Cluster Sets For A Big Overhead Press!


cluster sets overhead press

The overhead press is one of the most neglected lifts in the strength training universe. This is surprising as the overhead press is a fantastic exercise for strengthening the deltoids, the triceps, and the traps.

If there is one training method that can boost your overhead pressing strength it is cluster sets!

Introduction

  • How To Use Cluster Sets
  • Routine #1: 5 x 5 Clusters Featuring The Military Press
  • Routine #2: 4 x 8 Clusters Featuring The Behind The Neck Press
  • Routine #3: 6 x 3 Clusters Featuring The Push Press

Cluster sets is one of the most effective strength training methods in the world. This is especially true when it comes to improving your overhead press!

The first scientific studies on cluster sets were published in 2008. It seems that the scientific literature is more than a little bit late to the party as Olympic weightlifters have been using cluster sets sense at least the 1950s!

Cluster sets have truly stood the test of time in a way that few other set / rep schemes have.

The traditional cluster sets training protocol goes like this: you are going to perform sets of five reps with 90% of your 1-rep max.

Of course the average trainee can only perform 3 reps with 90% of their one-rep max. This is possible with cluster sets because you will be taking a 10-15 second rest break in between each of the five repetitions.

For example, here is the standard cluster sets training protocol:

  • Perform your 1st rep, rack the weight, rest 10-15 seconds 
  • Perform your 2nd rep, rack the weight, rest 10-15 seconds 
  • Perform your 3rd rep, rack the weight, rest 10-15 seconds 
  • Perform your 4th rep, rack the weight, rest 10-15 seconds 
  • Perform your 5th rep, rack the weight, done! 

These 5 reps constitute 1 cluster set. Normally you will perform 3-5 total cluster sets for 1-2 main exercises in a workout.

The reason cluster sets work so well is that you are placing a tremendous amount of fatigue on the fast-twitch muscle fibers.

The intra-set rest periods give you just enough time to replenish creatine-phosphate and ATP stores so that you can exert maximal force on each and every repetition.

Not only are the fast-twitch muscle fibers fully recruited on every repetition, but by the fifth rep they are fatigued as well.

As Professor Zatsiorsky said, “a muscle fiber that is recruited but not fatigued is not trained.” 

Cluster sets kill two birds with one stone by both recruiting and fatiguing the high-threshold motor units!

The traditional cluster sets training protocol involves performing 5 sets of 5 reps with 10-15 second rest intervals in between each rep. However, there are other ways of performing cluster sets as well.

In this article I am going to cover three of the best cluster set routines for boosting your overhead pressing strength!

Note: I prefer to write my training routines with all of the loading parameters clearly defined. If you have any difficulty reading and interpreting these routines then please consult this article.

How To Use Cluster Sets

Cluster sets are clearly one of the best training methods out there for building strength. However, there are some specific drawbacks of cluster sets that you need to be aware of.

Clusters are extremely taxing on the central nervous system, and I do mean extremely! After a single cluster sets workout you will feel like your body is “shot” and you may have a hard time calming yourself down.

The classical cluster sets protocol should only be used during lower-rep intensification phases when getting stronger is your primary goal.

This obviously applies to strength athletes such as powerlifters but even bodybuilders and other physique athletes stand to benefit from a cluster sets routine once in a while.

If you use cluster sets too frequently then you may find your gym performance starting to regress.

After 2-4 weeks on a cluster sets routine you should move on to a higher-rep accumulation style protocol that emphasizes increases in overall muscle mass.

For example:

  • Weeks 1-2: Accumulation phase #1
  • Weeks 3-4: Intensification phase #1 (cluster sets)
  • Weeks 5-6: Accumulation phase #2
  • Weeks 7-8: Intensification phase #2
  • etc.

Alternating accumulation phases and intensification phases in this manner will ensure that you get the most out of cluster sets without overtraining your central nervous system.

Of course there are many different ways to design a cluster sets workout.

In this article I am going to provide you with three separate cluster sets protocols that you can use to improve your overhead press today! 

Routine #1: 5 x 5 Clusters Featuring The Military Press

This first routine features the classic cluster sets training protocol as popularized by Charles Poliquin and Christian Thibadeau among other coaches.

You are going to perform five sets of five reps with 90% of your 1-rep max. This is possible because you are going to insert 10-15 second rest intervals in between each of the five repetitions per set.

For example:

  • Perform your 1st rep, rack the weight, rest 10-15 seconds 
  • Perform your 2nd rep, rack the weight, rest 10-15 seconds 
  • Perform your 3rd rep, rack the weight, rest 10-15 seconds 
  • Perform your 4th rep, rack the weight, rest 10-15 seconds 
  • Perform your 5th rep, rack the weight, done! 

Of course this process would be repeated for 3-5 total cluster sets per exercise.

In my experience one of the best ways to design a cluster sets workout is to alternate sets for antagonistic body parts.

