When it comes to overcoming strength plateaus and reaching new levels of athleticism, there are several advanced training tools at your disposal. Cluster training is one of the most effective.
Cluster training occurs when you incorporate short rest periods into a set to relieve fatigue and produce greater power. This method also allows you to use heavier loads than with traditional sets that have no intraset rest, thus targeting higher threshold muscle fibers for growth and strength.
Get More Work Done With Cluster Training
Cluster training allows you to maintain power and force for every rep lifted. It allows you to bypass the normal fatigue that occurs with intense training. One study illustrates how cluster training works and the benefits.
This study had trained college-age men perform three different protocols of 3 sets of 12 reps at 60 percent of the 1RM using the bench press exercise. The protocols were:
Traditional sets of 12 reps with 2 minutes rest between each set.
Cluster sets of 4 reps (CS4) interspersed with 30 second rest periods. After 4 reps, trainees rested 30 seconds, completed 4 more reps, rested 30 seconds and finished out the set.
Cluster sets of 2 reps (CS2) with 30 seconds rest periods. After every 2 reps, trainees rested 30 seconds, repeating until they reached 12 reps.
Results showed that cluster training significantly increased the athletes’ average ability to produce force and power over the course of the repetitions. More rest allowed for greater peak power. The highest average values occurred in the CS2 group that rested after every 2 reps. Both traditional training and CS4 led to significant decreases in peak power and peak force over the course of the sets. However, the CS2 protocol maintained constant power, force, and velocity over all 3 sets.
Cluster Sets For Strength & Power
This study found that the higher the number of intraset rests, the lower the muscular fatigue in the pectoralis and triceps. The body is better able to recuperate energy substrates that fuel muscle when the number of reps is shortened with cluster sets. You maintain muscular phosphocreatine and ATP stores, resulting in superior force, velocity, and power values throughout the entire training session.
Cluster Sets or 5 X 5?
Five sets of 5 reps is a standard protocol for building strength and power. However, this study contradicts the view that an athlete can maintain lifting speed and force over 5 reps. The threshold of power drop off is significantly lower since the 4 reps in the CS4 protocol led to a decrease in power output compared to the 2-rep protocol. When training to produce force as fast as possible, use 1 to 3 reps in a traditional set, or incorporate intraset rest to maximize your results.
Cluster Sets For Hypertrophy?
Though cluster training is technically used for making you stronger and more explosive, it is also a tool for hypertrophy if you train it strategically. Cluster training targets the highest threshold fast-twitch fibers that have greater potential for growth and strength. It also increases your time under tension, which correlates with muscle growth. That said, cluster training doesn’t directly target hypertrophy due to lower metabolic and hormonal effects compared to higher volume, lower rest training.
The key is to program your workouts to alternate focusing on Accumulation (hypertrophy) with Intensification (strength). When you train Accumulation, upping your volume and increasing metabolic stress, you get bigger in the important muscles, increasing your potential for strength. Then when you switch to Intensification workouts with longer rest and heavier loads, you train that new muscle, bringing the new muscle fibers online. By incorporating cluster training with intraset rest, you maximize strength potential while also increasing your ceiling for power.
Practical Cluster Training
A recent meta-analysis revealed that cluster training can be used with moderate (60 to 79 percent 1RM) and heavy loads (80 percent and up), depending on goals and training background.
Cluster training is for intermediate to advanced lifters. You should develop baseline strength and have good technique prior to adventuring into cluster training. The protocol in the bench press study would be a good place to start for any major muscle group exercise, such as the squat or bench press:
Cluster sets of 2 reps with 30 seconds rest periods. After every 2 reps, rest 30 seconds, repeating until you reach 12 reps.
For a more advanced protocol, try selecting a higher percentage of your 1RM. Rather than performing 5 sets of 5 at 85 percent, you might be able to use 90 percent of your 1RM. Perform 1 rep, rest 20 seconds, and repeat until you reach your 5 reps.
Cluster training is effective with a wide range of exercises. Research has shown cluster training is effective for bench press, back squat, power clean, and loaded and unloaded jumps. It can also be used for smaller muscle groups and is an effective training tool when supersetting.
When you are ready to give cluster training a try, you should increase the weight only if all reps and sets are successful. When you are ready to move up, a general guideline would be to increase the weight by 1 to 3 percent.
It’s been said that the best workout program is the one you’re not using. This relates to the idea that variety is essential to achieving rapid increases in strength and power. Cluster training is a strategic way to mix things up that will allow you to reach new levels of athleticism.