A term you will often hear in the lifting world is “backoff sets.”
While that term may be perfectly clear to some, it’s not entirely clear to newcomers to the sport, and it will mean something different to others. Understanding what backoff sets are and how to apply them can vastly improve the results you get from your powerlifting training.
So, what are back off sets? Backoff sets are additional sets of your primary muscle group for the day, but with lower intensity. Backoff sets focus on providing additional rep work on those same muscles groups without the intensity of your top set. Backoff sets can be used to improve technique, stamina, or added hypertrophy.
Let’s dive into how to back off sets properly and give you some example workouts.
Backoff Sets: An Overview
Think of it this way: the whole sport of powerlifting comes down to performing a single rep, as heavy as you can, across three lifts.
But that doesn’t mean that the best way to train for a powerlifting competition is by only performing max effort single reps of the lifts in their competitive form – that’s actually a terrible way to train.
Your body only has so much fuel in the tank during a workout, so we structure the program to allow us to get stronger each day, each workout, without absolutely toasting ourselves.
This is the point of backoff sets, in a nutshell.
Even during your weekly workouts for the squat, bench, and deadlift, there’s both an upper limit to how much you can train them with maximal effort, and a point of diminishing returns in performing them with maximal effort all the time.
Backoff sets allow a lifter to keep working on their squat, bench press, and deadlift technique, train the muscles used for those lifts, and build stamina, even after their ability to perform top sets of the lift has been depleted.
(And in a good program, your top sets won’t push you to the point of complete depletion anyways).
Here’s an Example of Using Back off Sets:
Let's say today is squat day.
You warm-up, adding weight to the bar and performing a few reps until you get up to your working weight.
Your top sets, or “working sets”, call for 5×3 (five sets of three reps) of 405 lbs, which is 87.5% of your max. That means your max is just over 460lbs, so these are some good, intense reps for you.
You perform those sets successfully, and watching the video you took on your phone, you can see that while you did them correctly, you notice some breakdown in your form on the last few reps of the last two sets.
If you were to continue repping 405, you would see more and more breakdown of your form, and eventually, you’d start failing lifts entirely.
However, if we drop the weight down by 10-15% to 325-355lbs, you can do 5 more sets of 3-5 reps of paused squats.
You can now focus on pausing the weight at the bottom of the rep and driving up out of the bottom of the squat without shooting your hips up first, keeping your chest up, and otherwise correcting the issues you noticed setting in during the video of your top sets.
These added sets give the lifter the opportunity to address the technique issues.
They could also be used to build new muscle to address those same weaknesses, by performing higher reps with an even lighter load (say 60% for sets of 8).
In either rep range, the lifter develops greater stamina to endure longer workouts and improve their overall athleticism.
Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.
5 Benefits of Using Back Off Sets
The 5 benefits of using back off sets are:
- They improve technique
- They can build new muscle
- They improve stamina
- They can increase overal physical activity
- They can allow you to experiment with new training methods
1. Improve Technique
Backoff sets allow you to reduce the load, adjust the variation of the lift, and focus on improving your technique.
Yes, the end goal of the sport is to perform max effort lifts for a single rep, but in order to do that well, we have to contain our ego and train with submaximal loads to get it right.
As we have touched on so far, by reducing the weight, we find new life in our workout and we can keep training without frying our CNS or depleting our energy stores.
Our top sets keep us strong as we progressively increase the load and intensity over time, but the backoff sets are where the magic happens.
As we learn from our top sets (how did it feel, how did it look, how fast was it, where did my form break down, how does it compare to last week’s workout), our top sets inform us (or our coaches) how we should spend our time focused on our backoff sets to improve our technique.
And improving our technique is always easier when the load isn’t so heavy that we are worried about getting the bar all the way up in the first place.
2. Build New Muscle
Backoff sets allow lifters to include hypertrophy work in their program.
Backoff sets are the perfect way to keep building new muscle, even as you start to ramp up the load and reduce the rep ranges on your top sets.
Exactly like the case above with technique, your top sets will show you where you need to add muscle and spend some time on hypertrophy. As you review your lifts (how did it feel, how did it look, how fast was it, where did my form break down, how does it compare to last week’s workout), you’ll get information about where you need to build more muscle.
