Cluster sets are one of the most important training methods ever invented. Clusters can be customized to build both strength and size at an unbelievably fast rate. If your goals include getting bigger or stronger then you simply must know about this superior training technique!
- Part 1: Poliquin Cluster Sets
- Part 2: Josh Bryant Cluster Sets For Hypertrophy
- Part 3: Josh Bryant Maximal Singles Cluster Set
- Part 4: Rest-Pause Sets
- Part 5: Escalating Density Training
- Part 6: Doubles Cluster Set
- Part 7: Muscle Rounds
- Part 8: 6 x 3 Cluster Set
- Part 9: The 5 To 8 Method
- Part 10: Josh Bryant Powerlifting Cluster Sets
- Part 11: Eccentric-Only Cluster Sets
During a cluster set you take several short rest breaks in-between the repetitions in a single set. These short intra-set rest intervals allow your muscles to partially recover in between repetitions and allow you to perform more reps with a given weight than is normally possible.
The original cluster sets training protocol was invented in 1947 by a group of world-class Olympic weightlifters.w
The original protocol involved performing sets of five repetitions where you take a 10-15 second rest break in between each repetition. These athletes found that they could actually perform 5 reps with your 3-rep max when they used these short intra-set rest intervals!
Many new cluster sets protocols were invented by 1947 to help athletes build strength and size in record time. In recent years there has been an explosion of interest in cluster sets within the scientific literature.
The first formal study on cluster sets was performed in 2008 and it confirmed that clusters are a superior training method for all-out strength gains.
Sense then a number of other studies have been published supporting the superiority of cluster training protocols over more traditional set and rep schemes.
In this article I am going to introduce you to 11 of the most effective cluster sets routines ever invented! These routines feature a wide variety of clusters designed to boost relative strength, absolute strength, functional hypertrophy, and absolute hypertrophy.
I am confident that several of these routines will work AWESOME for you. In fact, many of these routines will give you some of the best strength and size gains of your entire life!
Please note that all 11 of these routines are written with all of the loading parameters clearly defined. If you have any trouble reading these routines then please consult this article.
Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: Poliquin Cluster Sets
Let’s kick things off by discussing the original cluster sets training protocol invented way back in 1947! This cluster sets protocol is often called the “Poliquin cluster” because of the degree to which the late strength coach Charles Poliquin popularized it.
Charles went so far as to call this cluster set protocol the single best training method for strength gains. The original cluster routine involves performing 5 sets of 5 reps with 90% of your 1-rep max.
Normally this would be impossible for most trainees. The key here is that you will be resting 15 seconds in between each of the five reps during your sets.
For example, here is what a single set of 5 would look like with this training method:
- Perform your 1st rep, rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 2nd rep, rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 3rd rep, rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 4th rep, rest 15 seconds
- Perform your 5th rep, done!
Here is a perfect training video for the Poliquin cluster set method:
The Poliquin cluster sets protocol works incredibly well for a number of reasons:
- You are training with 90% of your 1-rep max
- You recruit AND fatigue the high-threshold motor units
- Your force production is very high on every rep
- You reinforce proper exercise technique on every rep
Let’s take a closer look at each of these factors.
Factor #1: You are training with 90% of your 1-rep max
Training at or above 90% of your 1-rep max is key if you want to build strength as quickly as possible. Many of the best training protocols such as 3/2/1 wave loading and the modified Hepburn method take full advantage of this principle.
Whenever you handle weights that are at least 90% of your 1-rep max you are maximally recruiting the high-threshold motor units on every rep.
Of course training with weights very close to your 1-rep max can be very neurologically demanding. Most trainees cannot train with singles or doubles on a regular basis without risking overtraining.
There are powerlifting teams such as the infamous Westside Barbell club that train with singles year-round. These guys tend to have dopamine-dominant neurotransmitter profiles and can train this way without burning out.
For everyone else it is probably best to limit the amount of singles and doubles that you do. Poliquin-style cluster sets represents a perfect compromise because the training loads are heavy enough to allow for screaming-fast strength gains but not so heavy that you risk overtraining.
Factor #2: You recruit AND fatigue the high-threshold motor units
Professor Zatsiorsky has famously said that “a muscle fiber that is recruited but not fatigued is not being trained.” In other words for optimal strength gains you have to both recruit AND fatigue the high-threshold motor units.
One of the reasons Poliquin-style cluster sets work so well is it accomplishes both of these objectives!
