Let’s be honest, pumping out standard weightlifting sets over and over again can get a bit monotonous. If you’re ready to break out of the routine and try something new at the gym, cluster sets are a great place to start.
This innovative lifting method has a lot to offer intermediate and experienced lifters. It allows you to get more done in less time, so you can fit gym time into any part of your day. This method can also be adapted to different goals, including increased strength, muscle growth, or improved power. Best of all, cluster workouts are an excellent way to spice up your gym routine and get you out of a fitness rut.
Ready to give cluster set training a try? Here’s everything you need to know to add cluster sets to your lifting repertoire.
What Are Cluster Sets?
The best way to describe a cluster set is to think of it as several smaller, mini-sets inside of a bigger set with short rest intervals in between. A typical cluster set includes 2 to 4 mini-sets of 2 to 12 reps with 5 to 30 seconds of rest in between each mini-set. (Make sure to rack your bar or release your dumbbells during your rest.) Each set is followed by a longer rest period of 2 to 3 minutes.
Got all of that? Not exactly? Cluster sets can be a bit confusing at the start. It helps to actually see a cluster set example in action, especially compared to a standard lifting set.
A Cluster Set Example
First, let’s consider a standard set for comparison. It’s leg day, so grab that barbell and warm up your back squats. If you were going to do a standard lifting set, you might do something like:
4 sets of 6 back squats at 75% of your one-rep max = 24 total reps
Now, let’s say your lifting buddy just told you about this cool lifting method called cluster sets. Here’s what your buddy recommends:
4 sets of 8 back squats with 2 mini-sets of 4 reps at 75%of your one-rep max = 32 total reps
In this scenario, you would perform 4 back squats, rest for 5 to 30 seconds, and then perform a second set of 4 back squats to complete your first set. The short rest periods allow you to complete more reps, which results in a greater volume of work over a shorter period of time.
In the scenario above, the lifter was able to perform 8 additional back squats over 4 sets. That represents more than a 30% increase in reps completed. Now you might be starting to see how cluster workouts can add some serious acceleration to your fitness training.
Cluster Set Methods
One of the beautiful things about cluster set training is that the methodology is highly adaptable to your goals and training preferences. You don’t have to do the same kind of cluster sets each week. In fact, consider trying each of these three cluster set versions.
Standard Cluster Sets
Performing a standard cluster set means using the same load throughout the set. Whatever weights you put on your bar or whichever dumbbells you choose will stay the same.
Undulating Cluster Sets
Mix things up by performing an undulating set, where you increase the weight during the first few mini-sets and then decrease the weight on the ending mini-sets. For example, you could do a set of 6 total reps with mini-sets of two reps each. The first mini-set may be at 75% of your one-rep max followed by a mini-set at 80% of your one-rep max. On the final mini-set, you may go down to 70% of your one-rep max.
Ascending Cluster Sets
One of the best ways to use the cluster set methodology is with ascending clusters where you increase the weight for each mini-set. The short rest periods between mini-sets should allow you to ultimately hit heavier lifts than you’d be able to using standard sets.
What Are the Benefits of Cluster Sets?
You’re probably already getting an idea of the benefits cluster exercise can offer. Fortunately, researchers have also started to dig into this lifting technique, and their results back up what powerlifters have known since they started using cluster workouts in the 1940s.
Cluster Sets Can Help You Pack on Muscle
As the previous examples show, cluster sets allow you to train more volume per set than standard sets. The higher the mechanical load, the more stress you’ll put on your muscles, which will lead to greater hypertrophy, or muscular growth. The research backs up this notion. A 2013 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (JSCR) found that male subjects who performed cluster set training showed significant gains in lean mass. (Here are some more tips on how to gain lean muscle.)
Cluster Sets Make You Strong
That same JSCR study also found that its subjects who performed cluster reps showed improved strength gains. Cluster sets for strength work because the short rest periods between mini-sets allow exercisers to lift heavier weights for a greater number of reps when compared to standard sets where muscle fatigue can often be a limiting factor.
