How to Select the Best Exercises for Optimal Muscle Growth

by | Building Muscle, Exercise, Fitness, Recovery

Proper exercise selection is key for maximizing muscle growth. Learn how to select the right exercises for your body type.

How Do Sets & Reps Determine Exercise Selection?

Sets and reps targets play a major role in exercise selection. But first let's explain what those terms mean.

  • rep: movement repetition (rep ranges involve several consecutive reps)
  • set: an uninterrupted cycle of repetitions

The number of exercises is largely determined by the number of sets. A high set target allows you to incorporate more exercises. While a low set target means you get less movement variety. It’s not practical to do 4-5 exercises performing only a single set of each.

Reps ranges help you select the type of lifts. Some exercises don't lend themselves well to low reps/high weights. Other movements may be better suited for high rep/low weights. Compound and isolation exercises are not implemented the same way in a program.

How to Determine the Number of Sets for Each Muscle?

Sets requirements are determined on the level of the muscle group. Here are some general recommendation based on training experience:

  • complete beginner: 6-8 sets per muscle group
  • beginner (less 1 year of training): 8-14 sets per muscle group
  • intermediate (1-3 years of training): 12-18 sets per muscle group
  • advanced (3+ years of training): 15+ reps per muscle group

These are just starting points. Tweak your set numbers based on your ability to recover. If the workouts feel too hard, reduce the number of sets. If training is too easy, bump up the number of sets.

Some muscles can handle more, some less. Beginners can apply the same set ranges for all muscles. As you get more advanced there may be notable muscle discrepancies.

What’s the Optimal Number of Sets Per Workout?

Once you know the total number of sets you have to spread them over the week.

  • Minimum sets per muscle per workout: 2-3
  • Maximum sets per muscle per workout: about 8

A beginner (total 9 sets) may train a muscle 3x a week, doing 3 sets each workout. An advanced lifter (total 16 sets) may go for 4x 4 sets. You can be pretty flexible. Especially if your set target is high. You can spread 18 sets over 3, 4 or 5 days. Just make sure never go below the min or max sets per session.

Decide how many workouts you want to do a week. Based on your split, spread over the sets evenly throughout the week.

Make sure muscles have time to recover. But also try to hit each body part at least 2x a week. Apply the same approach for each major muscle group. Adjust your training based on your performance.

Here’s an example (beginner: 4-day split, 9 sets per muscle group):

  • Monday: 6x sets chest, 3x sets back
  • Tuesday: 3x sets quads, 6x sets hamstrings
  • Wednesday: rest
  • Thursday: 3x sets chest, 6x sets back
  • Friday: 6x sets quads, 3x sets hamstrings
  • Weekend: rest

What Is the Ideal Rep Range for Muscle Growth?

Training in the 6 to 15 rep range works pretty well for building muscle.

You can certainly go lower. As reps go down weights get very heavy. Great way to maximize strength. But the total muscle stimulus over a workout goes down. The weights are too heavy to maintain a high workload. Hence muscle growth is not optimal.

Very high reps require the use of very light weights. This results in reduced muscle activation compared to using higher loads. Even if you do a crazy number of reps.  Although certain advanced methods go up to 20-30 reps, or even higher. But these are strategies reserved for mostly advanced lifters.

How Do Reps Change Based on the Exercises You Select?

You don’t want to use the same number of reps for all exercises.

Here some general recommendations:

  • compound multi-joint exercises: 6-12 reps
  • isolation single-joint exercises: 10+ reps

When performing compound lifts the risk of technical break down (and injury) increases with reps. It’s hard to maintain proper form on exercises like squats or deadlifts once you start getting fatigued. That’s less of a concern for isolation movements (e.g. bicep curls).

However, with isolation lifts it’s not easy to handle very heavy weights (low reps). Doing bicep curls for a set of 6-8 reps may place too much pressure on your joints. That’s why accessory exercises are better suited for higher rep ranges.

There are certainly exceptions. But these recommendations work well for most people. Beginners don't need a lot of variety in terms of rep ranges. As you get more advanced you should try expanding your rep targets. Occasionally going up to 15+ reps on some lifts.

What Is the Perfect Number of Exercises Per Workout?

It’s important to consider fatigue build-up. You get more tired over time. That makes it hard to maintain proper exercise technique. Also, muscle engagement may become suboptimal.

