Cluster Sets For Hypertrophy: The Ultimate Guide!


cluster sets for hypertrophy

Cluster sets are normally used by individuals who want to get as strong as possible. This is understandable as cluster sets are one of the very best ways to train for strength.

However, cluster sets can also work awesome for bodybuilders training for muscular size! 

Introduction

  • Routine #1: Dr. Scott Stevenson’s Muscle Rounds
  • Routine #2: Josh Bryant’s Hypertrophy Cluster Sets
  • Routine #3: Escalating Density Training
  • Routine #4: Cluster Sets For Functional Hypertrophy
  • Routine #5: Eccentric Cluster Sets

In this article I am going to present you with five of the greatest cluster sets training protocols ever invented for building muscular size.

These training methods have been used by some of the world’s most respected bodybuilding and physique coaches such as Dr. Scott Stevenson, Josh Bryant, Charles Poliquin, and Christian Thibadeau.

Of course these routines are very different from the classical cluster sets training protocol.

The original way to use cluster sets was to perform a set of five reps with 10-15 second rest breaks in between each rep.

You would perform 1 rep, rest 10-15 seconds, perform a 2nd rep, etc. until you had completed 5 total repetitions.

This method works so freaking well because it allows you to perform 5 reps with your 3-rep max! This places an unbelievable amount of stress on your fast-twitch muscle fibers and gets you on the fast-track to freaky strength gains.

Of course a bodybuilder is more interested in building slabs of muscle mass than getting freaky strong.

The main difference with hypertrophy-specific cluster sets is the rep ranges will be somewhat higher. Actually the rep ranges will be as high as 20 in at least one of these routines!

These high-rep cluster sets are fantastic because they let you perform a huge number of repetitions and overall volume of work in a short period of time.

Not only that, but you can still lift some reasonably heavy weights on these routines. Hypertrophy-specific cluster sets are like the perfect marriage between heavy loads and long time under tension!

Each of these five training methods are very different from each other. This only makes sense as they were developed and popularized by four very different strength and physique coaches.

I guarantee you that at least one of these routines will work AWESOME for you!

Please note that I write my routines such that all of the loading parameters are clearly defined. If you have any trouble reading these routines then I recommend you consult this article.

Now let’s get down to business…

Routine #1: Dr. Scott Stevenson’s Muscle Rounds

Dr. Scott Stevenson is one of the brightest minds in the fitness industry. If you don’t know who this man is then you must have been living under a rock for most of the 21st century!

Dr. Scott Stevenson is a national-level NPC bodybuilder and the former training partner of IFBB pro David Henry.

For many years he trained using Dante Trudel’s DC Training system alongside David Henry. More recently he has developed his own bodybuilding training system called Fortitude Training.

One of the main techniques used in Fortitude Training is the “muscle round.” A muscle round is really a type of higher-rep hypertrophy specific cluster set.

You are going to perform 24 total reps with your 10-15 rep max. The key to pulling this off is you will take a 10-second rest break after every 4th repetition.

For example, you would rest for 10 seconds after the 4th rep, the 8th rep, etc. 

Let’s take a look at a sample muscle round training video from Dr. Scott Stevenson himself:

The key is to complete 4 total reps before taking each of your rest breaks.

If you are unable to complete 4 reps during each “leg” of the muscle round then you simply perform 3 reps, then 2 reps etc. until you complete all six “legs” of the muscle round.

If you get to the 6th leg and can complete more than 4 reps then you would rep this weight out either to failure or 1 rep shy of failure.

I am going to give you sample muscle round routines that you can perform for every body part.

The organization of these routines is different than what Dr. Scott Stevenson does in Fortitude Training. That does not mean that they are any less effective! Check it out:

Upper Body Muscle Round Workout

  • A1: Hammer strength incline press, 6 x 4, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • B1: Seated DB overhead press, 6 x 4, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • C1: Lat pulldown (wide / overhand grip), 6 x 4, 2/1/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • D1: Seated cable row, 6 x 4, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • E1: Seated DB hammer curl, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • F1: Hammer strength dip machine, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise D1, exercise E1, exercise F1.

Legs Muscle Round Workout

  • A1: Lying leg curl (feet dorsiflexed / pointing straight), 3 x 24, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 3 x 24, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C1: Leg press, 3 x 12-15, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • D1: DB stiff-legged deadlift, 3 x 12-15, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise D1.

On these routines you are going to be performing three muscle rounds on two separate exercises per workout.

