Cluster sets are one of the best training methods ever invented. The basic idea is to use short rest periods in between your reps so you can perform more total reps with the same weight.
Cluster sets are great for building strength but many bodybuilding coaches have found ways to use them to build muscle mass. If you want to build as much muscle as possible then these cluster set methods are for you!
- Part 1: Dr. Scott Stevenson’s Muscle Rounds
- Part 2: Josh Bryant’s Hypertrophy-Specific Cluster Sets
- Part 3: Dante Trudel’s Rest-Pause Sets
- Part 4: Charles Poliquin’s Escalating Density Training
- Part 5: Charles Poliquin’s 5 To 8 Method
- Part 6: Christian Thibadeau’s Eccentric Cluster Sets
In this comprehensive guide I will teach you 6 ways advanced bodybuilders use cluster sets to build muscle and blast through hypertrophy plateaus.
Cluster sets is a high-intensity training method where you insert short rest periods in between your reps so that you can perform more total reps with a relatively heavy weight. The most popular way to perform cluster sets is to perform sets of 5 reps with 10 seconds rest in between every rep. 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!
Here is a great training video for this method:
This is called a Poliquin-style cluster set and it works great if your goal is to get stronger. The short rest breaks between reps gives your muscles enough time to partially recover so you can perform 5 reps with your 3-rep max.
Bodybuilding style cluster sets are completely different.
You are still going to use short rest periods between your reps so you can perform more reps with the same weight. The big difference is you are going to use higher rep ranges so you can damage as many muscle fibers as possible!
Dr. Scott Stevenson has a version of cluster sets where he performs 6 sets of 4 reps with 10 seconds rest in between sets.
Josh Bryant has a version of cluster sets where he performs sets of 4-6 reps for 5 minutes straight with 15 seconds rest in between sets.
Dante Trudel has a version of cluster sets where he trains to failure three times in a row on an exercise with 20-30 seconds rest in between exercises.
Charles Poliquin has 2 different versions of cluster sets: one where you alternate exercises for opposing muscle groups with no rest and one where you perform 8 total reps with your 5-rep max.
Finally Christian Thibadeau has a variation of cluster sets where you can use eccentric training to overload your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
For example here is Dr. Scott Stevenson demonstrating a “muscle round” cluster set for his shoulders:
Talk about a tough set! Dr. Scott Stevenson is using cluster sets so he can perform 24 total reps with a weight he can normally lift 10-15 times. This is a powerful way to overload your muscles and to stimulate muscle growth.
In this guide I’m going to show you how some of the world’s top bodybuilding coaches use cluster sets to destroy training plateaus and build slabs of new muscle tissue. Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on this cutting edge information!
Note: if you have trouble reading the training routines in this article then check out this guide on how to read a training program. Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: Dr. Scott Stevenson’s Muscle Rounds
Dr. Scott Stevenson is a national level bodybuilder and one of the brightest minds in the fitness industry. He has coached many world-class bodybuilders including IFBB pro David Henry.
Dr. Scott Stevenson made most of his gains using Dante Trudel’s DC Training system. However, in 2014 Scott developed his own bodybuilding training program called “Fortitude Training.”
If you have never head of this program then check out the following article:
Dr. Scott Stevenson uses a unique form of cluster sets called “muscle rounds” in his training program.
A muscle round is a type of cluster set where you perform 6 sets of 4 reps on an exercise with 10 seconds rest in between each set. For example:
- Step #1: Perform 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
- Step #2: Perform 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
- Step #3: Perform 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
- Step #4: Perform 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
- Step #5: Perform 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
- Step #6: Perform 4 reps, done!
Dr. Scott Stevenson says you should pick a weight you can lift about 10-15 times for your muscle rounds. As you gain more experience using muscle rounds in your training program you find it easier to pick the right weight for each exercise.
Here is Dr. Scott Stevenson giving a perfect demonstration of cluster sets on t-bar rows:
Muscle rounds are so effective for building muscle because you are taking a weight you can lift 10-15 times and you are performing 24 reps with it!
The 10 second rest breaks are just long enough for your muscles to partially recover in between sets but short enough that the muscle round feels like one long extended set.
Scott says that if you can perform more than 4 reps on your last set then you should rep it out and perform as many reps as you can. For example you might get 5, 6 or even 7 reps on your last set of your muscle round if you used a lighter weight.
On the other hand you may find that you can’t get 4 reps on all 6 sets. That is perfectly OK. Just get as many reps as you can on each of the 6 sets.
For example you might only be able to get 2-3 reps on your last couple of sets.
