Cluster sets are a specific way of structuring your strength training routine that involves performing smaller constituent sets within each set.
Between each little set in the cluster set, you take a very short rest period, usually between 5-30 seconds.
In this article, we will discuss the basics of cluster sets for strength, the benefits of cluster sets for powerlifting and strength gains, and how to perform a cluster set workout.
More specifically, we will cover:
- What Is A Cluster Set?
- How to Perform Cluster Sets
- Benefits of Cluster Sets In Training
Let’s jump in!
What Is a Cluster Set?
There are several key differences between performing cluster sets and straight sets, including the following:
- Cluster sets have small intra-rest breaks within the overall set, whereas straight sets are performed at an even speed without taking any rest in between reps.
- Cluster sets can potentially reduce the rate of perceived exertion for the same or higher workload compared to a straight set due to the short breaks allotted during the set.
- The lifting speed when performing reps in a cluster set is typically faster than the speed used for lifting each rep in a straight set. This is because the intra-set rest periods allow for the flushing of metabolic waste products and the regeneration of cellular energy (ATP) via the fastest and most explosive metabolic pathway in the body (the ATP-PC system).
The purpose of cluster sets is to allow you to lift more weight or perform more reps with the weight without needing to separate the reps into two or more distinct sets with full rest in between.
In this way, cluster sets help push your muscular strength and endurance for bigger gains.
For example, a cluster set workout might involve lifting a set of 9 reps total but splitting it into three mini-sets of 3 reps with 10 seconds of rest in between.
The weight used would be too heavy to do the nine reps without stopping, and splitting it into two different sets with 60-90 seconds or more of rest in between would not be as challenging from a strength or endurance standpoint.
Ultimately, the short intra-rest periods can allow for either more repetitions to be completed, higher weights to be used, or both. Inserting small breaks can also facilitate higher-intensity bursts with lifting speeds for more explosive training.
How to Perform Cluster Sets
The primary way in which you structure cluster sets in your workouts depends on your primary goals and the adaptations you are seeking.For example, you might use cluster sets if looking to build muscle (hypertrophy), strength, or explosive power because you can use cluster sets to lift heavier weights for more reps or at faster lifting speeds.
When the goal is increasing strength, you want to lift as heavy as possible. Most strength training experts recommend that when the primary goal is building strength, you should lift loads that are at least 85% of your 1RM, 1-6 reps per set, 3-5 sets, with 2-5 minutes of rest in between each set.
You can use cluster sets to help you maximize your lifting loads and reps.
For example, you can do a cluster set of two mini sets of 2 reps with 5-10 seconds of rest in between.
This will allow you to lift heavier loads and still get a good number of reps in, even though you might not be able to do four reps continuously without a break in between.
When your goal is hypertrophy or building muscle, you need higher-volume training. You should be lifting loads at least 65-85% of your 1RM for 8-12 reps, but you might not be able to do a full continuous set of 12 reps at 80% of your 1RM.
Therefore, you can do a cluster set of three mini sets of four reps at 85% of your 1RM with 5-10 seconds of rest in between each.
Lastly, if you are looking to increase your explosive speed and power, performing high-intensity lifts at fast lifting speed is ideal, but you can experience neuromuscular fatigue towards the end of a set that can not only decrease your lifting speed and potential power games, but can also increase the risk of injury.
You can use cluster sets to take a quick break in between smaller intra-set groups of reps to catch your breath and give your neuromuscular system a few seconds to regroup so that you can fire on all cylinders as powerfully and explosively as possible for the next couple of reps to maximize your explosive speed and power training.
For example, if you are performing Olympic snatches or plyometric box jumps, you might do cluster sets for powerlifting that involve separating your continuous set of six repetitions into three clusters of two reps each, taking a 10-second break after each pair of reps in the set.
In general, when programming your cluster sets, aim to take 5 to 20 seconds of rest in your intra-rest intervals and take one to two minutes of rest in between cluster sets for your inter-set rest periods.
Benefits of Cluster Sets In Training
There are several different benefits of using cluster sets in your strength training program, including the following:
#1: Cluster Sets Can Maximize Gains By Allowing You to Perform More Work
Perhaps unsurprisingly, using cluster sets in your training is a great way to increase power output.
Because you get a little rest every couple of reps, there is a reduction in fatigue, allowing you to maintain not only a high workload but also high lifting speeds, which maximizes your power output.
Studies have found that the cluster set strength training technique can increase the power output of the reps compared to using traditional straight sets.
This can ultimately boost your muscle gains.
#2: Cluster Sets Allow Lifters to Optimize Technique With Every Rep
One of the primary benefits of using cluster sets in your training is that studies suggest that employing the cluster set technique allows you to better maintain the quality of your lifting technique and form for every single individual rep in the set.
This is particularly beneficial for competitive lifters or Olympic weightlifters.
When you perform traditional straight sets, there is no rest between sets, so there is an accumulation of fatigue that occurs both in terms of the neurological control of the muscle from the central nervous system and the muscle fibers themselves.
Metabolic waste products will also begin to accumulate in the muscle without having ample time to be shuttled out before the next rep is performed.
Taking the very short breaks in between clusters in the overall set can provide a reset of sorts to help you rebound from a neuromuscular and metabolic standpoint.
This will allow you to maintain the quality of each individual rep without your final few falling short or having form issues that could lead to injury or compromised gains.
This is especially undesirable if you are performing a technically-demanding exercise such as the snatch. If you start to fatigue and you execute the movement with poor technique, you are actually reinforcing that faulty movement pattern.
Therefore, using cluster sets will help prevent technique breakdowns from fatigue and the resultant reinforcement of improper movement patterns.
#3: Cluster Set Training Can Be More Effective for Strength and Power Gains
When you are looking to build muscle, using cluster sets for strength may be a more effective form of hypertrophy training than performing standard straight sets.
Studies have found that athletes experience greater gains in strength and power in their hypertrophy training by using the cluster set protocol instead of continuous sets, even in the absence of lifting more weight or doing more repetitions per set.
It seems that the body may simply respond better to the cluster set protocol than a continuous lifting repetition scheme.
#4: Cluster Sets Reduce Muscular Fatigue
Studies have found that using cluster sets does decrease the fatigue that occurs during sets and between sets.
This is beneficial during a workout because it allows you to manage how many exercises you can do per muscle group and/or the number of sets you are ultimately able to do.
By using cluster sets and reducing the amount of fatigue that builds up in your muscles, you can ultimately end up doing more exercises or sets per muscle group, increasing your training volume and the potential strength gains.
#5: Cluster Sets Can Increase Power Endurance
Studies have found that using cluster sets is an effective way to train for power endurance, which refers to your capacity to repeatedly generate explosive force.
Having good power endurance is ideal for sports such as tennis or sprinters and other power athletes who perform repetitive motions.
To learn more about specific training techniques and protocols, check out this article about upper/lower body split routines.