You are obviously recruiting the high-threshold motor units because you are handling weights at 90% of your 1-rep max.
However, you are also thoroughly fatiguing these motor units because of the extended time under tension of the set! After all, you are performing 5 total reps with your 3-rep max!
Factor #3: Your force production is very high on every rep
Research has demonstrated that your peak force production goes down on every rep within a set. For example, let’s say that you are performing a set of 3 reps.
You will be able to produce more force on the first rep than the second, and more force on the second rep than the third.
Fortunately research has shown that Poliquin-style cluster sets allow you to produce a very high level of force on every rep! This enhanced force production enhances the training effect and leads to greater and faster strength gains.
Factor #4: You reinforce proper exercise technique on every rep
During a Poliquin-style cluster sets workout you are essentially performing five singles with very short rest periods between each single. On all five of these singles you have the opportunity to perfect your setup and focus on performing just one perfect rep.
Over time your technique will improve and you will be able to build strength at a much faster pace.
As you can see there are many benefits to the Poliquin-style cluster sets training protocol. Here is a chest and back workout that you may want to try.
You may want to use the following Poliquin-style training split to organize your other body parts:
- Day 1: Chest / Back
- Day 2: Legs
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: Arms
- Day 5: Off
This split was a favourite of Charles Poliquin and it works extremely well when combined with the Poliquin-style cluster sets protocol. Check it out:
Chest / Back Poliquin Cluster Set Workout
- A1: 45 degree incline bench press (medium grip), 5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Narrow neutral grip pull up, 5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Flat DB press, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- B2: Seated cable rope face pull, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/2, 90 seconds rest
**Performed as a Poliquin-style cluster sets protocol as described above.
One of the most important things to consider when performing this routine is to pick the right training loads. Charles Poliquin’s general recommendation was to use 90% of your 1-rep max on all five clusters for the A1 and A2 exercises.
This is very reasonable advice. However, you may want to error on the side of caution the first time you try this routine.
You want to pick a weight that lets you perform all 5 sets without missing a single rep.
Don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world if you have to reduce the weight slightly after your first 1-2 clusters to get all 5 reps in. Just stick with the same weight at the next workout and do your best to complete all 5 sets with it.
Once you complete all 5 cluster sets with the same weight then you can make a small weight jump at the next workout.
The Poliquin-style cluster sets routine is an extremely demanding but rewarding way to train. If you have the guts to train this way then you can expect some of the fastest strength gains of your entire life.
Part 2: Josh Bryant Cluster Sets For Hypertrophy
Josh Bryant is easily one of my favourite coaches in the fitness industry. Josh was at one point the youngest man in the world to bench press 600 pounds and set numerous powerlifting world records in his prime.
Nowadays Josh spends his time training many of the world’s best athletes including many world-class bodybuilders and powerlifters.
One of the things that I really like about Josh is that he is 100% focused on getting results for his clients. Josh is a very bright man and is up to date on what the scientific literature has to say about training.
However, at the end of the day Josh understands that absolutely nothing trumps real-world results. I believe it is Josh’s “results first” philosophy that lead him to inventing an extremely effective cluster sets training protocol for building muscular hypertrophy.
Josh’s protocol involves selecting a weight that represents your 10-15 repetition maximum and performing sets of five for five minutes straight. The key to making this work is you are going to rest for 15 seconds in between each of these sets.
So the procedure is perform 5 reps, rest 15 seconds, perform 5 reps, rest 15 seconds, etc. until the 5 minute time limit is up. Here is Josh Bryant giving a picture-perfect demonstration and explanation of his novel hypertrophy training protocol:
As Josh explains your goal is to perform sets of 5 the whole way through but this may not be possible. If you hit the wall and cannot perform 5 reps then just perform 4 and continue with your 15 second rest intervals.
If you can’t do 4 then drop to 3 and just keep on going. Your goal at the next workout is to perform all of your sets for 5 total repetitions. Once you can do this then you have the “green light” to bump the weight up at your next workout.
This is an extremely effective and under-rated way to train for muscular hypertrophy. It is also an extremely time-efficient way to train as you can accumulate a ton of high-quality training volume in a very short period of time!
