How Backing Off Your Workout Can Build More Strength

This is your Quick Training Tip, a chance to learn how to work smarter in just a few moments so you can get right to your workout.

If your primary goal is strength, you need to lift heavy. There’s no getting around that. Three to five sets of up to six reps per exercise is your sweet spot, along with enough rest between sets to attack each one at full capacity. But to truly optimize your strength gains, you also need to lift light.

I’m talking about what’s called a “back-off” set, which you can think of as a final high-rep, low-load “finisher” that you tack on to the end of each exercise in a strength-focused workout. In a study of Japanese university students, those who followed that lifting protocol saw greater increases in not only strength, but also muscle size and endurance. But strength athletes and bodybuilders don’t need a study to tell them that. They know from personal experience that it just works, since the back-off set is a staple in their training.

The likely reasons the protocol are so effective are twofold. First, adding a single low-intensity, high-rep set to the end of an exercise increases the target muscle’s time under tension (TUT). That alone provides a powerful adaptation stimulus.

But a back-off set also laser focuses on a muscle’s type I fibers rather than the type IIs targeted by the heavier, low-rep sets. Type II fibers might be the largest and most powerful of the two fiber types—and have the greatest growth potential—but studies show that the more endurance-focused type I fibers can grow more than previously thought. If you’re looking to pack on mass and maximize your strength potential, you can’t ignore them.

Your move: After completing what would normally be your last heavy set of an exercise, rest for 60 seconds, reduce the weight you’re lifting by 35 to 40 percent, and then do as many reps as you can. You’re shooting for at least 25 reps in this back-off set to optimize your target muscle’s TUT and hammer its type I muscle fibers, so keep going right up until you reach technical failure (the point at which your form begins to break down). If you’re only just starting to get the hang of the form of the exercise doing standard reps, hold off on back-off sets until you can safely judge when you need to ease off.

When you finally rack your weights, your muscles should burn and you should feel a nice pump. That’s how you’ll know you’ve “backed off” enough to optimize your results.

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