Your backoff sets are the perfect time to do that. By reducing the load after your top sets, you’re all set to make your muscles burn, add a bunch of micro-tears, and come back over the next few weeks with more and more muscle fiber to draw upon in your powerlifting movements.
Related Article: When To Switch From Strength To Hypertrophy (8 Signs)
3. Improve Stamina
Performing backoff sets will improve your stamina.
I can’t stress enough how important this is. If you can’t sustain longer workouts, you won’t go very far in powerlifting.
The increase in your strength is a direct function of your ability to train effectively – the better you train, the more you’ll improve.
The Soviet strength teams of the past had a rule where you had to train for 3 years with basic exercises before you were even allowed to perform a technical lift like a squat, because they knew that intense, focused training was paramount to successful performance in competition.
If you couldn’t keep up with the intense training program, you couldn’t be allowed to train to compete.
If all you ever do is show up and perform a top set of 5 sets of a few reps, you’ll hit a plateau before you know it.
By regularly training with backoff sets, you build the endurance to perform lifts with great effort, and then continue training with great focus, but less intensity. In some cases, the 60% load on your backoff set may still require great intensity from you, which will improve your stamina even more.
4. Increased Physical Activity
Backoff sets increase your physical activity and can help with weight loss.
Here’s a truth bomb you aren’t ready for – you can perform the exact same exercises with the exact same sets/reps/weight, and if you’re in a caloric surplus, you’ll build muscle, but if you’re in a caloric deficit, you’ll burn fat. Your total calories are the only difference in what your body does as a result of that exact same workout.
So if you are trying to slim down without losing muscle, adding extra backoff sets is a great way to do it! The effort in performing those extra sets will burn more calories, but you don’t have to risk overreaching by only training your heavy top sets.
Just remember to track your calories to be in a caloric deficit for this work.
If you’re a powerlifter looking to lose weight then check out my tips on Powerlifting And Running.
5. Experiment With New Training Methods
Backoff sets allow you to experiment with new exercises or training methods.
This is one of the reasons I love backoff sets. I can show up, perform my squat, bench, or deadlift work, and then use those backoff sets to add variety to my program.
Right now, I’m spending a lot of time on hypertrophy, adding muscle so I can be competitive in a higher weight class at the end of this year. My backoff sets are almost entirely bodybuilding style hypertrophy, designed to build individual muscles I rely on for my three main competitive lifts.
You might use backoff sets to try Olympic lifts, try a new variation, lifts with accommodating resistance (bands, chains, etc), lifts with an altered range of motion (board presses, block deadlifts, deficit deadlifts, box squats, pin squats, floor press, etc), or even do some CrossFit.
Related Article: Should Powerlifters Do Hypertrophy?
Back Off Sets vs Drop Sets vs Accessories: The Differences
You may have also heard of drop sets, which are not quite the same as backoff sets. And beyond that, you may have heard of accessory movements, which are also not quite the same.
Back Off Sets vs Drop Sets
So what are the differences between back off sets vs drop sets? Drop sets are where you perform a set of an exercise, then immediately “drop” the amount of weight and perform another set with the lower weight, allowing for only enough rest time to reduce the weight. Back-off sets are additional sets with normal rest periods that are performed at a reduced weight.
For example, you perform a set of 10 bicep curls with 25lb dumbbells, then immediately set them down and pick up 20lb dumbbells and perform a drop set of 10 reps.
These are a great tactic for hypertrophy, usually with an isolated muscle exercise, and are usually a “finisher” set to completely fatigue that muscle.
Backoff sets, as we have established, refer to any sets that continue to exercise the muscles of the day, but with lower intensity than our top sets.
Drop sets are a type of backoff set, but backoff sets are not drop sets.
Back Off Sets vs Accessories
So what are the differences between back off sets vs accessories? Accessory exercises incorporate one or more of the muscles used in the primary lift of the day (squat, bench, or deadlift). Back off sets are additional sets and reps of the same exercise of the primary lift.
So accessories are things like a rope pull down to hit the triceps after benching, a seated leg extension to hit the quads after squats, or a seated cable row after deadlifts.
These will almost always be incorporated into a powerlifting program as a backoff set after performing top sets, so they are a type of exercise commonly used for a backoff set.