Here is a Josh Bryant inspired shoulders and triceps hypertrophy routine that you may want to try. You are going to perform 3 of these hypertrophy cluster sets per body part. Check it out:
Shoulders / Triceps Routine
- A1: Seated DB overhead press, sets of 5**, 2/0/X/0, 15 seconds rest
- B1: Seated Poliquin DB lateral raise, sets of 5**, 2/0/X/0, 15 seconds rest
- C1: Rear delt pec dec, sets of 5**, 2/0/X/0, 15 seconds rest
- D1: Lying DB extension, sets of 5**, 2/0/X/0, 15 seconds rest
- E1: Hammer strength dip machine, sets of 5**, 2/0/X/0, 15 seconds rest
- F1: Seated cable rope overhead extension, sets of 5**, 2/0/X/0, 15 seconds rest
**Perform as many sets of 5 as possible within a 5 minute time period with 15 seconds rest breaks in between reps. If unable to complete 5 reps due to fatigue then complete as many reps as possible on each set.
Overall this workout should take you about 40 minutes to complete. If you think that this workout is “too short” or “not enough work” then think again! You shoulders and triceps will feel like they are ready to explode by the end of this routine!
In fact, you may find yourself laying on the gym floor wishing misery upon the wretched Josh Bryant for inventing such a painful yet effective hypertrophy training method!
Part 3: Josh Bryant Maximal Singles Cluster Set
Let’s take a look at another cluster sets training protocol invented by Josh Bryant. This routine is more geared towards all-out strength gains although it is at least as demanding as the previous routine.
The idea behind the Josh Bryant maximal singles cluster set is simple: you are going to load the bar with 90% of your 1-rep max and perform as many singles as you can with 60 seconds rest in between each single.
Most trainees will be able to perform about 10 singles with this method but depending on whether you are more of a slow-twitch or fast-twitch athlete you may get anywhere from 7-13 singles.
With this method you are only going to perform 1 total cluster set with singles. After that main set you are going to move onto your accessory exercises for that workout.
For example here is a lower body workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Lower Body Routine
- A1: Front squat (medium stance / heels flat), sets of 1**, 3/2/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 3 x 5-7, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- B2: Bilateral lying leg curl (Poliquin method** / feet pointed in), 3 x 5-7, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- C1: 45 degree back extension (band tension), 3 x 7-9, 2/0/X/2, 120 seconds rest
**Perform as many singles as possible without reaching technical failure.
****Dorsiflex your ankles (point your toes towards your shins) on the concentric range and plantar flex your ankles (point your toes away from your shins) on the eccentric range
The cluster set performed on the A1 exercise is the heart and soul of this routine. You want to put absolutely everything you have into this one set.
Josh Bryant correctly points out that you will maximize your results if you focus on accelerating the weight on the concentric range all the way to lockout.
Research has shown that moving the bar as quickly as possible from point A to point B will maximize the number of motor units that you recruit during a set. This is true even when you are using weights at or above 90% of your 1-rep max.
This routine is very demanding and should not be attempted if you are afraid of a little hard work. As one of my mentors Nick Mitchell likes to say, “train like a beast and you will eventually become a beast. Train like a maggot…”
Part 4: Rest-Pause Sets
The modern-day interpretation of rest-pause training was invented and popularized by Dante Trudel, the creator of the DC Training. A rest-pause set is essentially 3 sets performed to failure on an exercise with only 20-30 seconds rest in between sets.
As a general rule of thumb rest-pause sets are usually performed with a weight you can lift 6-12 times. Rather than using a stopwatch Dante prefers for people to take 12-15 deep breaths in between each rep.
These deep breaths are key for sucking in as much oxygen as possible and allowing you to partially recover between attempts. For example here is what a rest-pause set might look like in practice:
- Perform 6-12 reps to technical failure, put the weight down and take 12-15 deep breaths
- Go to failure a second time, put the weight down and take 12-15 deep breaths
- Go to failure a third time, done!
Rest-pause sets are so incredibly demanding that you should only perform one of these sets per exercise. Anything more than that would be extreme overkill!
Here is Dusty Hanshaw giving a textbook demonstration of a rest-pause set:
I’m not sure if Dante would agree with this statement but rest-pause sets are really another form of cluster sets!
Just like with every other cluster sets protocol you are using relatively short intra-set rest intervals to let you perform more reps than usual with a given weight.
Dante’s rest-pause sets are primarily geared towards increasing hypertrophy but they also work INCREDIBLY well at boosting maximal strength levels. The three back-to-back failure points create a tremendous overload on the central nervous system and facilitate neurological adaptations to exercise that might not otherwise occur.
