How Many Exercises Per Workout Do You Need To Do [Less Is More]

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Have you ever thought to yourself, “how many exercises per workout do I need to do?”

If so, you are in the right place.

Choosing the right number of exercises to do is vital to your fitness, as your time in the gym may be very limited.

If you do too much, you run the risk of injury and unnecessary fatigue. If you do too little, you might not make any progress at all.

Today, you are going to learn how many exercises per workout you should do to maximize the little time you have to work out.

Keep reading.

how-many-exercises-per-workout

How Many Exercises Per Workout Session Should I Do?

The ideal number of exercises per workout session is 3-4 exercises.

If you select your exercises appropriately and train them with sufficient volume and intensity, this will be more than enough to make great progress.

This means:

  • Focusing on at least an 80/20 split of compound to isolation exercises
  • Performing at least 15 total repetitions of each exercise per workout
  • Lifting a weight that is heavy enough to induce muscular fatigue, and
  • Training each major muscle group twice a week

Believe it or not, you can accomplish all four of these bullet points with just 3-4 exercises per day.

Regardless if you are trying to build muscle, burn fat and tone up, lose weight, or improve your health and fitness

Let me explain further.

Why Is 3-4 Exercises Per Session Ideal?

Focusing on just 3-4 exercises per day is critical because it forces you to focus on what really matters.

Many workout programs include far too many exercises, which can quickly become counterproductive.

When you do more than 4 exercises per workout session, you run the risk of

Focusing on the minors

    • There are only a handful of exercises you really need to do at any given time.
    • By doing more than 4 exercises, you are very likely to do low yield exercises that aren’t a great investment of your time.

Your workouts becoming too long

    • I don’t know about you, but I don’t always have an hour to spend at the gym.
    • You don’t need to exercise longer than 30-45 minutes per day, nor should you want to.

You becoming too fatigued

    • If you program your workouts correctly, you won’t have a lot of energy left over to do more than 4 exercises.
    • The 5th and 6th exercises of the day will be mediocre at best.

Here’s Why You Don’t Need As Much Variety As You Think

Your body is meant to function as a unit.

Whenever you lift an object, climb stairs, or bend down to tie your shoes, your body recruits many muscle groups at once to perform the task.

All in all, there are only 6 basic movement patterns that you need to do.

  1. A Horizontal Push: Such as the bench press and the push-up
  2. A Horizontal Pull: Such as the barbell row and the inverted row
  3. A Vertical Push: Such as the overhead press and the handstand push-up
  4. A Vertical Pull: Such as pull-ups and lat pulldowns
  5. A Knee Dominant Movement: Such as squats and lunges
  6. A Hip Dominant Movement: Such as deadlifts and hamstring curls

If you only focus on these exercises, you will be training just about every single muslce in your body?

The best part?

Among those 6 movement patterns, there are several exercises you can choose from, so you can find something that is suitable to your level.

Any other exercise such as bicep curls, tricep extensions, and shoulder raises are simply icing on the cake.

Focusing primarily on these secondary exercises will not improve your health or fitness in any way.

So, at least 80% of the exercises in your program must be composed of these 6 basic movement patterns.

So how do you program your 3-4 exercises per day?

In the next section, you will learn how.

Keep reading.

Section Recap:

  • 3-4 exercises per workout is enough to accomplish your fitness goals
  • If you program your workout correctly, more than 4 exercises per day can become counterproductive
  • You only need to focus on 6 major movement patterns when selecting your exercises

A Comprehensive Full Body Workout To Build Muscle & Burn Fat (In just 30 minutes a day)

Download this valuable FREE template that goes over the best exercises to do to and how to do them to get the best science-based results (especially if you don't have a lot of time to exercise.)
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Each Workout Needs To Focus On One Primary Exercise

When designing your workout program, you should only have one primary exercise per day.

Why?

Because the main exercise will be both the heaviest and the hardest lift you are going to do that day.

I want to set you up for success. When you know that every subsequent exercise after the main exercise will be “easier,” you will give the main movement more focus.

That is why the primary movement has to be one of the best/ most effective exercises. The kind that gives you the biggest return on your investment.

Let’s go over them.

What Constitutes A Primary Exercise?

The main exercise should meet three criteria:

  1. It should train as many muscle groups as possible
  2. It should be an exercise you can progressively overload easily
  3. It should ideally be performed with a barbell

The best of the best are exercises that are close variations to the big four and the vertical pull

  1. Squats,
  2. Deadlifts,
  3. Bench Presses,
  4. Overhead Presses, and
  5. The Pull-up

These are big 5 exercises that should constitute your main exercises.

best-exercises-to-include-in-workout

You can and should find a variation that you can do with a full range of motion, and without pain.

Here are some common examples:

Main Squat Variations:

Main Deadlift Variations:

Main Bench Pressing Variations:

Main Overhead Pressing Variations:

Main Pull-Up Variations:

Pick one variation of the big four to design four different workouts.