Don’t worry, Scott says this sometimes happens. Just use the same weight at your next workout until you can get 4 reps on all 6 sets.
There are many different ways you can use muscle rounds in your training program. Dr. Scott Stevenson likes to have training days where he performs 1 all-out muscle round per muscle group. Here is what a Fortitude Training upper body muscle round workout might look like:
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
And here is what a Fortitude Training lower body muscle round workout might look like:
Legs Muscle Round Workout
- A1: Lying leg curl (feet dorsiflexed / pointing straight), 6 x 4, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 6 x 4, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- C1: Leg press, 6 x 4, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- D1: DB stiff-legged deadlift, 6 x 4, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
As you can see Scott likes to perform 1 all-out muscle round per exercise. Scott thinks this is more than enough training volume if you are really pushing yourself on your sets.
If you are new to cluster sets then I highly recommend you give Dr. Scott Stevenson’s muscle rounds a shot. They are a fantastic training method!
Part 2: Josh Bryant’s Hypertrophy-Specific Cluster Sets
Josh Bryant is one of the world’s best bodybuilding and powerlifting coaches. He is also a HUGE fan of cluster sets! One of Josh’s favorite cluster set methods is called “hypertrophy specific cluster sets.”
You are going to perform sets of 5 reps on an exercise for 5 minutes straight! The key is to use a weight that is around your 10-15 rep max and to rest for 15 seconds in between each set. For example:
The Hypertrophy Specific Cluster Sets Protocol
- Perform 5 reps, rest 15 seconds
- Perform 5 reps, rest 15 seconds
- Perform 5 reps, rest 15 seconds
And so on. You set a timer for 5 minutes and keep going until your time is up. Here is Josh’s brother Noah Bryant giving a perfect demonstration of hypertrophy specific cluster sets on Romanian deadlifts:
Noah’s goal is to perform as many sets of 5 reps as he can in a 5-minute time period. That is what hypertrophy specific cluster sets are all about!
I recommend you start off with your 15-rep max for this training method. If you “hit the wall” and can’t get 5 reps on your sets then you perform 4 reps and keep going. If you can’t get 4 reps then you drop down to 3 reps per set and keep going.
The important thing is that you make it through to the end of the 5 minute time period.
One of Josh Bryant’s favorite ways to set up a bodybuilding workout is to perform 4 different hypertrophy specific cluster sets per workout. You can get in a TON of volume in a short period of time and stimulate a lot of muscle growth training this way.
Here is a sample shoulder workout that you can try. Check it out:
Hypertrophy Specific Cluster Set Shoulder Workout
- A1: Machine lateral raise, sets of 5 reps**, 1/0/1/0, 15 seconds rest
- B1: Rear delt flys, sets of 5 reps**, 1/0/1/0, 15 seconds rest
- C1: Hammer strength overhead press, sets of 5 reps**, 1/0/1/0, 15 seconds rest
- D1: Partial rear delt flys, sets of 5 reps**, 1/0/1/0, 15 seconds rest
**Perform each exercise for 5 minute straight as part of a hypertrophy specific cluster set.
Here is the training video for this workout:
This workout is much harder than it looks! The first few sets on each exercise are going to be pretty easy. However, the muscle fatigue slowly builds as you perform your sets for each exercise. By the end of the 5 minute mark your shoulders will feel like they are ready to explode!
One of the things I really like about hypertrophy specific cluster sets is you can perform a lot of high-quality work in a very short period of time.
If you are stuck at a plateau in arm size then this workout might be just what you need to start making progress again.
Part 3: Dante Trudel’s Rest-Pause Sets
Dante Trudel is the owner of True Nutrition and the creator of the world-famous “DC Training” bodybuilding program.
DC Training is a low-volume / high-intensity training program that uses something called rest-pause sets to help you build muscle mass and strength as fast as possible.
Rest-pause sets are a high-intensity training technique where you train to failure 3 times in a row on an exercise with very little rest between sets.
Here is how you perform a rest-pause set:
- Step #1: Train to failure in the 7-10 rep range, then put the weight down and rest 20-30 seconds
- Step #2: Train to failure a second time with the same weight, then rest another 20-30 seconds
- Step #3: Train to failure a third time with the same weight, done!
A typical rest-pause set would look something like this: perform 8 reps to failure, rest 30 seconds, perform 3 reps to failure, rest 30 seconds, perform 2 reps to failure, done!
Here is Dusty Hanshaw demonstrating a triceps rest-pause set:
As you can see Dusty Hanshaw trains to failure three times in a row with the same weight. For this rest-pause set Dusty gets 9 reps on his first attempt, 7 reps on his second attempt and 4 reps on his third attempt for 20 total reps.
