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June 01, 2021
A question that we encounter frequently from people just getting into weightlifting is “How many exercises and sets should I do per week or per muscle group?”. The answer to this question is determined by several unique variables to the person. The general consensus is that each major muscle group should be exercised twice a week. If you’re new to weight lifting or you’ve spent years in the gym, this article can serve as a quick reminder of the major muscle groups, most effective exercises and guidelines for sets and reps.
The fitness world comes with its own vernacular, and two of the most common words you will hear are sets and reps. Reps stands for repetitions, or the number of times you do a specific exercise. Sets, means the number reps you’re completing before taking a rest. For example, if a workout calls for 3 sets of bench press with 12 reps in each set, then you would be expected to do 12 reps three times for a total of 36 repetitions.
Ask this question to 5 different personal trainers and you will get 5 different answers. To drill down to a halfway decent answer, you must first set the parameters to which the question is being asked. Is this for a beginner or advanced lifter? Do you want to build mass or lose fat? How often does this person workout? The answers to all these questions will help guide you to an answer that fits your situation.
American College of Sports Medicine recommends 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps to be the sweet spot; coming close to failure on the last rep of each set.
Numerous studies have been conducted in this area with the majority agreeing that more volume/sets leads to more growth. This study in 2010 saw that people who did 4-6 sets per week per muscle group had around 80% more muscle growth compared to those who completed one set per muscle group per week. This study in 2017 reinforced the results that the more sets you do the better the results.
There is however a limit to when higher sets/volumes are beneficial and can actually become detrimental to your gains. The same researcher from the aforementioned study, James Krieger, studied the meta-analysis and concluded that 10 sets per muscle group seems to be the upper limit of beneficial outcomes. If you’re doing more than 10 hard sets of a particular muscle group in one day you might be doing more harm than good as this “junk volume” can hinder your recovery.
Take this with a grain of salt, as the exact effects can vary depending on the person’s fitness level, how long they’ve been training and the type of exercises being performed. For example, a total of 10 hard sets comprised of squats, deadlifts and lunges will be more taxing on your muscles than leg extensions, quad curls and calf raises.
The number of reps you do per set should be aligned with your end goals.
Some popular workout programs include:
As mentioned above you should aim for 15-25 total sets per workout with each exercise being 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps. This means you should do around 5 to 8 different exercises during that single workout if you're doing 3 sets of each exercise. Or you could be doing 7-12 exercises if you're doing two sets of each exercise. Remember we are trying to stay at/under 20 sets per muscle group per week if you're working the same muscle group twice a week. Also, don't focus so much on how long your workout should be, but rather, make sure you're hitting all of your muscles with effective exercises.
For Losing Fat:
To lose fat you should be doing a high volume of reps per set. Still sticking within the guidelines above, not to exceed certain number of sets and reps, you must turn up the intensity on these exercises. You can reduce rest times between sets (for extra calorie burn). You can also try to execute HIIT or EMOM or AMRAP circuits to get that heart pumping, that sweat dripping and those calories melting.
All that said, the more muscle you keep, the better your fat loss journey will be, and nothing keeps muscle on better than heavy lifts. So, if you can, implement heavy compound lifts as well (with adequate rest time between sets).
For Building Muscle:
To build muscle it is important to note the concept of Time Under Tension (TUT). This is the amount of time the muscle is under tension or strained during a particular exercise. In essence, you should try to lengthen the time of each phase of the movement. The phase of the movement we are most concerned with is the stretching phase where you should try for slow eccentric movement. Think of when you do a bicep curl, you can curl the weight up fast but you should slowly lower the weight. As mentioned above, the goal is hypertrophy so you will want have a good mixture of both compound movements and isolation exercises with a rep range of 6-12 reps per set. It's also important to understand how long does it take for muscles to grow so you can monitor your progress.
Those new to fitness should start with full body workouts until their bodies get accustomed to exercising. In each full body workout, each muscle group should be targeted, completing 2 sets of 10-12 reps. Make sure to give yourself adequate rest and recovery between workout days.
Full body workout example:
Choose one exercise from each of the 12 muscle groups listed below then complete two sets of 8-12 reps.
Once again, the number of exercises per muscle group should be influenced by individual circumstances including the goals of the person. However, we can say doing the normal “Bro Split” where you hit one body part per week i.e. Monday = Chest Day, Tuesday = Back Day etc. isn’t as effective as hitting all major muscle groups two times a week like you can with the Upper Lower Split.
You should be aiming for 10-20 sets per muscle group per week split into two sessions. This will keep you fresh, avoiding potential over-training and should give you better gains. Aim for each workout to consist of 15-25 sets total but with less than 10 sets for a specific muscle group on one day. To go a step further, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 8-10 multi-joint exercises per week.
Try this Upper/Lower Body Split:
Multiple studies show that the optimal results occur when people train each muscle group twice a week. By training each muscle group twice a week you can work hard with a high intensity without over-training in one particular workout session. This training schedule is also good because it can reduce your time commitment to working out but also give you some amazing results.