This is a lot of work but this is the price you have to pay when you want maximum muscular hypertrophy!

The nice thing about muscle rounds is that the short intra-set rest breaks allow you to really hone in your exercise technique and delay the accumulation of metabolic fatigue.

Unlike something like rest-pause sets you don’t “blow your wad” very quickly on muscle rounds.

Of course this means that once the metabolic fatigue does set in it really starts to hurt…

If you are looking to pack on muscle mass in record time then I highly recommend you give muscle rounds ala Dr. Scott Stevenson a try!

Routine #2: Jailhouse Strong Hypertrophy Cluster Sets

If there is one individual who has really promoted the use of cluster sets for hypertrophy development it would have to be Josh Bryant.

Josh has a unique way that he utilizes cluster sets with his bodybuilding clients. The basic idea is to perform sets of 5 with your 10-15 rep max for 5 minutes straight!

You are going to perform 5 reps, rest 15 seconds, then perform another 5 reps etc. until the entire time period runs out.

Here is Josh Bryant giving a perfect explanation of how to perform jailhouse strong cluster sets:

Of course it is not always possible to perfectly predict the weight that you want to use.

If you find yourself unable to complete 5 reps towards the end of the 5-minute time interval then Josh recommends you drop a rep and keep going.

For example, if you can no longer get 5 reps then you would get 4. When you can no longer get 4 reps you would perform 3 etc.

You simply keep dropping reps until the 5 minute time period is over. If you do end up dropping a lot of reps in this manner then make sure you stick with the same weight at your next workout.

On the other hand if yo can complete more than 5 reps on your last attempt during the 5-minute time window then you would simply perform as many reps as you can just shy of failure.

Josh likes to use one hypertrophy cluster set per exercise but multiple cluster set exercises per body part. With this in mind a push / pull / legs split would be a perfect way to organize your training routine.

For this routine I recommend you use a 4 days per week push / pull / legs routine. For example:

Week 1

  • Monday: Push 
  • Wednesday: Legs
  • Friday: Pull
  • Saturday: Push

Week 2

  • Monday: Legs
  • Wednesday: Pull
  • Friday: Push
  • Saturday: Legs

Etc.

You train on the same 4 days of the week but the exact body parts you train varies on each day. Whatever body part you train on Monday is also trained on Saturday of this week.

In this manner you can train body parts an average of once every 5 days.

This is an AWESOME training frequency for both size and strength gains. Josh Bryant frequently uses this unconventional frequency with his bodybuilding and powerlifting clients.

Without further ado let’s take a look at the exact workouts:

Push Workout

  • A1: 45 degree incline bench press, sets of 5**, 3/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: 15 degree incline DB press, sets of 5**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • C1: Hammer strength overhead press, sets of 5**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • D1: Poliquin lateral raise, sets of 5**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • E1: Flat DB extension, sets of 5**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • F1: Overhead rope cable extension, sets of 5**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest

**Performed as a jailhouse strong hypertrophy cluster set as described above. You are going to use your estimated 10-15 rep max and perform sets of 5 reps with 15 seconds rest in between sets. 

**Perform sets of 5 for 5 straight minutes. If you are unable to perform sets of 5 as the cluster set progresses then perform sets of 4, then sets of 3, etc. for the remaining time. 

**If you can perform more than 5 reps on your last set (when the timer runs out) then perform as many reps as possible on this last set.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise D1, exercise E1, exercise F1.

Legs Workout

  • A1: Back squat (narrow stance / heels elevated), sets of 5**, 3/1/X/0, rest as needed
  • B1: Leg press, sets of 5**, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • C1: Walking DB lunges, sets of 5**, 1/0/1/0, rest as needed
  • D1: Lying leg curl (feet plantarflexed / neutral), sets of 5**, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • E1: 90 degree back extension (barbell on back), sets of 5**, 2/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
  • F1: Reverse hyperextension, sets of 5**, 1/0/X/0, rest as needed

**Performed as a jailhouse strong hypertrophy cluster set as described above. You are going to use your estimated 10-15 rep max and perform sets of 5 reps with 15 seconds rest in between sets. 

**Perform sets of 5 for 5 straight minutes. If you are unable to perform sets of 5 as the cluster set progresses then perform sets of 4, then sets of 3, etc. for the remaining time. 

**If you can perform more than 5 reps on your last set (when the timer runs out) then perform as many reps as possible on this last set.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise D1, exercise E1, exercise F1.

