How many exercises should you do per muscle group for it to grow as fast as possible?
That depends on the muscle.
- Some muscles, like your biceps, can probably be trained optimally with only a single exercise.
- Others, like your pecs or quads, require several exercises in order for you to stimulate all muscle fibers.
The difference? Their direction of muscle fibers, the different muscle heads, and their different functions.
This guide contains recommendations for how many exercises you should do for each of your major muscle groups when your goal is to build muscle as effectively as possible.
You can read this guide from start to finish, or use the links below to jump directly to the body part of your choice.
Muscle Groups: Table of Content
Before we get into the different muscle groups, let’s take a quick look at what actually determines the number of exercises you need to do in order to fully stimulate a muscle.
What Determines How Many Exercises You Should Do per Muscle Group?
Your muscles consist of hundreds or thousands of thread-like muscle fibers. These muscle fibers contract (shorten) and generate force when you are training and lifting weights.
Here’s the thing:
Only the muscle fibers that have contracted with sufficient force and volume will get triggered to grow.
Some muscles have muscle fibers in a wide angle of directions or bundled together in different muscle heads, meaning you will have to target all of those directions or heads for complete muscle growth.
If you want to maximize your muscle growth and get the best results, your training program needs to work all the muscle fibers with sufficient training volume.
How Many Sets Should You Do per Exercise & Muscle Group?
Research into muscle hypertrophy tells us that at least 10 sets per muscle and week are necessary to optimize muscle growth. This is based on the results from a meta-analysis of 15 different training studies.1
The evidence for even higher levels of training volume is mixed, and how much volume is optimal for you depends on your individual circumstances. For a person with a lot of strength training experience, it is plausible that a high volume of 15 or even more sets to failure per muscle and week is what yields the fastest muscle gain.
For muscles with several muscle heads and a wide array of muscle fibers, it makes sense to distribute these sets among exercises that target these different parts of the muscle.
Does Large Muscle Groups Need to Be Worked with More Exercises and Sets Than Smaller Muscle Groups?
The number of exercises necessary to fully stimulate a muscle has more to do with the number of muscle heads, fiber directions, and functions of the muscle than it has to do with its size per se.
We also do not know if larger muscles need to be worked with heavier weights and higher volume than smaller muscles. A safe bet is to aim for 10–15 total sets per muscle group and week and work in a rep range from low reps (~5) with heavy weights up to high reps (20–30) with lighter weights.
With that out of the way, let’s look at exercise and set recommendations for all of your major muscle groups.
Your chest muscles are made up almost entirely of one, large muscle on each side: pectoralis major. Or simply, the pecs.
As previously mentioned, your pecs have a wide array of muscle fibers running in different directions. Depending on which angle you bring your arm forward in, some will be more active than others.
The flat bench press is a proven effective exercise for chest muscle growth.2 3 4 As I recently covered in an article on the incline vs. flat bench press, however, it seems that incline chest presses can lead to additional upper pec activation and growth.5 6
On the contrary, the flat bench press seems to activate the lower pec as much as the middle pec. If you would want to be sure to activate the lower pec, an exercise where you are bringing your arm forward at a downward angle would be a good choice. Examples of this are dips, downward cable flyes, and decline bench presses.
How Many Chest Exercises Should You Do?
For optimal chest development, it might be beneficial to include one exercise from each category below:
- Flat. Examples: bench press, dumbbell chest press, or dumbbell fly.
- Incline. Examples: incline bench press, incline dumbbell press, or cable chest fly from low to high.
- Decline. Examples: dips, push-up, decline bench press, or cable chest fly from high to low.
If you would only choose two, I would recommend you to ditch the decline variant as the flat bench press seems to target the lower pec pretty good.
How Many Sets Should You Do of Each Chest Exercise?
I recommend you to distribute your weekly number of chest training sets evenly across all three categories.
So if you do 9 sets of chest training per week, you can do 3 sets per exercise. If you do 15 sets of chest training, you do 5 sets of each exercise.
