Over the years spent in the gym you have likely heard of and performed supersets and drop sets to shake things up with your training. Cluster sets were actually introduced into the weightlifting world back in 1976, but have flown under the radar for years. They can be a powerful method to overload the muscles to improve muscle strength and size through unique methodology. This is an effective method to help break through a plateau that has kept your progress stagnant for some time. While cluster sets are typically used to boost compound lift strength, you can still reap the benefits for accessory movements as well. The science behind the effectiveness of this method is fascinating. To give you a better understanding as to why this style of training is so effective, let’s get a general understanding of how the body responds to it internally.
Our muscular systems are made up of two types of muscle fibers we will refer to as fatigue and fast twitch. Typically only fast twitch muscle fibers are associated with weight training, and few mention the use of slow twitch in the gym when resistance training. Studies have shown that slow twitch fibers do in fact play a role in weight training. These fibers bring blood to the muscles, help prevent fatigue, and extend muscle contractions for prolonged periods of time. Cluster sets activate and recruit both of these types of muscle fibers, making this a powerful method for building both strength and endurance in the gym. Because this training calls for heavy weight to be used, your fast twitch muscle fibers will be relied on primarily. Due to the length of each set and your body being deprived of rest time, slow twitch muscle fibers will be utilized as well to endure the length of the set. So what is a cluster set and how do you perform them? Let’s break it down.
Cluster sets are lengthened sets that include intra-set rest time. For this style of training, you’ll have to shift gears in your mind. Typically you bang out a strong set, rest, and repeat. When performing cluster sets you will perform a small number of reps, rest for a short period of time, complete more reps, rest again, and repeat 1-2 more times for a total of 3-4 cycles before one set is complete. Only then will you rest for generally between 60-90 seconds. Now that you have a general understanding of how these sets are performed, the next step would be figuring out your ideal number of reps and rest time to aim for.
Similar to supersets and drop sets, there is no set number of reps/sets that is required to properly perform a cluster set. There is flexibility and experimenting with different ranges is recommended to find what works best for you. Although there are some recommended places to start. For those who are focused on strength gains, the Poliquin 5x5 cluster set is one of the most favored ranges to hit. This method puts your maximum strength to the ultimate test. You will utilize roughly 90% of your 1RM to perform the following
Step 1: 1 Rep Followed By 15 Second Rest
Step 2: 1 Rep Followed By 15 Second Rest
Step 3: 1 Rep Followed By 15 Second Rest
Step 4: 1 Rep Followed By 15 Second Rest
Step 5: 1 Rep Followed By 2 Minutes Rest
That concludes ONE set. Repeat for a total of 5.
When size is the price, cluster sets can be a powerful method when it comes to hypertrophy. A simple shift of the sets/reps/rest can be put in place to change the focus of the set. These sets will focus on volume and constant intensity to overload the muscles.
Step 1: 3 Reps Followed By 15 Second Rest
Step 2: 3 Reps Followed By 15 Second Rest
Step 3: 2 Reps Followed By 90 Second Rest
That concludes ONE set. Repeat for a total of 4.
Like any other training method, some trial and error may be needed in order to find out what works best for your body and goals. Utilize cluster sets to break through plateaus when it comes to strength and size. This hidden technique can be the push you need to break new ground. Just be prepared because these sets will be sure to leave you hurting for several days to follow due to the prolonged length of the sets that will be a shock to your system.