Pull Workout

  • A1: Wide neutral grip cable pull down, sets of 5**, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • B1: T-bar row, sets of 5**, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • C1: Machine pullover, sets of 5**, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • D1: Seated zottman curl, sets of 5**, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • E1: Preacher ez-bar curl (close supinated grip), sets of 5**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • F1: 30 degree incline DB curl (hammer grip), sets of 5**, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed

**Performed as a jailhouse strong hypertrophy cluster set as described above. You are going to use your estimated 10-15 rep max and perform sets of 5 reps with 15 seconds rest in between sets. 

**Perform sets of 5 for 5 straight minutes. If you are unable to perform sets of 5 as the cluster set progresses then perform sets of 4, then sets of 3, etc. for the remaining time. 

**If you can perform more than 5 reps on your last set (when the timer runs out) then perform as many reps as possible on this last set.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise D1, exercise E1, exercise F1.

On this particular program you are going to perform 1 hypertrophy-specific cluster set per exercise and about 2-3 exercises per body part.

This is a very good “middle-of-the-road” approach to training volume where you can be sure that you achieved a growth response but without risking overtraining.

I have to warn you: the muscle “burn” that you achieve on these routines is quite intense. It starts out slow but then it builds and builds and builds…

Before you know it your muscles are on fire but you are barely halfway done the workout!

It takes some watermelon-sized balls to perform this training program in its entirety.

However, those who have the guts to complete it will be rewarded with some of the best hypertrophy gains of their life!

Routine #3: Escalating Density Training

I was first introduced to the concept of escalating density training by Charles Stacey, although I am sure that there are many other athletes and coaches who used similar protocols over the years.

Of course it was Charles Poliquin who perfected the concept of escalating density training by introducing an optimized version of this superior training method.

Charles Poliquin is very fond of using antagonistic bodypart supersets in his routines.

For example, he frequently had his athletes perform a set for the quadriceps, rest 1-2 minutes, perform a set for the hamstrings, rest 1-2 minutes, and repeat with another set for the quads etc.

Alternating between sets for antagonistic body parts has many advantages:

  • Increased motor unit recruitment
  • Improved muscular endurance during the workout
  • Dramatically increased training density

If Charles Stacey’s version of escalating density training is a cannon then Charles Poliquin’s version is a nuclear bomb!

You are going to alternate back-and-forth between antagonistic body part exercises with no rest between sets. Yes, you read that right – you are not going to take any rest between sets!

You simply walk (or run) back and forth between the two opposing body part stations and perform as many sets as you can in a set time period!

This will all make more sense when we take a look at the actual training routines.

For this training program I recommend you use a 4 days per week upper body / lower body split.

For example:

  • Monday: Upper
  • Wednesday: Lower
  • Friday: Upper
  • Saturday: Lower

If you have below-average to average recovery ability then a 3 days per week upper body / lower body split would also work. 

For example:

Week 1

  • Monday: Upper
  • Wednesday: Lower
  • Friday: Upper

Week 2 

  • Monday: Lower
  • Wednesday: Upper
  • Friday: Lower

Now let’s take a closer look at the escalating density training workouts!

Upper body

  • A1: 30 degree incline bench press (close grip), sets of 2**, 4/0/X/0, no rest
  • A2: Wide pronated grip pull ups, sets of 2**, 4/0/X/0, no rest
  • B1: Flat DB press, sets of 8***, 3/0/X/0, no rest
  • B2: Seated cable row (v-handle), sets of 8***, 3/0/X/0, no rest
  • C1: Decline hammer strength machine press, set of 20****, 2/0/X/0, no rest
  • C2: DB chest-supported row (30 degree incline), sets of 20****, 2/0/X/0, no rest

**Use your estimated 10-rep max. Perform the “A” exercises for 30 total minutes. After 30 minutes you move on to the “B” exercises.

**Use your estimated 20-rep max. Perform the “B” exercises for 15 total minutes. After 15 minutes you move on to the “C” exercises.

**Use your estimated 40-rep max. Perform the “C” exercises for 15 total minutes. After 15 minutes you are done! This workout should take you 60 total minutes to complete.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2, exercise C1, exercise C2.