One of the interesting things about rest-pause sets is that you can get extremely strong while still training in traditional bodybuilding rep ranges. This is obviously of interest to a bodybuilder or anyone looking to rapidly build muscle mass.
Here is a sample rest-pause style chest / shoulders / triceps workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Chest / Shoulders / Triceps
- A1: 15 degree incline DB press, 1 x 7-10**, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
- B1: Hammer strength overhead press, 1 x 7-10**, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
- C1: Unilateral cable lateral raise, 1 x 7-10**, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
- D1: V-bar dips (upright torso), 1 x 7-10**, 3/0/X/0, rest as needed
- E1: Dead stop skull crusher, 1 x 7-10**, 2/1/X/0, rest as needed
**Performed as a DC-style rest-pause set as described above.
This may not seem like a lot of work compared to a typical bodybuilding style workout. I can assure you that this workout is more than enough if you train like a beast rather than a maggot!
One thing to keep in mind is that you should perform as many warm-up sets as you need before getting to your 1 rest-pause set.
For the first exercise of the day you may need 4-6 warm up sets while you might find that you are warmed up and ready to go after 1-2 warm up sets for your tricep exercises. You simply do whatever you need to in order to get ready for your 1 rest-pause set.
As Dante says you really have to be a “bulldog” to get the most out of rest-pause sets. It is not for the weak of heart. However, if you have the balls to train with this unique cluster sets protocol then you will be handsomely rewarded.
Part 5: Escalating Density Training
If you are more of a “high-volume” guy then you are going to LOVE this routine! I first read about escalating density training through the writings of the strength coach Charles Stacey many years ago.
With most routines your goal is to increase either the number of reps that you can do or the weight that you are lifting from one workout to the next.
This is true even for higher-volume training programs. After all, if you aren’t getting stronger form one workout to the next then you’re just spinning your wheels!
Escalating density training is a very different type of routine. Rather than increasing the number of reps or the weight your primary goal is to increase the number of sets that you do within a fixed period of time. This is a very challenging but effective way to train.
Fortunately Charles Poliquin took the concept of escalating density training and optimized it.
He has you perform supersets with antagonistic body parts and no rest between sets! Rather remarkably this is just another form of cluster sets.
With this escalating density training protocol you are going to perform 6 total exercises. The first 2 exercises will be performed back-to-back for the first 30 minutes of the workout.
The second pair of exercises will be performed back-to-back for the next 15 minutes of the workout.
Finally the third pair of exercises will be performed for the last 15 minutes of the workout. All in all this workout should take you about 60 minutes to complete.
This training method can be rather confusing so let’s take a look at a sample arm routine before discussing it further. Check it out:
- A1: Decline bench press (shoulder-width grip), sets of 2**, 4/0/X/0, no rest
- A2: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / pronated grip), sets of 2**, 4/0/X/0, no rest
- B1: Flat ez-bar extension (to forehead), sets of 6***, 3/0/X/0, no rest
- B2: 45 degree incline DB curl (supinated grip), sets of 6***, 3/0/X/0, no rest
- C1: 45 degree incline DB extension, sets of 12****, 2/0/X/0, no rest
- C2: Cable ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip), sets of 12****, 2/0/X/0, no rest
**Perform sets of 2 for the A1 and A2 exercises for 30 minutes straight. I recommend you start with your 10-rep max for this exercise.
***Perform sets of 6 for the B1 and B2 exercises for 15 minutes straight. I recommend you start with your 15-rep max for this exercise.
****Perform sets of 12 for the C1 and C2 exercises for 15 minutes straight. I recommend you start with your 20-rep max for this exercise.
As you can see you are using sub maximal weights for each of these exercises. The “A” exercises are performed for sets of 2 using your 10-rep max and so on. It is extremely important to be conservative with your weights selection as you are literally taking no rest in between sets.
You should only be resting as long as it takes for you to walk back and forth between the two exercise stations. I have to warn you that this workout is very difficult to complete.
At first the lactic acid isn’t so bad. However, unlike many other high-volume training programs the “burn” you feel in your muscles just builds and builds and builds… After the first 20 minutes your poor arms are going to be begging for mercy!
At each subsequent workout your goal is to increase the number of sets that you can do. I want you to perform at least 20 sets for each of the “A” exercises and at least 10 sets for each of the “B” and “C” exercises before you think about increasing the training weights.