You will then select a pull variation that will also be done on 1-2 of those workouts.

If you cannot perform any of these primary exercises, then I will show you how to make some modifications.  More on that below. 

Okay, so now you have your main exercises selected. Let’s go over the secondary exercises to include in your workout.

Now It’s Time To Choose 2-3 Secondary Exercises

After you select the main exercises you want to do, you then have to choose secondary exercises.

The secondary exercises will do two things

  1. Focus on easier variations of the main exercises
  2. Isolate any weak points you may have

Here are a few examples of secondary exercises

Secondary Squat Variations:

Secondary Deadlift Variations:

Secondary Bench Pressing Variations:

Secondary Overhead Pressing Variations:

Secondary Pull-Up Variations:

As you can see, the secondary exercises are designed to be less taxing than the primary exercise.

That way, you can perform them as a superset, and with a shorter rest period.

Choose 1 exercise from each category to be your secondary exercises.

Got them? Good.

What If I Can’t Do One Of These Big 5 Exercises?

I get it.

You may not be able to do one of these big 5 exercises for one reason or another.

Maybe you don’t have the mobility to perform a full range of motion squat, or you get pain in your shoulder when you do overhead pressing.

So what do you do when you can’t perform one or more of the big 5 primary exercises?

This is how to modify your workout.

  1. Select a secondary exercise to be treated as the primary exercise
  2. Whatever exercise you select as your primary exercise, you will go “heavier” than usual
    • This means using weights that allow you to work in the 6-8 rep range
  3. You will also perform an additional set of that primary exercise
    • I.e, if you are normally doing 3 sets of each exercise, do 4 for the primary exercise

You can also include exercises not mentioned above.

Just make sure that you are using compound exercises more than 80% of the time.

When In Doubt, Just Refer To This List of The Best Compound Exercises

Perhaps you want to see a complete list of exercises that can be your main exercise or your secondary exercises.

That is why we compiled this list of the 46 compound exercises to include in your routine.

These exercises have been hand selected to be some of the most useful variations you can choose from.

There will be a variation for everyone.

Section Recap:

  • Focus on one primary exercise per workout
  • A primary exercise should train as many muscle groups as possible
  • Select 2-3 secondary exercises to include per workout
  • These Secondary exercises should still train the 6 major movement patterns but are not as taxing (i.e dumbbell exercises or bodyweight exercises.)

How To Structure Your Workout Using 3-4 Exercises Per Session

Ok here comes the fun part.

Now that you have selected your primary and secondary exercises, it is time for you to start creating your program.

In order to do so, you need to know which workout split you are going to use.

The 3 Types of Workout Splits

What is a workout split?

A split refers to how your workouts are divided.  In general, there are only three that you should consider.

The Upper Body / Lower Body Split:

You can choose to train all of the major upper body movements on one day, followed by all of the major lower body splits on another. You should consider this split if you are an intermediate.

The Full Body Split:

The full body split isn’t as complicated as it sounds. All you do is mix and match exercises from both the upper body muscle groups and the lower body muscle groups into the same session.  You aren’t necessarily training every single muscle in your body- but you are hitting a lot at once. You should consider this split if you are a beginner.

The Push-Pull Split:

The third option is the push-pull split. You train all of the pushing (or pressing muscles) on one day, and all of the pulling muscles on another.

This is another variation of the full body split.

You cannot go wrong with either of these three approaches. In order to learn which one you should do, check out our complete article on the topic here.

How Many Times Should I Hit Each Body Part Per Week?

Now that you have your training split selected, you should focus on designing your workouts.
A recent meta-analysis of 25 studies tried to answer this question.

They found that there was no significant difference between training each body part 1, 2, or 3 times per week, provided the total volume was equated amongst the groups.

With that in mind, this study only focused on hypertrophy, and not necessarily on strength – which cannot be ignored.

Plus, it is better to train each muscle group more than once per week as trying to do a lot of volume in one session will lead to

  1. Long workouts
  2. Increased fatigue
  3. Increased risk of injury

Therefore, I suggest you train each body part twice per week.

Sample Workout Of What Your Program May Look Like

Here is a sample workout of your program may look like.

This is a four day a week upper/lower workout split training 4 days a week.

