How many exercises do you really need to build muscle? Notice that the question isn’t how many can you do or what number feels right, but how many are absolutely necessary to provide enough stimulus to build a big, powerful physique?

We argue it’s only three per workout—and we'll bet that when you focus on doing less in the gym, you’ll start seeing more gains.

How it works

The number of exercises a workout requires depends on many factors, including your goals, experience level, and the time you can devote to training. But when you really think about it, a guy who wants to get bigger and stronger really needs only three: a main lift that accomplishes most of the work, an exercise that works its reciprocal muscles to provide balance, and one more move that assists in building your strength on the main lift or attacks a weakness that could obstruct gains on it.

For the upper body, the incline bench press can be that main lift, as it works the chest, shoulders, and triceps thoroughly. (Why not the flat bench press? Either is fine, but the incline makes it safer.) The upper body also consists of the many back muscles, rear delts, and biceps, so a rowing movement makes a good follow-up. Finally, a dip works the pressing muscles in a different way and targets the triceps a little more directly, making it a great aid in boosting your incline-pressing power. Stick with this three-part formula for upper-and lower-body workouts, and you’ll never be at a loss for what to do in the gym—or muscle mass.


Perform each workout (Day I, II, III, and IV) once per week. Rest a day between the first three workouts if possible, but you can perform Day III and Day IV on back-to-back days.

You’ll change the sets and reps for the first exercise in Days I, II, and III weekly:

— In Week 1, you’ll perform the sets and reps shown.

— In Week 2, you’ll do 6 sets of 4 reps for the front squat, incline bench press, and sumo deadlift.

— In Week 3, you’ll do 8 sets of 3 reps for each of those lifts.

— In Week 4, begin the cycle again. As the reps decrease, increase your weights accordingly, but leave two reps “in the tank” on each set—do not go to failure. Note that all the remaining lifts in each workout maintain the same sets and reps as shown for Week 1.

Alternate sets of exercises marked “A” and “B” until all sets are completed, then move on to the next exercise.