Rep it out, bro! Don’t stop now, keep pushing!
You’ve heard that one before, right? It’s the common refrain in every fitness class ever, and in the majority of the bro-centric, muscle-building gyms out there. It’s not bad, either. It’s a refrain that drips of old-school discipline, of classic ideas of strength and conditioning. The idea of reps upon reps upon reps is the one I grew up with, from classic bodybuilders like Frank Zane, Steve Reeves, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Push through your set, because the reps are what matters is how it’s always been.
But it’s not the only way. Meet the cluster set, the underutilized training technique that can push you to serious power and strength gains. No, you won’t see a lot of people using this style in your average gym. But powerlifters use it, and top athletes train with it for sports performance. And science is increasingly on board with the cluster set, too.
What is cluster training?
Your mind will take a while to get used to cluster training. Typically, you think of a set of 10 reps as a set in which you do one rep, then the next immediately after that, and the next immediately after that — and you keep doing that for the whole set.
With a cluster set, you take a 10- to 30-second rest interval between every rep, or every few reps, in each set. You’re still taking your traditional rest at the end of your set, too. Yes, that’s a lot of rest, but there’s a reason for that.
What do cluster sets train?
Cluster sets have been used in a handful of practices but I believe they should be more widely utilized.
The big benefit of cluster training: You’ll build serious short-term power—and that can make you stronger and more muscular in the long run. You may not see yourself as a power guy or heavy-duty strength guy, but building power in your one-rep max on, say, the bench press or squat or deadlift, can have more benefits than you think.
Look at the chiselled physique of your favourite NFL player. True story: Most of those guys aren’t training with massive amounts of reps, like the bodybuilding guys at your gym. They’re training with ideas like cluster sets, building power and strength. Power and strength matter, both directly and indirectly. You may not get the same pump from a cluster set on the bench press, but you’re building power that will let you lift heavier the next time you do a “standard” bench press workout.
Improve your metabolic recovery, hormone response, and overall adaptive ability and you’ll build the strength and power to make your regular workouts better.
Cluster sets are about quality reps
A key advantage of the cluster set over your regular zounds-of-reps sets is all that rest. It keeps you from completely fatiguing your muscles.
It also flies in the face of old-school training. Classic muscle-building tells us it’s all about time-under-tension, the amount of time your muscles actually have to be working instead of relaxing. Time-under-tension is important too, but here’s what’s more important: Quality of movement.
When you do 15 reps of dumbbell curls or bench presses, but your form begins breaking down, it’s not worthwhile. And if you don’t want your form to break down, you have to use lighter weights. Take a little break every few reps, though, and you get to reset and regain focus, hammering the form of an exercise while still using a heavier load.
Quality volume (total load lifted multiplied by total reps, if you’re into the math of it) has always been the critical factor in building strength, power, and mass over time. Cluster sets have shown lower lactic acid accumulation and less neuromuscular fatigue. This means you can use them to pile up much higher volume than you’d get in normal workouts.
So when should you cluster?
The majority of the research has found the main benefits of cluster training around power and high-strength exercises. No, that’s not dumbbell curls and lateral raises. You want to do clusters with movements like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and power cleans.
Strength and power are a relatively important prerequisite to solid fatigue. If you’re going for that athlete or bodybuilder look keep this in mind: Those people can move serious weight. Cluster sets will help you move serious weight, too.
How To Use Cluster Training
You don’t want to use cluster sets on every lift, only your biggest, most powerful exercises. An easy way to start: Build cluster sets in on your leg days, and your chest days. On all other days, train as you normally would.
You’ll only use cluster sets on the first exercise of each day. So on leg days, you’ll start with squats. Instead of doing, say, 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, you’ll do two-rep clusters for legs.
You’ll do 4 sets of 6 total reps. Do 2 reps at a time. After each pair of reps, re-rack the bar and rest for 30 seconds. Then do another 2 reps. Re-rack it again and do another 2 reps.
Lots of rest? Maybe, but you’ll go heavy in this program. You should use 85 per cent of your 1-rep squat max. Rest 3 minutes between sets. Follow that heavy squat with 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps of deadlifts, and 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per leg of reverse lunges.
On chest day, you’ll also use clusters on the bench press. Make the bench press your first exercise of the day and load the bar with 87 per cent of your one-rep max. You’ll do 4 sets on the bench. Each set will include 5 reps, except after every single rep, you’ll re-rack the bar and rest for 20 seconds. Rest for 150 seconds between sets.
Follow that with incline bench presses and close-grip pushups. Or if your training typically has you doing an upper-body day and a lower-body day, do dumbbell rows and pull-ups after that bench press.
Either way, you’re not simply training with cluster sets all day. You’re using them in small doses to get more out of your workout.
It’s the smart way to grow more muscle.
By David Otey