Remember, the goal of this routine is to maximize the number of sets that you do in 60 minutes!
Part 6: Doubles Cluster Set
I know for a fact that many, many trainees simply cannot handle the original Poliquin-style cluster sets routine without burning out their central nervous systems.
This is especially true for bodybuilders and other individuals with a more balanced neurotransmitter profile and more slow-twitch muscle fibers.
Fortunately there are ways to modify the original Poliquin-style clusters routine to make it work for people who burn out with low-rep training protocols. One of the simplest ways to do this is to perform sets of 10 with 15-second rest breaks taken after every second rep.
For example here is what a doubles cluster set would look like:
- Perform 2 reps, rest 15 seconds
- Perform 2 reps, rest 15 seconds
- Perform 2 reps, rest 15 seconds
- Perform 2 reps, rest 15 seconds
- Perform 2 reps, done!
In my experience most trainees can perform this training protocol with a weight that represents their 6-rep max.
In other words if you can bench press 300 pounds for 6 reps in regular fashion then you should be able to perform the above doubles cluster set with 300 pounds as well.
Here is a sample upper body workout that you may want to try.
Check it out:
Upper Body Routine
- A1: Standing behind the neck press (shoulder-width grip), 3 x 10**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Supinated shoulder-width chin ups, 3 x 10**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: V-bar dips (upright torso), 3 x 8-10, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: T-bar row, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- C1: Unilateral cable external rotation (arm adducted), 3 x 10-12, 2/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest
- C2: Seated zottman curl, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
**Take a 10-second rest break after the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th reps.
Once again it’s important to select a weight that lets you perform all 3 sets of cluster sets per exercise. You don’t want to be in a situation where you have to reduce the weight for the second and third sets because your muscles are too fatigued.
If you are a bodybuilder who wants to spend 2-4 weeks training to get stronger then the doubles cluster set method would be a GREAT choice.
You may even find that your strength goes up as much as 10% on your key compound exercises after just a few workouts with this superior training method!
Part 7: Muscle Rounds
Muscle rounds are another type of cluster set that were popularized by Dr. Scott Stevenson. Scott is a national level competitive bodybuilder and one of the brightest minds in the fitness industry.
For many years he used Dante Trudel’s DC Training system and was the training partner of IFBB pro David Henry. More recently Scott developed his own comprehensive training system called Fortitude Training.
Scott’s new training system features a wide variety of set types and training methods. However, one of the core concepts of his system is what he calls “muscle rounds.”
The basic idea is to perform 6 sets of 4 reps on an exercise with 10 second rest breaks in between each set. All 6 sets together are counted as one “muscle round.” Normally you would use a weight you can lift for 10+ reps in regular fashion.
Here is Scott giving a demonstration of a muscle round on the t-bar row:
If you find that you are unable to complete 4 reps on a single attempt then you would just perform 3 reps and continue the set as normal.
On the other hand if you make it to your sixth attempt with the same weight and you can perform more than 4 reps then you would rep the weight out for as many repetitions as possible.
Dr. Scott Stevenson has a very effective way of integrating muscle rounds into Fortitude Training. Of course you do not have to use Fortitude Training to take advantage of this superior hypertrophy training method.
Here is a lower body routine featuring muscle rounds that you may want to try. Check it out:
Lower Body Routine
- A1: Bilateral seated leg curl (feet plantar flexed / pointing out), 1 x 24**, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
- B1: Back squat (heels flat / medium stance), 1 x 24**, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
- C1: Leg press, 1 x 24**, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
- D1: Machine hack squat, 1 x 24**, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
- E1: Stiff legged deadlift, 1 x 24**, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
Muscle rounds are very demanding on your nervous system. As a general rule of thumb I recommend you only perform 1 muscle round per exercise.
Of course you can and probably should perform more than 1 exercise per muscle group in a typical muscle round workout.
Many thanks to Dr. Scott Stevenson for popularizing this superior training method. Many of my online coaching clients have benefited tremendously from this unique approach to training.
Part 8: 6 x 3 Cluster Set
Some of you reading this article are primarily interested in getting stronger and naturally gravitate towards low-rep sets. If this describes you then you are going to LOVE this next routine.
The basic idea behind the 6 x 3 cluster sets method is to perform triples with 30 second rest breaks in between sets. You may find that you can use as much as 92-94% of your 1-rep max, or roughly a weight that you can complete for two repetitions.
