What are back down sets?
Back down sets are a programming strategy that we use to increase the amount of quality volume done by the athlete at higher intensities. The strategy is based on the principles of post activation potentiation. High intensity (heavy loaded) strength exercises recruit high threshold muscle fibers. As the intensity increases, more of these muscle fibers are recruited. Studies show that these high threshold fibers (explosive fibers) could stay stimulated for up to 30 min following a high intensity set (Chiu, Fry, Weiss, et al., 2003; Rixon, Lamont, & Bemden, 2007).. Do to the increase in muscle fiber activation from the heavy loading, lower intensity work should be easier for the client/ athlete to complete. Long story short, doing a heavy set of a strength exercise should increase your ability to be stronger and more explosive at lower intensities within the same session.
The beautiful gift of back down sets is their versatility. The use of PAP for building power is pretty well documented with methods like the French Contrast System, but drop down sets can also be a great tool for strength and hypertrophy. It’s all in the application. Below are a few examples:
Powerlifter looking to improve maximal strength:
Heavy sets: 2x2 92%,
Drop down Sets:3x2 88%
Football player looking to improve basic strength:
Heavy sets:3x4 88%
Back down sets: 2x6 85%
Hockey player looking to build muscle:
Heavy sets: 3x5 85%
Drop down sets: 2x8 80%
Powerlifting is a sport that tests maximal strength. For the powerlifter, the back down sets only added 6 more total reps but the key is the quality. If the powerlifter had tried to do 5x2 at 92% it would have been extremely stressful to the system and their would likely have been a drop off in technique as they got past the second or third set. The drop down sets allow the powerlifter to add sets to their overall work, stay at a high percentage, and assure that the quality and speed of the reps stay the same throughout.
The football player in this example needs more basic strength. The goal for the back down sets are going to be to stay in an intensity percentage that will stimulate strength (>80% )but also get more reps per set so they can get enough overall volume to stimulate hypertrophy (>20Reps).
The hockey player is this example is looking to build muscle. Given the athletes goal, the percentage drop off for the back down sets is higher compared to the powerlifter and the football player as we aren’t chasing intensity as a priority. This larger percentage drop allows you to add a greater amount of reps per set and accumulate more overall volume, thus driving more of a hypertrophy stimulus.
Along with the physiological benefits via PAP, there are also psychological benefits to this strategy that are worth noting, Two of the biggest factors in an athletes ability to lift heavy loads is the intent and confidence they have going into the exercise. For most athletes, this confidence takes some time to build. Doing lots of volume at high intensities can be extremely taxing from a central nervous system and joint perspective, but it can also be extremely taxing mentally. Doing back down sets allows the athlete to build confidence and skill at higher intensities , while decreasing some of the injury risk that is adherent with increased physical and mental fatigue as the number of sets proceed. With most athletes, you will see confidence and focus carry over to the slightly lighter sets giving the athlete a mental advantage as well as physical over the submaximal loads.
When your dealing with high intensities, it is likely that there will be some technique breakdown. We are looking to minimize this as much as possible, but the reality is that any weakness you have will start to show as the intensity increases. High intensities don’t lend themselves well to conscious correction of technique because your focus and attention needs to be on being as powerful as possible to complete the reps. Back down sets are effective because they give you an opportunity to immediately address any technique weakness that manifested in your heavy sets with a now slightly lighter, more manageable load.
To sum it up, drop down sets are a great programming tool that you can use in your own training or with your clients and athletes regardless of training goals. The key with any training method is always in the application. Figure out what the goal is and apply this principle to whatever main compound exercises you are using. I think you will be pleased with the results.