Lower body

  • A1: Front squat (medium stance / heels flat), sets of 2**, 4/0/X/0, no rest
  • A2: Bilateral lying leg curl (feet plantarflexed / pointing in), 4/0/X/0, no rest
  • B1: Machine hack squat, sets of 8***, 3/0/X/0, no rest
  • B2: DB stiff-legged deadlift, sets of 8***, 3/0/X/0, no rest
  • C1: Leg extension, set of 20****, 2/0/X/0, no rest
  • C2: 45 degree back extension (holding DB at chest), sets of 20****, 2/0/X/0, no rest

**Use your estimated 10-rep max. Perform the “A” exercises for 30 total minutes. After 30 minutes you move on to the “B” exercises.

**Use your estimated 20-rep max. Perform the “B” exercises for 15 total minutes. After 15 minutes you move on to the “C” exercises.

**Use your estimated 40-rep max. Perform the “C” exercises for 15 total minutes. After 15 minutes you are done! This workout should take you 60 total minutes to complete.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2, exercise C1, exercise C2.

Charles Poliquin’s version of escalating density training is often called the 30/15/15 routine because of the time intervals used.

You are performing the “A” exercises for 30 total minutes, the “B” exercises for 15 total minutes, and finally the “C” exercises for the last 15 minutes of the workout.

One of the keys to making this routine work is selecting the appropriate weights.

You may think that using your 10-rep max for the “A” exercises is too light and that the routine would be more effective if you used a heavier weight. You are wrong!

These weights are chosen for a reason. Perform the routine as written before changing things around!

One of the things that makes escalating density training different from any other training routine is that you are primarily trying to perform more total sets each time you repeat the routine.

This is different from most routines where you are trying to add more weight or perform more repetitions on each exercise.

As a general rule of thumb you should aim to perform at least 20 sets on each of the “A” exercises, 8 sets on each of the “B” exercises, and 8 sets on each of the “C” exercises.

If you do not reach these targets then do not even think about increasing the weight for the next workout! The high density of work performed is going to be the primary hypertrophy stimulus on this routine.

This routine won’t be easy but if you manage to stick with it for 2-4 weeks your body will transform right before your eyes!

Routine #4: Cluster Sets For Functional Hypertrophy

The term functional hypertrophy refers to the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Many bodybuilders completely ignore functional hypertrophy training protocols in favor of super high rep bodybuilding training protocols.

While there is nothing wrong with higher-rep training routines you are leaving a TON of muscle on the table if you never specifically target your fast-twitch muscle fibers! After all, your fast-twitch muscle fibers are the ones with the greatest latent potential for growth.

I would like to teach you an incredibly effective cluster sets routine for boosting functional hypertrophy. You are going to be performing 10 total reps with your 7-rep max.

The key to making this possible is you are going to insert a short 10-15 second rest break after every second rep.For example:

  • Perform reps 1-2, rack the weight, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform reps 3-4, rack the weight, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform reps 5-6, rack the weight, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform reps 7-8, rack the weight, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform reps 9-10, rack the weight, done!

These short intra-set rest intervals will help replenish creatine phosphate and ATP stores and allow you to more effectively recruit the higher-threshold motor units.

However, unlike the classic 5 x 5 cluster sets training protocol this cluster sets routine features reps that are high enough to allow for awesome hypertrophy gains.

On this routine I recommend you use the following Poliquin-style training split:

  • Day 1: Arms
  • Day 2: Legs
  • Day 3: Off
  • Day 4: Chest / Back
  • Day 5: Off

Now let’s check out the exact training routines:

Arms Day Functional Hypertrophy Cluster Sets Routine

  • A1: Close grip bench press against chains, 3 x 10**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Incline cable curl, 3 x 10**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: V-bar dips (upright torso), 3 x 10**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B2: Unilateral preacher zottman curl, 3 x 10**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest

**Rest 10 seconds after every 2 reps.

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

Legs Day Functional Hypertrophy Cluster Sets Routine

  • A1: Safety squat bar squat (medium stance / feet flat), 3 x 10**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Kneeling leg curl (poliquin method / foot pointed out), 3 x 10**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest 
  • B1: Bilateral DB squat (close stance / heels elevated), 3 x 10**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B2: 45 degree back extension (with bands), 3 x 10**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest

**Rest 10 seconds after every 2 reps. For example:

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

Chest / Back Day Functional Hypertrophy Cluster Sets Routine

  • A1: 60 degree incline bench press (medium grip), 3 x 10**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Lean-away chin ups on rings, 3 x 10**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: 30 degree incline DB press, 3 x 10**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B2: Barbell dead stop row, 3 x 10**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest

**Rest 10 seconds after every 2 reps. For example:

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

This may seem like a rather low-volume training program. After all, you are only performing 6 total sets per body part on each of these training days.