Rest-pause sets are actually a form of cluster sets because you are using very short rest periods to pump out extra reps with the same weight.
In the video Dusty performs 20 total reps with a weight he can only lift 9 times. The short 20-30 second rest periods are short enough that the 3 separate attempts feel like one long extended set.
Rest-pause sets are so effective for bodybuilders because they help you build muscle mass AND strength all at the same time. Many bodybuilders find their strength goes up faster with rest-pause sets than any other training method.
Getting stronger is not the end-all, be-all of building muscle but when you get stronger in high rep ranges your body has no choice but to grow!
There are many different ways to set up a workout using rest-pause sets. One of the best ways is to use the original DC Training system. Here is what a typical upper body DC Training workout might look like:
Upper Body DC Training Workout
- A1: Hammer strength incline press, 1 x 11-20 RP**, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
- B1: Seated DB overhead press, 1 x 20-30 RP**, 3/0/1/0, rest as needed
- C1: Dead stop skull crusher, 1 x 15-25 RP**, 2/1/1/0, rest as needed
- D1: Rack chins, 1 x 11-20 RP**, 3/1/X/0, rest as needed
- E1: T-bar row, 2 x 10-15, 2/0/X/0, 4 minutes rest
**Performed as a DC-style rest-pause set.
Of course this is just one DC Training workout. If you want to learn how to design your own DC Training program then check out the following articles:
Another great option for advanced bodybuilders is to use rest-pause sets as part of a traditional bodybuilding style workout. For example you could train a muscle group with 3-5 different exercises and one heavy rest-pause set per exercise.
In the past I have trained advanced bodybuilders using a traditional bodybuilding “bro-split” and rest-pause sets with awesome results.
Here is how you might organize a high-volume rest-pause back workout. Check it out:
High-Volume Rest-Pause Back Workout
- A1: Cable pulldown (wide / overhand grip), 1 x 11-20 RP**, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
- B1: Hammer strength pulldown (supinated grip), 1 x 11-20 RP**, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
- C1: Seated cable row (v-handle), 1 x 11-20 RP****, 3/0/X/1, rest as needed
- D1: One-arm dumbbell row, 1 x 11-20 RP****, 1/0/X/0, rest as needed
- E1: Reverse pec dec, 1 x 20-30 RP**, 2/0/1/1, rest as needed
- F1: Rack deadlifts (mid-shin height), 2 x 8-12, 1/1/X/0, 4 minutes rest
- G1: Reverse hyperextension, 2 x 12-15, 1/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
**Performed as a DC-style rest-pause set.
There are so many different ways you can organize a workout with rest-pause sets. They are a very effective and versatile training method.
In my experience rest-pause sets are one of the best ways for bodybuilders to build strength without having to train in the lower rep ranges. I
f you are on the fence about cluster set training then I highly recommend you give rest-pause sets a shot. You won’t be disappointed!
Part 4: Charles Poliquin’s Escalating Density Training
Escalating density training is an advanced training style invented by the strength coach Charles Stacey. It is actually very similar to Josh Bryant’s version of hypertrophy specific cluster sets.
Your goal with escalating density training is to perform as many cluster sets as you can on an exercise in a fixed period of time. Every time you repeat the workout your goal is to perform more total sets on an exercise in the same time period.
In order to do this you would decrease the rest periods in between your sets.
Here is what your progress might look like on an escalating density routine:
- Workout #1: 40 total sets
- Workout #2: 44 total sets
- Workout #3: 48 total sets
And so on. Rather than increasing the amount of weight you lift on each exercise your goal is to perform more total sets in the same amount of time. This is a very creative and effective way to apply the progressive overload principle to your workouts.
Charles Poliquin took the escalating density concept and made it even more effective by using antagonistic body part supersets.
An antagonistic body part superset is a training method where you alternate back and forth between sets for opposing muscle groups. For example:
Bicep / Tricep Antagonistic Supersets
- Set #1: Biceps
- Set #2: Triceps
- Set #3: Biceps
- Set #4: Triceps
Antagonistic body part supersets have many advantages over regular sets: they help you recruit more muscle fibers, they improve your muscular endurance and they help you perform more work in less time.
Charles Poliquin combined antagonistic body part supersets and escalating density training together into one kick-ass program.
