The Best Cluster Set Workouts For Strength!


cluster sets for strength

There are a huge number of training programs that you could use to build strength. Wave loading, the modified Hepburn method, isometronics, and accentuated eccentric training are all great options. However, the most effective training program for boosting strength has to be cluster sets!

Introduction

  • Part 1: The Science Of Cluster Sets
  • Part 2: The Poliquin 5 x 5 Cluster
  • Part 3: The 4 x 8 Cluster
  • Part 4: Carl Miller Cluster Sets
  • Part 5: Eccentric Cluster Sets
  • Part 6: Cluster Sets Q&A

Cluster sets is an incredible strength training method that was first developed by Olympic weightlifting champions in the 1950s. The basic idea behind clusters is simple: you take several short 10-20 second rest breaks in between the reps of a set.

The most common cluster sets protocol involves performing sets of five reps with 90% of your 1-rep max. The reason this is possible is that you are taking 10-15 second rest breaks in between all of your reps! 

For example:

  • Perform rep #1, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform rep #2, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform rep #3, rest 15 seconds 
  • Perform rep #4, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform rep #5, rest 2-4 minutes, then start your second set!

These short intra-set rest breaks allow you to use more weight than normal for a given rep range and are unbelievably effective at stimulating rapid strength gains!

In this article I am going to teach you four of the most effective cluster set protocols ever invented! Each of these cluster set routines is designed to give you some of the best strength gains of your entire life. 

Of course cluster sets can also be used to train for muscular hypertrophy. If you want to learn more about using cluster sets for building muscle then I highly recommend you check out the following article:

Cluster Sets For Hypertrophy!

Please note that all of the cluster set routines in this article are written with all of the loading parameters clearly defined. If you have any trouble reading these workouts then please consult this article.

Part 1: The Science Of Cluster Sets

Cluster sets have been used by some of the world’s strongest athletes sense at least the 1940s. However, it was not until 2008 that the first research paper was published on cluster sets!

In case you don’t believe me here is Charles Poliquin giving a brief history on cluster sets training. He first learned about them all the way back in 1976 from his mentor Pierre Roy. This was 32 years ahead of the research!

Sense 2008 there has been an absolute explosion of interest in cluster sets. Researchers are extremely eager to figure out why and how cluster sets produce such rapid strength gains in elite athletes.

It turns out there are at least 6 major reasons why cluster sets work so well for increasing relative and absolute strength levels:

  1. Clusters recruit and fatigue the fast-twitch muscle fibers
  2. Clusters increase the firing rate of the fast-twitch muscle fibers
  3. Clusters increase your functional hypertrophy
  4. Clusters desensitize the Golgi Tendon Organ
  5. Clusters maximize your force output in every rep
  6. Clusters improve your exercise technique

Let’s take a closer look at each of these factors.

Advantage #1: Clusters recruit and fatigue the fast-twitch muscle fibers

If you want to bigger and stronger over time then you need to use strategies that let you recruit AND fatigue the fast twitch muscle fibers. Recruiting a muscle fiber simply means your nervous system is activating that muscle fiber to lift a weight.

For example, any time you do a dumbbell curl you are recruiting a certain percentage of the muscle fibers in your elbow flexors.

On the other hand fatiguing a muscle fiber refers to taxing it to the point that your body responds by making these muscle fibers bigger and stronger.

One of the reasons cluster sets work so incredibly well is they recruit AND fatigue the fast-twitch muscle fibers! 

Any time you use at least 90% of your 1-rep max you are pretty much maximally recruiting the high-threshold motor units. On the classic Poliquin-style cluster sets protocol you are performing sets of 5 with 90% of your 1-rep max.

However, because the time under tension of the set is jacked up you are simultaneously fatiguing these muscle fibers! The end-result is a very powerful stimulus for your fast-twitch muscle fibers that cannot be matched with any other training protocol.

As Professor Zatsiorsky has famously said, “a muscle fiber that is recruited but not fatigued is not trained.” If you perform a proper cluster sets workout you can be confident that you are training the fast-twitch muscle fibers!

Advantage #2: Clusters increase the firing rate of the fast-twitch muscle fibers

One of the ways that your body adapts to lifting heavy loads is increasing the firing rate of the fast-twitch muscle fibers. I want you to imagine that your brain has a button that causes your muscle fibers to “fire.”

When you lift a weight your brain is smashing that button as quickly as it can so that your muscle fibers “fire” more often.

