3 Cluster Sets Deadlift Routines!


cluster sets deadlift

There is nothing worse than a training plateau in the deadlift. No matter what you try you just cannot break through your old personal records. If this describes you then I have just the solution: deadlift cluster sets!

Introduction

  • How To Use Cluster Sets On The Deadlift
  • Routine #1: The Classic 5 x 5 Cluster Sets Protocol
  • Routine #2: “Muscle Rounds” ALA Dr. Scott Stevenson
  • Routine #3: A Brutal 3 x 9 Clusters Protocol For Size And Strength

Cluster sets are easily one of the most underrated training methods in the world.

Many of the world’s most elite strength coaches such as Josh Bryant, Christian Thibadeau, and Charles Poliquin are huge fans of cluster sets.

In fact, Charles Poliquin has called cluster sets the single greatest training method you can use to boost strength gains.

If there is one training program that can help you bust through a training plateau in the deadlift it is cluster sets!

The defining characteristic of cluster sets is that you perform multiple reps per set with short intra-set rest intervals in between each rep.

For example, the classic cluster sets protocol involves performing 5 sets of 5 repetitions with 10-15 second rest intervals in between each rep.

For example, here is what a classical cluster set would look like for the deadlift:

  • Perform your 1st rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform your 2nd rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform your 3rd rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform your 4th rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform your 5th rep, rest 2-4 minutes, then start your next set

The benefit of cluster sets is that it allows you to use a much heavier weight than is normally possible. For example, in the above protocol you can typically use 90% of your 1-rep max.

This means you are performing 5 total reps per set with 90% of your 1-rep max. This would normally be impossible but it is easily doable on a cluster sets deadlift workout!

Of course there are many other ways to design a cluster sets workout to boost your deadlifting strength.

In this article I will be presenting you with 3 of the best cluster sets routines for building a stronger deadlift and a thicker, wider backside!

Note: this article features routines where all of the loading parameters are clearly defined. If you are unsure of how to read these routines then please consult this article.

Now let’s get down to business…

How To Use Cluster Sets On The Deadlift

Cluster sets are easily one of the most powerful training methods that you can use.

They are unbelievable for promoting strength gains and they also do a great job of hypertrophying the higher-threshold motor units.

Of course there is no such thing as a perfect training program. Every method is going to have certain drawbacks and cluster sets is no exception to this rule.

As a general rule of thumb cluster sets are extremely demanding on the nervous system. This is even more true when you decide to perform a cluster sets workout with some type of deadlift! After all, the deadlift is probably the single most taxing exercise that you can do in the gym.

This does not mean that it is a bad idea to use cluster sets on your favourite deadlifting variation. Far from it! Rather it means you have to be very careful about how you incorporate clusters into your long-term deadlift programming.

As a general rule of thumb a traditional cluster sets deadlift workout would work best for someone actively trying to peak their 1-rep max strength.

If you have a powerlifting or strongman competition coming up in the near future then a cluster sets routine would be an excellent choice to peak your deadlift strength.

I recommend you perform a cluster sets deadlift routine for no more than 2-4 weeks. After a month tops you should either take a few days off from the gym entirely or switch to a higher-rep accumulation style routine.

Performing cluster sets (or any low-rep training program) for too long will result in you overtraining your central nervous system.

Of course there are ways to design a cluster sets deadlift routine using higher repetition ranges. These types of routines are far less demanding on the central nervous system and allow you to push yourself with less fear of overstepping your recovery ability.

The second and third routines covered in this workout would fall into this category.

The second workout is more of a bodybuilder workout where cluster sets are used on the Romanian deadlift to add slabs of muscle to your posterior chain. The third routine features a novel clusters set / rep scheme that should give you a nice blend of size and strength gains in all the deadlifting muscles.

Routine #1: The Classic 5 x 5 Cluster Sets Protocol

This routine features the classical clusters set / rep scheme. You are going to perform five sets of five reps on the deadlift.

The key is that you are going to take a 10-15 second rest break in between each of the five repetitions. This will make it easier to recruit the higher-threshold motor units and allow you to use as much as 90% of your 1-rep max.

Various exercises for the lower body are also included so as to make this more of a complete lower body workout. 

Check it out:

  • A1: Snatch grip deadlift, 5 x 5**, 5/0/X/0, 240 seconds rest
  • B1: DB split squat, 3 x 5-7, 2/1/X/0, 90 seconds rest 
  • B2: Unilateral kneeling leg curl (poliquin method*** / feet pointed straight), 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • C1: 45 degree back extension (eccentric emphasis w/ dumbbells****), 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest

**Performed as standard cluster sets. For example:

  • Perform your 1st rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform your 2nd rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform your 3rd rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform your 4th rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform your 5th rep, done! On this routine you rest 240 seconds and perform your next cluster set.

***To perform the poliquin method on leg curls you dorsiflex your ankle (point your toes towards your shins) on the concentric range and plantarflex your ankle (point your toes away from your shins) on the eccentric range. See the video below.

****Hold a pair of dumbbells at your chest prior to initiating the concentric range and fully extend your arms prior to initiating the eccentric range. This will allow you to overload the eccentric range of the exercise. See the video below.

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

This routine features the snatch grip deadlift. This is by far one of the most effective deadlifting variations that you can do.

In fact, I would go so far as to call the snatch grip deadlift the single most effective exercise that you can perform in the gym. No other exercise allows you to recruit as many motor units as the snatch grip deadlift!

The key difference between the snatch grip deadlift and the conventional deadlift is the wide hand placement.

Your lats and scapular retractors will have to work MUCH harder to isometrically stabilize the bar during the lift.

The spinal erectors and the entire lower body are also forced to work much harder than they would on a traditional conventional deadlift.