Chest Workout Routine
Here is a sample chest workout:
- Bench Press: 3 sets x 5 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets x 8 reps
- Dips: 3 sets x 12 reps (add weight if necessary)
- Standing Cable Chest Fly: 3 sets x 20 reps
This chest workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
Your back muscles perform several different functions, and for the sake of this article we can roughly divide them into three groups:
- Back Extensors. These are the muscles that extend your spine or keeps it extended against loads, such as when you are doing a deadlift or a back extension. The primary muscles for this are the erector spinae and multifidus. They run along your spine, all the way from your sacrum up to your cervical spine.
- Vertical Pulling Muscles. These are the muscles that pull your arm closer to your body from an overhead position, such as when you are doing a pull-up. The primary muscles for this are the lats and the lower muscle fibers of the trapezius.
- Horizontal Pulling Muscles. These are the muscles that pull your arm closer to your body from a position where it is extended in front of you, such as in a barbell row or cable row. The primary muscles for this are once again the lats, but also the trapezius and rhomboid muscles.
The key to developing all of your major back muscles is to combine exercises that train all three major functions.
How Many Back Exercises Should You Do?
For optimal back development, I recommend that you include one exercise from each category below:
- Back Extension. Examples: deadlift, rack pull, good morning, or back extension.
- Vertical Pull. Examples: lat pulldown, pull-up, or chin-up.
- Horizontal Pull. Examples: barbell row, dumbbell row, cable row, or inverted row.
How Many Sets Should You Do of Each Back Exercise?
I recommend you to distribute your weekly number of back training sets evenly across all three categories.
So if you do 9 sets of back training per week, you can do 3 sets per exercise. If you do 15 sets of back training, you do 5 sets of each exercise.
Back Workout Routine
Here is a sample back workout:
- Deadlift: 3 sets x 5 reps
- Pull-Up (or Lat Pulldown): 3 sets x 8 reps
- Dumbbell Row: 3 sets x 10 reps
- Back Extension: 3 sets x 12 reps
- Reverse Dumbbell Fly: 3 sets x 15 reps
This back workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
Roughly speaking, the main functions of your three different shoulder muscles are:
- Front Delts: bring your arm forward.
- Lateral Delts: lift your arm out to the side.
- Rear Delts: bring your arm back.
For complete shoulder training, you should be looking for exercises that use these three movements. If you cover them all, you will have trained most of your shoulder muscle fibers.
How Many Shoulder Exercises Should You Do?
For optimal shoulder development, I recommend that you include one primary exercise for each shoulder muscle:
- Front Delts. Examples: bench press, overhead press, dumbbell press, or front raise.
- Lateral Delts. Examples: overhead press, dumbbell lateral raise, or dumbbell press.
- Rear Delts. Examples: reverse dumbbell fly, reverse machine fly, face pull, or barbell rear delt row.
How Many Sets Should You Do of Each Shoulder Exercise?
Your shoulder muscles overlap in some of their functions, and some exercises train multiple parts of your shoulders. The overhead press, for example, will train both your front and lateral delts. Additionally, your shoulders might be worked in other exercises you are already doing: bench pressing works your front delts, and all manners of rowing exercises will work your rear delts. Therefore, the number of sets you need from pure shoulder exercises might vary.
I suggest that you train your shoulders with at least 10 sets per week for each of the three separate parts of the shoulders, but pay attention to eventual overlap.
Shoulder Workout Routine
Here is a sample shoulder workout:
- Overhead Press: 3 sets x 5 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets x 8 reps
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 sets x 10 reps
- Reverse Dumbbell Flyes: 3 sets x 12 reps
- Face Pull: 3 sets x 15 reps
This shoulder workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
Your abs are a muscle group consisting of four muscles:
- Rectus abdominis. The “six-pack” muscle on the front of your abdomen.
- External obliques. The outermost, diagonal muscles on the sides of your abdomen.
- Internal obliques. Located underneath the external obliques, and running diagonally in a perpendicular direction to them.
- Transversus abdominis. The deepest of your abdominal muscles, running horizontally like a wide belt around your midsection.
The internal and external obliques are responsible for rotating your core (like when you’re throwing a ball or a punch), flexing it to your sides, and also keeping your core and pelvis stable during unilateral (one-sided) lifts and movements. For instance, Bulgarian split squats and standing one-handed dumbbell shoulder presses both activate the obliques.7 8
The main function of the rectus femoris is to bend your spine forward and keep your core rigid, and also to protect your viscera.
