Cluster Set Training: The Secret to Building Size and Strength
by: Noah Bryant
Whether you are a powerlifter prepping for the platform, an athlete looking to increase force production, or a bodybuilder looking to add slabs of beef to your frame; grab a stopwatch and start utilizing cluster set training.
What are cluster sets?
Cluster sets are sets with built-in intra-set rest periods allowing for more weight, reps, and total tonnage lifted. For example, instead of doing 4 sets of 8 repetitions; you would perform 4 sets of 2+2+2 +2 repetitions with 30 second intra-set rest (written as 4 x (2+2+2+2) 30 sec. intra-set). Cluster sets decrease some of the metabolic fatigue that is formed during the use of traditional, “no rest” sets. Basically, cluster set training allows you to lift more weight for more reps, resulting in a greater potential for muscular growth and strength gains. According to Dr. Greg Haff, a leading sports scientist, “The introduction of a short rest interval between individual or a series of repetitions appears to result in a partial replenishment of phosphocreatine during the intraset rest interval which is reflected in a performance enhancement.”
One of the beauties of using cluster set training is that it creates an almost infinite number of variations you can use to achieve your specific training goals. You can manipulate sets, reps, intra-set rest, and inter-set rest depending on your desired outcome, whether that be increased size, strength, or power. Basically, any Iron Warrior can benefit from cluster sets!
Cluster Sets vs. Rest-Pause Training
Now, you may be saying to yourself, “this sounds a lot like rest-pause training,” and it is similar; but there are some differences. In the rest-pause method of training you have a set load and that load (or more precisely, the fatigue it induces) dictates the volume. In cluster training you have a set volume and load that are pre-determined. Also, while in rest-pause training fatigue is a big goal, during cluster sets this is not the focus.
How to Incorporate Cluster Set in Your Training
All you need to unlock the muscle building potential of cluster set training is a stopwatch (any timekeeping device will do), a plan, and a willingness to bust your ass.
Cluster sets should be used on your compound, core lifts for the day, not on isolation movements. For example, on upper body day, use cluster sets for the bench press, incline, and military press. But once you get to your assistance work (i.e. tricep extensions, front raises, side raises, etc.) go back to using a traditional set-rep scheme.
Cluster Set Training for Bodybuilders
As we know, the heavier the weight lifted the greater the muscular tension and the greater the number of muscle fibers recruited. This means that there is more potential for growth with heavier loads lifted.
Cluster sets allow you to lift more weight for the same number of sets and reps you would normally do. So instead of doing 4 sets of 12 reps at 70-75% you can do 4 sets of (3+3+3+3 reps) at 80% with 15 second intra-set rest. That’s more weight for the same amount of volume… that equals explosive muscle growth!
Cluster Set Training for the Strength Athlete
Whereas the bodybuilders’ focus is on hypertrophy and number of reps, when training for strength we are more concerned with load intensity. Cluster sets allow for more near maximal repetitions per workout. Let’s look at a squat workout as an example. If you were planning on doing 4 sets of 4 reps maybe you would use 600 pounds; but let’s do 4 sets of (2+2 reps) with 30 second intra-set rest instead and bump the weight up to 615-620 pounds. Which one would you guess would lead to greater strength gains? That’s right, the cluster set!
Cluster sets for the Olympic lifter
Elite Olympic lifters are no stranger to cluster sets, they have been using with them (with great results) for decades. Cluster sets are especially important to the Weightlifter because of the technical proficiency required in the snatch and clean and jerk. Intra-set rest periods allow the mind and body to prepare for the next rep.
I advocate always using the cluster set method in Olympic lifting. You can adjust intra-set rest periods depending upon which phase of training you are in. In the accumulation or volume phase, shorten the rest periods to 15-20 seconds, but when weights get to near maximal efforts increase the intra-set rest to 30-45 seconds.
Since there are countless ways you can manipulate cluster sets, they can be used to accomplish just about any goal. Including cluster set training in your routine can give you that extra push you need to reach your size or strength goals.
Haff, G. Hot Topic: Cluster Sets – A Novel Method for Introducing Additional Variation into a Resistance Training Program, Part II. Retrieved from: https://www.nsca.com/Education/Articles/Hot-Topic–Cluster-Sets-Part-II/
About: Noah Bryant:
Along with being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Noah also has 5 years experience coaching some of the best collegiate athletes in the world. Noah was a two-time NCAA Champion in the shotput while competing for the University of Southern California. He also competed at the 2007 World Championships in Athletics and the 2011 Pan American Games. He has a Personal Record of 20.80m (68’3″) in the shotput and also has a RAW 501 lb. bench press under his belt. While training for the shotput, Noah had a best clean of 210 kg. (462 lb.) and snatch of 150 kg (330lb.) Noah writes for numerous strength and fitness magazines as well as being author of amazon #1 seller “The size and Strength Blueprint: You can check out the book Here: