Cluster Sets For Strength & Size

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Using intra-set rest or “clusters” is hardly a new concept. In fact, Olympic lifters use clusters regularly, some without even knowing it.

Put simply, we are using small bouts of rest (10-20s) in between reps to provide recovery and avoid movement deterioration which would normally occur during a straight-set with appreciable loading.

In “Supertraining” Cluster training is categorized two ways: extensive clustering which involves 4-6 repetitions with ones 4-6RM, with 10s rest intervals between each cluster and intensive clustering, 4-6 reps of only 1 repetition between 75-90% of 1RM with about 20s rest between repetitions.

Of course, there is a place for both extensive and intensive clustering and we’ve used both with great success, but for purposes of hypertrophy where the intent is longer time under tension extensive will fit the bill and can be used with a myriad of movements that you’d normally incur high neural fatigue with.

Using Cluster Sets

Cluster sets work actually works quite well when used for general strength purposes. In particular, intermediate to advanced athletes can benefit from using intra-set rest, and I’d even go as far as saying that having small bouts of rest between sets for beginner athletes can help instill efficient movement patterns.

Although it may seem that using cluster sets may not be necessary for general fitness, much like any other method we use it’s a tool that can spark some new progress – we use cluster sets quite regularly in all of our individual plans.

Here are some reasons why it may be prudent to use clusters:

  • Increased time under tension
  • Improved movement patterns
  • Increased neural drive with heavier loading
  • Time-efficient and easy to coach

Squat Variations

As you can imagine using cluster sets for the squat can be quite effective to improve your ability to perform higher amounts of volume with heavier loads.

In the case of the squat – we prefer to opt for longer bouts of rest of 15-25s – depending on the objectives of your training session.

Here are a few examples:

  • Front Squat: 4 x 2.2.2 (15s) @80%. Rest 3:00
  • Back Squat: 4 x 3.2.1 (20s) @85%. Rest 3:00

Now, you could simply build (our method of choice for our programming) to a heavy set over the course 6-7 sets. This prevents confusion and it’s a bit more accurate than throwing out a percentage that cannot really take into account someone’s percentage of fast-twitch vs. slow-twitch muscle fiber – 85% for some may feel like 75% for a given rep-range. In this case, it would look something like:

  • Front Squat: Build to a heavy set of 2.2.2 (20s) over the course of 7 sets.

The Fat Grip Pull-up

The fat-grip pull-up is a great variation to use clusters with. Even for pull-up ninjas, using a fat-grip can drastically cut down on the volume one can handle per set and using extensive clustering works well to allow us to almost bypass local muscle-fatigue.

With this particular variation, the pump you’ll experience in the biceps, forearms, and even the latissimus we’ll likely come as a pleasant surprise!

In this particular case, we performed 3 sets of 5 reps, rest 10s, 3 reps, rest 10s, and 2 reps then rest 2:30. Why the rep-scheme of 5-3-2? With this variation, this rep-scheme fit the bill for my ability and went in-line with the total volume I was looking for out of this movement (30 total reps).

Of course, you’re only limited by your imagination so you could certainly get creative and use cluster sets that align with your ability in terms of movement selection, volume, and composition of your sets.

A few things to note

  • Choose a compound movement like a squat, bench, pull-up, or dip with a load that you can perform 5 solid reps with (for most around 80-85% will fit the bill).
  • Perform sets that are submaximal, around 2-3 reps shy of failure that will keep you away from complete movement deterioration even as the sets progress.
  • Our goal is hypertrophy so total volume should between 25-30 total reps.

A few additional examples

  • Weighted Wide Grip Pull-ups: 3 x 5.3.2 (10s). Rest 2:30
  • Bench Press: 4 x 2.2.2 (15s) @80%. Rest 3:00
  • Weighted Bar Dips: 3 x 4.3.3 (10s). Rest 2:30

Gymnast Pull-up Routine

This is an advanced protocol I learned from my old strength & conditioning coach back in the day. This routine will require that you can perform at the very minimum 10 strict pull-ups (15-20 would be optimal.)

Be warned – this is an absolutely brutal cluster set not for the faint of heart.

Pronated Narrow Grip Pull-up x submax (2-3 reps shy of failure)
Rest 10s
Pronated Close Grip Pull-up x submax
Rest 10s
Supinated Narrow Grip Chin-up x submax
Rest 10s
Supinated Close Grip Chin-up x submax
Rest 3:00 & Repeat for a total of 2-3 rounds

Closing

Additionally, you’ll likely incur gains in maximal strength as well by using cluster sets so don’t underestimate the value of this work in terms of strength development.

You may be wondering why I have NOT included in any hip-hinge variations – in my experience (both personal and with clients) I’ve seen fewer people able to maintain spinal neutrality for extended sets so I don’t advocate using them for pull variations.

And this mainly due to the fact I would NOT program these cluster sets with a pull for myself and I’m a big fan of practicing what I preach and prescribing work I would put in my own programming.

Overall, using clusters is another method to take your game to the next level. Like anything though you will begin to accommodate if you use cluster sets to frequently so I’d recommend strategically adding them into your programming with one movement a time.

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