Bench Press Cluster Sets: The Ultimate Guide!


Bench Press Cluster Set

One of the best training methods for training methods for getting stronger is called “cluster sets.” In order to perform a cluster set you would take short rest breaks in between your reps during a set.

Clusters work great for boosting strength in all the big compound exercises but they work especially well for boosting your strength on the bench press. Find out how to build a bigger bench press with cluster sets right here!

Introduction

  • Part 1: Charles Poliquin Cluster Sets
  • Part 2: Carl Miller Cluster Sets
  • Part 3: Accentuated Eccentric Cluster Sets

In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to know about how to use cluster sets to build a stronger bench press.

Cluster sets are a very old but extremely effective training method. They were invented in the 1950s by Olympic weightlifters and they are still used today by many of the world’s best strength coaches including Christian Thibadeau and Josh Bryant.

Every cluster set routine has one thing in common: you take short rest breaks in between each of your reps. In other words you never perform any of your reps back-to-back!

The most famous way to perform cluster sets is the Poliquin cluster set protocol. This protocol has you perform 5 sets of 5 reps with 20 seconds rest in between each of your reps.

Here is one of the best demonstrations of bench press cluster sets that you will ever see:

Cluster sets have many advantages. However, the biggest benefit of cluster sets is they train your central nervous system to operate more efficiently.

Your body gets better at recruiting and activating the high-threshold motor units (aka the fast-twitch muscle fibers). When your nervous system becomes more efficient you can actually get stronger without gaining any weight.

This is one of the reasons you sometimes see a 150 pound man bench press over 400 pounds – their central nervous system is so efficient that they can do this.

Cluster sets are one of the best ways to train your nervous system to get better at lifting heavy weights. Cluster sets are also great for building functional hypertrophy in your chest / shoulders / triceps and for improving your technique on the bench press.

In this guide I’m going to teach you three of the most effective cluster set strategies ever invented:

  • Charles Poliquin style cluster sets
  • Carl Miller style cluster sets
  • Eccentric Cluster Sets

All three of these cluster set strategies are incredible for blasting through strength plateaus in the bench press. Of course they all have their own advantages and disadvantages which will be covered in great detail.

Note: if you have any trouble reading the routines presented here then check out this article on how to read a training program. Now let’s get down to business…

Part 1: Charles Poliquin Cluster Sets

Charles Poliquin was probably the greatest strength coach of all time. He trained Olympic medalists in 24 different sports – more than any other coach in history. Charles had a cluster set protocol that he used whenever one of his athletes needed to quickly improve their bench press.

With the Poliquin cluster set method you are going to perform 5 sets of 5 reps with your 3-rep max. No, that was not a typo! The key to making this work is you are going to rest for 20 seconds in between each rep.

For example here is what 1 set of Poliquin style clusters looks like:

  • Perform your 1st rep, rack the weight, rest 20 seconds
  • Perform your 2nd rep, rack the weight, rest 20 seconds
  • Perform your 3rd rep, rack the weight, rest 20 seconds
  • Perform your 4th rep, rack the weight, rest 20 seconds
  • Perform your 5th rep, rack the weight, done!

After your 5th rep you would rest several minutes and then repeat the process for your next set. In case you are more of a visual learner here is Josh Bryant giving a perfect overview of Poliquin cluster sets:

Josh is right when he says this is a very neurologically demanding method! You have to pay close attention to your recovery ability with this kind of routine. The results are more than worth it though. Here is a sample Poliquin cluster set bench press routine that you may want to try.

Check it out:

Poliquin Cluster Sets Bench Press Routine

  • A1: Bench press (competition grip), 5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Pronated wide grip pull ups, 5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: 45 degree incline dumbbell press, 3 x 5-7, 3/2/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Cable face pull with external rotation, 3 x 5-7, 3/0/X/2, 90 seconds rest

**Performed as a Poliquin-style cluster set. Perform your 1st rep, rest 20 seconds, perform your 2nd rep, rest 20 seconds, perform your 3rd rep, rest 20 seconds, perform your 4th rep, rest 20 seconds, perform your 5th rep, done!

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.

