- It's commonly believed that a great variety of exercises is required to see improvement.
- However, the reality is that you can progress and improve on any number of exercises, so long as the standard principles of progression are applied.
- While personal preferences as to how many exercises to use may vary, I argue that fewer is often better. The fewer the exercises, the harder it is to mess things up, and the easier it is to track and adjust your training as needed.
When I first started lifting as a teenager, I remember having no real structure or plan when I showed up to the gym. I would show up, do a bunch of exercises for two hours or so, and then leave. Naturally, I didn’t see results either.
Over time, I started reading about various exercise programs on sites like bodybuilding.com. I came to learn some very basic principles of structuring workouts, and started doing rough bodybuilding "splits" - alternating which exercises are trained on which days so that you can rest one muscle group for a few days while the other ones work.
However, my general approach didn’t change much. On a leg day, I’d squat, then deadlift, then leg press, then leg extension, then leg curl, then alternate running and cycling for an hour or so. On an upper body day I might bench press, lat pulldown, row, bench press on a different incline, do dips or pullups, do pushups, do lateral raises, or hit arms.
These workouts were still often a couple hours in duration or longer, and there was no progression. I simply showed up, worked out for a while, and then left. Sometimes I’d hit heavier weights, sometimes lighter ones. Sometimes I’d do a bunch of reps with lighter weight, but I’d often not count or record how many I did. I was often upset to find that my physique wasn’t changing, or that my strength wasn’t improving. At the same time, I had no real plan or strategy in place to do so.
Getting interested in powerlifting was what really changed everything for me. I started really reading up on programs and approaches. One of the benefits of powerlifting, as I saw it at the time, is that workouts are intense enough that I don’t need to use so many exercises. I used a very simple linear progression, showing up day to day and either adding reps or weight each time, working in the 3-5 rep range. I would either squat and bench or deadlift and bench. Sometimes I would do some other exercises, but usually not many.
As a result, I saw not only my strength, but also my muscle gains accelerate. I was surprised that I could see better results with fewer exercises.
I've experimented with a lot of different training styles over the years. Sometimes, I've used a lot of exercises. Sometimes, I've only used a few. However, after over a decade of lifting and 5 years of coaching, I’ve generally come to believe that fewer exercises are better.
But these studies also discovered the effect of diminishing returns: subsequent sets of the same exercise in the same workout are less and less effective at producing further gains. This means that it's sometimes smarter to focus on training more frequently rather than training longer per session.
Adding sets can be a surefire way to discover your recovery limits. If you start off with 1 set/exercise/workout, and add 1 set each time you perform that workout, you'll quickly find a dropoff point - typically between 4 and 6 sets per exercise. Once you hit this point, you'll struggle to complete the desired number of reps per set.
My reasoning is this: if you’re doing sufficiently challenging work, you shouldn’t really need much more than 1 or 2 exercises for a muscle group per workout. After 3-6 sets of a heavy compound exercise, you should be exhausted enough that you cannot really continue to get in high quality work with more exercises for the same muscle groups. You could waste time doing a lot of lower quality, lower intensity work, but this would provide little extra benefit.
This isn’t a hard rule. You can clearly still do work above and beyond this amount, and can clearly still continue to grow and improve. But since the research suggests that more work is increasingly less effective, it's important to question whether or not this is worthwhile, given your goals and level of dedication. Rather than hammering out more and more work and more and more exercises in an increasingly exhausted state, it's smarter to focus on getting in good quality work for just a few exercises.
This also often means that I take longer rests than many people expect. I’ll admit that I’m a huge fan of messing around on your phone between sets. I push hard enough on each set that I need that longer recovery time. Luckily, research also suggests that longer rests are better for both strength and size, contrary to common expectations.
There is no hard and fast rule about how many exercises you should use within a workout. But in my experience, focusing on the major movements (squat, bench, deadlift, overhead, row) and going hard for a few sets (3-5) followed by one or two accessory exercises for 3 sets each, is more than enough.
Here’s a pretty barebones example of the sort of template that I often use when programming for general strength or muscle:
|Squat Day||Bench Day||Deadlift Day||Overhead Day|
|Squat Variation - 3-5 sets||Bench Press Variation - 3-5 Sets||Deadlift Variation - 3-5 sets||Overhead Press Variation - 3-5 sets|
|Deadlift or Hip Extension Variation - 3 sets||Row or Overhead Press Variation - 3 sets||Leg Press, Leg Extension, or Lunge Variation - 3 sets||DB Bench Press or Incline Bench Press - 3 sets|
|Leg Extension, Leg Press, or Lunge Variation - 3 sets||Dips or Pushups - 3 sets||Leg Curl - 3 sets||Row Variation - 3 sets|
|Optional back or arm work depending on energy levels||Optional back or arm work depending on energy levels||Optional back or arm work depending on energy levels||Optional back or arm work depending on energy levels|
When working for strength, you typically want to focus on progression within the 3-6 rep range, and when working for size you typically want to focus on progression within the 8-15 rep range. See this post for more detail on understanding set/rep schemes.
When working for size, I often convert the overhead day into a back day to focus on the relatively larger back musculature instead - a better return on investment for size alone. In this case, the day should look something more like this:
- Row Variation 3-5 sets
- Overhead Press Variation 3 sets
- Pulldown, Row, or Reverse Fly Variation 3 sets
- (optional arm, calves, or traps work)
Naturally, these plans need to be modified depending on your needs. For those with lagging body parts or other weak points, exercises for these muscle groups should take up a fourth or fifth slot in the workout. Adding cardio into this plan also changes the structure a bit.
I frequently see people who suggest that they can’t progress on a smaller number of exercises. I’ve had clients who are surprised by the “small” amount of work that these workouts entail. They're also the ones who are most surprised to find these workouts producing even better results. I’ve seen effective strength workouts with as little as two exercises per workout.
For progression, overall volume matters more than the exact number of exercises used. At the same time, adding additional exercises results in an added layer of unnecessary complexity.
If I need about ten sets for a muscle group to wear that group out, I’d rather split that volume over about 2 exercises for 5 sets each rather than 5 exercises for 2 sets each. Some variation is good (it’s not a good idea to just use 1 single lift) but more isn’t always better (5 exercises isn’t better than 2).
Recently, I also covered how bodybuilders work out less than most people think - meaning, chances are that you're working out too long if you're training for more than about an hour to an hour and a half at a time. This goes hand in hand with picking too many exercises. Don't be like I was, training for 2+ hours at a time with dozens of exercises.
Why make your workouts more complicated than they need to be? Over time, a simpler workout will be easier to follow and harder to screw up. I tend to use no more than 4-5 primary exercises per workout, plus a bit of cardio or mobility work at the end of the workout.
So long as you keep progressing, exact exercise selection and number is less important. Instead of adding eight different exercises into your programs, focus on picking the handful that will give you the most benefit and skip the rest.
Enjoy this post? Share the gains!
- Periodization For Beginners
- Understanding Sets, Reps, and Intensity
- How To Start Powerlifting
- Training VS Maintenance
- 6 Ways To Save Time At the Gym
- Muscle Confusion Isn't A thing
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