When many people step into the gym or weight room for their weightlifting workout, they focus on lifting heavy weights and pushing through hard sets to build muscle and get stronger.
However, if you truly want to maximize your potential gains, it is also important to include back off sets in your weightlifting workouts.
But, what is a back off set? Why is it important to include back off sets in your strength training program? How should you structure your workout with back off sets for maximum efficiency?
In this article, we will briefly discuss the back off set meaning, and then delve deeper into the benefits of back off sets and how to include back off sets in your training to optimize your gains in strength, hypertrophy, and overall performance.
We will cover the following:
- What Is a Back Off Set?
- Benefits of Adding Back Off Sets to Your Training
- How to Do Back Off Sets In Your Training
- What Are the Best Exercises for Back Off Sets?
Let’s dive in!
What Is a Back Off Set?
Before we cover the specific back off set meaning, let’s briefly review what a set in exercise refers to.
A set is a group of reps of an exercise that are performed back to back with no rest in between.
For example, if you are doing a set of six reps of the barbell back squat, you will perform six complete repetitions of the barbell back squat one after the other in a row without resting.
After the sixth squat rep is complete, your set is over, and you will rest or move on to the next exercise, depending on the structure of your workout, training goals, and fitness level.
Typically, you will perform anywhere from 2 to 6 sets of each exercise in your workout.
The number of sets that you perform will depend on the number of reps per set, the number of exercises in the workout, the weight that you are using for the relative load based on your 1RM for the exercise (the intensity), your fitness level, and your primary training goal.
For example, beginners might start with just two sets of every exercise.
The general recommendations for hypertrophy, or building muscle, are to perform three sets of each exercise, with about 8 to 12 reps per set, and a weight that corresponds to approximately 65 to 85% of your 1RM.
The fewer reps you perform per set (8 reps vs. 12 reps), the closer you should be to 85% of your 1RM.
Note that your 1RM is your one-repetition maximum or the heaviest weight that you can use for a single rep of an exercise using proper form.
On the other hand, if your primary training goal is to increase strength, you will perform anywhere from 3 to 6 sets of each exercise, each involving anywhere from 1 to 6 reps.
Here, the load should be at least 85% of your 1RM and upwards of 100%.
As when training to build muscle, the fewer reps you perform per set, the closer you should be to 100% of your 1RM.
So, what are back off sets?
With back off sets training, you will perform your peak or top-heavy set and then back down a bit.
A back off set is a set of the same exercise, and typically the same number of reps (though not always), but at a lower weight.
It is important to note that some people refer to back off sets as back down sets—since you’re backing down with the weight you are using, the terms may be used interchangeably.
Benefits of Adding Back Off Sets to Your Training
There are several reasons why including back off sets, or back down sets, in your training can be beneficial.
Here are the top benefits of back off sets in your training program:
#1: Back Off Sets Allow You To Safely Add More Training Volume
Maxing out with top heavy sets is a good way to increase strength, but performing compound exercises, particularly those seen with powerlifting and Olympic lifting, are extremely fatiguing to both the muscle fibers directly as well as the central nervous system.
As such, there is a limit to how much volume, or the number of sets, that you can perform in a given workout while maintaining proper form and execution.
With back off sets training, you can increase your training volume by giving more recovery instead of red-lining the entire workout.
This reduces the risk of injury while simultaneously increasing the total workload in a session for your muscles.
Essentially, using back off sets can be a more sustainable approach to strength training and can allow you to train safely with more total volume for bigger gains in mass and strength.
#2: Back Off Sets Allow You To Make Improvements In Technique
Additionally, with a back off set, you can focus on your form and technique by improving lift-specific skills and managing fatigue.
This can help you improve your lifting skills, improve your coordination, dial in your form, and really focus on execution so that you can transfer these foundational skills to your top heavy sets for better strength performance.
#3: Back Off Sets Allow You To Stay Motivated And Confident
There are also psychological benefits to incorporating back off sets into your training that should not be overlooked.
Constantly maxing out with extremely heavy sets takes a lot of motivation. If you are always focusing on performing strength rather than training for strength, you might even develop some anxiety/stress that your heavy set won’t go well or that they will be extremely uncomfortable and taxing.
Adding in a back off set allows you to hone your focus on your top heavy set and then have a somewhat easier set to still challenge your body but in a less pressuring and exhausting way.
How to Do Back Off Sets In Your Training
As mentioned, back off sets are sets of the same exercises but done with a lighter load.
For example, imagine you are performing 6 reps of the back squat at 85% of your 1RM in accordance with the strength continuum set forth by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).
If your 1RM is 200 pounds, this means that your top heavy set will be six reps at 170 pounds.
Then, you could perform a back off set using about 10% less load.
This means that you might drop down by 15-20 pounds since it’s hard to decrease by 17 pounds with weight plates.
Therefore, if your top set is 170 pounds, your back off set could be 155 pounds (or 150 if you’re feeling tired).
In this way, a back off set is not significantly lighter than your top heavy set load, but it is enough of a decrease to reduce the fatiguing stimulus so that you can do more volume while still making strength gains.
Back off sets are particularly beneficial when training to increase strength. When you are approaching 90% or more of your 1RM, the risks of injury and complete neuromuscular fatigue are extremely high.
Therefore, you can throw in a back off set to still make improvements in your strength and work on your lifting technique, yet reduce the overall risk of injury by nearly maxing out on all of your sets.
It’s also important to note that you can perform back off sets with higher reps than your top heavy set, particularly when you are training for strength.
For example, if your top squat set is 3 reps at 93% of your 1RM for the back squat (and your 1RM is 200 pounds), your top set will be about 186 pounds (or 185 to make it easier with weight plates).
Your back off sets might be 5-6 reps at 85% of your 1RM.
You might do one warm up set at 75% of your 1RM, then your top heavy set with 3 reps at 93% of your 1RM, then 2 back off sets of 5-6 reps at 85% of your 1RM.
What Are the Best Exercises for Back Off Sets?
Not every exercise necessarily requires using back off sets in your training.
Generally speaking, back off sets are mostly used with heavier barbell training exercises, such as Olympic lifts, maximum squats, deadlifts, bench presses, snatches, cleans and presses, and overhead presses.
While bodybuilders who are primarily training for hypertrophy or muscle growth may incorporate back off sets into their training programs, back off set training is usually reserved for strength athletes.
For more information about specific strength training techniques, check out our guide to drop sets here.