I decided to write this sample cluster set workout with antagonistic body part supersets. This is a fancy way of saying that you are going to perform a set for your chest (bench presses), rest 2 minutes, perform a set for your back (pull ups), rest 2 minutes, then perform another set for your chest etc.

Charles Poliquin was a huge fan of using antagonistic supersets with his world-class athletes. They have many advantages:

  • They increase your ability to activate the high-threshold motor units during a workout
  • You fatigue more slowly during a workout so you can perform more high-quality sets
  • You double the amount of sets that you can perform in a fixed period of time

You don’t have to use antagonistic supersets if you don’t want to. If you train in a busy commercial gym then they might not be an option. However, there is a reason Charles used them with the majority of his athletes. Your bench press will improve faster if you use them!

Don’t worry, if you don’t want to perform antagonistic supersets then I’ve got you covered. The routines in part 2 of this article use more traditional “straight sets.”

Part 2: Carl Miller Cluster Sets

Carl Miller was one of the world’s best Olympic weightlifting coaches during the late 1900s. He was one of the first coaches to use cluster sets as a core training method with his athletes.

He experimented with tons of different cluster set variations with his athletes to produce faster strength gains.

Eventually he settled on 2 types of cluster sets that he thought worked best. These Carl Miller style cluster sets worked great for his Olympic Weightlifting athletes but they will help you build a bigger bench press in record time.

Here are the 2 Carl Miller cluster set variations we will cover:

  • Carl Miller extensive cluster sets
  • Carl Miller intensive cluster sets

The words “extensive” and “intensive” describe the type of training stimulus that you are creating.

“Extensive” routines generally place a large demand on your muscular system and are good for building size and strength gains. On the other hand “intensive” routines mostly train your central nervous system and are great for rapidly boosting strength levels.

Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Carl Miller Extensive Cluster Sets

Carl Miller used extensive cluster sets with his athletes to build strength while also increasing muscle mass. You are going to perform a slightly larger number of reps than with other cluster set protocols. You are also going to train at a slightly lower percentage of your 1-rep max.

Here are some great general guidelines for Carl Miller extensive cluster sets provided by Christian Thibadeau:

  • 5-7 reps per set
  • 30-45 seconds rest in between reps
  • 85-92% of your 1-rep max on the bar
  • 2-3 minutes rest between cluster sets
  • 3-5 total cluster sets per workout

There are a few differences between the Carl Miller extensive cluster sets and the Poliquin style cluster sets. The reps are slightly higher (5-7 reps vs 5 reps) and the rest in between reps is slightly higher (30-45 seconds vs 15-20 seconds).

The Carl Miller extensive cluster sets tend to work best for highly advanced or extremely strong trainees for boosting strength levels. They will also help you increase the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers if your diet is on-point.

Here is a sample Carl Miller extensive cluster sets bench press routine you may want to try. Check it out:

Carl Miller Extensive Cluster Sets Bench Press Routine

  • A1: Bench press against chains (shoulder-width grip), 5 x 7**, 2/1/X/0, 180 seconds rest
  • B1: Seated behind the neck press, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/2/0, 120 seconds rest
  • C1: 30 degree incline DB fly, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C2: Decline ez-bar extension (to nose), 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest

**Performed as a Carl Miller extensive cluster set. Rest 30 seconds in between each rep. After your 7th rep rest for 3 minutes and perform your next cluster set.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise C2.

Again, this is a more advanced bench press routine. If you are more of a beginner / intermediate trainee or if you are new to cluster sets then I strongly recommend you try the Poliquin cluster set method first. It is probably the best all-around cluster set method in the world.

However, if you are more advanced or have some experience with cluster sets already then give this routine a shot! It should give you some screaming fast strength gains and some decent size gains as well.

Carl Miller Intensive Cluster Sets

Carl Miller used intensive cluster sets when he wanted to boost his athletes’ strength levels as fast as humanly possible. In fact Carl considered intensive cluster sets to be the single greatest training method you can use to build strength.

The main difference with intensive cluster sets is your reps are going to be lower and your rest periods in between reps are going to be longer. Intensive cluster sets are very demanding but they are fantastic for teaching your nervous system to become more efficient.

