Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Experiments in Hypertrophy: Part 2 - How many exercises per workout and per body part.

In the second part of this series, I expand on my own experiments in hypertrophy, see what other people do and have a look at the science.

See here for part one on training splits.

Once you've decided on your training split, and you know you have to a hit a muscle with at least 10 sets per week, possibly up to 20, and optimally train it at least twice a week, then how many exercises should you do?

Assuming your workout is 60 minutes or thereabouts (excluding any cardio but including at least a quick warm up and some core at the end) I found you can't really do more than 6 or 7 exercises in a hypertrophy workout. In reality sometimes 5 is enough depending on how intensely you are training and the training methods you are using.

So, for example, on a classic chest day, this would be 3 or 4 chest exercises and 2 tricep exercises.

On a total body training day, I found I could do 7 exercises at most, sometimes skipping triceps and only doing 6. Interestingly, In Brad Schoenfelds study where he compared total body training with body part split training this is exactly how many exercises participants did when they were doing the total body training. It is is obvious, one exercise per body part and using the classic bodybuilding delineation of body parts and you have 7 exercises (unless you are the type of person who does a calf, forearm and abductor exercise as well).

What does the science say?... Not much.

I can't find any research that shows how many exercises per body part is best. The advice is generally common sense, hit the muscle from multiple angles and do a variety of exercises.

But you may be thinking, if I have do 10 sets for an exercise, couldn't I just do 10 sets of 10 reps of one thing like a bench press in one workout and then be covered? You would basically be doing German Volume Training(GVT) which seems to get re-discovered every year.

After a while I think this type of training would get boring, draining and you are hitting the muscles from the same angle all the time.


At the other end of the spectrum you could be thinking, could I do 1 set of 10 different exercises. Here you face two problems, you don't really do an exercise enough to get good at it or know what is the best weight to use and you could end up doing a lot of sub par exercises, and secondly redundancy.

This is where you are essentially hitting the muscle with different exercises which basically do the same thing, you are not optimizing the muscle stimulation. For example, if you do barbell bench press, DB flat press and machine chest press, you are doing a very similar horizontal pressing move for all three exercises.

However, if you did incline DB press, flat DB press, pec flye and possibly a press up - you will be hitting the muscle from different angles and with different actions. You could do all these in one workout if you have a dedicated chest day or if you are hitting a muscle multiple times per week you could do 1 or 2 of these per workout. This way you will find you can lift more, for example, a pec flye after 2 other chest exercises will involve lifting less weight than if it is the only chest exercise you do.

Different body parts, different approach.

The number of exercises you do will depend on the body part. For example, for back you are looking for at least a vertical pull and a horizontal pull (row) to hit different muscle groups.

If you look at the way muscles fibres run (see the picture of the trapezius) and if you want to be fancy use the word 'pennation', you can see that some muscles are not going to be fully worked with one exercise.

Look at the different way the muscle fibres run on the trapezius, the  'pennation' if you want to get fancy. How many exercises do you need to train all of them?

The shoulders are another classic example, with 3 deltoid heads, and the rotator cuff muscles and the trapezius, you could do 4 or 5 exercises which don't have much crossover.

Whereas with biceps and triceps, quite a few people over do it, considering these muscles are also being worked with chest, back and shoulders. Even, when I did a dedicated arm workout I only managed to do 3 bicep and 3 tricep exercises.

How far do you want to go?

How many exercises you do is also dependant on how far you want to go. Glute/booty/ posterior training is very much in vogue at the moment. In the past you may have done a quad exercise, a hamstring exercise and possibly a calf one.

If you are doing 10 exercises for these muscles you are either in an LBT class or Brazilian.

But you could do a hamstring exercise for knee bend, a hamstring exercise for hip extension, glute exercise for hip extensions, adductor, abductor, quad multi joint, quad isolation knee extension only, calf gastrocnemius, calf soleus. And that's only one exercise per body part, before you know you can be doing 10 plus exercises and be in the gym 2 hours. Which begs the question of how intense you training is?

Nuts and Bolts: Strength hybrid, pure hypertrophy, circuits.

In my recent experimentation (and as I said in part 1, no it's not a real experiment) I have gone pure hypertrophy, eschewing the big compound lifts and low reps.

But if yo want to do a more strength hybrid split, powerbuiding approach or something like Wendlers 531, then the split would something like this:

Day 1:
Squat 5x5
RDL 4x8
Accessory work: Walking lunge etc

Day 2:
Bench press 5x5
Row 4x8
Accessory work: DB incline press, seated row etc

Day 3:
Deadlift 5x5
Bulgarian split squat 4x8
Accessory work: Leg curl etc

Day 4:
Military Press 5x5
Pull Up 3xmax
Accessory work: Lateral raise, rear delt etc

Generally as you go into the strength range you have to do less exercises because it takes so much time, as anyone who has ever done the Olympic lifts know. 10x2 with 2 mins rest and set up, and before you know it one exercise has taken 25-30mins. Add in some mobility work, warm up sets and you'll be lucky to get 2 exercises in a 60 minute workout. And it is very taxing.

Whereas, 3x10 with 30-60secs rest takes less than 5 minutes per exercise, hence you can do more at a lower percentage of 1RM and it will be less systemically fatiguing.

In circuit training you could easily do 10 exercises, but I would not call this hypertrophy training in the purest sense.