Well-trained individuals can handle more work. But most people don’t benefit from doing more than 5-6 exercises per session. The number of exercises is also determined by the frequency of training. That’s because sets are predetermined.

Let’s say you have a total of 54 sets (9 sets for all 6 major muscles). Spreading over those sets over 3 days results in longer sessions compared to a 4-day split. Assuming each exercise is done for 3 sets, you get 4-5 vs 6 exercises per workout.

Crucial Exercise Selection Criteria

When you use different rep ranges you’ll naturally end up selecting different types of exercises. But there’s more to it than making sure you have a nice mix of compounds and isolation exercises.

How to Reduce Injury Risk & Improve Recovery

First, take into consideration any limitations. Injuries or weak body parts that may prevent you from doing certain movements. Create a list of problematic exercises and simply don’t include them in your program. This helps avoid aggravating existing problems.

There are no “must-do” exercises. You can always find a replacement. Don’t think you’re missing anything by skipping some of the “essential” lifts.

How to Customize Your Workouts Based on Your Body Type

Second, consider your unique build. You’ll notice that certain exercises feel better than others. Maybe you get better muscle stimulation. Or your movement is smoother and maintaining proper technique easier.

No need to be super picky. Takes time to learn how your body functions. Be sure to experiment. You can also work with an experienced coach. Over time you’ll learn which exercises to favor and which to avoid.

What Are the Best Exercises for Each Muscle?

There’s a lot of overlap between different exercises. However, not all types of exercises are equally effective in stimulating certain muscles.

There may be slight variations to some lifts. But as long as the movement remains the same, the target muscle doesn’t change.

Chest (Pecs)

Types of exercises that target the chest muscles:

  • horizontal pushing: bench press variations (including incline and decline presses), push-ups, horizontal press machines
  • flys & pec deck machines: any cable fly variation, machine fly, or pec deck machines

Back (Lats & Mid Traps)

Types of exercises that target the back muscles:

  • vertical pulling (mostly lats): pull-ups, chin-ups, lat pulldown variations, pull over variations
  • horizontal pulling (mostly mid traps): all rowing variations (barbells, dumbbells, cables, and machines)

Shoulders (Delts)

Types of exercises that target the shoulder muscles:

  • vertical pushing (mostly mid delts): all overhead press variations (barbells, dumbbells, cables, and machines)
  • lateral raises (mostly mid delts): usually performed with dumbbells, but you can use cables as well

You rarely have to specifically target the front and back sections of the shoulder. Pushing movements engage the front delts while pulling movements the rear delts.

Arms (Biceps & Triceps)

Types of exercises that target the biceps and triceps:

  • bicep isolation exercises: all variations (barbells, dumbbells, cables, and machines)
  • triceps isolation exercises: all variations (barbells, dumbbells, cables, and machines)

Note that most pulling movements train the biceps pretty well. The same applies to most pushing movements and triceps engagement.

Front Legs (Quads)

Types of exercises that target the quads:

  • squats: all variations
  • lunges: walking lunges, step-ups, step backs, and split squats
  • leg press & hack squats: all machine variations
  • leg extensions: machines, bodyweight, or even sometimes resistance bands

Back Legs (Hamstrings & Glutes)

Types of exercises that target the hamstrings and glutes:

  • deadlifts: all variations
  • hip extensions: 45-degree hip extensions, glute ham raises, cable pull-through and similar
  • hip thrusts (mostly glutes): bodyweight, barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands, and machines
  • leg curls (hamstrings only): seated or standing machines, but you can also use dumbbells, bodyweight (Nordic ham curls), and resistance bands

There are many different ways to target the glutes. Here we've only included the most common types of exercises.

Calves (Soleus & Gastrocnemius)

Types of exercises that target the calves:

  • standing calf raises: all variations
  • seated calf raises (mostly soleus): all variations

Putting It All Together: How to Create Your Own Workout

Here’s the general order you want to follow:

 

  1. Determine the number of sets per muscle group. That depends on your training experience.
  2. Determine the number of exercises based on the sets. Aim for 2-4 sets per exercise.
  3. Determine the type of exercises. Consider physical limitations, rep ranges, focus muscles, etc.
  4. Determine your training frequency. It comes down to how many days you want to train.
  5. Distribute the exercises across your training days evenly. Avoid stacking all similar exercises within a short period.

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