Cluster Sets for Gains
Rep schemes determine how your body grows and if you want to get as strong as possible, you should be doing cluster sets. Bodybuilders do tons of volume to maximize hypertrophy. Distance athletes train across long distances to improve cardiovascular endurance. If you want to improve absolute strength and increase your one rep maxes, you should incorporate cluster sets into your training.
When looking for a rep scheme to base your workout on, make sure you have specific goals in place first. Without an initial goal, how are you going to know how to train? Cluster sets are a very high intensity form of training, not because of volume, but because of the high percentage loads. Keep reading to learn about cluster sets, what kinds of athletes use them, and if you should make them part of your training.
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What Are Cluster Sets?
Cluster sets are just another type of rep scheme that is used to achieve a certain adaptation. That adaptation that we want to achieve with cluster sets is to maximize strength and power. Since our goal is to boost overall strength, it makes sense that cluster sets are done with maximal strength lifts. This means choosing a heavy bar lift like bench press, squat, or deadlift to use for these types of sets.
So what does a cluster set look like? A cluster set means taking 80-85% of our one rep max and doing 6-8 reps at that specific weight. The reps will not be done all in one set though. The goal is to do 6-8 singles on a short period of rest like 30 seconds.
The reason for doing rep schemes like this is because it is very difficult to do a lot of volume at such a high intensity. When we take those 30 seconds of rest in between sets, it helps us get volume work in while still being able to lift a high percentage of weight. This allows us to recruit a lot of high threshold motor units (HTMU).
Why You Should Use Cluster Sets
Cluster sets are a great way to develop overall strength and increase peak athleticism. The premise of using cluster sets comes down to some advanced physiology. The physiology that is related to cluster sets are the body’s stress governors: muscle spindles and golgi tendon organs (GTOs).
Muscle spindles and GTOs are sensors in our body that govern how much weight we can lift or how much physical stress we can put on our bodies. These sensors will tell the brain to shut off if a stimulus is too heavy or too much for the body to handle where there can be potential for some kind of injury.
Elite level athletes will tend to have these governors that kick in far later than people that aren;t as athletic. This means that these athletes can handle a lot more load and a lot more stress on their body before the body starts to hinder their performance. Cluster sets are a way to help people that are less athletic develop their nervous system to handle more stress.
Without a well developed nervous system, we will see people’s technique start to break down and lack the ability to consistently hit very heavy weight. Cluster sets are a great option for helping a beginner or less experienced athlete strengthen their nervous system to accept large amounts of stress more frequently.
Cluster sets are something that we have used in the past and continue to use with athletes that are working toward maximal power production. A recent example of success that we have seen with cluster sets is Sam Mattis.
Sam Mattis is a Garage Strength athlete and also Olympian discus thrower. A few years ago, we were faced with two main goals heading into the Indoor National Championships which was in December. The two main goals were to help him add a little bit of weight and increase his overall strength so that he could perform really well at the biggest competition of the winter season.
We used cluster sets to build strength, size, and increase body weight. Obviously cluster sets were not the sole contents of his weight training, but they played an integral role in how he performed. Fast forward to the meet, Sam had added 10 lbs of body weight, hit multiple squat PRs throughout the program, and went on to win the Indoor National Championship that year with a career PR throw. This just goes to show how cluster sets can translate into overall strength and power sports.
Hardest Rep Scheme for Lifting
Due to our success with Sam and his cluster set programming, we developed the Sam Mattis Cluster Set. This is a specific way of doing cluster sets that is aimed toward his goals of adding weight, increasing muscle size, and gaining strength.
This version of cluster sets is actually going to involve two sets of clusters at 83% of the one rep max for the lift that is chosen. Again, the lift should be something that is a maximal effort lift like squat, bench press, or deadlift.
The first cluster is going to be 5 sets of doubles at 83% of your one rep max. The rest period will be 30 seconds rest between sets. So as soon as you finish that last rep, the timer starts on the 30 second clock. And 30 seconds rest does not mean prepare and start getting set for your lift after 30 seconds. The rest period means you should be taking the first rep of the next set exactly 30 seconds after you finish the last rep of the previous set. No messing around here, the timing has to be perfect.
Once the first cluster of doubles is finished, take 5-6 minutes rest. The rest will allow your body to recover from the fatigue, but then it’s back to work with the back half cluster. The second cluster will consist of 5 singles, starting at 83%.
This is where you can start to increase weight depending on how the lifts are feeling. If you see and feel like the lifts are shooting up, you can start to add 10 pounds each set. Although if the weight is not moving as well and there is a struggle, then stay at that 83% threshold for all the singles of the second cluster.
Concluding Cluster Sets
Cluster sets should not be an everyday occurrence or training structure, just because the intensity is so high. The body will need to recover from that very high intensity day. Even with the rest of the workout, there should be a lot of accessories involved after finishing the cluster set portion of the workout.
Once during the training week, maybe 2-3 days after the day you did clusters, you should incorporate an athlete day. This is a very light day where you focus on technical coordination and explosive exercises. This means jumps, plyometrics, sprints, and acceleration movements. This athlete day will also gear the body up for the next day of heavy clusters.
This brings us back to the discussion of muscle spindles and GTOs. As we recover from the heavy cluster days, we will develop that adaptation overtime to handle more stress and handle more frequent high intensity days.
If you want to see how cluster sets can be incorporated into your training and when you should be doing them, sign up for the Peak Strength app and get customized programming in your pocket. You don’t have to be a thrower to do cluster sets, so establish the goals for your sport and see if they will be a good fit for your program.
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Welcome to the Garage Strength Blog, where it is my goal to provide you with the experience and knowledge I've gained in the strength and conditioning world over many years of learning from both successes and failures. I train elite-level athletes in a multitude of sports from the high school to professional levels, already producing 5 Olympics and 30+ National Champions. If you want to be the next champion I train, check out my strength programs below!
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