Back-Off Sets Can Help Experienced Lifters Improve – Here’s How

A heavy barbell
Increase your load volume without trashing your central nervous system by using back-off sets, rather than attempt to lift a barbell this comically heavy over and over again (Image credit: Getty Images)

If you’re getting serious in the weights room, there will come a point when you start to focus on improving your one-rep max for the barbell squat, deadlift and the bench press. When you are taking on challenging barbell exercises like these, it’s well worth knowing about back-off sets, which can increase your load volume without trashing your central nervous system.

We spoke to Elliot Upton, global head of online training for Ultimate Performance, to find out more information about back-off sets and how to use them in your training. Upton has also given us the low-down on how to spot a weightlifter.

About Our Expert
About Our Expert
Elliott Upton

Elliott Upton is a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and is head of online training at Ultimate Performance. He is also currently gym manager at UP’s Marbella gym and has more than 15 years’ experience as a personal trainer, delivering more than 20,000 hours of one-to-one sessions and multiple sell-out seminars all over Europe.

What is a back-off set?

If you were to take a big primary movement, something like a deadlift, squat or bench press, you would do a top or peak set, which is likely to be close to – let’s say 90 to 95% of – your one-rep max. A back-off set is then performing the same exercise, but at a lower percentage of your one-rep max for a couple of extra sets. 

They can be confused with drop sets. A drop set is when you perform a movement and max out on it, quickly reduce the weight, burn out again, then quickly drop some weight and so on. 

Back-off sets are completely separate. You’re doing your big set and you’re resting for two, three, four minutes – whatever you need – before you go on to your back-off sets.

What are the benefits of back-off sets?

The primary purpose is to not burn out. The heavier you’re lifting, the more likely you are to burn out your central nervous system (CNS), which gets heavily taxed by high-weight, low-volume sets. Eventually you’re going to create far too much fatigue and reach a point of diminishing returns. 

Back-off sets allow you to increase the training volume you can get on a particular movement. With strength training programmes we often look at load volume. That is the accumulated load of an entire session. For example, a 100kg squat done once has a load volume of 100kg. If we squat that same 100kg 10 times, the load volume for that exercise is 1,000kg.

Let’s say I want to do 1,000kg worth of deadlifts in a session and my max is 260 or 270kg. To get that 1,000kg load volume I can go right up towards my max with single reps at 250kg. But because I’m so close to my max, my risk of injury, as well as of overreaching and causing massive fatigue, is extremely high. Or I can do one rep close to my max at 250kg, and then I back off the weight to around 200kg and do two or three sets of multiple reps where the risk is significantly lower. I’m not going to overreach and fatigue my nervous system, and I still hit my target load volume. 

Back-off sets also help you to work on your technique. You might find when you test your one-rep max that something fails. For example, maybe your glutes are not pulling properly, something is not firing right. You can use a back-off set for the same movement to try and perfect that little imperfection. 

When should you use back-off sets in your training?

Back-off sets are best used for heavy strength training. It’s not necessarily something that will benefit people training at home unless they’re training very heavy. 

You’re really only going to use it on the big primary lifts that tax your CNS the most – the exercises that really fire up every muscle in your body. You shouldn’t do back-off sets on biceps curls or triceps extensions, because the risk of injury is enormous with one- or two-rep max lifts on those. Keep it to your bigger compound movements. 

With regards to frequency, it should come down to the programme, but as a general rule, you should not be doing that level of heavy lifting frequently because of the accumulated fatigue on the CNS. Your CNS will burn out and you’re going to start to fail too quickly.

Since back-off sets are used in concert with heavy lifts close to a one-rep max, is it a technique only experienced gym-goers should use?

The big caveat for using these types of techniques would be that the fundamentals of your lifts need to be right. You need to have a perfect lift before you’re trying to do a one-rep or two-rep max, because the risk is enormous otherwise.

A lot of people want to know how much they can lift. Even people with bad technique want to know what their one-rep max is. It’s important for people to understand that these types of things carry much greater risk than doing three sets of 10 or 12 reps. There’s not a huge amount of risk there because the loads you’re using are probably somewhere around 70% of what would be your one-rep max for any given moment. 

Focus on form. If your form is right then you can start to work towards more advanced techniques. If your form is not nailed, you shouldn’t be testing your one-rep max, which then negates using back-off sets.

Are there any other downsides to doing back-off sets?

If you do heavy workouts using them too often, you’ll fatigue yourself. A lot of people underestimate the demand on your central nervous system. Just like anything else it can get fatigued. Your muscles will recover and repair within two to three days, but your central nervous system can take anywhere between five and 10 days to fully recover from a max effort lift. 

Also, if you have overstressed your nervous system doing too much of this type of heavy training and things start to go a little bit awry, the risk of injury is extremely high. 

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.