Strength and power training is incredibly satisfying. Pulling and pushing heavy singles is a hard sensation to beat. The unfortunate part of heavy lifting is that it isn’t necessarily the most efficient — nor in some cases the safest — way to get strong. That’s where back off sets come in.
With back off sets, you’ll perform your top heavy set — and then back off. You’ll repeat the same exercise, but at a lower load. Why? There are a lot of moving parts in executing the major compound exercises seen in powerlifting and Olympic lifting. In fact, there are so many moving parts that your legs often aren’t the first part of your body to fatigue during a big attempt. To give your entire body a fair shake at both strength and recovery, you don’t want to spend all your energy on the heaviest of sets.
Using the back off set method presents a much more sustainable path to building strength. You can develop lift-specific skills and increase volume in a big way. They also allow you to manage injury risk and the kinds of fatigue induced by heavy singles.
What is a Back Off Set?
A back off set is a repeat of a heavy lift, but with a lighter load. This lessened load helps solidify technique and accumulate meaningful volume at a high intensity. It may seem like stripping plates from the bar would make your session less effective. But in actuality, back off sets still have you lifting fairly heavy.
For example, perform your heavy top set of squats. Then, your back off set would reduce the load by 10 percent. This way, the load stays high enough that you’ll still get stronger — but you’ve lowered it enough to avoid unnecessary overreaching. There is a difference between training for strength and performing strength. And you don’t always have to do the latter to accomplish the former.
Training Strength vs. Performing Strength
A skilled strength performance and skilled strength training are two sides of the same coin. It’s important that your lifts remain skillful — using excellent form — at high loads. There is less and less wiggle room for technical flaws as the load on the bar gets higher. With near maximal weights, any errors will likely lead to a missed repetition — or worse, potential injury.
In these situations, think about whether you’re choosing your weight and rep scheme to perform a personal max feat of strength or to train sustainably toward that goal. Skilled training sets usually live in the intensity range of 80 percent of your one-repetition maximum (1-RM). On the other hand, skilled performance of a lift lives at 90 percent or more of your 1-RM.
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Neither of these methods are better or worse than the other. But going over 90 percent all the time can run the risk of fatiguing you too much to be effective. That’s where back off sets are especially useful. You’ll be combining these methods in a more sustainable way for your mental and physical recovery.
Benefits of Back Off Sets
The clearest advantage of back off sets is that you can continue training for strength. You’ll just have a bit less weight on the bar. As much as you might love to train as heavy as possible at all times, maximally loaded exercise eventually takes its toll. Instead, reducing the load on the bar through back off sets can bring psychological, neurological, autoregulatory, and volume benefits.
The psychological impact of heavy training can grind down your daily motivation to train. Working up to a heavy top set with potential ramifications of failure (getting pinned by the bar or potential injury) can be quite taxing. Using back off sets makes high intensity training for strength gain much easier to sustain long term.
Instead of several grinding maximal attempt repetitions, there’s only one challenging set to worry about. That isn’t to say that the back off sets aren’t taxing in their own right. Still, they should be within your wheelhouse of capabilities without such a big psychological toll.
Neurological coordination is the ability to recruit and properly execute a lift with as much muscle mass as possible. Say that you’re about to squat or deadlift. Neurological efficiency determines the amount of coordination you can produce to brace your core, properly support the bar on your back or in your hands, and produce force to move the weight — all at once.
The amount of weight on the bar heavily influences how much you can improve neurological control. Using fairly heavy training loads (for example, 80 percent or more of your 1-RM) can help recruit as much muscle mass as possible. Back off sets give you a perfect storm of a load that’s heavy enough to improve neurological coordination but not so heavy that you’ll be overly exhausted.
Autoregulation is the term used to describe your ability to make smart training decisions on a daily basis. On any given day, you may experience more fatigue, have a nagging training tweak, or other life stressors. Any of these things can make it more difficult to train to the exact specifications of your program.
Enter autoregulation. It helps you make the informed decision to pull back or hit the gas depending on how you feel that particular day. Sometimes you’ll lift a bit lower than prescribed. Other days, you’ll be in the groove and be able to make up some ground.
Gauging how the top heavy single moves is a great way to calibrate the rest of your day. You can then autoregulate the weight on the bar for your back off sets. Knowing that this method is in your back pocket can help you learn to make these smart decisions daily.
One of the most impactful training variables for strength, power, and even hypertrophy is accumulating meaningful volume. Meaningful volume is a set performed at a high enough intensity that it will challenge your body to adapt. You can accumulate volume in many ways. But, repeating extremely heavy singles is sometimes the least effective way to do it.