Here are some general guidelines that Christian Thibadeau was nice enough to share:

  • 2-3 reps per set
  • 45-60 seconds rest between reps
  • 90-95% of your 1-rep max on the bar
  • 2-3 minutes rest between cluster sets
  • 3-4 total cluster sets per workout

Carl Miller intensive cluster sets works so well because you are performing a large volume of slightly submaximal singles.

The weights are going to be heavy enough that you are achieving maximal muscle fiber recruitment right from the first rep. However, the loads are still slightly submaximal which decreases the odds of you overtraining.

These are not Westside Barbell style “max effort” singles. Instead the bar should still move reasonably quickly and you should have no problem maintaining perfect form during the whole set.

Here is a sample Carl Miller intensive cluster sets bench press routine you may want to try. Check it out:

Carl Miller Intensive Cluster Sets Bench Press Routine

  • A1: Bench press against bands (medium grip), 4 x 3**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Unilateral preacher ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip), 4 x 3**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso), 2 x 5-6, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Seated zottman curls, 2 x 7-8, 4/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest

**Performed as a Carl Miller intensive cluster set. Perform your 1st rep, rest 45 seconds, perform your 2nd rep, rest 45 seconds, perform your 3rd rep, done!

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.

If you think this workout “doesn’t have enough volume” then you have no idea how hard you should be pushing yourself on the singles! You are performing 12 total singles at or above 90% of your 1-rep max. Talk about hard!

I recommend you perform your 1st workout with 90% of your 1-rep max on the bar. If that is too easy then you can slowly increase the weight on your second and third workout etc. The goal is to complete all 4 sets of 3 reps with the same weight.

If you are an advanced trainee then this routine will boost your bench press strength like nothing else. Just make sure that you have some experience with cluster sets before you attempt this routine.

Remember, this is an advanced routine designed for advanced athletes.

Part 3: Accentuated Eccentric Cluster Sets

What happens when you take two of the greatest strength training methods ever invented and blend them together? You get eccentric cluster sets!

Eccentric cluster sets feel like they are straight out of a mad scientist’s laboratory. They are so effective at boosting maximal strength AND functional hypertrophy that it almost feels like you’ve unlocked a cheat code in a video game.

In order to perform eccentric cluster sets you are going to need a pair of weight releasers, aka eccentric hooks.

Weight releasers are large metal hooks that attach onto either side of a barbell. They make the barbell heavier during the eccentric phase of the exercise. However, once you reach the bottom of the exercise they fall off so you are only lifting the bar.

Here is Josh Bryant giving a perfect overview of weight releasers:

You can also check out my ultimate guide on weight releasers for more information. For eccentric cluster sets you are going to perform Poliquin-style cluster sets with weight releasers on the bar.

I recommend you perform 5 sets of 5 reps with 20 seconds rest in between reps just like you normally would. The big difference is you are going to have weight releasers on the bar during the eccentric range!

While you are resting in between reps you re-rack the weight releasers back onto the bar so they are ready for your next rep.

Here is a perfect video demonstration of eccentric cluster sets on the bench press:

Notice that the athlete is re-racking the weight releasers during his rest breaks in between reps. This is one of Christian Thibadeau’s athletes so you know he is demonstrating it correctly. For this method I recommend you use 80% of your 1-rep max on the bar.

Both weight releasers combined should represent an extra 10-40% of your 1-rep max. In other words you will be lowering 90-120% of your 1-rep max on the eccentric range and lifting 80% of your 1-rep max on the concentric range.

If you have a lot of experience with eccentric training then you can probably use closer to 120% on the eccentric range. On the other hand if you are newer to eccentric training then 90% of your 1-rep max is probably plenty.

The most important thing is that you should lower the weight with a controlled 8-10 second negative phase.

Yes, you read that right – lower the bar over 8-10 seconds! If you cannot do this then the load is too heavy and you should take some weight off the weight releasers. Lowering the weights slowly like this will give you better results AND reduce your injury risk.