For example, you could perform an overhead press cluster set, rest 2 minutes, perform a pull up cluster set, rest 2 minutes, and perform another overhead press cluster set etc.

Some of the advantages of training this way include increased peak force output, greater muscular endurance over the course of the workout, and a greater density of training.

For this routine I recommend you use an upper body / lower body split performed either 4 or 3 days per week.

Both of these splits work awesome – it really just depends on your individual recovery ability.

If you have average to above-average recovery ability then I recommend you use the 4 days per week version.

For example:

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

Body parts are trained once every 3-4 days which means productive workouts add up quickly on this training split.

You can choose to train on whichever days of the week you want as long as you are not training more than 2 days in a row.

If you have average to below-average recovery ability then I recommend you give the 3 days per week upper / lower split a shot.

For example:

Week 1:

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

Week 2:

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

Despite the reduced number of training days you are still training body parts once every 4-5 days with this split. This is an awesome way to train for a lot of trainees.

Again you can choose whichever days of the week you want to train on as long as there is at least 1 day off between training days. 

Here is the training routine:

  • A1: Standing military press (shoulder-width grip), 5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Pronated shoulder-width pull up, 5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: V-bar upright dips, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Seated cable rope face pulls, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • C1: Seated DB external rotations, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • C2: Unsupported unilateral trap 3 raise, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest

**Performed as a cluster set as described above. Insert 10 second rest breaks in between each of the five reps. For example:

  • Perform 1 rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform another 1 rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform another 1 rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform another 1 rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform another 1 rep, done! Rest 120 seconds and perform a cluster set for the other “A” exercise.

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

This is a very demanding routine. You are going to perform 6 exercises for your upper body.

Of course the heart and soul of this routine is the first pair of exercises where you are actually performing the cluster sets.

I want you to be conservative with your weight selection the first time you try this routine.

I recommend selecting a weight for the military presses and pull ups that allows you to complete all five sets of five reps. If this means you have to use a weight that is slightly lower than 90% of your 1-rep max then so be it.

You can always increase the weight on your second and third workout if your chosen weight on the first day was too easy.

I recommend you perform this specific routine 4-6 times for your upper body.

It will take you 2-3 weeks to complete all the workouts if you are using the 4 days per week upper / lower split or 3-4 weeks to complete all the workouts if you are using the 3 days per week upper / lower split. 

Routine #2: 4 x 8 Clusters Featuring The Behind The Neck Press

This routine is going to feature a different type of cluster sets routine. If you normally have a hard time recovering from a lot of lower-rep sets then you are going to love this routine!

For example a lot of bodybuilders will be able to make awesome progress on this type of cluster sets routine. You are going to perform sets of 8 on this routine.

Instead of taking a 10-15 second rest break after every single rep you are going to do it after every 2nd rep.

For example:

  • complete reps 1-2, rack the weight for 10-15 seconds
  • complete reps 3-4, rack the weight for 10-15 seconds
  • complete reps 5-6, rack the weight for 10-15 seconds
  • complete reps 7-8, DONE!

These short intra-set rest intervals will allow you to more effectively recruit the higher-threshold motor units but with less central nervous system stress than other cluster sets training protocols.

Again if you are a bodybuilder or normally train with higher rep ranges (8-20 etc.) but still want to experiment with a lower-rep strength focused routine then I highly recommend you give this a shot.

You may also find that your functional hypertrophy levels significantly increase on this type of routine.

You know, hypertrophy specific to the fast-twitch muscle fibers (the ones that have the greatest potential for growth).

On this routine you could use an upper / lower split as described above. However, I am going to recommend you use a 4 days per week Poliquin-style split.

For example:

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

In my experience the Poliquin splits work extremely well when you want to specialize a little bit on the upper body. This would certainly be the case if you are considering an overhead press specialization phase!

Here is the training routine:

  • A1: Seated behind the neck press, 4 x 8**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Narrow neutral-grip pull ups, 4 x 8**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: 45 degree incline DB press, 3 x 8-10, 2/1/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Barbell dead stop row, 3 x 8-10, 2/1/X/0, 90 seconds rest

**Insert 10 second rest breaks after the 2nd, 4th, and 6th rep. In other words: 

  • complete reps 1-2, rack the weight for 10-15 seconds
  • complete reps 3-4, rack the weight for 10-15 seconds
  • complete reps 5-6, rack the weight for 10-15 seconds
  • complete reps 7-8, DONE!

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

The behind the neck press is easily one of the most neglected upper body lifts. It is ignored even more often than the good-old-fashioned military press! 

Many people mistakenly believe that the behind the neck press is a dangerous exercise and that you should stay away from it at all costs.

Believe me, I understand the importance of staying injury-free.

After all, I am a licensed physical therapist. Rehabilitating patients and keeping them injury free is quite literally my job.

If someone tries to tell you that the behind the neck press is an inherently dangerous exercise then they probably don’t know what they are talking about.

