Each training session, as you are completing your working sets, you should aim to reach a “Top Set”. As you may guess, this is the set in which the highest amount of weight is used for the day.
Some days, a top weight will be used for multiple sets. Other days, you will be able to continually escalate the weight throughout your working sets, all the way up to one single top set.
The top set(s), is the peak of the training session. Sometimes this also represents the end of the session. Other times it does not.
The higher the weight you work up to, the less sustainability you will have. As you near your limits, fewer repetitions and fewer sets will be possible to be completed. But just because you can no longer climb in weight or continue to train with a relatively high-percentage weight, does not always mean you need to (or should) quit for the day. This could be an excellent time to utilize back-off sets.
Back-off sets AKA “Down Sets” are done with weights that are reduced from your top weights. They are used to accumulate more training volume in a safe way. Tallying up more reps - in a fatigued state, is what carries over to more strength, more muscle, and more total energy expenditure down the road, even with the use of sub-maximal weights.
A highly overlooked reason to employ back-off sets is to help build confidence. Lets say you work up to a top weight of 405lb and then drop back to 330lb to do some down sets. 330 is going to feel like a toy. Your body will be tricked into it feeling lighter than it felt working up to, and past it from zero. This presents a great scenario to become more efficient with weights that are under your top weights for the day. You will learn to move these weights faster. You will learn to not let weights that used to get in your head, get in your head anymore. If you use them correctly, back-off sets can help bring up your top weights, and the higher your top weights, the higher your back-off weights will be as a result.
Back-offs can be used to do any number of sets, for any number of repetitions, and loaded to any percentage of a lift.
As an example of all of this, below is the deadlift workout my 5:45pm class did just last night…
This workout involved working up to a top set - a top single.
After that, back-off sets were completed, on the minute, at 80% of the top weight reached.
After the back-off sets where completed, with whatever time was left, we worked up to a single again, this time using the lifters’ non-preferred stance.