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Back Off Sets for Muscle & Strength Gains

Back Off Sets

What are back off sets and can they help you to build muscle and strength?

In this article, we will show you the benefit of using them, and why you should start incorporating them into your own workouts. [toc]

What are Back Off Sets?

If you have ever worked out but have failed on the last set of an exercise without feeling as though the target muscle was exhausted then perhaps back off sets would help.

By reducing the weight for the final set, but lifting until you reach failure you are able to take your muscle growth into new territory, pushing past any existing plateau.

With back off sets, you are performing your usual workout routine, but you are simply reducing the weight of the final set. Usually to around 50% of your 1RM.

How do Back Off Sets work?

When you perform the previous heavy sets you are fully activating the nerve fibres in your muscles, which makes them ready to perform.

By lowering the weight for the back off set you are able to do more reps than usual. Therefore placing these muscle fibres under tension for longer. This helps your body to grow more muscle than normal.

In a 2004 study [1], which was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Japanese scientists looked to see how effective back off sets were for building muscle mass.

Over a 10-week period, 17 university students were asked to perform Leg Presses and Leg Extensions twice weekly.

For the first six weeks, the participants were given a hypertrophy-focused program, where the goal was to build muscle.

During this period they performed a high volume of work, with nine sets of between 10-15 reps using 40-80% of their one rep max.

For the remaining four weeks of the study, the participants were broken into two groups. Both switched to a strength-orientated plan, performing five sets of 3-5 reps at 90% of their one rep max.

One half of the participants were also asked to perform a back off set after the last heavy set. This back off set was performed at 50% of the one rep max and was performed until failure.

At the conclusion of the trial, those who performed the additional back off set saw a greater increase in leg strength and size and an increase in muscular endurance.

Benefits of Back Off Sets

The benefits of back off sets include:

Psychological Benefits

Not only will you see an increase in confidence due to you working with heavy weights, but you will see greater tenacity to push through demanding workouts.

Neurological Benefits

Lifting heavy weights will be more demanding on your body’s nervous system. And the ability to perform more reps will increase the intensity of your workout, which will improve your neural capacity.


Back off sets can help you to understand what kind of weights/scenario’s you can handle without a breakdown of form.

This is helpful, as poor form can lead to injury.

Hypertrophy and Strength Gains

An increase in load and training volume will ultimately lead to an increase in strength and power and an overall increase in muscle mass due to the increased hypertrophy.

How to Add Back Off Sets to Your Routine?

Implementing back off sets into your routine is not difficult. You can simply use the following:

  • The first thing you need to do is work out your one rep max. This is the maximum weight you can lift for one rep in an exercise
  • You should take 90% of your one rep max. This should be the weight you should lift for your main sets
  • The back off set (final set) will be 50% of your one rep max and should be performed to failure

So for example, if you were able to squat 150kg for a one rep max then your main sets would be 135kg. Your back off set would be 75kg.

Using StrongLifts 5×5 as your workout you would perform 4 sets of 135kg, and the final set using 75kg. This final set will be performed until you cannot perform any further reps.

Back Off Sets vs Drop Sets

Both back off sets and drop sets are visually similar, but have a few differences.

Typically, you would keep the weight the same during most of the back off sets, only lowering the weight for the final set.

With drop sets you would start off at a higher weight, only lowering it once you have reached muscle failure. Sometimes the weight would drop without muscle failure is reached, but rather after each set has been performed.

Both back off sets and drop sets [2] have been shown to improve muscle mass, muscle strength and muscle endurance.

In Conclusion

If you have found yourself at a plateau and are no longer seeing any strength or muscle gains, then back off sets can be important for pushing you past it.

This workout tip can help you add volume to your workouts, which will lead to various benefits being experienced.

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