bodybuilding; the fewer days it’s generally recommended you do. For an intermediate bodybuilder, 2 to 4 days is recommended. And while you could split it up between upper and lower body days, you could also look at a more specific muscle group each gym day. For example, this could look like:

  • Monday: Chest & Triceps
  • Tuesday: Legs
  • Wednesday: Rest day & cardio
  • Thursday: Shoulders
  • Friday: Back & Biceps

This will give you a well-rounded full-body workout throughout the week that allows you to give the appropriate focus on each individual muscle. It’ll also give you time to activate those muscles that you may have been ignoring, or at least putting too little attention on.

The Hardened Bodybuilder

Advanced bodybuilders take a different approach to training. If you’ve already got a ripped physique, you’re going to adapt much more slowly than a beginner or even an intermediate weightlifter. Therefore, more advanced bodybuilders usually ascribe to HIT, or programs such as body-blasting.

This type of program “blasts” one body part with a large amount of sets (think 20 or more) per workout. You essentially hammer out one muscle group a week. For example, powerlifters can do a basic bench press for 3 hours per workout, even though they might have done less than 18 reps. This is because they typically do a 1RM—RM meaning repetition maximum, or, the maximum weight you can lift for a defined number of repetitions.

Remember the GPO Principle

While it’s definitely not recommended that you begin with a bodybuilder’s training routine, it can be helpful to visualize the point you’ll get to if you stick with it. Keep in mind the GPO principle, or, the gradual progressive overload principle. It simply states that if you gradually progress the load you place on your body, it’ll work to adapt to that load. Essentially, if we lift more weight, we get stronger, if run further, we gain endurance. It’s a very simple principle but important to keep in mind. The secret is consistency. You don’t want to put too little load on your body and tread water, and you also don’t want to put your body under too much stress, so it has time to heal and strengthen.

While the importance of how far along you are on the progressive overload spectrum can’t go understated, it’s also important to understand what specific goals you’re working towards. It can be something as simple as general health or weight loss. On the other hand, you can have a specific goal in mind—maybe you want to be able to lift something with ease, or you want to have a particular physique. When it comes down to these types of goals, there are defined paths you can go down on to make the effort you put in as efficient as possible. These can be broken down into the categories of endurance, hypertrophy, and strength.

Endurance Training

If your training towards an endurance goal in order to increase your work capacity and stamina, you’d benefit from doing more exercises per muscle group. This will condition your body to be able to do more work for a longer period of time. You’ll probably want to stick to lighter weights so you can do more reps per set.

Also, don’t forget the importance of cardio and other aerobic exercises. These types of exercises condition your body’s ability to work for long periods of time, even when it comes to anaerobic exercises such as weightlifting.

A girl working out in a gym.

Strength Training

The secret to gaining strength is doing multi-joint movements (such as the bench press or deadlift). However, since they place a lot of stress on your nervous system, you’re not going to be able to have a volume as intense as with a hypertrophy (muscle building) goal in mind. Therefore, you’re going to want to be doing these compound exercises at lower reps. These compound exercises act on a variety of different muscle groups, which further lowers the amount of exercises you have to do.

An example would be the bench press, which activates your pecs, triceps, deltoids, and lats. While the deadlift mainly works on your hamstrings, back, glutes, and quadriceps.

Cultivating Muscle Mass and Hypertrophy Training

If you’re looking mainly for the aesthetics of ripped muscles, then this training program is what you’ll be aiming for. You’ll want to do 2-4 exercises per muscle group, which will include both compound and isolation exercises. We touched on compound exercises above, but isolation exercises target a single joint and muscle group—usually one of your smaller muscle groups.

Think of isolation exercises as the chisel when working on your body. They’re the exercises that will be able to correct any imbalances, and ultimately fashion the body you want. You want your physique looking in a specific way? Say no more. There’s an exercise to lift that muscle, push out this other one, and voila before you know it, you’ll be turning heads wherever you go. However, as keen as you might be to jump headfirst into muscle growth, as a beginner it will be beneficial to stick to lower weights and higher reps to ease your body into the stresses.

Proper Programming Will Bring Success

Sometimes it can be scary, sitting down and telling yourself that you’re going to do 80 repetitions, with a number of sets, targeting a muscle group every week, no matter what. It’s something that can often keep people from going to the gym, or at least prevent people from setting goals. There’s an attraction to a relaxed exercise routine where you can do whatever you want. There’s no looming responsibility, or promise, that you set for yourself to work towards. This can benefit the amateur since it gets them in the gym with no strings attached per se. But if you’re looking to take your fitness to the next level, as you should be, then dedicate some time to really ironing out your plan, so pumping iron makes you yearn for something.