By Noah Bryant
If you’re looking to get bigger, stronger or more powerful (aren’t we all?) break out your stopwatch and give cluster sets a try.
Cluster sets are a fairly obscure training method. In a nutshell they’re sets with built-in intra-set rest periods. Typically, cluster sets utilize a 5- to 45-second rest interval between each rep. The rest allows you to lift more weight and perform more reps, which leads to more potential growth and strength gains.
Here’s what four sets of six reps might look like using cluster sets:
- 2 reps
- Rest 30 seconds
- 2 reps
- Rest 30 seconds
- 2 reps
Cluster set training can benefit bodybuilders, strength athletes, Olympic lifters or anybody looking to add plates to the bar or inches to the legs. There are many different variations of cluster sets because you can manipulate sets, reps, intra-set rest, and inter-set rest depending on your desired outcome.
Here are a few types of clusters for you to try:
Cluster Set Training for Hypertrophy
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. Instead of doing four sets of 12 reps at 70–75% of your 1RM you can do four sets of (3+3+3+3 reps) at 80% with 30-second intra-set rest. That’s more weight for the same amount of volume, and that equals explosive muscle growth!
Cluster Set Training for Strength
Whereas the focus for our hypertrophy training was more on number of reps, when training for strength we’re more concerned with load intensity. Cluster sets allow for more near maximal repetitions per workout.
Let’s look at a deadlift workout as an example. If you were planning on doing three sets of three reps maybe you would use 600 pounds. Instead, let’s do three sets (1+1+1 reps) with a 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’ve been using them (with great results) since Moses wore shorts.
Cluster sets are especially important 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 always advocate 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.
Because there are so many ways you can manipulate cluster set training it can be used to achieve almost any goal. Including cluster set training in your routine can give you that extra push you need to reach your size or strength goals.
Noah Bryant is a 2-time NCAA Champion and 4-time All-American in the shot put, with a personal record of 20.80 m. He holds the school record in the shot put at the University of Southern California. Noah represented the United States in the 2007 World Track and Field Championships and the 2011 Pan-American Games. He was regarded as one of the strongest shot putters in the world, with a 210 kg (462-pound) clean and 150 kg (330-pound) snatch. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and has over five years experience coaching some of the best NCAA Track and Field athletes in the country. You can visit his website at NoahStrength.com.