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Back Off Sets – The Solution To A Linear Problem

In the past I have written (here & here) and talked (here) about the limitations of a linear progression model for hypertrophy. Just to recap here are my main gripes with it.
Firstly, training must be progressively overloading.

The principle of progressive overload is what governs effective, hard training. Overload means that training must disrupt homeostasis enough to cause the body to adapt.

In simple terms this means that your program must plan for and allow you to consistently add reps, or weight to the bar over time to drive physical adaptations and change.

The principle of overload also states that training must become harder over time. On average, over time you must continue to provide an overload to the body through your training. Thus, over the course of weeks, months and years you must continually elevate volume and intensities.

Great! We are clear that to get results progressive overload is key. Won’t a linear model achieve that? Yes…and…no!

Yes, because you can lift more weight and that is a form of overload. No, because you do less overall volume and that is not an overload. In fact, it the exact opposite.

To illustrate this let’s work through an example. A very popular training plan is Eric Helms’ Intermediate Bodybuilding Routine. Here is how progression is set-up:

Week 1 100 x 8, 8 ,8 (total volume = 2,400)
Week 2 105 x 7, 7, 7 (total volume = 2,205)
Week 3 110 x 6, 6, 6 (total volume = 1,980)
Week 4 100 x 6, 6 -DELOAD
Week 5 105 x 8, 8, 8 (total volume = 2520)
Note. Training volume calculated as follows: “Load x sets x reps.”

Now, as you can see while there is more weight on the bar there is actually less volume performed each week.

So what, more weight equals more growth, right?


As Helms, himself states…

“Hypertrophy…is primarily related to the total work performed, and is less specific to the intensity”

Research shows that as long as you lift weights that are at least 60% of your 1 rep max then volume is the key determinant of success when it comes to gaining muscle mass. A progression scheme that consistently reduces training volume is, therefore, fundamentally flawed for hypertrophy.

By following a traditional linear model you present the body with a given volume load in Week 1. By doing so you provide a signal of a given magnitude. Then reduce this signal for several weeks. Thus, the following training weeks violate the principle of overload for hypertrophy. They overloaded on intensity but, not on volume.

So, a linear model violates the principle of overload in relation to volume. This is a pretty big deal given volume appears to be the biggest driver of hypertrophy.

In the two articles listed above (the links again are here & here) and in this other video (here) I presented a reverse liner model for planning your training which I believe to be better suited to training for size. However, I understand that people like to see more weight on the bar week to week. In a reverse linear model this isn’t possible to achieve (well, not all the time, or for a considerable amount of time).

How can you keep putting more weight on the bar and do more total volume while following the popular linear progression schemes?

Well obviously, you could just keep adding sets. So, the above example becomes…

The Modified Helms Routine:
Week 1 100 x 3 x 8 (total volume = 2,400)
Week 2 105 x 4 x 7 (total volume = 2,940)
Week 3 110 x 5 x 6 (total volume = 3,300)
Week 4 100 x 6, 6 -DELOAD
Week 5 105 x 3 x 8 (total volume = 2520)

This approach can work very well. Especially, in the short term. However, it can also become extremely fatiguing. Hitting multiple heavy sets is extremely demanding on your CNS, increases the risk of injury, takes a long time (rest periods are inversely proportionate to reps performed) and can cause you to lose the desire to train. A study conducted by Brad Schoenfeld found that individual’s doing 10×3 got the same size gains as people doing 3×10, BUT it took 3 times as long, they were depressed, achy, demotivated and some got injured.

Is there an alternative?

Enter Back Off/Down Sets

A back off or down set is when, after performing the initial heavy sets on an exercise you reduce the weight by a certain amount and perform a lighter set. Usually, for a higher number of reps than the previous sets. For example, after 3×6 at 100kg you might drop the weight to 85kg for 1 set of 12.

Using down sets allows you to follow a linear model on the earlier sets. Get the psychological benefits of lifting heavier loads week to week, but also dramatically increase your overall training volume. Win, win!

To illustrate:

3×6 @ 100kg = 1,800kg (3x6x100=1,800)
2×6 @ 100kg & 1×12 @85kg = 2,220kg

Also because a set of 12 is less taxing to the body you could do your normal 3×6 and then add the set of 12 without eating in to your recovery too much. In this case your volume goes through the roof!

3×6 @ 100kg & 1×12 @85kg = 2,820kg

To give you a more overall picture of how this might look let’s layout a further modification of Helms’ routine:

The Linear Back Off Model…
Week 1 100 x 3 x 8 (total volume = 2,400)
Week 2 105 x 3 x 7 & 85 x 1 x 12 (total volume = 3,225)
Week 3 110 x 3 x 6 & 85 x 2 x 12 (total volume = 4,020)
Week 4 100 x 6, 6 -DELOAD
Week 5 105 x 8, 8, 8 (total volume = 2520)

Of course the very nature of performing more sets so an increase in volume is obvious and not only down to the back off set just the use of . Using back off sets beats you up less and elevates volume more than simply doing more heavy sets though.

If time is an issue for you then you could simply reduce one heavy set each week and replace it with a back off set to keep you lifting heavier weights week to week, drive volume up and have you in and out of the gym asap. For example,

The Time Sensitive Linear Back Off…

Week 1 100 x 3 x 8 (total volume = 2,400)
Week 2 105 x 2 x 7 & 85 x 1 x 12 (total volume = 2,490)
Week 3 110 x 1 x 6 & 85 x 2 x 12 (total volume = 2,700)
Week 4 100 x 6, 6 -DELOAD
Week 5 105 x 8, 8, 8 (total volume = 2520)

So, there is a theoretical overviews as to why I think back off/down sets could very well be the answer to helping people to grow with very little adjustment to their training plan. You also now have a few practical examples of how you could implement bad off sets.

But does it work?

Pic courtesy of S&C Research Review

Anecdotally, I can say yes I have seen excellent results using them. The research also supports the use of down sets. Studies have shown that using back off sets results in greater increase in muscle size, strength, isometric force, and muscular endurance when compared to using straight weight.

Back off sets provide a different stimulus to the muscle than hitting more of the same rep range. This allows more fibres to be recruited and fatigued and results in more growth. Brad Schoenfeld has identified that working across a spectrum of rep ranges seems ideal for hypertrophy. Well this technique allows you to do just that in one session. Simple, effective and time efficient. Give back off sets a go and get growing!

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