Cluster Sets for Bigger Gains


Clusters Sets Build Strength Faster

Cluster sets or Rest-Pause Training is a strength training intensity modifier that simply allows a person to move more overall weight or increase volume in a short amount of time.

The method generally involves establishing what your 5-6 RM weight is for a certain exercise and breaking it down into small segments of work.

The benefit of doing this allows you to do more reps with a heavier load that if you performed for straight reps you would only get your 5-6 reps.  But with clusters you allow the body to recover partially and then press/pull/squat the weight out again with as much power and velocity as you can.

The key elements in Cluster Training are as follows:

  1.  Utilize big compound movements.  Squats, deadlifts, bench, military press work extremely well.  You can also use these on heavier pulling exercises like bent rows, t-bar rows, even pullups if you desire (however I find that higher repetitions work better here).
  2. Find you're loading parameters.  Most of the time a 5RM works really well for this type of training, although you can also do it with 3RM and 2RM loads.  Overall percentages from 85%-95% (once you hit 95% though your rest break is often not enough to do more than 1-2 reps, depending on you level of CNS involvement and recruitment or basically this doesn't work well for people with a one-shot-one kill nervous system).
  3. Warm-up and load up the bar.  Lift smoothly and explosively as possible.
  4. Rack the weight once you've done 2-3 reps.  Breathe for about 5 -10 breathes and repeat for 3-5 sets of clusters.


Now results on Cluster Training will vary depending on how fast twitch dominant someone is and their level of neuro-muscular efficiency.  Some people just won't be able to perform much over their 5RM and other people will get a good 4-5 clusters before their overall bar speed slows down.

This is largely in part to different percentages of muscle fibers type and level of neuro-muscular efficiency, but training age can also have a big role here as well.


How It Works

A typical scenario for an average weight lifter will look like this...

Squat bar loaded to 225 for 5RM.  Lifter performs 2 reps, followed by racking the weight.  Breathing.  Another 2 reps and racking.  Breathing for 5 breathes.  Another 2 reps, these reps are a bit slower than before so the weight is racked for the final time.  Full recovery.

Overall even one extra rep increases the overall intensity of the lift if you calculate the load x volume = intensity.

225lbs x 5 reps = 1125 lbs / reps versus the cluster set (225 x 2) x 3 clusters = 1350 lbs / reps

This also doesn't take into account that the lifter can achieve more power from utilizing a short rest period and therefore increase the force they put into the bar.

As you lift you get tired and slower as you continue to lift.  With cluster sets that short rest break in between allows you to recover just enough to get a bit more force into the bar, thereby increasing your Force = Mass x ACCELERATION which adds up big time when you're trying to power through some bigger weights.  Now you can move them faster.


So if you're stuck in a rut and can't seem to blast past certain plateaus on your bigger lifts, try out some Cluster Sets for a short time.  These are super intense on the body, so you'll only want a two to three week cycle and watch your lifts go from average to awesome!

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Jess Howland

Jesse "Captain Smash" Howland is the owner of SMASH’s Strength Lab, which offers targeted personal training to reach a variety of fitness and physique goals. A natural bodybuilder, competitive powerlifter, certified personal trainer, and nutrition coach, Jesse is often the go-to resource for personal training Ottawa. He studied Exercise Science at Oregon State University and even trained at the world famous Gold's Gym. He's a former US Army Captain with the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, a former blog writer at Veterans Fitness Career College, and former Chief Executive Officer at U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM). His workouts and personal training are army-inspired to help reach your weightloss, athletic, or physique goals.