The transversus abdominis is the deepest of the muscles, and functions as a wide belt or a corset. It compresses and stabilizes your core.
How Many Ab Exercises Should You Do?
Since the abdominal muscles have such a wide array of muscle fibers, going in several directions, you will need to utilize several different ab exercises if you wish to train them optimally.
The main two movements to target are:
- Frontal flexion. Examples: kneeling ab wheel roll-out, hanging leg raise, or crunches.
- Side flexion/rotation. Examples: high to low wood chop, horizontal wood chop, or oblique crunches.
How Many Sets Should You Do of Each Ab Exercise?
Your ab muscles overlap in some of their functions, and some exercises train several of your abdominal muscles at the same time.
I suggest that you aim to train your abs with at least 10 sets per week for each of the separate muscles, but take overlap into account.
Ab Workout Routine
Here is a sample ab workout:
- Kneeling Ab Wheel Roll-Out: 3 sets x 8 reps
- High to Low Wood Chop: 3 sets/side x 10 reps
- Hanging Leg Raise: 3 sets x 12 reps
- Crunch: 2 sets x 20 reps
This ab workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
Read More: How to Train Your Abs: Exercises & Workout
When we refer to the biceps muscle in everyday speech, we are usually referring to the front of your upper arm. But if we are to be specific, there are actually two (equally large) muscles making up that bulk: the biceps brachii and the brachialis.9
Because the short head of the biceps originates from the shoulder blade, its muscle length is determined by the position of your upper arm: It is at a long muscle length when your arm is hanging by your side, but at a short muscle length when your arm is in front of your body. It also means that your biceps doesn’t only flex your elbow, but can also lift your arm forward. Biceps brachii is at its strongest when your forearm is supinated, and at its weakest when your forearm is pronated (palm turned down).
In contrast, the brachialis is a simple muscle, which crosses only one joint and is a pure elbow flexor.
How Many Bicep Exercises Should You Do?
Both biceps brachii and brachialis are worked by regular bicep curls. However, by incorporating hammer curls or even reverse grip curls, you can diminish the involvement of the biceps brachii and leave more of the work to the brachialis. It is unclear, however, if this serves any benefit compared to simply doing more regular bicep curls – your brachialis grows from those, too.
Another option is to incorporate exercises at slightly different muscle lengths or with different force curves. You could also incorporate unilateral (one-handed) exercises to make sure that both of your arms are developing equally.
How Many Sets Should You Do of Each Bicep Exercise?
If you only do one variation of bicep curls, do all your sets in that exercise. Ten hard sets per week is a good starting point.
However, if you do more bicep exercises, I would suggest splitting your set volume equally among the exercises.
Bicep Workout Routine
Here is a sample bicep workout:
This bicep workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
The triceps is a three-headed muscle. The three heads have different origins, but they all join together in one tendon that inserts on your elbow bone.
The three parts of the triceps are:
- The long head. Originates from your shoulder blade. This is the head that sits closest to your side and rubs against your lats. This head makes up about 50% of the triceps muscle volume and is the only head that crosses two joints: the shoulder and the elbow.
- The lateral head. Originates from your humerus (the bone in your upper arm). This is the head that, among other things, creates the “lump” on the outside of your arm, at least when the muscle is well developed. This head makes up about 38% of the triceps muscle volume.
- The medial head. Also originates from your humerus but lies closest to the bone, beneath the two other heads. This is the smallest head, and makes up only about 12% of the triceps muscle volume.
The long head of the triceps differs from the other two, in that it is the only head that crosses over two joints: the shoulder and the elbow. This means that the long head is at a short muscle length when your upper arm is close to your side, and at a long muscle length when your upper arm is elevated over your head.
Different heads of the triceps are activated in different exercises, depending on the position of your upper arm and how the load is applied. By combining the right tricep exercises, you can make sure that you’re targeting all parts of your triceps.
How Many Exercises Should You Do for Your Triceps?
Research has shown that bench pressing is effective for growing the lateral head of the triceps, but not the long or medial head. In contrast, barbell lying tricep extensions proved effective for growing both of these heads, but not the lateral head.10
However, the position of your upper arm influences the muscle length of your long triceps head, which seems to affect your triceps growth.