One of the big advantages of cluster sets is that it allows your brain to “fire” individual muscle fibers more frequently during a set! It is as if your brain gets better and better at smashing this button when you are lifting a heavy weight.

The end result is that your nervous system becomes far more efficient at firing individual muscle fibers and your strength shoots through the roof!

Advantage #3: Clusters increase your functional hypertrophy

Functional hypertrophy refers to the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers. You know, the muscle fibers that have the greatest potential to become bigger and stronger. One of the big advantages of cluster sets is that they are incredible for boosting functional hypertrophy levels!

Functional hypertrophy is incredibly important regardless of whether you are a strength or physique athlete. Strength athletes train for functional hypertrophy because it dramatically increases their long-term strength potential.

Josh Bryant uses the analogy that a powerlifter boosting their functional hypertrophy is like someone upgrading the engine of their car.

Packing on slabs of functional hypertrophy doesn’t result in PRs right away but it dramatically increases your long-term potential for strength gains.

On the other hand physique athletes love functional hypertrophy because it gives them the coveted “look of power.”

Take a good look at a lot of the major bodybuilders competing today. Many of them have this overly “fluffy” look. You can take one look at them and realize that their muscles are all for show. They are practically allergic to heavy slag iron!

On the other hand take a look at some old-time bodybuilders such as Ronnie Coleman, Dorian Yates, Kevin Levrone, Franco Columbo etc. Their muscles just have a completely different “look” to them.

All of these guys used radically different training programs from traditional high-volume bodybuilding programs to lower-volume / higher intensity programs. The only common denominator between these guys is they were all incredibly strong and they all had superior levels of functional hypertrophy!

Advantage #4: Clusters desensitize the Golgi Tendon Organ

The golgi tendon organs are sensory organs located within your muscles. Their main job is to shut down your muscles in situations where you might injure yourself.

The golgi tendon organ plays a critical role in keeping you injury-free over the long term. After all, your body is far more concerned with avoiding a devastating injury than it is with hitting a new bench press PR.

Here is Christian Thibadeau giving an excellent primer on the the impact of the golgi tendon organ on the strength training process:

One of the downsides of the golgi tendon is that they tend to limit your strength output more than necessary. They are kind of like an overprotective mother that won’t let her child play on the dirt mound even though it is perfectly safe to do so.

You can get around this issue by desensitizing the golgi tendon organ through relative strength training protocols such as cluster sets! Using partial reps ala Anthony Ditillo would be another great method.

Advantage #5: Clusters maximize your force output in every rep

One of the downsides of traditional “straight sets” is that your force output decreases on every rep during a set. For example, let’s say that you are doing a traditional set of 3 reps with your 3-rep max.

The first rep is going to move extremely fast and you are going to be applying a ton of force into the bar. However, by the second and third rep your muscles will have accumulated a fair amount of fatigue which limits the amount of force that your muscles can generate.

Cluster sets are the perfect solution to this problem!

By taking short 10-15 second rest breaks in between reps you dramatically decrease the amount of fatigue in your muscles and create an environment where your muscles can apply maximum force on every rep!

For example, consider the classic 5 x 5 cluster set protocol with 90% of your 1-rep max. Even though you are using a weight that represents your 3-rep max you are able to generate near maximum force on all 5 reps!

Over time this will result in screaming fast strength gains on all of your cluster set exercises.

Advantage #6: Clusters improve your exercise technique

It can be very challenging to maintain perfect technique when performing multiple reps per set. The first rep normally looks great but as your muscles accumulate more and more fatigue it becomes increasingly difficult to perform picture-perfect reps.

Cluster sets are the perfect work-around to this problem!

Because you are taking short 10-15 second rest breaks in between reps it is as if every single rep that you perform is a single! You can really focus on performing several perfect reps within a set.

Improved exercise technique is obviously critical to a powerlifter’s success but it will also result in improved strength and size gains in everyone from competitive bodybuilders to average Joe’s. 

Now that we’ve covered the science of cluster sets training let’s dive right into 

Part 2: The Poliquin 5 x 5 Cluster

This is by far the most common cluster set training protocol in the world. It was popularized by the legendary strength coach Charles Poliquin and is the set / rep scheme that most people immediately think of when they hear the phrase “cluster sets.”

The idea is really simple: you are going to perform five sets of five reps with 90% of your 1-rep maximum. In order to pull this off you will rest 10-15 seconds in between each of the five repetitions.