You may be asking yourself why so few people perform the snatch grip deadlift if it is such a great exercise?

I think the answer is simple: most people are more concerned with stroking their egos in the gym than they are training for optimal results.

Just think about it: why don’t you see more people doing full back squats, full front squats, subscapularis chin ups, overhead presses etc.?

All of these exercises are unbelievably effective but they force you to use less weight.

If you are lifting weights to stroke your ego then why bother with an exercise that limits the amount of weight you can use, even if it is more effective in the long-run?

In all seriousness your deadlifting strength will shoot through the roof if you try this snatch grip deadlift cluster sets routine for 2-4 weeks.

Just leave your ego at the door the first time you perform this superior deadlifting variation!

Routine #2: “Muscle Rounds” ALA Dr. Scott Stevenson

This routine is designed to add slabs of functional hypertrophy onto your lower body. Actually we are going to use a hypertrophy-specific cluster sets training protocol popularized by Dr. Scott Stevenson.

Scott is a national-level bodybuilder who trained with IFBB professional bodybuilder David Henry for many years.

He eventually developed his own system of training called “Fortitude Training.”

One of the staples of his new system was what he called “muscle rounds.” These are essentially higher-rep cluster sets.

The goal is to perform 24 total reps with your 10-15 rep maximum. To make the set more effective you are going to take a 10-second rest break after every 4th rep.

So you rest 10 seconds after the 4th rep, after the 8th rep, after the 12th rep etc.

For example, here is a video of Dr. Scott Stevenson himself performing a muscle round on the t-bar row:

If you find yourself unable to perform 4 reps on any one mini-set then you simply perform 3 reps on each leg of the muscle round and keep on going.

On the last leg of the muscle round you simply perform as many reps as you can.

Check it out:

  • A1: Front squat, 4 x 6, 3/2/X/0, 100 seconds rest 
  • A2: Lying leg curl (poliquin method** / feet pointed in), 4 x 6, 3/0/X/1, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: Romanian deadlift, 3 x 24****, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B2: Leg press, 3 x 24****, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest

**To perform the poliquin method on leg curls you dorsiflex your feet (point your toes towards your shins) on the concentric range and plantarflex your feet (point your toes away from your shins) on the eccentric range. This will allow you to eccentrically overload your hamstrings.

****Take a 10 second rest break after every 4th rep. For example:

  • Perform reps 1-4, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform reps 5-8, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform reps 9-12, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform reps 13-16, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform reps 17-20, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform reps 21-24, rest 120 seconds, then perform the other “B” exercise.

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

Muscle rounds are easily one of the most effective hypertrophy-specific cluster sets that you can perform.

The idea is that by including a 10-second rest break every 4 reps or so you can dramatically increase the number of reps that you can perform with a given weight.

Muscle rounds tax your muscles in an entirely new way and really jacks up the density of your training program.

Josh Bryant is another individual who has used these types of cluster sets extensively with his bodybuilding clients. He often calls them “jailhouse strong” cluster sets.

Whatever you want to call them there is one thing for sure: they work! I guaruntee you some of the most ridiculous posterior chain soreness of your life in the 1-2 days following this training routine.

Many thanks to Dr. Scott Stevenson for opening my eyes to this superior training method!

Routine #3: A Brutal 3 x 9 Clusters Protocol For Size And Strength

This final cluster sets deadlift routine is designed to give you the best of both worlds: a blend of strength and size gains!

A strength athlete may want to perform this routine during an accumulation phase while a bodybuilder may want to perform it as more of an intensification phase.

The choice is up to you.

The cluster set protocol on this routine involves performing 9 reps with your 6-7 rep max. You are going to take a 10-15 second rest break after the 3rd and 6th reps.

These intra-set rest breaks may not seem like much but they go a long way in allowing you to properly fatigue the higher-threshold motor units.

Regardless of your goals or training experience I am confident that you can make awesome gains on a routine like this. Check it out:

3 x 9 Cluster Set Deadlift Routine

  • A1: Deficit conventional deadlift against bands, 3 x 9**, 3/0/X/0, 240 seconds rest
  • B1: Front foot elevated split squat (holding DBs), 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
  • B2: Walking DB lunge, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
  • C1: Seated leg curl (feet plantarflexed / pointing out), 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest

**Take a 10 second rest break after every 3rd rep. For example:

  • Perform reps 1-3, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform reps 4-6, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform reps 7-9, rest 240 seconds, then perform your next set of deadlifts.

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

I have to admit that I am a HUGE fan of using resistance bands on the deadlift! Out of all the major barbell lifts I find that bands are most effective for increasing your strength on the deadlift.

Chad Wesley Smith of Juggernaut Training Systems has talked a lot about the fact that using bands too often can really screw up your training.

There is definitely an element of truth in this statement.

If you use bands too often then you will find yourself “searching” for the band resistance when you go back to free weight resistance.

Bands are a great tool but they can easily be abused. For some strange reason it is much harder to overuse bands on the deadlift.

Of course combining band tension with deficit deadlifts makes it an even more effective weapon. You get to overload both the bottom-range and the top-range of the movement for an incredibly potent training stimulus!

Cailer Woolam (aka Dr. Deadlift) is also a huge fan of the deficit band deadlift. He goes so far as to call it the best deadlift variation you aren’t doing! You can click right here to listen Cailer Woolam talk about the benefits of this exercise.

If you are on the fence as to which cluster sets routine you should perform then I highly recommend you give this one a shot. You won’t be disappointed!

Conclusion

cluster sets deadlift

Performing cluster sets on the deadlift is a slightly unconventional but incredibly effective way to train.

Regardless of whether your primary goal is strength or hypertrophy deadlift clusters deserve a place in your long-term programming.

Always remember: the mind is more important than the body. Where the mind goes the body will follow.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in 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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