Here is an escalating density routine you can try to blow up your arms. Check it out:
Escalating Density Training Arm Workout
Part 1: Minutes 0-30
- A1: Bench press (shoulder-width grip), sets of 2**, 4/0/1/0, no rest
- A2: Preacher ez-bar curls (wide / pronated grip), sets of 2**, 4/0/1/0, no rest
Part 2: Minutes 31-45
- B1: Hammer strength dips, sets of 8***, 3/0/1/0, no rest
- B2: Seated DB hammer curls, sets of 8***, 3/0/1/0, no rest
Part 3: Minutes 46-60
- C1: Rope overhead cable extensions (low pulley), sets of 20****, 2/0/1/0, no rest
- C2: Incline cable curl, sets of 20****, 2/0/1/0, no rest
**Use your estimated 8-rep max
***Use your estimated 20-rep max
****Use your estimated 40-rep max
As you can see the escalating density workout is divided into three parts.
For the first 30 minutes of the workout you are going to perform sets of 2 reps on 2 different exercises. You perform exercise A1, then immediately walk over to exercise A2 and perform it, then immediately walk over to exercise A1 and perform it again.
You just keep alternating back and forth between these 2 exercises for 30 minutes straight.
The same thing is true for parts 2 and 3 of the workout: you alternate between 2 exercises for your biceps and triceps for 15 minutes straight.
This workout is a true “cluster sets” workout because you are using a relatively light weight for each part of the workout.
For the first 30 minutes you are performing sets of 2 reps with your 8-rep max. The first few sets are going to be very easy. However, by the 15-minute mark your muscles will be ready to explode!
Every time you repeat this workout your goal is to keep the weight the same on each exercise and perform more total sets. For example you might perform 20 sets for the A exercises on your first workout, 23 sets for your second workout, 25 sets for your third workout and so on.
I think you will be SHOCKED at how well this cluster sets routine works for building muscle size. The pump starts off slow at first but it slowly builds and it never goes away. By the end of this workout your arms will literally feel like they are going to explode!
Part 5: Charles Poliquin’s 5 To 8 Method
The 5 to 8 method is an advanced form of cluster sets training. Charles Poliquin used it with his world-class athletes to build functional hypertrophy or fast-twitch muscle growth as fast as possible.
Charles liked the 5 to 8 method so much that he called it his second favorite training method for boosting functional muscle mass.
Here is how you perform the 5 to 8 method:
- Step 1: Perform 5 reps with your 5-rep max. Then put the weight down and rest 15 seconds.
- Step 2: Perform 1 more rep with the same weight, then put the weight down and rest 15 seconds.
- Step 3: Perform 1 more rep with the same weight, then put the weight down and rest 15 seconds.
- Step 4: Perform 1 more rep with the same weight, done!
The 5 to 8 method is very similar to Dante Trudel’s rest-pause method.
You are taking a weight you can only lift 5 times and finding a way to perform 8 tough reps with it. The 3 extra singles actually feel like max effort singles even though you are using your 5-rep max. These extra singles are ridiculously effective for building functional muscle mass and maximal strength.
Charles says the key to making the 5 to 8 method work for you is to pick the right weight for your sets.
You want to pick a weight that is just below your 5-rep max. You want the 5th rep to be very challenging. Charles says your spleen should come out through your left eye on the 5th rep! However, you want to make sure that you do not fail on any of your reps.
Here is a 5 to 8 method lower body workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Lower Body 5 To 8 Method Workout
- A1: Back Squat (narrow stance / heels elevated), 3-5 x 5/1/1/1**, 3/2/X/1, 2 minutes rest
- A2: Bilateral seated leg curl (feet dorsiflexed / pointing straight), 3-5 x 5/1/1/1**, 3/0/X/1, 2 minutes rest
- B1: Drop lunge (2 inch platform), 3 x 8-12, 2/0/1/0, 1 minute rest
- B2: Cable pull through, 3 x 8-12, 2/0/1/1, 1 minute rest
Charles recommends you perform 3-5 total “5 to 8 method” sets for the first two exercises. This is a TON of volume – after all, Dante Trudel recommends most trainees only perform 1 rest-pause set per exercise.
The large number of sets is possible because you are not training to failure and because you are alternating sets for opposing muscle groups like quads and hamstrings.
I recommend you use a 10% fatigue drop-off curve to figure out how many sets to perform per exercise. This is something that the bodybuilding coach Greg Doucette uses with a lot of his clients.
So what does a 10% fatigue drop off curve mean? As long as your strength has not decreased by more than 10% then you can continue performing more sets for the “A” exercises.
As soon as your strength decreases by 10% or more you should stop and move on to the “B” exercises.