There are over 600 muscles in the human body! We will briefly touch on some of the best exercises for certain muscle groups. The following 12 major muscle groups that should be targeted in your exercise regimen.
What is the Trapezius?
Usually referred to as “traps”, the trapezius is the triangular shaped muscle in your upper back. Often overlooked as part of the back muscles the traps can be targeted with particular exercises such as shrugs. Deadlifts also work the traps because of the strain it causes, the traps are forcefully engaged.
The traps help with rotating and moving the shoulder blades while keeping them stable. Your head movements are sustained by your traps. The muscle fibers of the trapezius are split into three areas, the upper, middle and lower. The upper fibers are responsible for extending your neck while also elevating and upwardly rotating the scapula. The middle fibers retract the scapula and the lower fibers support the upper fibers in upwardly rotating the scapula. The trapezius is considered a superficial muscle, as we can see and feel it. Sometimes you will see bodybuilders with huge traps where it seems like the don’t have a neck, just their head sitting atop a triangle.
What are the best exercises to build traps?
There are some “big” lifts like deadlifts, snatches and cleans that help to build strength and size in the traps. The best exercise to build your trap are different shrug variations.
The more targeted trap exercises include:
Related: Best Trap Exercises
What are the shoulder muscles?
The shoulders are comprised of the front deltoid, side deltoid and rear deltoid. There are exercises that target a specific deltoid or multiple deltoids. The military press is one major exercise that works all three deltoids aka delts. The delts stretch from the clavicle to the scapula and down to the humerus. Protecting the glenohumeral joint, these muscles help with everyday tasks such as raising your arms to pick something up. They also help support pectoral function, as you will feel when you do a chest workout. Many people end up experiencing shoulder pain at some point in life so it’s important to keep these muscles strong and limber.
What are the best shoulder exercises to build muscle?
The king of shoulder exercises is the military press or overhead press. Although the military press might be the best shoulder exercise, there are plenty of others that will also help make your shoulders stronger. The shoulder muscles are also engaged in other exercises such as incline bench press and deadlifts.
Some exercises to build shoulder strength are:
What are the chest muscles?
Often referred to as “pecs” the pectoralis muscles connect the chest to the bones of the upper arm and shoulder. Located on both sides of your sternum is the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor. If you move your arms up, down or across your body then your pecs are being put to work. Most people love a good “chest day” in the gym as both men and women benefit (*get attention*) from having larger chest muscles.
What are the best chest exercises to build muscle?
You often hear people talking about how much they can bench as a sign of strength but when was the last time you heard someone saying how many weighted dips they could do? The best exercises to build a strong chest are bench press and dips but there are a number of exercises that assist in developing the chest muscles, including:
What are the back muscles?
There are 40 muscles in the back (20 pairs), one the largest muscle groups in your body. We will only focus on the bigger back muscles such as the erector spinae, rhomboid, teres major and last but not least the latissimus dorsi.
Frequently you will have people trying to build that “winged’ look by focusing on building their lats, which are the most well-known back muscle. The lats are involved in providing good posture, help to move your arms and shoulders while protecting and stabilizing your spine. Needless to say, the lats are a super important muscle, apart from making you look like a Superhero.
The erector spinae muscles are located on both sides of the vertebral column and run next to the lumbar, thoracic and cervical segments of the spine. These muscles are essential for helping with rotation and keeping your back straight. You can recognize if someone does a lot of deadlifts if they have large erector spinae muscles.
The rhomboids are found beneath your traps and they help to support the retraction of the scapula, give stability to your shoulders and aid in maintaining good posture.
Lastly, the teres major located in the upper arm which helps with medial arm rotation and arm swinging. There’s also a teres minor that helps to stabilize the glenohumeral joint by holding together the ball and socket. These muscles are important to note because of how they work in conjunction with the rotator cuff.
What are the best back exercises?
Back exercises can usually be separated into two areas; exercises to increase the depth of the back and exercises that improve the width of the back. Deadlifts are a great example to get a thicker back with pull ups being a perfect exercise to increase the width. A strong back is necessary are we age to help fend off back pain or other injuries.
The best exercises for back include:
What are the ab muscles?
The abs include four groups muscles the rectus abdominis, the transversus abdominis, the internal obliques and the external obliques. The rectus abdominis is the most popular as this gives people the six pack look that is highly desired. Overall, these muscles enable us to move in various planes of motion and stay balanced while also protecting our spine.
What are the best ab exercises to build muscle?
The best ab exercises you can do are actually not really considered “ab” exercises. By doing some major compound exercises such as deadlifts, squats, overhead presses; you will force your abs to be engaged which will help to build strength. However, if you do want to target your core more specifically there are a number of exercises that will do the trick.
Always remember, we all have abs, they are just hiding underneath that belly fat. The old saying goes, “Abs aren’t built in the gym but in the kitchen” which is half true but if you want strong well defined abs you have to put in the hard work. You will also need low body fat to get a glimpse of those abs.
Some of the best isolated ab exercises are:
What are the triceps muscles?