One recent study compared overhead cable triceps extension to tricep pushdown and found that while they both lead to similar total growth in the long head of the triceps (~16 %), the muscle growth was distributed differently:11
- Overhead cable triceps extensions led to growth primarily in the distal part of the long head (the part closest to the elbow).
- Tricep pushdown led to a more evenly distributed growth, in the whole length of the long head.
For optimal triceps development, you will ideally want to do at least three different movements:
- Press. Examples: close-grip bench press, overhead press, or dips.
- Tricep extension at long muscle length. Examples: overhead cable triceps extension, barbell lying tricep extensions, or dumbbell standing triceps extension.
- Tricep extension at short muscle length. Examples: triceps pushdown or triceps pushdown with rope.
It is also a good idea to let one of these exercises be a unilateral (one-handed) one where you work one arm at a time or use dumbbells, to keep an eye out for excessive side-to-side differences in strength.
How Many Sets Should You Do of Each Triceps Exercise?
I recommend you do distribute your weekly number of triceps training sets evenly across all three categories mentioned above.
So if you do 9 sets of triceps training per week, you can do 3 sets per movement. If you do 15 sets of chest training, you do 5 sets of each movement.
Triceps Workout Routine
Here is a sample triceps workout:
- Close-Grip Bench Press: 3 sets x 8 reps
- Overhead Cable Triceps Extension: 3 sets x 12 reps
- Tricep Pushdown: 3 sets x 15 reps
This tricep workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
Your quadriceps are located on the front of your thighs and they are the largest muscle group in your body.
As the name indicate, your quadriceps consists of four muscles:
- Vastus lateralis
- Vastus intermedius
- Vastus medialis
- Rectus femoris
The three vastus muscles originate high on your femur (thigh bone), but the rectus femoris originates on the front of your iliac bone (your pelvis). All four muscles come together into the quadriceps tendon that passes over your patella and inserts in your tibia (your lower leg). Thus, the three vastus muscles only pass over one joint (the knee joint), but the rectus femoris passes over two: your knee joint and your hip joint. This influences which exercises are effective for training these muscles.
How Many Exercises Should You Do for Your Quads?
Your three vastus muscle, which make up the bulk of your quadriceps, are worked very well in all forms of squatting movements, such as the barbell squat, leg press, or Bulgarian split squat. However, these exercises where you extend your hip and knee simultaneously are ineffective for working your rectus femoris.12 13 14 15
In the leg extension, however, your hip is fixed while your knee extends, meaning that the rectus femoris can join in on the work and get a good training effect. One study saw a 19% increase in rectus femoris muscle thickness after 12 weeks of leg extension training.16
Finally, it is a good idea to do one unilateral (one-sided) exercise like lunges or Bulgarian split squats. These will train your knee control of the individual legs, and also lets you keep an eye out for excessive side-to-side differences in strength.
How Many Sets Should You Do of Each Quad Exercise?
I would recommend you do distribute your weekly number of quad training sets evenly across these three categories:
- Squatting. Examples: barbell squat, leg press, or hack squat.
- One-legged. Examples: Bulgarian split squat, barbell lunges, or dumbbell lunges.
- Leg extension.
So if you do 9 sets of quad training per week, you can do 3 sets per exercise group. If you do 15 sets of quad training, you do 5 sets of each exercise group.
Quad Workout Routine
Here is a sample quad workout:
This quad workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
Your glutes are the largest muscles in your buttocks, and one of the largest muscle groups in your body.
Your three glute muscles are:
- Gluteus maximus
- Gluteus medius
- Gluteus minimus
The main function of your gluteus maximus is to extend your hip. Your gluteus medius aids in hip extension but also rotates and abducts your hip, as well as helps keep you stable when you are standing on one leg. Your gluteus minimus is also a hip stabilizer when standing on one leg, but it can also abduct and internally rotate your hip.
How Many Exercises Should You Do for Your Glutes?
The hip thrust can probably provide an added benefit by working your glutes directly, and with another force curve than the two exercises mentioned above.
One-legged exercises such as lunges or the Bulgarian split squat works both your glutes’ hip extension, plus their function to stabilize your pelvis when you’re standing on one leg. Finishing with a pure hip abduction exercise like banded side kicks works these muscles even more.