With back off sets, you can still use a relatively high percentage of your 1-RM to accumulate skilled, high-intensity volume. However, you won’t be constantly crushed under unforgiving weights. It will also be much easier for time management, as multiple higher repetition sets take less time to recover from than all-out, max-effort singles.
Best Exercises for Back Off Sets
It’s important to know which exercises or muscle groups benefit from back off sets. In some cases, it may be more effective to simply accumulate direct hypertrophy volume using machines. It isn’t unheard of for bodybuilders to use a top set with back off set(s) style of programming for higher intensity exercises. But generally speaking, these sets usually are reserved for heavier barbell-based training.
This is largely because of the amount of stability that any given exercise might need. Barbell or dumbbell-based exercises require a ton of added muscle mass to help stabilize joints. For example, in the barbell squat, your legs are primarily responsible for lifting the weight. But your entire back and core are responsible for making sure you don’t get folded like a pancake. In this case, using back off sets keeps the session moving without added risk of the stabilizing muscles cutting progress off before it’s been made.
Conversely, when machine work gets heavy enough, there might be a value to back off sets. In this example, near muscular failure on heavy hack squats comes to mind. After the high-intensity set, dropping some of the load and performing a few extra sets might be just the ticket. But overall, barbell squats, deadlifts, presses, and Olympic lifts are the most common choice for back off sets.
How to Use Back Off Sets
Each individual lift has its own set of considerations for how heavy or how many repetitions you should perform during back off sets. For example, with Olympic lifts, it’s hard to rationalize sets beyond a handful of repetitions. On the other hand, something like a bench press might be an easier sell for sets of six to eight repetitions. Ultimately, your training goal — whether it’s strength, power, hypertrophy, or skill acquisition — will shape how to set up your back off sets. Here are some basic examples for different goals.
Power-Oriented Back Off Set
- Top Set – Power Clean: 1×1 @94%1-RM
- Back Off Set 1 – Power Clean: 1×2 @86%1-RM
- Back Off Set 2 –Power Clean: 1×2 @86%1-RM
Strength-Oriented Back Off Set
- Top Set – Deadlift: 1×2 @90%1-RM
- Back Off Set 1 – Deadlift: 1×5 @82%1-RM
- Back Off Set 2 –Deadlift: 1×5 @82%1-RM
Hypertrophy-Oriented Back Off Set
- Top Set – Bench Press: 1×3 @85%1-RM
- Back Off Set 1 – Bench Press: 1×6-8 @80%1-RM
- Back Off Set 2 –Bench Press: 1×6-8 @80%1-RM
- Back Off Set 2 –Bench Press: 1×6-8 @80%1-RM
- Top Set – Squat: 1×2 @90%1-RM
- Back Off Set 1 – Squat: 1×5 @80%1-RM
- Back Off Set 2 –Squat: 1×5 @80%1-RM
- Back Off Set 3 –Squat: 1×5 @80%1-RM
- Back Off Set 4 –Squat: 1×5 @80%1-RM
Impact on Programming
Your individual needs and goals will dictate the amount and type of back off sets in your workout. You can increase or decrease back off sets in terms of intensity and volume depending on your training frequency, amount of accessory exercises you’re doing, your training goal, and the quality of your recovery.
Your training frequency has a huge impact on the volume and intensity of your back off sets. Overall volume and intensity impact your gains much more than frequency alone. So if you’re working out less often, you may want to add more volume per session. But higher frequency paired with higher intensity could chip away at the benefits of using back down sets.
There is always a threshold of total high intensity volume that can become detrimental. With higher frequency, you’ll generally reduce your total volume.
Amount of Exercises
The amount of total exercises in your workout also impacts your back off sets. Returning to the squat example, one heavy top set followed by three or four higher repetition back off sets might work well on its own. But if the remainder of the workout also calls for leg pressing, lunges, and quad extensions, you’ll want to scale down your back off sets.
Always consider your goals when implementing back off sets. Power and strength-based back off sets will be a lot more neurologically taxing. So, you’ll want to program reduced volume. Hypertrophy-based goals can accommodate a few more sets at a higher repetition count since you’ll be lifting slightly lighter weights.
The ability to recover between workouts and keep seeing forward progress is the ultimate dictator of how to program back off sets. If soreness, fatigue, or mental staleness begins to outpace your ability to recover, adjust the intensity and volume accordingly.
Back off sets allow heavy strength training without as much wear and tear associated with constantly battling heavy singles. When programmed well, they can also help you train for strength, power, and hypertrophy. Being honest with your training priorities and how much recovery you need will help shape the volume and intensity of your back off sets. Tinker around with your program and see if you can weave in this method. You might just walk away a bit bigger, stronger, and less beat up than grappling with a daily max out.
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