Check out my other articles on:
How To Program Using Backoff Sets
Backoff sets should address some weakness of the lifter. This time should be used to focus on improving technique where it consistently shows a need of improvement, build new muscle, or help the lifter increase their stamina.
The following is an example of a bench program using backoff sets and accessories. The top set is designed to give the lifter reps with 85% of their max to help them adapt to heavier load, progress their strength, and maintain technique while doing so.
Then, this program includes five exercises of backoff sets – two variations of the bench press and three accessories to hit isolated muscles used in the bench press.
The program starts the lifter with the most taxing, most technical lift (the standard bench press at 85% of max), then reduces the load to accommodate backoff sets that will focus on technique and stamina.
The accessories at the end will target hypertrophy and stamina in those muscles.
- Warm up
- Bench Press – 5×3 @ 85%
- Paused Bench Press – 5×4 @ 75%
- Close grip bench to a 3 board – 4×6 @ 70%
- Seated dumbbell overhead press – 4×10
- Dumbbell Bench Press – 4×10
- Tricep Rope Pull Down – 3×10, drop set of 15
The longer the workout progresses, the less technical the lifts become, the more isolated they become in which muscles they are targeting, and the more the load reduces and the rep range increases.
This is to avoid injury (instead of fatiguing all my muscles and CNS and then trying to perform competitive squats), as well as to efficiently build endurance and promote hypertrophy in my individual muscles (I can keep working my tricep all the way to the drop set this way).
This format can be applied to other movements as well.
We reviewed the popular Jonnie Candito Powerlifting Program, check it out to learn how he implements ‘back off set' principles.
Who Should Use Back Off Sets?
Every program should include backoff sets to continue working on the exercise itself, the muscles you use to perform the exercise, and improve your athleticism in the process.
Sure, there are times when you will want to dial it way back, like during a peaking block before a competition. During a period like that, it’s much more appropriate to put all your energy and focus into a few heavy top sets and then resting, rather than expending more energy into backoff sets at all.
Alternatively, during a hypertrophy block, you might find you do very little top sets in the traditional sense and save your energy to do more exercise variations and spend more time keeping your muscles under tension to reach those goals. In these workouts, your entire workout could be considered backoff sets.
Whatever your goals, backoff sets are a staple of any lifter wanting to get stronger and improve their physique.
Related Article: Bench Press Pyramid – What Is It, How To Do It, and Common Mistakes
Frequently Asked Questions
How Many Sets Should You Do For Back Off Sets?
The bulk of your workout should be backoff sets. Typically 4-24 sets of 1-6 exercises of back off sets are appropriate after a top set.
In the example above, there’s one top set, 2 bench press variations of 5 and 4 sets each, and 3 accessory exercises made up of 4 sets each, totaling 21 backoff sets.
How Do You Use A Backoff Set?
Backoff sets should be used to keep training your lift without pushing yourself to failure or near failure with a maximal load. You should use them to fix technique issues, build new muscle, or improve stamina by continuing your workout longer.
Should You Do Back Off Sets?
Yes, backoff sets should be included in any powerlifting program. The only exception is during a peaking or tapering block, when backoff sets will be greatly reduced to almost nothing.
How Are Backoff Sets Different from Drop Sets?
Drop sets are a method of hypertrophy training where the weight is reduced from one set to the next with no rest in between. These are a type of backoff set, as they typically come after a top set, but backoff sets are not a type of drop set.
How Are Backoff Sets Different than Accessories?
Accessories are exercises that train one or more of the muscles incorporated in a competitive lift (squat, bench, or deadlift), but are not the competitive lift itself. They can be applied as backoff sets to a powerlifting program.
Backoff sets are really the meat and potatoes of your powerlifting program. Often times, the top set is the most exciting for us – it’s the heaviest, is the thing we’ve been thinking about since we ready what our program is going to be for that week, and it’s the closest thing to a competitive max.
But backoff sets are where the work gets done. Using the information we get from our top sets, we can spend the bulk of our workout addressing our weaknesses in technique, stamina, and muscle development to make those top sets even better week after week.
There are many ways to program backoff sets, and you’ll use many variations throughout your powerlifting career, depending on the time and season and depending on your current goals and needs. Whatever phase you find yourself in, treat your backoff sets with the same respect as you treat your top sets, and you’ll see huge improvements.
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.