For example, here is what your first set might look like:

  • Perform rep #1, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform rep #2, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform rep #3, rest 15 seconds 
  • Perform rep #4, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform rep #5, rest 2-4 minutes, then start your second set!

In case you are more of a visual learner here is the world-class strength coach Josh Bryant talking about the Poliquin-style cluster sets training method:

The Poliquin 5 x 5 cluster sets protocol is unbelievably effective for building pure strength. In fact, Christian Thibadeau has called it his absolute favourite training method for boosting strength levels in the athletes that he coaches. 

There are many possible splits that you could use for this cluster sets training protocol. However, for the purposes of this routine (and the rest of the routines in this article) I recommend you use an upper body / lower body split. 

Here is what the 4 days per week version of this split might look like:

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

One of the advantages of this split is the twice per week training frequency for each body part.

Of course the exact days that you decide to train on are up to you. I do recommend that you train no more than 2 days in a row on this split. If you want to use a 3-day or 2-day upper / lower split then that would also work just fine.

I recommend you read this article for more information on how to do this.

Here are the workouts:

Upper Workout

  • A1: Medium grip bench press, 3-5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Sternum chin ups, 3-5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: 60 Degree incline dumbbell press, 3 x 5-7, 3/2/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Cable rope face pull, 3 x 5-7, 3/0/1/2, 90 seconds rest

**Performed as a cluster set with 10-15 seconds rest between each rep.

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

Lower Workout

  • A1: Front squat heels narrow / flat, 3-5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Unilateral lying leg curl feet pointed out / plantarflexed, 3-5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Standing good morning from pins, 4 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B2: Rear foot elevated split squat (holding DBs), 4 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest

**Performed as a cluster set with 10-15 seconds rest between each rep.

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

The Poliquin 5 x 5 cluster set protocol is unbelievably effective for boosting strength and functional hypertrophy. However, there is a dark side to this training protocol: it is extremely difficult to recover from.

More specifically it can be very tough on the central nervous system.

Let me tell you a little story. Many years ago Charles Poliquin was tasked with training a team of German athletes for the Olympic games. The team was facing budget cuts and the team’s coach had to fire more than half of the athletes.

Charles said he could figure out in three weeks who the hardest working athletes were. He simply placed all of the athletes on a Poliquin 5 x 5 cluster sets protocol. Charles came back 3 weeks later and immediately knew who to cut form the team.

About 75% of the athletes were talking to each other and in good spirits. The other 25% were in the corner of the gym with their heads down. Their arms were trembling as if they had a bad case of Parkinson’s disease and they looked like someone had just run over their pet!

Charles told the coach that the only guys who actually did the program were the ones in the corner. The other athletes were just bullshit artists. The German coach fired the lazy 75% of his athletes right then and there!

One of the athletes proceeded to talk back to Charles and he responded in his usual blunt style: “Listen here you fucker. If you actually did the program like I told you to you would look like those 5 guys in the corner. So fuck off!” 

The bottom line is that the Poliquin 5 x 5 cluster sets program is extremely difficult to recover from. You need to make sure that you are doing everything in your power to optimally recover while training this way.

If you are still having a hard time recovering then you may want to perform only 1-3 total cluster sets per exercise rather than the recommended 5 sets.

After all, it is better to reduce the number of sets and make progress than to overtrain and go backwards.

Part 3: The 4 x 8 Cluster

This cluster sets protocol is quite a bit different from the 5 x 5 one described above. You are going to perform 4 sets of 8 reps with a weight that represents your 6-rep max. The key is that you take a 15-second rest break after every 2 reps.

For example:

  • Perform reps 1-2, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform reps 3-4, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform reps 5-6, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform reps 7-8, rest 2-4 minutes, repeat!

This method is very effective but FAR less neurologically demanding than the traditional 5 x 5 clusters. This would be a great program for a physique athlete looking to increase their strength before returning to higher-volume training protocols.

It would also be a great choice for a powerlifter looking to get stronger but without burning out their central nervous system.

For this routine I am going to recommend a 3- or 4-day upper body / lower body split. Some other great splits that you may want to experiment with include a Poliquin-style split or a push / pull / legs split.

