Bodybuilders lift heavy and put in many hours of strength training, even though the strength and size gains diminish with each successive set. Why? That's how they excel in their sport.
Powerlifters go very heavy and do large muscle, compound, explosive lifts. Why? Because that's how they excel in their sport.
Competitive tennis players and swimmers lift lighter with longer sets and work hard to maintain balance and flexibility in their major joints, over building size and extraordinary power. Why? You get the picture.
Then there's you and me.
For most of us who just want to be able to do more and do things that require strength more easily with a lower risk of injury, and want to look better (hey – what's wrong with that?), there's a better approach than three sets of ten or the styles of lifting mentioned above. Here are two techniques I use with my clients (and practice myself) that build significant strength, maintain balance and flexibility, and take only around 20-30 minutes twice per week to work the full body effectively:
Range Variations – This involves cutting up the full range of a given exercise in order to concentrate alternatively on different sections of the muscle (or muscle group), and, more importantly, minimize the effect of momentum that actually robs the muscle of some of its stress, reducing efficacy of the exercise. A simple example would be doing a set of lunges with five reps in the lower half, five in the upper half, and then full range to exhaustion. The burn and pressure on the muscle measurably exceeds that of a typical set.
Timing Variations – With timing variations the focus is on accentuating the release, or negative phase of the lift. For instance you could do a set of biceps curls coming up a normal speed (2-3 seconds) and lowering the weight over five seconds on the first rep, 10 on the second, 15 on the third, and so on until absolute exhaustion. The result is a deeply worked muscle that is also very loose and opened up, rather than tight and bunched. This is a great way to keep limber while building size and strength.
Both of these techniques also feature the added benefit of reaching a higher level of quality in loading the muscle (the action that builds strength in response) because you are applying more control, rather than less as the muscle reaches failure. That's exactly the opposite of what you see in most gyms when the majority of strength trainers are swinging weights and compromising posture to squeeze out as many reps and sets with as much load as they can handle. It's surgery with a sledgehammer . These techniques are surgery with a scalpel.
If you want to know if practicing these principles in your strength training routine (control and precision over volume of sets reps and loads) will produce the body you want, consider the principles gymnasts apply to their strength building pursuits.
Then decide how you want to look and feel before you grab that next dumbbell off the rack.