Clusters for max strength and hypertrophy
“What the hell is a cluster and what’s the point?”
That’s a pretty common statement I get from clients when they receive a program dictating that their going to be using a cluster format for a movement.
In the easiest way possible to explain it, a cluster is a broken up set. In a normal set you proceed to do the number of reps prescribed without resting. In a cluster set, you break up your reps with rest intervals. For example, let’s say for a normal squat workout you were going to do 3 sets of 4 repetitions, with a cluster set workout you may do 3 sets of 2+2 with a 20 second rest interval.
What’s the point?
Well with cluster sets we are able to use a higher percentage load than in the straight set format. For example, in the example above you may use 80% for the 3 sets of 4 repetitions in straight sets, but with the cluster set of 2+2 you might use 82.5%.
By using more weight we can achieve a greater stimulus for both neurological adaptation (AKA getting stronger) and for greater hypertrophy (AKA getting more jacked). Additionally, we are able to produce better quality reps with the same number of repetitions as well. If I have an athlete that I want to focus on improving their technical aspect of squatting and I want to accumulate more work in the 80% range, I can use cluster sets to increase the total number of repetitions their using - without being as fatigued. Having them do 3 sets of 2+2 will likely produce better quality reps then 3 sets of 4 with 80%.
Side note - Interestingly if you train with weightlifters (olympic style) you’ll find that most of the time when they have to do more than 1 rep, their sets essentially become cluster sets. You’ll see them crush the first rep of a clean set, put the bar down, rest for a moment, repeat until the set is over.
Now you might be thinking to yourself - “Cluster training will get me stronger and more jacked? Why the hell don’t I always do this.” Well the reason you don’t always do this is as I described - it achieves a greater stimulus, meaning it requires more rest to recover from. Instead of bombarding people with clusters week after week for long stretches, I like to use them for a novel stimulus every few phases in training - particularly when chasing down a high stress block. For example, if I know an athlete is going to be taking some time off training due to various reasons (vacation, getting married, etc.) this is a great time to have a high stress block and use clusters.
Now how can you implement them?
Well there are a number of different sets/reps/rest procedures you can use, but also different methods of clusters.
Method 1 - set number of sets/reps/rest
This is probably the most common form and easiest to “regulate” with athletes from a coaching perspective. This version isn’t really any different from normal training program, but we implement a rest interval (or more than one) into a set.
Here’s a few of my favorites:
Big pump set - 3(3X4) w/ 10sec intra-set rest and 120 sec rest between sets. In this format you do 3 cluster sets of 3 sets of 4 reps (12 total reps per cluster set) with 10 seconds between the mini sets. From my experience people are able to use their 10 rep max for multiple sets of 12 in this format.
Strength set - 4(3x2) w/ 15sec intra-set rest and 180 sec rest between sets. In this format you do 4 cluster sets of 3 sets of 2 reps (6 total reps per cluster set) with 10 seconds between the mini sets. This is a great go to for helping people build confidence with heavier weights. For a lot of people who don’t have experience training heavy, we are able to begin pushing them using this format.
Method 2 - total reps prescribed w/ set amount of rest time between mini sets
This method is less common and has been associated with
Method 3 - “Myoreps” from Borge Fagerli
This is a version of cluster sets from a
12 reps on first set
Do reps until you get near failure, then do 3-5 breaths, repeat another set of about 4 reps, 3-5 breaths, continue alternating sets of 4 with 3-5 breaths until you cannot complete a set.
All of the examples above are just that - examples. Feel free to modify and change them as you see fit. There is no set procedure for clusters and by no means are they mandatory. If you are finding your training monotonous, consider adding them in for change of pace.
Move well, lift heavy, stay healthy,
The Strength Therapist