Here are the workouts:

Upper Body

  • A1: Standing behind the neck press, 4 x 8**, 2/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Lean away chin ups on rings, 4 x 8**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso), 3 x 9-12, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: Seated rope cable face pull, 3 x 9-12, 2/0/X/1, 60 seconds rest

**Rest for 15 seconds after the 2nd, 4th, and 6th rep of each set as described above.

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

Lower Body

  • A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 4 x 8**, 2/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Kneeling leg curl (poliquin method**** / foot pointing straight), 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rset
  • B1: Alternating drop lunge (2 inch platform), 3 x 9-12, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: Snatch grip Romanian deadlift, 3 x 9-12, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest

**Rest for 15 seconds after the 2nd, 4th, and 6th rep of each set as described above.

****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 sample video below for more information.

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

Note: screaming like Dmitry Klokov while performing your snatch grip deadlifts has been proven to increase your testosterone by a whopping 89%!

The 4 x 8 cluster sets protocol is just an all-around great training program. It works extremely well for a large percentage of the training populace. After all, you are using roughly your 6-rep max for this program.

Almost everyone will use weights in the 6-rep max range at some point in their training, regardless of whether they are training primarily for size or for strength.

If you are looking to use a cluster sets program to get stronger but aren’t sure which one to start with I highly recommend you give this 4 x 8 cluster sets program a shot. I am confident you will be pleased with the results!

Part 4: Carl Miller Cluster Sets

If you are trying to kill a fly then a flyswatter is going to get the job done just fine. However, if you are trying to take down an elephant then you might want to ditch the fly swatter in favor of a bazooka.

The Carl Miller cluster sets protocol is easily the equivalent of a bazooka designed to take down an elephant. If you have been stuck at a strength plateau for a long time then this may be just what you need to break through to new territory and set some huge PRs.

The idea behind the Carl Miller clusters protocol is simple: you are going to perform sets of 3 reps with a weight that is equivalent to your 2-rep max. In order to pull this off you are going to rest for 45 seconds in between each repetition.

For example:

  • Perform rep #1, rest 45 seconds
  • Perform rep #2, rest 45 seconds
  • Perform rep #3, rest 2-5 minutes, repeat!

This program is extremely taxing on the central nervous system, and I do mean extremely. It tends to work best for those with a more dopamine-dominant neurotransmitter profile although individuals dominant in acetyl-choline may also benefit from it.

Once again I am going to recommend you use an upper body / lower body split for the purposes of this routine. There are of course many other training splits that you may want to try depending on your goals and genetics.

For a more detailed discussion of some of the best training splits of all time I recommend you check out this article.

Here are the workouts:

Upper Body

  • A1: 30 degree incline bench press, 3-5 x 3**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Shoulder-width supinated grip chin ups, 3-5 x 3**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: 75 degree incline DB press, 4 x 5-7, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Barbell dead stop row, 4 x 7-9, 3/1/X/0, 90 seconds rest

**Rest 45 seconds in between each rep as described above.

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

Lower Body

  • A1: Safety squat bar squat (medium stance / heels flat), 3-5 x 3**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Bilateral seated leg curl (feet plantarflexed / pointing in), 3-5 x 3**, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Alternating reverse DB lunge, 4 x 5-7, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: 90 degree back extension (barbell on back), 4 x 7-9, 3/1/X/0, 90 seconds rest

**Rest 45 seconds in between each rep as described above.

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

On the Carl Miller clusters protocol every single rep is extremely challenging. After all, you are using a weight that is roughly equivalent to your 2-rep max!

In my experience this program works best as a peaking program at the end of an 8-16 week block of training. For example, here is how a strength athlete might organize their training for 12 weeks:

It is really important to take some time off after this program or to switch to a higher-rep accumulation style program. If you transition right into another strength-focused program after this one then you risk burning out your central nervous system.

Part 5: Eccentric Cluster Sets

I’ve saved the best for last! In this section I would like to teach you a way to combine cluster sets and supra-maximal eccentric training into one unbelievable training program!

As you may already know I am a huge fan of accentuated eccentric training programs. I believe in eccentric training so much that I published the two most important articles on eccentric training in the world:

One of the best ways to use eccentric training for screaming fast strength gains is to combine them with the classic Poliquin 5 x 5 cluster sets program.

You are going to use weight releasers for exercise such as the bench press and deadlift. Weight releasers are these giant hooks that you place on either end of a barbell. When you reach the bottom position of an exercise they drop off the barbell.

Here is a perfect video demonstration of eccentric cluster sets in action. Check it out:

One of the challenges with weight releasers is that it is difficult to perform multiple repetitions in a row. This is because the weight releasers fall off the barbell after each repetition.

