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It will depend upon what type of workout you’re hitting; a full body workout, an upper body workout, or a lower body workout.
In my experience, you should always err on the side of efficiency and take a shock and awe approach. You don’t want to spend hours in the gym and crush a ton of exercises, because it will be very hard to recover between workouts and can lead to overuse injuries. The goal is to stimulate the muscle, create an adaptation of greater strength and muscle size, and then leave the gym to recover.
Knowledgeable coaches call this the ‘minimal effective dose.’ The minimal amount of training needed to create a training effect.
To optimize your results, the reality is that the number of exercises you should perform in the workout will depend upon the intensity and effort you put into each and every repetition.
Training intensity can be measured many different ways; the amount of volume you hit (sets x reps), the amount of weight you lift, the amount of rest you take between every set – and even a good training partner can help drive the intensity of the workout. Whatever variable makes the workout harder or easier, can be defined as the training intensity.
While higher volume training does stimulate muscle growth, the amount of weight you use is very important. If the weights are too light, you’ll have to hit a ton of sets and reps to create the training effect you’re looking for – i.e., muscle hypertrophy (muscle mass) or strength.
Here are some general guidelines for the optimal number of exercises per workout that have worked in my programs:
Full Body Workout:
1 upper body compound exercise, 2 upper body accessory lifts, 1 lower body compound exercise, 2 lower body accessory lifts
Upper Body Workout:
1-2 upper body compound exercises, 2-3 upper body accessory lifts
Lower Body Workout:
1-2 lower body compound exercises, 2-3 lower body accessory lifts
Remember, maximize the contraction for every repetition, utilize good form through a full range of motion (or utilize a range of motion that allows YOU to maintain good form), and push yourself hard in every workout.
Meet the Lift Doctor
Jim Smith is a highly respected strength and conditioning coach and Fitness Advisory Board member for Schwarzenegger.com and numerous national publications. Owner of Diesel Strength & Conditioning, Jim has been called one of the most “innovative strength coaches” in the fitness industry. Jim’s FREE gift – The Mass Report – has been used by thousands of lifters and athletes to build muscle faster and break through training plateaus.