This method is EXTREMELY demeaning on your central nervous system and is best reserved for peaking your strength on a particular lift.
For example this would be a great method to use when peaking your strength on the squat or bench press for a powerlifting meet.
The 6 x 3 cluster set method is more about peaking your strength on an exercise than it is about building your strength on that exercise. I have a harder time recommending it as an “off-season” program for example.
Here is a great back / triceps workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Back / Triceps Routine
- A1: Wide overhand grip pull ups, 6 x 3**, 3/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Close grip bench press against bands, 6 x 3**, 3/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Barbell dead stop row, 3 x 5-7, 2/1/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- B2: Decline DB extension, 3 x 5-7, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
**Rest 30 seconds in between each rep.
If you are looking to peak your strength on a particular exercise then this routine will do it better than any of the other cluster set routines listed in this article.
I highly recommend it if you have more of a dopamine-dominant neurotransmitter profile or if you generally respond very well to maximal singles and doubles.
Part 9: The 5 To 8 Method
The 5 to 8 method was invented by the greatest strength coach of all time Charles Poliquin. It is actually another interpretation of Dante Trudel’s rest-pause method. The protocol for the 5 to 8 method is as follows:
- Perform 5 reps with your 5-rep max. Your fifth rep should be a grinder but you will not fail. Rest 15 seconds.
- Perform 1 rep with the same weight. Rest 15 seconds.
- Perform 1 rep with the same weight. Rest 15 seconds.
- Perform 1 rep with the same weight. Done!
As you can see you are performing 5 reps and then using short 15-second rest intervals to allow you to perform 3 additional single repetitions to prolong the time under tension of the set.
This is essentially another type of cluster set when you really think about it.
One of the key differences between Charles’ 5 to 8 method relative to Dante’s rest-pause method is that you are not going to fail on any of the attempts. Your 5th rep should be very difficult but you have to complete it without missing or “cheating” the weight up.
The 5 to 8 method works incredibly well for boosting both absolute strength levels and functional hypertrophy.
In fact Charles has said on numerous occasions that the 5 to 8 method is his second-favourite functional hypertrophy training protocol of all time.
A typical workout would feature 3-5 of these “5 to 8” sets.
If you are feeling like Homer Simpson after one-too-many drinks then it is probably better to stick to 3 sets for that particular day. On the other hand if you are feeling like Popeye after he eats a big plate of spinach then you may want to try as many as 5 total “5 to 8” sets per exercise.
Here is a sample chest and biceps workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Chest / Biceps Routine
- A1: 30 degree incline bench press (medium grip), 3-5 x 5/1/1/1**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip), 3-5 x 5/1/1/1**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Flat DB press, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- B2: Standing cable curl (wide / pronated grip), 3 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
**Performed as a Poliquin-style “5 to 8” set as described above.
One of the things that I really, really like about the 5 to 8 method is that it works fantastic for BOTH bodybuilders and powerlifters.
Powerlifters on the other hand will love it as a way to build strength in the offseason while also building a lot of functional muscle mass that will increase their long-term strength potential.
No matter what your training goal is I am confident you can benefit tremendously from a properly designed 5 to 8 routine!
Part 10: Josh Bryant Powerlifting Cluster Sets
Josh Bryant is perhaps best known for his expertise as a powerlifting coach. It seems like almost all of the best bench pressers and powerlifters in the world have worked with Josh Bryant at one point or another to crush their old training PRs.
Josh has a very unique but highly effective way of designing his clients’ peaking routines. I have utilized Josh Bryant-style peaking routines with many of my own powerlifting clients and I can say for a fact that they work unbelievably well.
Josh normally structures his powerlifter’s workouts the following way during a peaking phase:
- Work up to a top set of 1-3 reps
- Perform multiple cluster-style sets focusing on compensatory acceleration
- Supplementary exercises
- Accessory exercises
Josh sometimes has his clients perform all-out overcoming isometric sets as well but that lies beyond the scope of this article.
For example Josh Bryant would commonly have his clients perform 6-10 sets of 2-4 reps immediately after the top set of the day. These sets would be performed with sub maximal weights (roughly 70-85%) and relatively short rest periods (roughly 60 seconds between sets).
Josh says that these cluster-style sets allow you to focus on accelerating the bar as hard as possible. They also help you to reinforce perfect technique on the main exercise.
