Top set back off set programming

When programming for the main barbell lifts, I typically prescribe either straight sets (multiple sets at the same weight/RPE, e.g., 5 sets x 5 reps @ 8 RPE) or a heavy top set with backdown sets (e.g., 1 set x 3 reps @ 9 RPE, then 2 sets x 3 reps @ 90% of top set).

Let’s talk about when and why to use each approach.

Straight Sets

Straight sets are most useful for beginners who are still learning the lifts. The more novice a lifter, the more they’re able to repeat the same high-level efforts without appreciable fatigue. That’s because novices aren’t as able to recruit a high percentage of their fast-twitch muscle fibers/high-threshold motor units, so no matter how hard they try, they can’t wear themselves out as much in the moment as an advanced lifter could.

For example, if a newer lifter performs 5 sets of 5 reps @ 8 RPE, they will likely be able to use the same weight for all 5 sets. If an advanced lifter does this same protocol, they’ll likely only be able to use the same heavy weight for a few sets before they’d have to take weight off the bar to maintain the 8 RPE assignment. Maybe they’d be able to keep the weight the same if they took an inordinate amount of rest between sets, but then training becomes inefficient and not everyone has 2-plus hours to train every day. It sounds counterintuitive, but the stronger you get, the more fatigue you can accumulate and the more your strength will tail off acutely.

Straight sets are also most useful for hypertrophy training. If we’re using the main lifts for the purpose of building muscle/accumulating volume, I’ll typically use straight sets regardless of the lifter’s experience level (so an advanced lifter may use straight sets for several weeks of training after a competition or testing maxes). I’ll usually choose the exact weight, start with 2-3 sets, and then leave the rep range open-ended via reps in reserve (RIR). Then we’ll add a set each week and increase the weight a tiny bit if possible. For example:

Week 1: 2 x 2 RIR @ 225
Week 2: 3 x 2 RIR @ 230
Week 3: 4 x 2 RIR @ 235
Week 4 (Deload): 2 x 4 RIR @ 215

Top set back off set programming

Top Set/Backdowns

Working up to a heavy top set is the favored approach for intermediate and advanced lifters. It’s highly specific to powerlifting, because performing a 1-rep max is the ultimate top set. We do this heavy set first because it’s the most important for building the skill of lifting heavy, and we don’t want to get fatigued by doing too much volume during our warmup sets. After the top set, we reduce the load by 5-10% and perform several backdown sets.

Think of the top set as a “quiz” and the backdown sets as “studying”. You have to do both if you want to get a good grade on the eventual “exam” (i.e., your powerlifting meet). That’s why a top set approach makes the most sense when preparing for a competition.

Top set back off set programming

For example, the prescription may be to work up to a top set of 3 reps @ 9 RPE, then 2×3 @ 90% of the top set. Your sets might look something like this:

Bar x 10135×5225×4315×3365×2405×1 (last warm-up)455×3 @ 9 RPE410×3 (90% of 455)


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

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…

Top set back off set programming

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.

With seeing many different styles of programming, particularly with what has been popularized in the USAPL through the Daily Undulating Periodization revolution in 2014 and the variations of DUP that have come from that, I have come to realize one thing I seem to differ on than most is my highly varying use of top sets and back off sets.  Now there are many people who do top sets then back off to straight sets, but what I feel I do different is how much variation I have within those back off sets. For instance, let’s say a typical straight set is programmed as 5×5. The main issue I have with just programming 5×5 is as we progress, the only variables that could be changed with that structure is either adding more sets, adjusting the reps, or adjusting the percentage it is programmed at. But what if we break that up. We could do 1×5 then back off to 4×5, 2×5 then back off to 3×5, and so on. There are numerous combinations of breaking up those sets and reps, but let’s take it even further. Let’s say we have top set of 1×5 and we back off for 2×5 and then back off again for another 2×5. The variations now become limitless due to the extent that we can back off, and from there, these are all variables that we can adjust and progress. Maybe we start by backing off 5% to the first 2×5 and then another 5% for another 2×5. Well a progression of that is just back off 4%, or maybe we do 2×5 for the top set and back off 5% to 1×5 and back off another 5% to 2×5. I could go on like this forever, but hopefully now you get the point. When we stray from the typical straight sets and become more creative with the way we structure the programming, the variables we become able to manipulate and progress become limitless. Now that I have you thinking, let’s really dive into the main points of why I believe high variation of top and back off sets is optimal over the typical programming of straight sets.

