We’re all looking for the big training secret. People stress over Back Squat VS Front Squat, whether 3 sets of 10 is better than 3 sets of 8 and even try to perform circus tricks stood on Bosu Balls or Stability Balls all in the name of progress. We are all desperate to find and use the power of that big training secret to give us magical training powers and earth shattering gains. Could we have found the secret little weapon? Adam Willis, resident fitness mastermind explains..
Now I’m not claiming Cluster sets are magic or the answer to all your training issues but as training methods go it’s certainly one of the closest things to a training secret weapon. Before you rush off proclaiming you’ve found the secret and start cluster setting everything in your training, take a moment and breathe.
Like all great things, we want to use the method sparingly and strategically, just like our nut butters. If you grab a tablespoon and go mano a mano with the pot you’ll end up screwing up your nutrition for the day/week. Cluster Sets are no different. They offer a tasty reward when used but if used for every exercise, every session, every week you’ll stress the body more than necessary and won’t see the results you are after.
How do I get it in my life?
Well…..Cluster Sets are a protocol whereby you structure short Intra-set rest periods essentially breaking the set rep scheme up into small chunks. By taking this approach it allows you to handle more weight than normal for a certain rep scheme, perform more reps than normal at a certain weight, increase your overall training volume and in the case of timed cluster sets, improve your technique by performing a high volume of single reps to refine your skill.
Breaking it down to the points..
- Increased weight (higher training intensity)
- Increased reps (higher training volume)
- Increased total training volume (sets x reps)
- Improved technique (higher training skill level)
What’s not to love about those 4 things?
Everything is a plus and gains a plenty are sure to follow hence why I say they’re one of the closest things to a secret weapon we have when it comes to training.
So where do I put them in my programme?”
To maximise Cluster Sets we want to use them predominately with our Compound Barbell Movements – Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Press and Overhead Press. These big lifts we all know and love will give you the greatest return on your training investment.
I do however, also find Cluster Set protocols particularly useful with bodyweight movements such as Push Ups, Chin Ups and Dips when a client can only do limited repetitions as the cluster set allows you to extend the set and achieve a greater volume of work than normal and more skill practice which is greatly important when the movement is still relatively new.
Here’s 2 great examples why I like them for Bodyweight movements.
If you can only do 5 reps before failing 3 normal sets may look like this:
Set 1 = 5 reps, Set 2 = 4 reps, Set 3 = 3 reps = 12 reps total.
Now, if you were to use a 3+2+1 Cluster Set you’ll achieve 6 reps per set which would mean you achieve 18 reps total. This will lead to much faster progress. You still with us?
Another great example is every Girl’s big goal now (outside of a big ol’ butt) is Chin Ups. If you can only achieve 3-4 reps before failing I’m a huge fan of utilising an 8-12 minutes timed cluster set protocol. For this you’ll do 1 rep, rest 15s and repeat for the prescribed time. If you do this for 10 minutes you’ll hit about 30 reps – not too shabby I know!
So, silly question, what’s going to reap more rewards, 3x 3-4 reps or a timed cluster set where you do 30 reps?
Another great thing about Cluster Sets (I know I’m a total fan boy when it comes to these) is that they can be adapted to achieve so many different training adaptations.
Want to get earth shattering power?
Power 5×1 (Rest 10-15s between single reps)
The cluster set approach allows the nervous system a short rest between reps often resulting in a greater power output on average across the 5 reps. A greater power output leads to greater adaptation in power.
Is being strong your deal? Can Cluster Sets help?
Strength 3+2+1 (+ = 20-30s intra-set rest)
Like power the cluster set approach here allows the nervous system a short rest between reps which results in a greater load being able to be used. This allows for us to stress the body with a heavier load than normal at a higher volume then normal as well – Double-whammy!
Looking to add lean muscle?
Hypertrophy 6+4+2 (+ = 10s Intra-set rest)
Aside from the nervous system factor this approach, when focusing on Hypertrophy, allows for a short rest to allow for muscular fatigue to reduce before extending the set. Muscular fatigue is often a limiting factor so this allows us to cheat our body and work beyond our normal capabilities.
Power/Strength/Skill Acquisition: Timed Cluster Set (8-12 mins) – Perform 1 rep, rest 15s and repeat for the set duration
This is the method I use most frequently with Clients and here’s why.
- It is great for technique refinement and further skill acquisition due to only having to focus on 1 rep at a time. I find this a great method to use before heading into a “heavy” or strength phase as it allows the client to acclimatise to heavier loads but also ensures their technique is refined and ready for strength work.
- The fact that one rep is performed at a time negates a lot of fatigue that could breakdown technique meaning better looking reps all round.
- We get to practice a lot of “first reps”. Think in the case of a Deadlift. What’s the hardest part of the lift? That’s right, getting it off the floor. With this approach, you get to practice starting from a dead stop every rep.
- It creates a weird internal feedback system because you only must focus on one rep and then rest 15s. During the set you’ll start to feel and understand when a rep feels good/bad and you’ll also start to understand why that was creating a self-regulating technique system allowing you to really refine your lifting skill.
Now here’s the caveat and I did warn you at the start.Yes this is your secret weapon to unlock great training results but it must be used sparingly. Adding it to every exercise, every week will not bring you faster results.Never fear though I’ve got you covered with how to utilise your new found secret weapon over the next 3 months.
Month 1: 8-12 Minute Timed Cluster Set
Month 2: Traditional Sets & Reps: 3-4x 5 reps
Month 3: 3 Sets of 3+2+1 Cluster Set
Remember these methods will work best when applied to your Big primary lifts (Deadlifts, Squats, Bench Press, Overhead Press, Chin Ups)
Well there you have it. You’ve been searching for the big training secret for a long time now and finally you have it.
Use your new secret weapon to unlock untold training gains.
And remember it’s a secret weapon so…..
…..ssssshhhh don’t tell anyone!
If you have any Training questions drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org