Here is an example of what your sets might look like on your back squats:
- Set #1: 300 pounds x 5/1/1/1 = 8 total reps
- Set #2: 290 pounds x 5/1/1/1 = 8 total reps
- Set #3: 280 pounds x 5/1/1/1 = 8 total reps
- Set #4: 270 pounds x 5/1/1/1 = 8 total reps
As you can see your strength will decrease slightly from set to set. This is perfectly normal when using an intense training method like the 5 to 8 method.
In this example the athlete was 10% weaker on the 4th set compared to the 1st set so he stops there and does not perform a 5th set. Fatigue drop-off curves are very useful when you are performing more than 1 set per exercise.
Greg Doucette recommends you use a 10% fatigue drop off curve for most exercises and I agree this is great advice.
If you are doing a relative strength workout then you may want to use a 5% fatigue drop off curve while if you are performing a traditional bodybuilding style workout then a 20% fatigue drop off curve will probably give you better results.
Part 6: Christian Thibadeau’s Eccentric Cluster Sets
Eccentric training is one of the best training methods ever invented. The idea is to use techniques to overload the eccentric or lowering phase of your exercises.
Research shows that the lowering phase is where most of the muscle size and strength gains occur so it only makes sense to target this phase of your movements.
I have tried many different eccentric training protocols but one of the best for building muscle mass is called “eccentric cluster sets.”
Eccentric cluster sets is hybrid of two awesome training methods:
- Cluster Sets
- Eccentric Training
You are going to pick an exercise and perform 5 sets of 5 reps with 30 seconds rest between each rep. In order to perform the eccentric-only reps you are going to use a tool called “weight releasers.”
Weight releasers are giant metal hooks that attach on either side of a barbell. You can load the weight releasers with extra weight to make the exercise more challenging. They make the exercise heavier when you lower the barbell down. However, they fall off the barbell in the bottom part of the exercise which makes the exercise easier on the way up.
Here is a perfect demonstration of eccentric cluster sets using weight releasers:
As you can see the athlete is using weight releasers to overload the lowering phase of the exercise. During his 30-second rest breaks between reps he gets up off the bench and re-racks the weight releasers onto the bar.
So why are eccentric cluster sets so effective for building muscle mass? The key is the long time under tension. Each rep should be performed with a true 8-10 second lowering phase. This means you are getting (8-10) x (5) = 40-50 seconds of time under tension per set!
That is a LOT of time under tension considering you are lowering a weight that is right around your 1-rep max!
This large time under tension with ultra-heavy weights is an AWESOME way to boost the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers. It is also a great way to build maximal strength.
Most bodybuilders would never train this way but if you are a powerlifter who needs to build functional muscle mass then this is one of the best ways to do it.
Here is a sample upper body routine that you may want to try. 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.
The key to getting the most out of this routine is to use a 10-second lowering phase on every single repetition. If you cannot lower the weight over 10 seconds then it is too heavy and you need to take some weight off the bar.
10 seconds may seem like an eternity but these slow eccentric reps create a ton of muscle tension and will rapidly increase the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
I must warn you: eccentric cluster sets is an advanced training method. You should only attempt this routine if you have AT LEAST 2 years of hardcore training experience under your belt. You should also have plenty of experience with other “easier” eccentric training protocols.
If you attempt this routine before you are ready for it then you run the risk of injuring yourself.
If you want to learn more about eccentric training then these articles are for you:
- The Science Of Eccentric Training!
- The 11 Greatest Eccentric Training Protocols!
- Eccentric Training: The Ultimate Guide!
These are the best resources on eccentric training available anywhere in the world. Trust me – I’ve looked! If you are at all interested in using eccentric training to build muscle mass or strength then you must check them out.
Cluster sets are hands-down one of the most effective ways to train for muscle growth. They are also one of the most versatile hypertrophy training methods.
In this guide I showed you how 5 of the best bodybuilding coaches in the world use cluster sets to blast through training plateaus.
So which method should you use? In my experience muscle rounds, hypertrophy specific cluster sets escalating density training are great choices if you like traditional high-volume bodybuilding routines. If you are more of a “high-intensity” bodybuilder then rest-pause sets, the 5 to 8 method and eccentric cluster sets have your name written all over them.
If you want to learn more about cluster sets then check out the following articles:
- Cluster Sets: The Ultimate Guide!
- The Best Cluster Set Workouts For Strength!
- The 11 Best Cluster Set Routines!
These articles are like an all-you-can-eat buffet for cluster set training ideas.
So what are you waiting for? Get in the gym and start building slabs of lean muscle mass with cluster sets!
“At the end of the day you’ve gotta feel some way. So why not feel unbeatable? Why not feel untouchable? Why not feel like the best to ever do it?”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!
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