The triceps brachii or “tris” are the muscle on the back of the upper arm with three heads; the long head, lateral head and medial head. The triceps enable us to straighten our arms and support us when pushing/pressing objects. The triceps are basically 2/3 of your upper arm but often get less attention than its neighbor, the biceps.
What are the best triceps exercises to build muscle?
The best triceps exercises are found in compound movements such as pushups, overhead press close/reverse grip bench press, pullovers and dips.
There are multiple isolation exercises for the triceps that can help with improving the definition of the different heads of the muscle, for example:
What are the biceps muscles?
The other portion of your upper arm is made of the biceps brachii which is a two headed muscle. Comprised of the short head and long head, these muscles start from the scapula and come together at the upper forearm. The biceps support supinating and flexing the forearm and are important for pulling exercises.
What are the best bicep exercises to build muscle?
Once again some of the best exercises you can do to build strength in your biceps are compound movements such as rows, pull ups and close grip chin ups. You can add some isolation exercises into the mix if you want to improve those beach muscles.
Do these exercises for a massive pump:
Related: Average Biceps Size Chart
What are the forearm muscles?
The forearms consist of multiple muscles that are divided by the anterior and posterior with corresponding levels such and the superficial, intermediate and deep tissue. Some muscles include flexor carpi radialis, abductor pollicis longus, brachioradialis and pronator teres. The muscles in your forearm are responsible for moving your wrists, hands and fingers. Forearm strength and grip strength are extremely important in both life and fitness.
What are the best forearm exercises to build muscle?
When doing most upper body exercises your forearms will come into play by holding and gripping the weight or bar. This means exercises like Farmer’s Walks are great to improve forearm and grip strength. By strengthening your forearms, you will be able to improve other lifts as well such as the deadlift or pull ups.
Besides the big lifts you can improve your forearm strength with:
Related: Best Forearm Exercises
What are the gluteal muscles?
Usually called the glutes, these muscles start at the pelvis then insert into the femur. The three muscles are the gluteus minimus, gluteus medius and gluteus maximus. Your glute muscles are partly responsible for walking, running and jumping. Besides being super practical muscles, they also garner unending attention for other reasons. These days you can’t go online or visit a gym without seeing people working on improving their glutes.
What are the best glute exercises to build muscle?
The best exercises for building your glutes are based in large movements such as squats. Many gyms these days are adding glute specific workout equipment amongst their lineup as the trend of bigger behinds continues.
There are also glute specific exercises you for example:
What are the quadriceps muscles?
The quadriceps femoris aka “quads” are found on the front of your thigh and are comprised of, you guessed it four main muscles; the rectus femoris, vastus intermedius, vastus medialis and vastus lateralis. They start at the femur(thighbone) and ilium (hipbone) and attach to the patella (kneecap). These muscles support the extension of the knee and are essential for standing, walking and running.
What are the best quadriceps exercises to build muscle?
The best exercises for quadriceps are large compound movements such as squats and lunges. There are numerous variations of both squats and lunges so you should never get bored of working out these muscles. There are also isolation exercises such as leg extensions or terminal knee extensions (TKE) if you want to specifically target the quads or are rehabbing an injury.
Some of the best exercises to build the quad muscles include:
What are the hamstrings muscles?
Made of the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris. We will focus on the biceps of the lower body; the biceps femoris otherwise known as the hamstrings. The biceps femoris is comprised of a long and short head. The short head of the hamstring is attached to the femur whereas the long head attached to the ischium (lower hip bone). The hamstrings help with hip extension, internal/external rotation and knee flexion. As there are millions of people who are sitting all day at desks, it’s important to stretch and work those hamstrings consistently.
What are the best hamstring exercises to build muscle?
The best hamstring exercises for building muscles are different types of deadlifts where your legs stay straight and get a massive stretch like stiff legged deadlift. Most gyms also have machines like the quad curl to isolate the effort of the hamstrings.
The overall best exercises for hamstrings are:
What are the calf muscles?
The calves are made up of two muscles; the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the larger muscle that you can see. It has two heads and plays a major role in running and jumping. This is the muscle that really defines one’s legs.
The soleus is the smaller flat muscle behind the gastrocnemius and it helps to flex the foot so it points downward. This function called plantar flexion makes it so we can stand up and not fall forward. These two muscles are on the back of your lower leg and they help us to move forward by lifting our heels.
What are the best calf exercises to build muscle?
While some people are born with the genetics to have strong thick calves, others have to work extra hard to add mass to these muscles. If you're one of the lucky ones you can get a good calf workout in while doing other exercises such as lunges and split squats. If you're one of the unlucky ones then you might have to put some extra effort into building up your calves. Whatever the case, don’t be the one walking around with a massive upper body and chicken legs.
Try some of the best exercises for building muscle in your calves:
There isn’t a magical equation to find how many exercises, sets and reps that should be done for each muscle group. Fitness is a personal journey where you have to do the hard work to see what works best for you. There are plenty of fitness gurus on the web that preach a certain number of sets/reps is the best but that’s probably because it’s what worked best for them. The only way to determine what sets, reps and exercises are right for you is to get out there and get after it.
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