By combining all of the exercises above, you will have targeted the majority of your muscle fibers in the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus.
How Many Sets Should You Do of Each Glute Exercise?
I recommend you to do at least 10 sets per week of exercises that work your glutes in hip extension, and at least an additional 5 sets per week of exercises that work your glutes in hip abduction.
You can spread these sets out over several workouts in a week, or do them all in one dedicated glute workout.
Glute Workout Routine
Here is a sample glute workout:
- Squat: 3 sets x 5 reps
- Barbell Hip Thrust: 3 sets x 8 reps
- Romanian Deadlift: 3 sets x 12 reps
- Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 sets x 15 reps/side
- Banded Side Kick: 3 sets x 20 reps/side
This glute workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
Your hamstrings are located on the back of your thighs and consist of semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris.
All three muscles originate from your sitting bone, on the back and bottom end of your pelvis. An exception is biceps femoris which has two heads:
- The long head, which originates from the sitting bone.
- The short head, which originates from the back of your femur (thigh bone).
All three muscles (including both heads of the biceps femoris) cross over your knee joint and insert in your lower leg.
Since the hamstring muscles cross over both the hip and knee joint, they can act upon both joints with:
- Hip extension. Extending your hip, like in the Romanian deadlift or the good morning.
- Knee flexion. Flex (bend) your knee, like in a leg curl.
How Many Hamstrings Exercises Should You Do?
For optimal hamstrings growth, I recommend that you train at least two types of exercises:
- Hip extension. Like the Romanian deadlift or good morning.
- Leg curl. Like seated leg curl or lying leg curl.
These two types of exercises will work both of your hamstring’s major functions, and target a majority of its muscle fibers.
You might further divide the leg curl into doing both seated and lying leg curls, as these will work your hamstrings at different muscle lengths. This might help to elicit muscle growth in an even larger portion of your hamstrings.
How Many Sets Should You Do of Each Hamstrings Exercise?
I recommend that you do about 10–15 sets per week for your hamstrings, and roughly divide this volume 50/50 between hip extensions and leg curls. Pay attention to cross-over training from other exercises such as the deadlift which works your hamstrings.
Hamstring Workout Routine
Here is a sample hamstrings workout:
This hamstring workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
Your calf muscles are called triceps surae, and consists of two muscles:
- Gastrocnemius is the outer, two-headed muscle. It originates from the lower end of your femur (thigh bone).
- Soleus is the inner, one-headed muscle, which originates from the top of your tibia and fibula.
Both muscles come together into the Achilles tendon, which inserts on your heel bone.
Even though the soleus is located below the gastrocnemius, the two muscles are of equal size, and thus both contribute to your calf muscle mass.
The primary function of the calf muscles is to extend your foot. The soleus is one of the postural muscles, which means that it’s always working when you are standing up. Also, both soleus and gastrocnemius are active when you are walking.
How Many Exercises Should You Do for Your Calves?
Calf raises done when standing works both of your calf muscles, while seated calf raises mostly works your soleus muscle in isolation. Therefore, I recommend that the majority of your calf training sets are done in some form of standing calf raise, but seated calf raise can be used to complement this.
Besides regular calf raises, you could also add in some eccentric heel drops to further challenge your calves, which are used to a lot of work from all the walking you do.
How Many Sets Should You Do of Each Calves Exercise?
I recommend you do at least 10 sets per week of calf training – perhaps even more because your calves are already accustomed to a high training volume from walking.
Of these sets, I recommend that the majority is done in some kind of standing calf raise exercise.
Calves Workout Routine
Here is a sample calves workout:
- Standing Calf Raise: 3 sets x 8 reps
- Seated Calf Raise: 3 sets x 15 reps
- Heel Raise: 2 sets x 30 reps
- Eccentric Heel Drop: 3 sets x 10 reps/side
This calf workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
How Fast Can You See Results?
Depending on the muscle, you will likely need to do more than one exercise for optimal muscle growth.
By targeting all muscle fibers and muscle heads, you will be building muscle as fast as possible.
But how fast is that, exactly? How much muscle can you build in a few months or even a year?
For some hard numbers on this and plenty of examples of fast muscle growth, check out our next article:
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