What you are failing to take into consideration is that each of these cluster-style sets is far more demanding than a regular straight set!

The 6 total sets per body part is roughly equivalent to the stress of 10 working sets per body part on a more traditional routine.

This is certainly enough volume to stimulate hypertrophy gains when you consider that we are training body parts once every five days here!

As an added bonus you may find that you make respectable strength gains on this type of routine.

If you are looking for a slightly lower-rep training protocol that still allows you to pack on slabs of muscle mass then this training program may be just what you are looking for!

Routine #5: Eccentric Cluster Sets

I would like to conclude this article with a cluster sets training routine featuring accentuated eccentric training.

The basic idea is to perform the classic 5 x 5 cluster sets training protocol where you take a 10-15 second rest break after each of the five reps per set.

Normally this protocol works unbelievably well for strength gains but is rather so-so for stimulating muscular hypertrophy. We are going to turn these rules on their head by combining cluster sets with accentuated eccentric training!

If you are a long time reader of Revolutionary Program Design then you are probably aware of how highly I view eccentric training protocols.

In my experience eccentric training is the single greatest training tool for helping intermediate and advanced athletes bust through plateau in strength and size. But this isn’t just my opinion. Elite strength and physique coaches such as Christian Thibadeau would agree with me on this.

One of the best training strategies for building hypertrophy is to combine eccentric training with Poliquin style cluster sets. Here is a perfect video demonstration for this training method:

As you can see the athlete is using weight releasers on the bench press. Weight releasers are giant metal hooks that fall onto the ground in the bottom position of exercises like bench presses and squats. Weight releasers are so effective because they let you overload the eccentric or lowering phase of an exercise.

One of the problems with weight releasers is you can’t perform multiple reps with them in a row because the weight releasers fall off after each rep. An easy way to get around this issue is to perform cluster sets. You just re-rack the weight releasers in between your reps when you are normally resting.

Eccentric cluster sets with weight releasers is easily one of the best ways to boost functional hypertrophy or hypertrophy specific to the fast-twitch muscle fibers. Let’s take a look at a couple of sample training routines. Check it out:

Upper Body Eccentric Clusters Routine:

  • A1: Bench press with weight releasers (close grip)**, 5 x 5****, 10/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: One-arm eccentric neutral grip pull ups***, 5 x 5****, 10/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Seated DB overhead press, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: DB chest supported row (30 degree incline), 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/2, 90 seconds rest

**Use 70% of your 1-rep max on the barbell and an additional 20-40% of your 1-rep max on the weight releasers (this is the combined percent! You are using 10-20% extra load for each weight releaser).

***Use the assisted pull-up machine to perform these – see the video below.

****Performed as a classic cluster set. Perform 5 reps per set with a 15 second rest period in between each rep.

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

Lower Body Eccentric Clusters Routine:

  • A1: Back squat with weight releasers (medium stance / heels flat)**, 5 x 5****, 10/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Lying leg curl 2/1 method*** (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 5 x 5****, 10/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: DB split squat, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: 45 degree back extension (holding barbell with snatch grip), 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/2, 90 seconds rest

**Use 70% of your 1-rep max on the barbell and an additional 20-40% of your 1-rep max on the weight releasers (this is the combined percent! You are using 10-20% extra load for each weight releaser).

****Performed as a classic cluster set. Perform 5 reps per set with a 15 second rest period in between each rep.

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

This is easily the most demanding routine of this entire article. You should have AT LEAST 2 years of hardcore training experience before you eve think about attempting a routine like this!

If you embark on an eccentric training routine before you are ready then you risk serious injury to your muscles or connective tissue. You’ve been warned!

Of course if you want to learn more about eccentric training then the following 2 articles may be of interest to you:

This routine is quite demanding but the results in terms of functional hypertrophy gains are simply out of this world.

Conclusion

cluster sets for hypertrophy

You are now equipped with five of the greatest hypertrophy-specific cluster sets training protocols ever invented. I am confident that at least one of these routines will work awesome for you.

So what are you waiting for? Get in the gym and start building slabs of lean muscle mass with cluster sets!

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

I am the creator and owner of Revolutionary Program Design. I help advanced athletes take their training to the next level and achieve results they never imagined possible.

Recent Content