Of course this is no big deal with the Poliquin 5 x 5 cluster sets method! After all, you are resting 15 seconds between reps anyways! You simply walk to either side of the barbell and hoist the weight releasers back onto the barbell during your rest break.

Here is a perfect

Once again I am going to recommend that you use an upper body / lower body split for this routine. Check it out:

Upper Body

  • A1: Bench press with weight releasers (competition grip)**, 5 x 5****, 8/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Subscapularis pull ups, 5 x 5, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: 30 degree incline DB press, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 75 seconds rest
  • B2: T-bar row, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 75 seconds rest

**The weight on the bar should represent 70% of your 1-rep max. The weight on each of the weight releasers should represent 10-30% of your 1-rep max. Therefore you will be lowering a combined wight of 90-130% of your 1-rep max on each rep. 

How much weight you use on the lowering phase is a function of your eccentric strength levels. Just make sure you stick to the 8 second lowering phase on each rep! No, that is not a typo – you must lower the weight over 8 seconds!

****Performed as a Poliquin style 5 x 5 cluster sets protocol. Perform 5 sets of 5 reps with 15 second rest breaks in between each repetition. 

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

Lower Body

  • A1: Back squat with weight releasers (medium stance / heels flat)**, 5 x 5****, 8/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Lying leg curl 2/1 method (feet plantarflexed / pointing in)***, 5 x 5****, 8/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Front foot elevated split squat (holding DBs), 3 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: Stiff-legged deadlift, 3 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest

**The weight on the bar should represent 70% of your 1-rep max. The weight on each of the weight releasers should represent 10-30% of your 1-rep max. Therefore you will be lowering a combined wight of 90-130% of your 1-rep max on each rep. 

How much weight you use on the lowering phase is a function of your eccentric strength levels. Just make sure you stick to the 8 second lowering phase on each rep! No, that is not a typo – you must lower the weight over 8 seconds!

****Performed as a Poliquin style 5 x 5 cluster sets protocol. Perform 5 sets of 5 reps with 15 second rest breaks in between each repetition. 

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

This might be the single most powerful cluster sets protocol covered in this article. Please be warned that this routine can be extremely demanding on your recovery ability.

You may want to alternate between one eccentric-based workout and one regular workout.

During the eccentric workout you would use the weight releasers as described above. During the regular workout you would simply perform a regular Poliquin 5 x 5 cluster sets workout.

For example:

  • Workout #1: weight releasers
  • Workout #2: regular lifting
  • Workout #3: weight releasers
  • Workout #4: regular lifting
  • Etc.

Cycling your eccentric work in this manner will allow you to make much faster long-term progress than if you tried to perform eccentric work every single workout.

As I talked about in this article one of the challenging aspects of programming accentuated eccentric training is that you can’t use the method too frequently.

Charles Poliquin recommends performing accentuated eccentric training no more than once every 7-10 days. In my experience this recommendation is right on the money.

Part 6: Cluster Sets Q&A

Cluster sets is by far one of the most effective training protocols for building pure strength. However, they can also be one of the mos confusing.

I am going to do my best to clear up the confusion by answering 6 of the most common questions I have received over the years regarding cluster sets training.

Here they are in no particular order:

  1. How do I pick the right weight?
  2. Can I do accessory work?
  3. How many clusters can I do per workout?
  4. Do I need to deload following a cluster sets routine?
  5. How long can I perform cluster sets for?
  6. I’m struggling to recover from a cluster sets workout. What now?

These are all perfectly reasonable questions. Here are my responses:

Question #1: How do I pick the right weight?

This is by far one of the most common questions I receive regarding cluster sets. The first time you do a particular cluster sets workout I want you to pick a weight that lets you complete the target number of reps for ALL of your sets!

For example, let’s say that you are using the classic Poliquin 5 x 5 cluster sets protocol. Technically you are supposed to use 90% of your 1-rep max, or roughly speaking your 3-rep max.

This is perfectly reasonable advice. However, if it is your first time performing this workout you may want to pick a weight that is slightly lower, say around 87-88% of your 1-rep max. This is because you want to use the same weight for all 5 of your sets.

Often times trainees who are new to cluster sets end up “shitting the bed” on the first set. That is, they burn themselves out so bad on the first set that they have to make huge drops in weight to finish their remaining sets.

