BREAKING PLATEAUS WITH CLUSTER SETS

Is your training stuck in a plateau? Or are you looking for an advanced method to produce big physical changes? If so then let me introduce you to cluster sets.

Clusters are an advanced training method which can produce serious performance improvements when used correctly. Clusters involve including designated rest periods within the set itself with the goal to increase the work output. This intra set rest period allows for superior work output either by an increase in weight lifted, more reps performed or greater power output. The rest period within the set is typically 15 – 30 seconds in duration and can be included within the one set multiple times if desired.

Traditionally we don’t think too much about the concept of rest but by manipulating it we can produce greater change. Shown below is an example of the traditional set method versus the cluster set method. Both methods are technically 3 sets of 5 reps. However the cluster method uses intra set rest with the goal to increase the amount of load lifted and maintain superior movement quality and technique.

What does the intra set rest do? The rest is essentially like a mini recharge to the body and allows for a replenishment of your energy systems which drives performance. The rest allows for a slight clearance of metabolic byproducts within the muscle, more oxygen to be delivered to the area and a slight neurological recharge as well. In essence each rep potentiates or excites the nervous system which makes the next rep more achievable thanks to the intra set rest before its completion. However, it should be noted that which energy system is predominately replenished depends on the mode of training.

You may have actually heard of or even tried the cluster method before. More commonly it’s known within the gym as the “rest and pause” method and commonly used when muscular growth is the goal. However clusters can be used for many reasons. The science backs up the effectiveness of clusters as shown below. Here greater power was able to be maintained with the cluster method than the traditional method on the right.

The key with clusters is knowing when to use them and the implications of using them. Clusters are highly effective but like all things in life there is a price to pay when using this method. Chiefly there is a significant tax to the body especially when the focus is on strength development. Use them wisely and use them sparingly…

Below is an example of how you could incorporate clusters when focusing on three different goals: hypertrophy (growth), strength and power.

For hypertrophy:

Stimulating muscular growth requires adequate calories and a training stimulus which disturbs homeostasis. Homeostasis refers to the maintenance of normal like conditions within the body. Thus, to grow we need to disrupt “normal” and trigger adaptation by a new challenging stimulus such as the use of a cluster set. How could you do this? We could pick a block of training (3 – 4 weeks) that utilises the cluster method to stimulate growth, using clusters only on the final set of each exercise only to increase work output on this set.

For instance, you could perform your training as per normal e.g. 3 x 8 – 10 reps of DB Bench Press. For set 1 and 2 perform 10 reps at your usual intensity. However, for set 3, incorporate the cluster method which would look as follows.

Set 1: 10 reps.

Set 2: 10 reps.

Set 3: 10 reps, rest 15 seconds, then perform as many reps as possible, rest 15 seconds again, then perform as many reps as possible again.

Again, it’s important to note that if you utilised cluster sets on ALL sets during a growth phase, the physical and mental tax would be enormous if done properly. The result would likely be diminished work output in all sets after the cluster set. Thus, it may be more optimal to use clusters sparingly and only use them on the last set of an exercise for MAXIMAL effort.

For strength:

For strength phases you could build towards completing an entire phase (typically 3 weeks) dedicated to the utilisation of clusters in your A series (primary exercise of the day). For instance, a 12 week training program for strength development building towards the use of clusters could look like the following:

PHASE 1:

4 x 6 – 8, 4010 tempo (slow eccentric lowering – muscular remodelling focus).

PHASE 2:

5 x 2 – 4, 2210 tempo (pause at the bottom – accelerate from the bottom focus).

PHASE 3:

5 x 5.5.3.3.5+, 2010 tempo (normal speed – concentric focus).

PHASE 4 – CLUSTERS:

5 x (1.1.1.1.1.) Clusters, 2010 tempo (normal speed – concentric focus).

Note the feeling in phase 4 should be neural fatigue with a significant mental drain felt after this session. For this reason clusters for strength are typically best used in later phases and typically for a maximum of three consecutive weeks. Following this phase a de-load or restoration period would likely be ideal. This is to allow for the body to recover from the intense stimulus and allow the body to super compensate from the stress imposed. However, without sufficient regeneration you will likely struggle to fully reap the rewards of the cluster phase and the stress imposed.

For power:

Clusters are a brilliant method for the maintenance of superior power. As with strength development this comes down to energy systems, namely your Phosphocreatine system which is responsible for short duration explosive movements. This energy system is powerful but quickly fatigued, thus the intra set rest period allows for a recharge and maintenance of power. For instance, clusters could be used like this within a training day for the Barbell Snatch as your A series.

10 sets x 2 reps completed as follows:

1 rep, rest 15 seconds, 1 rep, rest 15 seconds, rest 90 seconds.

A final word – Clusters are a great method to have in your toolbox to manipulate your nervous system for physique and performance gains. However, they are an intense method which should be used selectively within your yearly training plan and for busting through plateaus.

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