Quality Over Quantity: How Many Exercises Per Workout

by Michael Brown on October 24, 2019

woman contemplating how many exercises per workout she needs

It's hard to walk into a gym and not wonder how many exercises per workout do these guys complete to look like that? Whether you want to increase muscle mass for functional reasons, like a team sport, or esthetic reasons, it can be confusing trying to decipher how to work out as effectively as possible.

While there are many reasons for wanting to build muscle, the questions are fairly universal. How many exercises per workout will help me build muscle? How is muscle built in the first place? Is there such a thing as too much exercise? If so, how can I tell if I'm working out too hard. If you've wondered any of these things, you're in the right place. Keep reading for helpful tips and tricks to build muscle and mitigate the risk of injury and illness.

What Builds Muscle?

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You go to the gym religiously but you don't seem to be getting any gains. So, how many exercises per workout are ideal for building muscle. What builds muscle, anyway? Put simply, muscles grow when you tear them down at the cellular level and then give them the chance to recover. How well you recover after a heavy lifting session determines how much your muscles will grow once they're torn down.

Recovery Tips

Remember, what you do after the gym is just as important as what you do in it. Shortly after a heavy lifting session, you need to eat between 0.14 and 0.23 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. For most people, this is between 20 and 40 grams of protein. Carbs are important, too.

After all, your body taps into its glycogen stores whether you're shattering your previous 1RM or running a marathon. Ideally, you should get a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein within 30 to 45 minutes after your workout. In other words, you need between 60 and 120 grams of carbs depending on your body weight.

Besides proper nutrition, you need to get plenty of sleep and eliminate stress. Most of your body's recovery happens during non-REM sleep. This slow-wave sleep phase accounts for 40% of your sleep time. Thus, if you sleep seven hours a night, your body has fewer than three hours to do most of its muscle repair.

Weight lifting is very taxing on your parasympathetic nervous system. You have enough stress in your daily life. Do yourself a favor and find a meditative activity you can do after your heavy lifting sessions. For some people, this is actually meditating on the floor with a pillow. For others, it's drawing, writing music or taking their pets for a walk. Whatever it is that calms you, make sure you make time to do it.

Myths vs. Facts

Some people swear by chocolate milk after their workouts. This is because it contains a three-to-one ratio of carbs to protein. However, dairy products contain casein, a slow-to-act protein. This type of protein coagulates in your stomach acid and releases amino acids slowly. Casein is ideal before bed because it releases amino acids throughout the night so your muscles can repair themselves while you sleep.

The truth of post-workout nutrition is you need whey protein within two hours of your workout. Unfortunately, only 20% of the protein in milk is whey protein. Whey protein powders or protein shakes with whey are ideal after your workout.

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How Many Exercises per Workout?

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There's no hard and fast rule as to the ideal number of exercises per workout to build muscle. However, the most successful training programs involve three to five sets of a primary major movement, (like squats, bench presses, deadlifts, overhead presses or rows), followed by three sets each of one to two accessory exercises.

For example, back day may look like this:

  • Rows - three sets of 10 reps at 75% 1RM (one rep max)
  • Overhead press - three sets of 10 reps at 75% 1RM
  • Reverse fly or lat pulldown - three sets of 10 reps at 75% 1RM
  • Shoulder shrugs - three sets, optional depending on energy levels

Quality Over Quantity

The load requirement to reach hypertrophy varies by individual. Let's say it takes 10 sets to wear out a muscle group, like your back, legs, arms or chest. Quality is more important than quantity and too many exercises spreads your focus too thin. It's better to do five sets of two exercises than two sets of five exercises.


Be patient as you figure out what works for you. Variation is an important part of creating hypertrophy. The human body is incredibly adaptable, so hypertrophy will become nearly impossible to achieve if you do the same single exercise for a particular muscle. That's why it's a good idea to have a couple lifts to hit a muscle (like rows and lat pulldowns). However, more isn't always better.

Keep it Simple, Stupid

Simplicity is an oft-overlooked training technique. Bodybuilders only lift for 60 to 90 minutes at a time. If you perform a dozen lifts per workout session, you could be in the gym for two to three hours at a time. This is a recipe for excessive exercise. Try sticking to only four to five primary exercises per workout session. And keep your eye out for signs that you need to back off.

Signs of Excessive Exercises and More

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Regular exercise is good for shredding fat and leaving you with a ripped, perfectly-sculpted physique. But, if you're overdoing it at the gym, you're not going to build muscle. Here are signs you need to let off the throttle just a little, allowing your body to recuperate and grow stronger.

Decreased Performance

You may be experimenting with how many exercises per workout to get great gains. If you track your workout performance and notice an unexplainable dip, you're overtaxing your muscles. Take a day or two from lifting to do some light jogging or swimming. You can even just go for a walk. The important thing is you take a day or two from heavy lifting.

Disinterest in Exercise and Mood Changes

Bodybuilders and sprinters alike experience burnout when they push themselves too hard. They'd pick the gym over a concert any day, but all of a sudden want to sit at home and do nothing. If you're just going through the motions at the gym out of habit, you probably need to take it easy.

Similarly, if you notice mood changes, like anger, anxiety, confusion, depression or irritability, you may be putting your body through too much stress. Stress hormones released when you're physically overloaded cause emotional stress, as well.

Weakened Immune System

If you catch the common cold, the flu or some other communicable illness, the cause may be too much time in the gym. Stay home and get better. First, you don't need to get anyone else sick. Second, overtaxation weakens the immune system. In your overtaxed state, you could catch something else, as well.

Keep in mind, it can take weeks or months to recover from overtraining, depending on how severe it was and how long it lasted. For example, chronic inflammation caused by excessive workouts can lead to cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Loss of Appetite

A sudden loss of appetite often accompanies lack of motivation. It occurs in the middle stages of overtraining. In an effort to reduce its workload, your body slows your metabolism and other processes. If you don't feel as hungry as you should after a strenuous workout, or if you feel fatigued, talk to a doctor about the potential for overtraining.


When your brain doesn't get enough fuel or nutrients, you start to experience mental fogginess. You may also feel physically groggy. Listen very carefully to your body. Normally, a good workout is all you need to feel refreshed. But if overexercise is causing the fatigue, you need to step back and take time to recover.

Fat Gain

Maybe in college you successfully cut fat and built muscle by consuming 300 calories above your TDEE after your heavy lifting days. If you're following the same plan now, losing weight and gaining fat, you're in the final stages of overtraining. If you don't give your body enough time to recover, your muscles won't rebuild themselves.

Moreover, stress increases levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in your blood. Cortisol, in turn, affects other hormones, like ghrelin and leptin. The cumulative effect of these hormonal shifts is you feel hungrier more often, it takes longer to feel full and you store dangerous subcutaneous adipose tissue in your lower abdominal region. Steroid-like hormones are also inhibited, making it even harder to build muscle.

How Many Exercises Per Workout: The Bottom Line

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So, now you know there's no hard and fast rule for how many exercises per workout to build muscle. The important thing to remember is what you do outside the gym is just as important as what you do in it. Signs you may be pushing yourself too hard include loss of interest, mood changes, decreased performance and getting sick.

If you experience any of these signs, or otherwise suspect you're working too hard, consult with your general health practitioner or a certified fitness instructor. If you take a few weeks to recover, you'll discover that you feel healthier and you're putting on muscle more efficiently and effectively than ever before.

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