Cluster Sets Can Improve Power
Athletes who require explosive power, like tennis players, soccer players, cyclists, and sprinters may want to start incorporating cluster workouts into their training. A 2006 study in the JSCR found that the rest periods between mini-sets allowed elite junior basketball and soccer players to produce a greater power output on each rep in a cluster set when compared to a standard set. This can help athletes train for higher power and explosivity.
Cluster Sets Can Help You Maintain Good Technique
During a standard set of lifting a challenging weight, it’s easy for your form to break down as you grind out those last few reps. Poor form can lead to injuries or pain in the long term. Cluster set training may help exercisers maintain better lifting form throughout their sets. The short rest periods can help exercisers reduce muscular fatigue through the set, which, in turn, can help them maintain proper form. Cluster sets may be particularly useful for compound movements, like snatches and cleans, that require more precise form.
Cluster Sets Can Break You Out of Your Plateau
If you’ve hit a strength, hypertrophy, or power plateau at the gym, then the best way to escape the rut is to change up what you’re doing. Cluster workouts tax your muscles in a different way and using undulating and ascending cluster sets can give your muscles a different type of stimulus. By adding more volume, producing more power, and improving your technique, you could see gains across the board by performing cluster set training as part of your overall resistance training routine.
Tips to Performing Cluster Sets
Ready to start clustering your way to strength and power domination? Before you begin loading on the cluster reps, take a look at some of these important cluster exercise tips.
First, Make Sure You Understand the Basics
Cluster set training is a more advanced weightlifting technique. If you are a newbie to the gym, focus on developing a strength training foundation first, as well as dialing in your form. You’ll make lots of progress just performing standard lifting sets, so there’s no reason to add in cluster sets until you’re further along in your journey.
Use the Right Equipment
Yet another great thing about cluster sets is that you can apply them to nearly any resistance exercise. You can perform dumbbell clusters, resistance machine clusters, and barbell clusters. However, to get the most for your money, consider focusing cluster sets on compound exercises, like squats, bench press, and cleans.
Know Your Numbers
Cluster sets work best when you know your one-rep max (ORM) for each exercise, which is the heaviest you can lift for a single set. You can then use a percentage of your ORM when programming your cluster workout. If you don’t know your one-rep max for a movement, figure out your rate of perceived exertion and use that to program your workouts. (Learn more about how to find the right weights.)
Have a Plan
Cluster set training isn’t something you can do on the fly. Instead, you’ll want to start your workout knowing how many reps you want to do of each exercise, how you want to break up the mini-sets, and how much rest you want to give yourself between each mini-set.
Know Your Goal
Do you want to gain muscle, improve your power, or increase your strength? The programming of your cluster sets will change depending on the outcome you want. For example, if you need to build more power and explosivity in your legs to win your next sprint event, you’ll want to focus on heavy weight, low mini-sets, and a short amount of rest between mini-sets. Prefer to imagine yourself flexing on stage at a bodybuilding competition? For hypertrophy, focus on moderately heavy weight, higher mini-sets, and medium rest between mini-sets.
Bring a Lifting Partner
Cluster sets will increase the number of reps you perform of each exercise, which often makes it more difficult to anticipate when you might reach failure. While it’s always a good idea to have a spotter or partner available during heavy lifts, it’s particularly useful during cluster set training. Always have a spotter when performing bench press.
Cluster Set Examples
Cluster workouts can be incredibly varied, and the way you program your cluster set will depend on your goals. However, the below cluster set examples can get you started the next time you visit the gym.
Front Squat Barbell Cluster
3 clusters, 6 reps, broken into 3 mini-sets of 2 at 75% of ORM
Dumbbell Bench Press Cluster
3 clusters, 4 reps broken into 2 mini-sets of 2 at 80% ORM
Deadlift Barbell Cluster
3 clusters, 8 reps broken into 2 mini-sets of 4 at 70% of ORM
Where to Perform Cluster Workouts
To make the most of your cluster set training, you’ll need to find a gym with a great selection of resistance machines and free weights. Try EōS Fitness. Find your nearest EōS Fitness and sign up for a Complimentary 7-Day Pass.