Choosing how many exercises per session can get very technical, varied, and complex because there is a lot more that goes into program design than simply how many exercises are done within one session. Some considerations include whether it is a lower body or upper body training session (UB has been shown to need less volume per session to hit hypertrophy than LB), volume-load (# of reps and sets per exercise), frequency (how often a muscle group or exercise programmed), intensity (% of RM, RPE/RIR), and the phase of a program (volume/hypertrophy, strength, peak/competition, DUP, etc.)
For the purposes of this post I’m just going to provide a very generalized place to start when writing your own program/workout, but first there are few areas I feel the need to point out beyond just the number of exercises within a given lift.
If you have a coach or are programming for yourself it would be wise to be keeping track in some form or fashion your sets and reps per week, volume per week or cycle, and other variants that work towards breaking down workload within a given week (or microcycle) and then by day. Tracking total volume simply gives an edge in having the information and data already to use in making sure the program isn’t moving too fast or too slow for the desired outcome. Having a good system of tracking these variables will help to ensure you are progressing not only each cycle but also each competition period, as you can see where you previously began, ended, and where a good place may be to start.
Another aspect to keep in mind would be the “order of operations” when programming exercises. The most taxing in lifts or that of highest difficulty to execute takes first priority. If there are multiple high performance lifts, such as an Olympic lift paired with a power lift or SBD within the same session, a typical program would consider the Olympic lift the most taxing (as it is an explosive triple joint movement with the furthest ROM of the barbell) or the squat (due to the technical demands it required to be executed efficiently and effectively). Either the Olympic lift or the squat variation would generally be first, followed by either bench or the next most taxing lift, such as a deadlift variation. This too (like, really, everything else in the exercise science world!) can be dependent on the intensity or the method and reasoning behind the programming. For instance, you will typically see a powerlifter training in the sequence of squat, bench, then deadlift because, besides this series of events allowing adequate recovery between lower body executed movements, it is this sequence in which they are performed in competition. After performing the highest priority and most technical lifts, larger muscle building exercises can come into play and then finally smaller muscle auxiliary exercises, all of which are typically associated with whatever main lifts were performed first.
Typically, once reps, sets, and load is configured for the week or microcycle, the periodization of the program can then be split among a given week of sessions. Most commonly would be 4-5 training days/week, but this too can vary depending on what is sustainable and preferred by the individual. Generally there will be 5-8 exercises per day of training with this set up. It could be on the lower end of the range (or even fewer) depending on the intensity and workload of the main lifts and the phase of the program. The higher range would be more typical if the exercises are more accessory based and/or includes more core work amidst the training session.
As you can see, there are many variants in piecing together a training program! I didn’t even begin to touch on each and every factor that may contribute to a fully thought out program – like exercise selection based on weaker points of execution or muscle symmetry, cardio, recovery, training age, present or previous injuries, etc. There is so much variable tracking and data collecting done so that you or your coach can account for how your body responds to the stimulus that’s being placed on it. Sometimes it comes down to trial and error, but if there are no road maps of where you’ve been or plans for where you are going, then figuring it out is going to be vastly more difficult and the results will likely be less than hoped for. The main attributes to a successful program is to know your goal, track your progress cycle to cycle, track your recovery, and know your strengths and weaknesses. Like already mentioned, you want to work hard, but not over the top. Your body is not a machine, it’s a communicator. If your body is telling you to slow down and give it more time to recover, adjust your training to acknowledge that signal being given to you. If you aren’t seeing progress (which has a broad definition in of itself) then look at your training volume or other variables and make adjustments to what you find there.
I hope you found this mini blog post useful! As always, thank you for taking the time to read what I have to share. I appreciate the support more than you know.
Have a blessed day!
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: Tiny changes, remarkable results: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Helms, E.; Morgan, A.; Valdez, A. (2019). The Muscle & Strength Pyramid, Training.
Jones, N. (2015, May 12). The New Approach to Training Volume. Retrieved from https://www.strongerbyscience.com/the-new-approach-to-training-volume/
Zourdos, M. (Volume 1, Issue 9). Sure, More Volume is Not Always Better, but What’s the Right Amount? Retrieved from https://www.massmember.com/products/mass-subscription/categories/458580/posts/1482410
Author: Alyssa Parten