1.) One of the biggest issues I see with straight sets as mentioned is the limited variables we can adjust. I typically find those that program straight sets make the mistake of pushing volume or intensity too much, as its really the only variables they can manipulate. That is what happened in 2014-2015 with “The DUP”. Volume was pushed more and more with the thought that more was better…..and then everyone died. Too many times I think the answer still is to  push more volume, where instead if we are more creative with the structure of sets and reps, we can manipulate multiple factors without just ramping up volume and intensity. For instance lets say we had a program structure for the day of 1x5x200lbs. followed by back offs at 4x5x180lbs. without changing the weight, reps, sets, intensity, volume etc., we can progress this workout by adjusting how many top sets and back off sets we do. 2x5x200lbs. followed by 3x5x180lbs. is a more challenging workout than the prior. Maybe then we go 2x5x200lbs. followed by 1x5x190lbs. followed by 2x5x180lbs. Again, just slight manipulation of variables that achieves a differing training effect. We can even then take into account repetitions. So now we have 2x5x200lbs. followed by 1x4x200lbs. followed by 2x5x180lbs. As mentioned above, the possibilities are endless for the progression we can have within this structure, which is something straight sets cannot achieve.

2.) From an online coaching perspective, one of my biggest downfalls with straight sets is how the athlete performs with each proceeding set. Give one athlete 5×5 programmed around a 7 RPE, and by the last set they will be around a 7.5-8 RPE. Give another athlete that same program and by the final set it is a 9.5 RPE. Or maybe someone is having an off day. Fatigue is high and they are just not primed for peak performance. If I was there in person I could see that and make an adjustment on the fly. But with being an online coach, I need to build in these safety nets to make sure even on bad days the program can be performed effectively. So by programming preplanned back off sets I am structuring the workout to account for good and bad days.

3.) I look at programming these back off sets very much like @miketuchscherer popularized fatigue drops. For those who are not familiar with fatigue drops, what Mike popularized was a top set followed by back off sets programmed to a certain fatigue drop percentage. For instance, you may have a top set of 1×5 @ 8 RPE with a fatigue drop of 5%. What this means is you’d perform that top set of 5 and then back off 5% from whatever that weight was, let’s say 500lbs. You’d then perform that back off weight, in this case 475lbs., for sets of 5 until you once again reach an 8 RPE. What this means is that when you again reach a 8 RPE on sets of 5 at 475lbs. (5% drop), you have now fatigued your 1 RM, or projected 1 RM, by 5% that day. As mentioned above, every lifter is different. Take 2 lifters and perform the exact same amount of back off sets at a 5% fatigue drop and one lifter maybe does 2 sets while another does 4. That is the beauty of fatigue drops, it individualizes the program on the fly for the lifter based on their performance that day. Now coming back around to how I program, I don’t necessarily program in fatigue drops, but as I learn a lifter and their general tendencies I will program in a way that allows them to stay within the general RPE range I want them in for the day by having these programmed back off sets at certain percentages. As a very general standard, I find most people fatigue about 2% per set, but that is also very dependent on the relative and absolute intensity of those sets. But we do have to generalize, especially at first with new athletes. So how does this look when programmed out? Let’s say an athlete has a top set of 2×5 programmed around a 7-7.5 RPE followed by back offs for another 3×5. If I would like them to stay in that general RPE range of 7-7.5 for all sets, or at least not go too far over that, I will then program the 3×5 at a 8% back off. This accounts for about a 2% fatigue drop each set so that the first set of the day is around a 7-7.5 RPE and so is the last set of the day. Does it work out perfect like this every time, no. But it does gives us a framework to manage relative intensities and fatigue.

4.) Does this mean I never do straight sets? No. The fact is that is another form of progression. Let’s say someone benches 2 days a week. Maybe on the primary day where I want to push harder and induce more fatigue I use straight sets, but then on the secondary day I manage top sets and back off sets to lower fatigue to then be primed for the next primary bench day. All of this can even be applied to accessory work, and I very much do that as well. All too often accessory work isn’t taken seriously by the lifter, but is it really being taken seriously by the coach as well? Are they actually putting the same thought into programming the accessories that they do with the main lifts? The fact is accessory movements produce adaptations and induce fatigue, so if we want to optimally progress performance we can do so through creative structuring of accessory work as well. I would say this more so applies to higher fatigue inducing accessories though. Am I getting crazy with my programming for bicep curls? Probably not. But for things like belt squats, dips, leg press, dumbbell bench press, and other high demand compound accessory movements, there is very much a place for top sets and back off sets to help manage fatigue and drive progress through multiple variables.

To help provide some examples, I provided multiple screenshots below to get an idea of how all this comes to fruition, and hopefully this gave you some insight into the limitless variables programming can offer!

Top set back off set programming

Top set back off set programming

Top set back off set programming

Top set back off set programming