Here is a sample eccentric cluster sets bench press workout that you may want to try. Check it out:

Accentuated Eccentric Cluster Sets Bench Press Workout

  • A1: Bench press w/ weight releasers, 5 x 5**, 8/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Subscapularis pull ups, 5 x 5**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Decline DB triceps extension, 3 x 5-7, 2/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Seated cable row (v-handle), 3 x 5-7, 2/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • C1: Band pull-aparts, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/2, 120 seconds rest

**Performed as a Poliquin-style cluster set. Perform your 1st rep, rest 20 seconds, perform your 2nd rep, rest 20 seconds, perform your 3rd rep, rest 20 seconds, perform your 4th rep, rest 20 seconds, perform your 5th rep, done!

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2, exercise C1.

This is a fantastic all-around upper body workout that is sure to drive up your bench press.

Unfortunately there is one big drawback to eccentric cluster sets: they are very difficult to recover from. In fact they are so difficult that you really need to use some type of deloading strategy in order to recover from it.

Here are a couple of options you may want to try.

Deloading Strategy #1: Reduce The Volume Over 3 Workouts

This strategy works well if you are more of an intermediate level trainee or if you are not using really high percentages for your eccentric sets. For example if you are only using 90-100% of your 1-rep max on the eccentric phase of your reps then this strategy will probably work well.

You are going to reduce the volume (not the intensity!) of your sets over a 3 workouts progression. For example:

  • Workout #1: 5 eccentric cluster sets
  • Workout #2: 3 eccentric cluster sets
  • Workout #3: 1 eccentric cluster set
  • Workout #4: 5 eccentric cluster sets
  • Workout #5: 3 eccentric cluster sets
  • Workout #6: 1 eccentric cluster set

After your 6th workout you would move onto some other type of training program. This deloading scheme works great if you are training body parts once every 3-5 days or so.

For example if you are using a 4 days per week upper body / lower body split then this strategy tends to work well.

Deloading Strategy #2: Perform Eccentric Training Every Other Workout

If you are a more advanced trainee or if you are using eccentric loads above 100% of your 1-rep max then this strategy is for you. You are only going to perform eccentric work every other workout.

For example here is what a 4 week progression might look like using a 4 days per week upper / lower split:

  • Monday: Eccentric cluster sets
  • Friday: Poliquin cluster sets
  • Monday: Eccentric cluster sets
  • Friday: Poliquin cluster sets

Charles Poliquin used to say that it takes an advanced athlete about 7-10 days to fully recover from a heavy eccentric workout. I have to agree with Charles here.

This does NOT mean that you have to wait a full 7-10 days before you can train those body parts again. Instead you just alternate back and forth between a “regular” workout and an eccentric workout. Training this way gives your body plenty of time to recover.

Don’t worry, you will still get all the benefits of eccentric training performing it only once every 2 workouts. Eccentric training is an advanced training method where “less is more.”

Conclusion

Bench Press Cluster Set

Cluster sets are easily one of the best training methods you can use to improve your bench press as fast as possible. They are great for making your nervous system more efficient but they also help with boosting functional muscle mass and they even help you improve your exercise technique.

There are 3 cluster set protocols that you should be aware of:

  • Poliquin style cluster sets
  • Carl Miller style cluster sets
  • Eccentric cluster sets

The Poliquin style cluster sets are probably the best all-round cluster set protocol. The Carl Miller cluster set protocols work well for very advanced trainees who already built up a good strength base.

The eccentric cluster set protocol might be the best overall one for boosting bench pressing strength in intermediate and advanced athletes. It is also the most difficult one to recover from.

If you have access to weight releasers and really know what you’re doing then it will boost your bench press strength faster than you can imagine.

“A lifter must raise his mental and emotional limits, or he won’t raise his weights.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!

Dr. Mike Jansen, PT, DPT

Thanks for checking out my site! My name is Dr. Mike Jansen and I'm the founder of Revolutionary Program Design. If you want to reach your size and strength goals faster then you've come to the right place. My goal is to make RPD the #1 strength training resource available anywhere in the world. So grab a seat, kick back and relax. There's never been a better time to lift weights or to learn the art and science of strength training program design.

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