Here is a sample cluster sets deadlift workout that you might want to use to peak your strength for a powerlifting meet. Check it out:
- A1: Conventional deadlift, 1 x 2**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Conventional deadlift, 8 x 3***, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Barbell row, 3 x 8-10, 1/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- D1: Wide overhand grip cable pulldown, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- E1: Seated cable rope face pull, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- F1: Standing DB shrugs, 3 x 8-10, 1/1/X/2, 60 seconds rest
- G1: 45 degree back extension (eccentric emphasis with DBs), 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
**Performed with 90% of your 1-rep max
***Performed with 75% of your 1-rep max
Please keep in mind that this is just an example of what one week of a Josh Bryant inspired 12-week deadlift peaking program might look like.
Each week the percentages, total training volume etc. would be manipulated so that you are peaking in strength after 10-16 hard weeks of training.
Stay tuned if you are interested in learning more about Josh Bryant powerlifting peaking routines. I have several articles coming in the near future on this exact topic!
Part 11: Eccentric-Only Cluster Sets
I’ve saved the best for last! I said earlier in this article that the Poliquin-style cluster sets routine might be the single greatest training method you can do for all-out strength gains. I still stand by that statement.
However, there is one way to make cluster training even more effective: by combining it with accentuated eccentric training!
The term accentuated eccentric training simply refers to overloading the eccentric portion of an exercise. In my opinion accentuated eccentric training is the number one way to bust through strength and size plateaus for intermediate to advanced trainees.
I believe in eccentric training so much that I have written the world’s top 2 articles on the subject:
Combining the Poliquin-style cluster sets protocol with eccentric training may in fact be the best training method in the world for building absolute strength. There are many easy to do this but one of the best is with the help of weight releasers.
Weight releasers are giant metal hooks that attach to either side of a barbell. During the eccentric phase of an exercise they make the barbell much heavier.
However, once you reach the bottom of the exercise they drop off so that you are lifting nothing but the barbell.
Here is powerlifting guru Louie Simmons giving a demonstration for this superior training tool:
Here is a sample Poliquin-style cluster sets routine featuring weight releasers. This “push” routine is designed to increase your upper body and bench pressing strength extremely quickly. Check it out:
Upper Body Routine
- A1: Bench press with weight releasers (competition grip)**, 5 x 5****, 10/0/X/0, 240 seconds rest
- B1: 45 degree incline DB press, 2 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Decline ez-bar extension with chains, 2 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- D1: Seated DB external rotation, 2 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
**Use 70% of your 1-rep max on the barbell and an additional 10-30% of your 1-rep max on each weight releaser. The 10-30% represents the weight of the weight releaser AND the extra weight on the weight releaser.
**The exact percentage you use depends on your eccentric strength levels. If you can lower the weight under control over 10 seconds on each rep then it is an appropriate weight.
*****Performed as a Poliquin-style cluster sets protocol. Rest 15 seconds in between each of the five reps. Use this time to re-rack the weight releasers on either side of the barbell. See the video below for more details.
I highly recommend you watch the training videos for this routine, particularly the video for the bench press. The athlete is actually doing a cluster set with weight releasers and demonstrates this exercise technique absolutely perfectly.
Not surprisingly this athlete was trained by Christian Thibadeau, another huge fan of both cluster sets and weight releasers. I prefer to use a wide variety of training methods with my clients regardless of whether they are primarily interested in size or strength gains.
After all, a training routine is only as good as the time it takes for you to adapt to it.
However, if I had to pick the king of training methods for all-out strength gains it would be the Poliquin-style cluster sets method with accentuated eccentrics. This method is THAT good!
I should warn you that this type of supra-maximal eccentric training routine is very demanding and should only be attempted by trainees with 2 or more years of hardcore training experience under their belts.
To learn more about the possible disadvantages of accentuated eccentric training you can check out the following article:
Cluster sets is one of the most versatile and effective training methods ever invented. It seems like every year a strength or physique coach comes up with a new iteration of this classic training tool.
If you are at all interested in building size or strength then I highly recommend you give one (or more!) of these routines an honest try for 3-6 workouts.
If you are only going to use one high-intensity training technique in your long-term programming then let it be cluster sets!
“I take inspiration from everyone and everything. I’m inspired by current champions, former champions, true competitors, people dedicated to their dream, hard workers, dreamers, believers, achievers.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training journey!
Chad Wesley Smith is one of the brightest minds in the fitness industry today. Chad has competed at the absolute highest levels in three different sports: shot put, powerlifting and strongman....
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