Workout Extender #2:
Vary Your Sets
As we just mentioned, three sets per exercise seems to be the intuitive prescription we all follow when we start lifting-and it works just fine for a little while. But ultimately, it's too conservative a volume to base your training on, and there are better methods for gaining size and strength.
A workout's volume correlates with its intensity - how heavy you'll be lifting. The heavier the weights you use, the fewer reps you'll be able to perform, and therefore the fewer sets you'll have to do to work your muscles thoroughly and build strength. For the best gains in size - which, as you'll recall, come from the six-to-12 rep range - your volume should be higher, since each set isn't that taxing by itself. As for gains in endurance, only a very small volume is needed (as each set will last a long time).
Understanding volume is especially important when you're trying to lose fat. Contrary to popular belief, heavy weights and a low volume of sets is probably the best method for fat loss. A small number of sets ensures that you won't overwork yourself. When you cut calories from your diet, you endanger your ability to recover - especially if your workout intensity remains high - so performing fewer sets prevents overtraining. At the same time, the heavy weights you're using will keep your muscles fully stimulated, so you won't lose strength and muscle mass. The result is that you "trick" your body into burning fat instead of muscle-which is your body's survival instinct when calories are down.