Workout 1

  1. Primary Exercise: Front Squat 3 x 8 repetitions
  2. Secondary Exercise A1: Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift 3 x 10 repetitions
  3. Secondary Exercise A2: Bulgarian Split Squat 3 x 8 repetitions each leg
  4. Secondary Exercise B:  Ab Wheel Rollouts 3 x 12 repetitions

Workout 2

  1. Primary Exercise: Incline Bench Press 3 x 10 repetitions
  2. Secondary Exercise A1: Pull-ups 3 x 6 repetitions
  3. Secondary Exercise A2: Pike Push-ups 3 x 10 repetitions

Workout 3

  1. Primary Exercise: Romanian Deadlift 3 x 8 repetitions
  2. Secondary Exercise A1: Lunge 3 x 8 repetitions each leg
  3. Secondary Exercise A2: Back Raises 3 x 8 repetitions
  4. Secondary Exercise B:  Hanging Leg Raises 3 x 10 repetitions

Workout 4

  1. Primary Exercise: Dumbell Overhead Press 4 x 8 repetitions
  2. Secondary Exercise A1: Horizontal Pull-ups 3 x 8 repetitions
  3. Secondary Exercise A2: Dumbbell Bench Press 3 x 10 repetitions

There are a few things to note on this sample program

  • Each major muscle group is trained ~2 times per week
  • Secondary Exercise A1 is super-setted with Secondary Exercise A2 to save time
  • In Workout 4- The Dumbbell Overhead Press (which is generally considered a secondary exercise) is chosen as the Primary exercise
    • As a result, we do 4 sets instead of 3

Section Recap:

  • Choose one of the major training splits to structure your workouts around
  • Aim to train each major muscle group 2 times per week
  • Superset all secondary exercises to save time

Other FAQs/Considerations

how-many-exercises-should-i-do

How Many Reps Should I Do Per Workout?

There is a wide range of repetitions you can do per workout.

I recommend that you do work in the 5-12 rep range for the vast majority of your training.

Whatever rep range you choose, just make sure that you stick to that range for at least 4-6 weeks and stay consistent per exercise.

For example, if you do the squat for 3 sets of 8 repetitions, do not jump to 3 sets of 3 the following week and then 3 sets of 12 the next. Keep the reps relatively stable per exercise.

This will give you enough time to maximize your strength and muscle development in that rep range.

We have written an entire article on rep range selection which you can find here.

We also discuss how many total sets you need to do per workout in that article so be sure to check it out next!

What If I Want To Add More Exercises?

What if you want to do more than 3-4 exercises per day?

That’s fine.

Just start slow. Do 3-4 exercises for a week or two and see how you feel. If you feel really fresh, and want to do more exercises per day, then start by adding one more.

Just make sure that your body can handle 5 exercises per day (and make sure that you actually have the time to do this many exercises as well).

A lot of magazines will show you routines with 6 or 7 exercises per day.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have 2 hours to spend at the gym.

What If I Only Want To Build A Specific Muscle?

So how many exercises per muscle do you need to do if you only want to build a specific body part?

It’s simple.

All you need to do is tweak the principles I laid out above.

Instead of mixing and matching exercises per workout, you will center your secondary exercises around that muscle group.

Ideally, you will target that specific muscle with one large primary compound exercise, followed by 1-2 secondary exercises that further train that muscle.

It is okay to use 1-2 isolation exercise per day to target your specific muscle, provided you have done a compound primary exercise.

Below are some examples.

How Many Exercises Should I Do For Biceps, Back, Legs, Abs Etc?

So how many actual exercises should you do per specific body part? Let’s say you want to build your biceps.

You can 2-3 biceps focused exercises per day, twice per week.

Here’s how:

Bicep Workout 1

  1. Primary Exercise: Weighted Chin-ups 3×8 repetitions
  2. Secondary Exercise A: Barbell Curls 3×10 repetitions
  3. Secondary Exercise B: Cable Curls 3×8 repetitions

*Note: You do not superset the secondary exercises as they are training the same muscle group.

Bicep Workout 2

  1. Primary Exercise: Barbell Row 3×8 repetitions
  2. Secondary Exercise A: Preacher Curls 3×10 repetitions
  3. Secondary Exercise B: Close Grip Push-ups 3×8 repetitions

*Note: Push-ups are included here to train the antagonistic muscle, the triceps. This helps to prevent muscular imbalances.

A Simple Workout Program That Includes The Right Numer of Exercises

Okay, so now you can use this information to start designing your workout program.

Or, you can bypass all that work and let us do the work for you.

The WCT Strength Program already takes all of these principles into consideration and provides you an easy to follow 15-week template.

This template tells you how many exercises you should do per workout, what exercises to do, how many sets and reps you should do, and how to increase the weight.

There is a male template and a female template.

In Summary… How Many Exercises In A Day Do You Need To Do?

To sum it all up:

    • Do 3-4 exercises per workout per day
    • There are only 6 major movement patterns you need to train
    • Choose 1 primary exercise and 2-3 secondary exercises
    • Your primary exercise should be one of the “Big 5”
    • Your secondary exercises should complement the Big 5
    • Design your workout to hit each major muscle group two times per week

That’s all I have for you today.

Next, you should read:

Now we turn it over to you.

How many exercises do you do in your workout?

Are your workouts too long?

Comment below and let us know!

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Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH

Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, a NASM CPT, health & fitness experts, and founders of The White Coat Trainer, a site dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy individuals. Their advice has been featured on KevinMD, The Doctor Weighs In, My Fitness Pal, Reader's Digest, Livestrong, and The Active Times. Learn more about them here.

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