3 exercises will do it: What the science inadvertently shows.

In a study I really like the design of Schoenfeld et al (2014) compared 7 setx x 3 reps and 3 sets x 10 reps training schemes. A strength group and a hypertrophy group both training to failure. Both groups were experienced trainees.

A few things stand out from this research:

1) Both training schemes resulted in hypertrophy
2) They were both only doing 3 exercises per workout but still got results (increased muscle mass in the biceps). They either trained using a total body scheme, 1 push, 1 pull and 1 leg exercise per workout for 7x3 or for hypertrophy 3 exercises per body part; a day consisting of three chest exercises, another day three back exercises, and a day of three quad exercises. Note, no isolation exercises for the biceps.
3) The 7x3 group took over an hour to complete their routine whereas the 3x10 group took only 17 minutes
4) The strength group got more general fatigue and mental fatigue. Strength training day in day out is hard to maintain for weeks on end.

This echoes my own experience of strength training with no variation in volume or rep ranges. You begin to ache, start to get injured and breakdown. Strategic planning placement of higher rep work and deload weeks should stop this.

A 17 minute workout is highly achievable and means you could add in more volume or another body part such as biceps. Plus you could easily repeat this session more than once per week, thus hitting every body part twice and getting twice the volume of 18 sets per muscle.

There is also a certain amount of personal preference here and what you respond to. Personally, if I do 10x2, 7x3, compound exercises, I get stronger but my muscle mass does not increase. Eventually if I try to go heavy on things like barbell bench press and deadlift I break down.

If I want to increase muscle mass and generally not break down I have to keep in the higher rep ranges, towards 10-12 reps, and even some higher rep work. And I find isolation exercises work for me as well.

Where does that leave us?

A brief survey by me in the gym and online showed that 99% of people train using some kind of body part split. With most people doing a class Chest & Tri's, Back & Bi's routine. Most people were doing about 3 to 4 exercises per body part and 1 or 2 for muscles like biceps and triceps. Th exception being younger people, some of the younger guys doing 6 exercises for chest and one girl doing 11 exercises on leg day! Possibly younger people can get away with more volume, or they have to lower the intensity to complete these marathon routines and therefore don't get enough stimulus for growth.

Here are some example routines from my training diary. The actual exercises are not important at this stage (I’ll get to that in another post), at this stage I’m trying to give an idea of how many exercise per body part.

Chest & Triceps
Incline cable cross press
Incline press plate loaded
Cable flye high to low
Pec flye machine
Tricep tall kneeling rope press
Cable kick back

13 sets for chest, 4 exercises

2 exercises for triceps, 5 sets

Core: stir the pot

Back & Biceps

Incline bicep curl
Seated Cable row
Meadows stretcher
Diverging latpulldown
DB Pullover
Drag curl

Back 4 exercises, 13 sets,
Biceps 2 exercises 6 sets


Hack squat
Leg curl machine
1 leg mike boyle pistols
Nordic hamstring curl
Hanging leg raise

2 exercises 7 sets quads,
2 exercises 7 sets hamstrings

Chest & back & Triceps – would be repeated again in the week

Flat DB Press
Chest Supported Row
Cable Flye
McGill side pulldown
1 arm rope pushdown
1 arm cable kickback

2 exercises chest  6 sets
2 exercises back 6 sets
2 exercises triceps 4 sets

Push – Shoulders, Chest, Tricep

Flat DB Press
DB Arnie Press
Bottom to top cable crossover
Lateral raise
Pec Dec
Rear delt
Overhead tricep ext

3 chest exercises 9 sets
3 shoulders  9 sets
1 tricep 3 sets

Arms only day

DB skullcrusher
Incline DB curl offset grip
Drag curl
Kneeling bench supported tricep ext
Kneeling bench supported bicep curl
Rope over head tricep ext

3 exercises biceps, 3 triceps,
9 sets each

Total Body routine

DB Chest press
Seated Row
Barbell bicep curl
Lying leg curl
Goblet squat
Lateral raise

1 exercise per bodypart, 3-4 set each body part, 3 or 4 different total body routines per week = 12-16 sets.

Of course, these are just some random entries from my training diary and don't give you an actual routine to follow. It's not meant to be the ideal training programme in any sense, after all I was experimenting.

They don't show what rep ranges I used, they don't show what techniques I may have used such as rest pause, descending sets and so forth. Or how to fluctuate the volume, you might deliberately over reach for a couple of weeks on a body part and do multiple exercises, and get 18-20 sets and train 6 x week. And then you might back off for a week with some total body training session and train only 3 x week with only 1 or 2 exercises for a body part and 10 sets total, in the hope you would super compensate.

In summary.

The research is scant and says to hit muscles from multiple angles

Most people naturally gravitate towards 5-7 exercises per workout unless they are doing strength training or circuits.

3 to 4 exercises for big muscle groups and 2 to 3 for smaller muscle groups per workout is about the maximum you can do. Anymore than this and I find your intensity and focus would start to suffer. If you are doing 5 or 6 exercises per bodpart per workout there will probably be redundancy and replication.

The art is having enough exercises and variation for stimulus, but not so much that it is no longer optimal.

Next time.

In part 3 of this I will cover what rep ranges to use, how long to rest and those special training techniques like rest pause (extended sets) and descending sets.

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