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Is There a Magic Number of Exercises I Should Be Doing Per Workout?

Give me the sweet spot between just going through the motions and misbegotten musclehead

Fitness training clients often ask their personal trainers how many exercises should be performed during each workout. But the answer to that question is heavily dependent on what you mean by an “exercise,” and also on what you mean by a “workout.”

For instance, if you were to come to me and tell me that your goal is to become a faster swimmer, I would strongly advise that you make swimming your one exercise of the day. Or if you’re the rare non-high-school or non-collegiate athlete who has time for multiple workouts in a single day, that will give you a little more latitude with selecting either an additional form of cardio or some strength-training options. Otherwise, you’re not going to become a faster swimmer solely by doing concentration curls or pounding a rubber tire with a sledgehammer.

That said, I’m going to assume what you’re really asking is how many different exercises you should do for each muscle group being trained. 

Actually, I have limited time and like to train my entire body every time I exercise.

In that case, there’s nothing inherently wrong about doing one foundational movement for every muscle group in the body. Even if all you did three to four times a week was push-ups, sit-ups or crunches, pull-ups, bodyweight squats, military presses (be very careful not to damage your shoulders!), tricep extensions and curls — and trained all of these body parts to failure over the course of a single set — you would probably dominate the majority of the human race in measures of muscular endurance.

But if you’re like me and you like to break up your workouts by training specific body parts on specific days, things get a little different. When it comes to resistance training, I’m a very rudimentary guy. I start with the function of the muscle — as well as the directions the muscle was designed to move in — and then I double-back to the ways to train that muscle throughout its full range of motion so that it either maintains or increases its levels of strength and endurance. And so, if you break up your training based on the different body parts being exercised, the intended function of that muscle group will determine the exercises you’ll perform.

Can you provide me with a straightforward example?

I’ll start with a popular muscle group — the chest. Straight out of the gate, I typically begin every workout with 100 consecutive push-ups and 20 consecutive pull-ups before I do anything else. For me, these are solid measurements of my body’s performance level. I feel like I’m more or less at the general fitness level I want to maintain if I can complete these two exercises in these volumes of repetitions.

The only reason I’m telling you this is so that you’ll understand that the first exercise of my daily routine — the push-up — adequately engages and fatigues my chest muscles in a straightforward pushing motion that suits my fitness purposes. With that out of the way, I’ll move on to something like incline dumbbell bench presses (exercise #2), bodyweight dips or machine dips (exercise #3, and be very careful about the position of your shoulder) and some sort of fly motion — either with dumbbells or cables —  allowing the chest to fully open up and engage itself in its entirety as it contracts its way through its full range of motion (exercise #4). The Iron Chest Master is also one of my personal favorite home-fitness products for accomplishing this goal without requiring access to cables.

So if you’re keeping score, I’ve trained the pushing and pressing function of the chest along three different directional planes, and also factored in the natural arc-like shape of the chest muscles and their general squeezing and hugging function. At that point, my chest has been trained to do precisely what it’s designed to do, and I’ve completely wiped it out.

But aren’t you also training your triceps during these movements, too?

That’s a very astute observation, and that leads me to both a second point and separate example in this discussion. There are tons of ways you can train your triceps, but since your elbow is a hinge joint as opposed to a ball-in-socket joint, your triceps can really only move in one direction. This isn’t to say that the different heads of the triceps aren’t recruited differently, or don’t contract with different amounts of force depending upon a variety of factors, including the angle of your hands — i.e., whether they’re facing toward you (supinated) or away from you (pronated) while you perform the movement.

At this phase, if you’ve already trained your chest in a fashion similar to what I’ve laid out, your triceps have received enough training in their role of assisting the chest with its pushing and pressing function. So, when we now isolate the tricep, we can perform standing cable tricep extensions, which involve pressing with the triceps directly against resistance, or dumbbell kickbacks, which require you to pull with the triceps directly against resistance. 

In each of these cases, the muscle recruitment pattern is somewhat different, but I always try to incorporate at least one movement that pulls with a muscle group, and another movement that presses with a muscle group. Or, to use another specific example — when I’m training my back, a movement that moves resistance through space toward my body (lat pulldowns), and a movement that pulls my body through space toward resistance (pull-ups).

I get it, I get it. But exactly how many exercises are we talkin’? 

I’m not sure I can say it any more plainly, but allow me to try: If you’re just an average guy who isn’t trying to become a stage-ready bodybuilder, who doesn’t have any sports-specific goals and who just wants to become the proud owner of a physique that 99 percent of all people would recognize as being undeniably fit and strong, the amount of exercises is more or less irrelevant. Again, what you should be focused on is assisting your muscles with making strength gains along every plane in which they naturally move your body. 

Anything else is just a numbers game.

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