If you are someone who was not blessed with good muscular endurance then being conservative with your weight selection is probably a good idea.

Remember, the exact percentages that you use are not super important. It is more important that you select a weight that you think will let you complete all of your panned sets and reps with good technique.

Question #2: Can I do accessory work?

I think doing some accessory work during a cluster sets workout is a great idea! In fact, all of my routines listed above feature some accessory work (usually in the 5-12 rep range) following the main cluster sets for the day.

Of course the most important part of the workout is the cluster sets that you do first in the workout.

The accessory work should be challenging but nowhere near as hard as the main clusters. A good rule of thumb is to perform 1 accessory exercise per muscle group following the main clusters of the day.

Question #3: How many clusters can I do per workout?

This is another great question! The number of cluster sets that you perform is a function of 2 things: the exact cluster sets protocol that you are using and your own work capacity.

For example, the classic Poliquin 5 x 5 cluster sets protocol has you do 5 total sets. 5 sets should be regarded as the absolute MAXIMUM number of sets that you do on this protocol.

If you tend to burn out quickly when doing a large number of sets then you may want to perform only 2-3 cluster sets and move on. If you are someone who normally handles 5 cluster sets just fine but are having a bad day then you may want to reduce the number of sets you perform to give your body a chance to more fully recover.

All other things being equal the more sets you can do the greater the overall training stimulus. However, if you exceed your ability to recover then the workout can be regarded as a waste of time! 

Question #4: Do I need to deload following a cluster sets routine?

A formal deload may or may not be necessary depending on your unique genetics. If you are unfamiliar with the term a deload simply refers to a period of time (often times around 5-10 days) where you perform less taxing workouts.

A deload may consist of performing fewer sets, fewer exercises, using less weight, or even just taking a full week off training. Here is Josh Bryant talking about the benefits of periodic deloads:

One strategy is to just take 5-7 days off from the gym after performing a cluster sets routine for 2-4 weeks. This is not strictly necessary but many of you may find that some time off is required to give your body a chance to fully recover.

Another strategy is to wave the number of sets that you perform each week in a three-step fashion.

For example:

  • Workout #1: 5 clusters
  • Workout #2: 4 clusters
  • Workout #3: 1 cluster
  • Workout #4: 5 clusters
  • Workout #5: 4 clusters
  • Workout #6: 1 cluster

In this manner you are essentially waving the volume over the course of three workouts. On workouts 3 and 6 you are performing only 1 total cluster set.

This still gives you some practice handling the heavy weights but the dramatic reduction in training volume makes it much easier for your body to recover. This deloading strategy works unbelievably well for many trainees, especially those with more of an acetyl-choline dominant neurotransmitter profile.

Question #5: How long can I perform cluster sets for?

As a general rule of thumb I recommend you use cluster sets for no more than 2-4 weeks at a time. After 2-4 weeks your best bet is to switch to another type of routine and start making gains on that one.

I highly recommend you follow up 2-4 weeks of clusters with a higher-rep accumulation style routine designed to increase muscular hypertrophy.

I think you will be shocked at how much your strength improves on 2-4 weeks of cluster sets and how much more weight you can now handle on your higher-rep hypertrophy workouts.

Question #6: I’m struggling to recover from a cluster sets workout. What now?

As I said many times before cluster sets are one of the more neurologically taxing programs that you can use. You need a rather robust nervous system to recover from cluster sets.

Some trainees just won’t make much progress on a cluster sets program no matter what they do. These guys should just stick with other training programs that don’t burn out their nervous system.

For people who thrive on lower-rep training protocols but are still having a tough time recovering there are a few possible solutions.

You could experiment with using fewer total cluster sets per workout or waving the number of cluster sets you do from workout to workout as described above.

You may also want to re-examine your recovery program. Are you getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep every night? Are you managing your stress levels effectively? Are you taking your post-workout nutrition seriously?

All of these recovery strategies (and many more!) will help you to recover faster from a demanding cluster sets program.

Conclusion

cluster sets for strength

Cluster sets are easily one of the most effective training programs you can use to build strength. There is a reason many of the world’s most accomplished strength coaches such as Charles Poliquin, Josh Bryant, and Christian Thibadeau regularly use them with their athletes.

They are also one of my own go-to training methods for helping my online coaching clients bust through training plateaus.

Keep in mind that these cluster programs don’t work unless you do! As Arnold Schwarzenegger so famously said,

“You can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets.”

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.

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