Back Off Sets: What They Are and How to Use Them

Back off or down sets are a training tool that can benefit every level strength athlete when used properly. These are often a set or sets performed later or last during the working sets of a workout, and come along with a few specific training adaptations.

Before going any further, it’s important to understand what a back off set is. Essentially, a back off set is a set(s) performed after your programmed working sets that will have altered intensity and reps to accommodate an increase in training at higher intensities. For example, if I were performing three sets of deadlift doubles with 96% of my 1-RM (and know I couldn’t perform another set at this intensity), then I could include a final double at 90% to increase my workout’s volume. I’m scaling back the intensity a bit to continue training with a high stimulus.

Basically, I’m keeping my intensity high while avoiding lifting to failure and simultaneously including additional volume at a comparative intensity. But wait, isn’t that a drop set? In terms of program structure, yes, but not necessarily in practice. A back off set can include higher reps and less intensity similar to a drop set, yet the set’s intensity is often comparative to your previous training stimulus.

This is opposed to a drop set which includes typically much less weight with higher reps for the sole purpose of additional volume, and not necessarily a comparable stimulus.

Back Off Sets Vs. Drop Sets

Below is a visual example of the differences between back off sets and drop sets. In terms of workout structure, they’re visually similar, but in terms of intensity they differ. Also, you’ll typically see drop sets used more for accessory movements compared to compounds.

Back Off Set Drop Set
Working Sets: 3 x 3 @91% 1-RM Working Sets: 3 x 6 @80% 1-RM
Back Off Set: 1 x 5 @85% 1-RM Drop Set: 1 x 15 reps @55% 1-RM

Benefits of Back Off Sets

I mentioned it above, but to reiterate, back off sets can be useful for benefiting multiple training adaptations.

The first and arguably most prominent adaptation is allowing a lifter to perform more sets at higher intensities safely with quality reps. Ability to perform more sets at higher intensities comes with multiple benefits, most of which you probably already know.

Four of these benefits include,

  • Psychological: An athlete can improve upon the psychological attributes that come with heavy training, which can improve their confidence when working with heavy weights and their tenacity to push through demanding workouts.
  • Neurological: Heavier compound movements will be more demanding on the body’s nervous system, performing more reps with higher intensities can improve an athlete’s neural capacity while avoiding burnout.
  • Autoregulation: Back off sets can also be useful to help athlete’s improve their ability to autoregulate their training. Long story short, back off sets can improve an athlete’s ability to understand what stresses they can efficiently handle in different scenarios without form breakdown/failure.
  • Hypertrophy & Strength: This is a no brainer, but increased training loads and volume will help improve strength, power, and hypertrophic benefits that come along with heavy training, and you can alter back off sets to cater towards these adaptations specifically.

Outside of the main adaptation and the sub-divisions list above when performing more sets at higher intensities, there are also a couple benefits back off sets offer that will be dependent on how you choose to modify them in your program.

For example, besides the obvious benefit of power (adding an extra set with slightly lower intensity and similar reps), strength (adding an extra set with lower reps and increased intensity) and hypertrophy (adding an extra set with higher reps and slightly lower intensity), an athlete can benefit with the addition of a back off set when working to improve their mechanics under heavier loads. An extra set with a high intensity after a previously taxing set(s) can help a lifter maintain their mechanics safely without technical breakdown that could be prevalent had they not dropped intensity a bit and strategically backed off.

Another benefit that will be subjective to the user is how back off sets can help a lifter gauge when to scale back in their training. If an athlete performs a back off set and experiences technical breakdown, then this could be an indication that they need to either (A) scale back their training intensity/volume, or (B) take a deload and give their muscular and nervous system a rest.

Research also supports the premise of back off sets, or the mixture of high and low intensities in one set. For example, this study from 2004 compared two sets of lifters, one who performed movements without back off sets and the other with. Researchers found that those who performed a back off set slightly improved their muscular size and strength, while significantly improving their muscular endurance. 

How to Use Back Off Sets

When using back off sets in your workouts, it’s important to remember one of the fundamental reasons behind using them: To perform more quality reps at higher training intensities. This opens the floor to creativity of their usage in your program, and will have to be individualized to fit your needs.

Below are a few examples of what back off sets could like in your program. Are these examples end all be all? Absolutely not, but I wanted to provide a few visual representations of what back off sets could look like.

Back Squat – Power Oriented Back Off Set

  • Working Sets: 3 x 2 @94% 1-RM
  • Back Off Set: 1 x 2 @90% 1-RM

Bench Press – Hypertrophy Oriented Back Off Sets

  • Working Sets: 3 x 6 @83% 1-RM
  • Back Off Set 1: 1 x 7 @75% 1-RM
  • Back Off Set 2: 1 x 8 @73% 1-RM

Deadlift – Strength (With Slight) Hypertrophy Oriented Back Back Off Set

  • Working Sets: 3 x 5 @85% 1-RM
  • Back Off Set: 1 x 4 @83% 1-RM

Again, the above are just examples of what back off sets could look like in a workout. What’s most important when considering their usage is taking note of your main training goal and what a back off set’s main function is.

The end goal of back off sets are to increase the amount of quality reps you can perform at higher intensities, once that’s understood, modify your sets and reps to accommodate your training goal for the day, whether it be power, strength, hypertrophy, or a mixture of these qualities.

Wrapping Up

Back off sets can be a useful training tool for every level strength athlete. If you find yourself stalling in a linear program, they can be beneficial for adding volume and surpassing possible plateaus. For those in block programs, they can be useful for distributing the amount of stress you experience on maximal/supramaximal effort days to avoid burnout.

What’s most important is that you understand the “why” behind using a back off set.

Feature image from @terriboo621 Instagram page.