Just think about it: a behind the neck press is nothing more than an overhead press performed with your upper arms fully abducted (your elbows are pointing directly out to your sides).

There is another overhead pressing exercise that uses these same body mechanics: the seated overhead dumbbell press!

If the behind the neck press is an inherently dangerous exercise then surely the seated DB overhead press must be equally dangerous.

While we’re at it we should label the seated DB lateral raise as a “shoulder wrecker” as it also involves abducting your upper arms.

I hope you can see how silly it is to call the behind the neck press a “dangerous” exercise…

In reality the behind the neck press is easily one of the best exercises for increasing the health of your shoulders and your overall upper body strength.

It is hard to think of a better exercise for promoting overall upper body structural balance.

If you are stuck in an overhead press training plateau then perhaps you should consider running a behind the neck press routine for 2-4 weeks (such as the one provided here).

I am confident you will be pleased with the results!

Routine #3: 6 x 3 Clusters Featuring The Push Press

I have to warn you: this last cluster sets overhead press routine is rather severe. You should only attempt it if you have at least a couple of years of hardcore training experience under your belt.

We are going to use the push press to eccentrically overload our deltoids, triceps, and traps. Of course this will all be done using a novel cluster sets training protocol.

Because this routine is particularly severe I recommend that you use a push / pull / legs split performed either 3 or 4 days per week.

This will help to minimize overlap between your pressing muscles. After all, we don’t want sore chest or triceps muscles to limit our performance on the overhead press.

Here is how you might set up the 3 days per week push / pull / legs split:

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

Normally I am not such a huge fan of training body parts once per week. I find this is usually not enough training frequency for most trainees, although there are definitely exceptions (Eric Lillibridge, Stan Efferding etc.).

However, on this routine it makes quite a bit of sense. It will take you longer than usual to fully recover from the eccentric loading from the push press.

Of course a 4 days per week push / pull / legs split is also a good choice for this routine. Here is what this split might look like in practice:

Week 1

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

Week 2

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

Etc.

You are training on the same 4 days of the week every week but the specific body parts that you are training rotates.

Whatever you train on Monday of a given week you are also training that Saturday.

The training frequency on this split is about once every 5-6 days. This frequency works awesome for a lot of trainees.

For example, Dorian Yates trained using a very similar frequency in his prime. Josh Bryant also has a lot of his world-class powerlifting clients using this type of training frequency.

Here is the actual routine:

  • A1: Push press, 6 x 3**, 8/0/X/0, 240 seconds rest
  • B1: 60 degree incline DB press, 3 x 5-7, 2/2/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • C1: Decline DB extension, 3 x 6-8, 4/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
  • D1: 90 degree cable external rotation (arm adducted), 3 x 6-8, 2/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest
  • D2: Bilateral 30 degree prone trap 3 raise, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/2, 60 seconds rest

**Insert 10 second rest breaks in between each of the three reps per set. In other words:

  • Perform 1 rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform 1 more rep, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform 1 more rep, done! Rest 240 seconds and perform the next set.

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise D1, exercise D2.

You are only going to perform 3 total reps on each of the cluster sets. This is an extremely taxing way to train as you should be able to use your 2-rep max on these sets!

Do not be surprised if you have some deep, deep muscle soreness in your delts the following day. As a general rule of thumb I recommend you use this routine to peak your strength on the overhead press.

For example you may want to use this routine for the last 4 weeks of a 12-16 week training cycle designed to improve your overhead pressing strength.

On the push press itself you are going to explosively lift the weight up to lockout and then slowly control the weight over 8 seconds.

Yes, you read that right – I want a real 8-second negative phase on these reps! If that means using less weight than you normally would on the push press then so bet it.

Pick a weight that actually lets you complete all three repetitions with a true 8-second negative phase.

These supra-maximal eccentric reps are unbelievably effective for promoting gains in strength and functional hypertrophy.

In fact, I believe in eccentric training so much that I have written two of the world’s most detailed guides on the subject:

The Science Of Eccentric Training!

The 11 Greatest Eccentric Training Methods!

Conclusion

cluster sets overhead press

The overhead press is easily one of the most frustrating lifts in the iron game.

There simply isn’t a lot of information on how to break through overhead press training plateaus as so few people dedicate themselves towards becoming strong overhead presses.

If you are stuck in an overhead pressing training plateau then I am confident these three cluster sets overhead pressing routines will get you on the fast track to making some of the best gains of your life!

So what are you waiting for? Get in the gym and start moving some heavy slag iron over your head!

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

Thanks for checking out my site! My name is Dr. Mike Jansen, PT, DPT. I'm the creator / owner of Revolutionary Program Design. My goal is to make RPD the #1 strength training resource available anywhere on planet Earth. If you're from another galaxy then all bets are off! So grab a seat, kick back and relax. There's never been a better time to pump iron or to learn the art and science of strength training program design.

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