Back Off Sets: A better way to build muscle mass and strength?

Back Off Sets: A Better Way to Build Muscle?

back off setsI can tell you the exact date that I first heard about Back Off Sets, it was August 24th 2016. I know this because I’ve just spent 30 minutes trying to find the exact facebook post on Strength & Conditioning Research’s page.

On this status (a simple bar chart with some information surrounding it) I learned about how effective Back Off Sets could be, and exactly what they were. A Back Off Set is similar to a drop set, but differs in a few key ways, but more on that later.

I am not going to say that adding Back Off Sets to your training program will immediately pay dividends, nor am I saying that Back Off Sets are a secret workout hack. All I am saying is that I love them, my clients loved them, and there appears to be some evidence that they have a lot of benefits.


I thought so.

What Are Back Off Sets?

A 2004 study by Goto et al had a study published by The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, it was titled: “Muscular adaptations to combinations of high- and low-intensity resistance exercises

[1]. In the study, 17 untrained males (aged 19-22) were asked to perform leg press and leg extension exercises for a period of 10 weeks.

Then men would train for hypertrophy for the first six weeks (nine sets at between 40% and 80% of 1RM*),

Then there was a four-week strength training phase. Half the group would perform 5 sets of leg press and 5 sets of leg extension at 90% of 1RM (so 5 x 1),

While the other half would also perform 5 x 1 on each but add an additional set of reps at 50% of 1RM after a 30 second rest.

The additional set would be performed until exhaustion.

This is known as a “Back Off Set” and the idea is that you lower the weight to almost half of what you were previously lifting (backing off).

The sets and reps don’t have to be exactly the same for this to work, as a trainer I rarely had my clients performing 5 sets of 1 rep. It just wasn’t in line with their goals. But I would get them to perform sets of 4-6 reps, and sometimes even lower.

Obviously, if you’re performing 4-6 reps in a set then you can’t be using 90% of your 1RM.

A Look at The Research

So, what did the study find?

According to the Strength & Conditioning Facebook page back off sets led to improvements in thigh muscle size (2%), a 15% increase in 1RM for the leg press (compared to 9% for the control group), a 19% increase in isometric knee extension force (compared to 15%), and an 18% increase in muscular endurance (compared to a 5% loss).

One of the arguments against back off sets is that this study was slightly flawed. The control group only performed 5 sets while the test group performed 6 sets (5 sets plus the back off set) so of course the test group would see better results.

This is actually kind of a big deal, and its something that supplement companies do all the time. Compare your product/supplement/exercise technique to someone doing nothing and publish the results.

But that doesn’t mean that it was a bad study.

All the study says is that if you are doing 5 sets of 1 rep then add a back off set and you’ll get better results.

It would have been interesting if they had compared the 5 sets of 1 rep + back off set to 6 sets of 1 rep, but for that they would have needed more participants.

All that we can learn from this study is that back off sets do work, and that you can easily add them on to your training program. It’s just one set so it won’t make a huge difference to your gym time.

The study showed us that hypertrophy (thigh muscle size) increased significantly with back off sets, and that muscular endurance vastly improved compared to the loss of muscular endurance that the control group saw.

Back Off Sets vs Drop Sets

Some of you may be thinking to yourself that back off sets and drop sets sound like the same thing, and there are similarities. Both techniques are designed to exhaust the muscles, using the same exercise performed at a lower weight.

The main difference is that a drop set is performed immediately after your last set while a back off set is performed after a 30-90 second rest. You would treat a back off set exactly the same as you would the previous set, except that the weight is lower and you can therefore perform more reps. Same tempo, same range of motion, nice and slowly.

This is also how a drop set should be performed (minus the rest) but often form is allowed to slip towards the end and the tempo is a lot faster.

Examples of a Back Off Set

As with most studies within Strength & Conditioning the exercises chosen seem a bit random. No other resistance training was allowed during the study, so it was just 5 sets of leg press and 5 sets of leg extensions.

These exercises were probably picked because one is a compound movement and one is an isolation movement. Also, both are easy exercises for beginners to perform. If the scientists had asked for barbell back squats they may have had to spend quite a few weeks teaching the untrained men how to perform them properly.

But no normal program is going to only consist of two exercises, that would be crazy.

Back off sets can be added to pretty much any exercise; the study saw improvements in both compound exercises (leg press) and isolation exercises (leg extension). That means you could add a back off set to the bench press – my personal favourite, or the bicep curl.

Let’s use the bench press as an example. We’ll say that your goal is to increase your bench press 1RM (100kg) so you are training for strength. You would perform 1-2 warm up sets of 4 reps at 50-60% 1RM, and then you would perform 5 sets of 1-2 reps at 80% 1RM. After a 30-90 second rest you would perform a further set of bench press using 50% of your 1RM.

• Warm Up = 2 x 4 @ 50-60%
• 5 x 1-2 @ 80-90%
• 1 x As Many Reps As Possible @50%

Another example would be using a back off set for the bicep curl. Your goal for this would be to increase strength. You could do 1-2 warm up sets at 6-8 reps (40-50%) then 4 sets of 6 reps using 60-70% of your 1RM. Then you would add a back off set (50%) after your final set.

Incorporating Back Off Sets into Your Training Program

One of the most common mistakes that people – and let’s be honest here I mean dudes – make in the gym is this:

Step One: Hear about new exercise technique
Step Two: Add it to your program
Step Three: Overdo it
Step Four: Injury!
Step Five: “Oh yeah that technique is dangerous”

Back off sets are like drop sets, supersets, and many other techniques, they should be used sparingly. They should be sprinkled into your training program rather than added to every single exercise that you do.


I find that compound exercises work best with this technique. But not all of them. A back off set of deadlifts would just be insane! But bench pressing, squatting, rowing, and overhead pressing exercises all work well with back off sets.

1 Rep Max

In this article I’ve mentioned 1RMs quite a bit, mostly because they helped give you an idea of what weights to use. But as a trainer I very rarely had my clients perform 1RM tests. These tests are incredibly intense, and I wasn’t interested in destroying my client just so I could get an idea of what their maximum bench press was.

Don’t get me wrong,

Some clients loved doing 1RM tests. But for most people it was unnecessary. It may also be unnecessary for you. It isn’t compulsory for back off sets, they will work anyway.

Just use a weight that is half what you would estimate to be your one rep max.

Final Thoughts

Back off sets have never taken off in the way that other exercise techniques have. This seems crazy to me because they are simple to do, clearly work, and don’t require any crazy equipment. They are a great way to spice up your training program, and because they are low-impact they are unlikely to cause injury.

Don’t be that person who adds back off sets to every exercise, just pick 2-3 max per session.

Remember to concentrate on form, tempo, and range of motion. Give back off sets a certain level of respect, and hopefully, over time you’ll see some excellent results.


*1RM = One repetition maximum, the heaviest weight that you can lift for one rep.



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