Cluster Sets for More Gains in Less Time

Close-Up Of Stop WatchIf you’re reading this website, it means you believe that getting strong is important. You understand that strength should be a priority in any exercise program, whether you want to lose fat, gain muscle or get better at a sport.

But truthfully, the majority of gym-goers don’t care about getting insanely strong.

And while I can’t relate to that, I understand that most people just want to get leaner and feel better. That’s cool. But here’s the problem – getting really strong can be really time consuming. Much more time consuming than say, the time allotted for a personal training session, which has been and always will be 60 minutes.

Luckily, there’s an outrageously simple way to get strong quickly: cluster sets.

This simple technique, while not new at all, is something I’ve been using much more frequently with clients with tremendous results. Read on to discover how you can significantly cut down on your training time while still seeing results.

THE REALIZATION

When I train for powerlifting, I never superset my main exercise with another exercise. I do a heavy set of low reps, rest as long as needed, then do the next set. Sometimes I’ll rest as long as 5 minutes between sets. It might take me an hour just to do my first exercise.

While this is great for getting strong, it would be stupid to do this with a personal training client because:

  • They’re paying good money to exercise, not rest for 75 percent of the session.
  • They don’t care about maximal strength.
  • It’s boring.

So recently, I had the grand realization that I needed to keep my clients moving while still getting them strong. That’s where clusters come in.

WHAT ARE CLUSTER SETS?

Cluster sets are simply multiple low-rep sets with short rest between, separated by longer rest periods between clusters. Think of them as “sets within a set.”

For example, if you’re doing a cluster written as 4 x (3×3), you’d do 3 reps, rest briefly, do 3 more reps, rest briefly, do 3 more reps, set done. Rest longer, and do this 4 times total.

You can mix and match just about any combination of sets and reps, but my favorite approach is to stick with low reps (1-5) and stay within 9-20 reps per cluster.

Here’s my almost-twin and fellow coach Sean St. Onge doing a squat cluster. As you can see, he does 4 sets of 1 rep with short rest, then repeats that 5 times. That’s 20 total reps, but he can use much heavier weight than if he did, say, 2 sets of 10.

Squat clusters 5(4×1)@290 compliments of coach @bonvec01 @212healthandperformance

A post shared by Sean (@seanstongeofthestoneage) on

THE BENEFITS OF CLUSTERS

So why would you want to do clusters instead of just doing traditional sets and reps? Here’s why:

  • Efficiency: You’ll get more work done in less time.
  • More volume: You can accumulate more volume (which means more #gainz) with heavier weight because of the rest periods within each set.
  • Better technique: The rest periods let you stay fresh and maintain better technique within a set. Think about it – if your 1-rep max squat is 400 pounds, could you keep better form doing 300 pounds for 10 reps in a row or 5 “sets” of 2 reps within a cluster?
  • Accountability: When you’re on the clock with strict rest periods, you’re less likely to fart around and waste valuable training time. As soon as the clock counts down to zero, you’re back under the bar.
  • Variety: Because you’ll spend less time on your main strength exercise, you’ll have more time to do other exercises, making the session more interesting.

SAMPLE CLUSTER PROGRESSIONS

Clusters can be used to build strength, size or technique, but my favorite application is, of course, to build maximum strength in the squat, bench and deadlift.

I typically like to use the same set/rep scheme for the squat and bench press, as I’ve always found that they respond well to similar volume and intensity. For the deadlift, I like a bit less volume and more intensity.

Here’s a sample Box Squat cluster that I recently prescribed for a personal training client. He’s getting stronger but his main focus is fat loss. We don’t have tons of time to just squat since we need to devote a good amount of time to conditioning.

General Fitness/Fat Loss Focus – Novice Lifter – Squat Clusters

Week Clusters Sets x Reps Rest (between sets) Rest (between clusters)
1 4 (4×4) 20 sec 60 sec
2 4 (3×3) 20 sec 60 sec
3 3 (4×2) 10 sec 60 sec
4 3 (3×2) 10 sec 60 sec

As you can see, the total volume goes down each week, but the rest is always short to keep things moving. He’s doing 64 total reps the first week and 18 by the last week, which lets us use a wide range of weights over the course of four weeks.

This next cluster is for a fellow coach who’s pretty experienced but extremely crunched for time. He’s got 45 minutes tops for each session, so we’ve gotta get a lot of work done quickly. Here’s what he does for Deadlifts:

Strength Focus – Intermediate Lifter – Deadlift Clusters

Week Clusters Sets x Reps Rest (Between Sets)  Rest (Between Clusters)
1 5 (3×3) 20 sec 2 min
2 5 (3×2) 20 sec 2 min
3 5 (5×1) 20 sec 2 min
4 5 (4×1) 20 sec 2 min

The volume here is much lower, letting him use heavier weight, but ultimately, he’s doing a lot more volume with a given weight than he’d be able to do if he did all the reps within a single set (i.e. 5 sets of 9 reps instead of 5 clusters of 3×3).

Finally, here’s a Bench Press cluster I wrote for a more advanced lifter who’s in more of a high volume/submaximal intensity phase. He recently finished a heavy training cycle where he tested 5-rep-maxes, so we know approximately what his maxes are. That said, I assigned percentages to each cluster so there’s no guess work for how much weight he should use.

Volume Focus – Intermediate/Advanced Lifter – Bench Press Clusters

Week Clusters Sets x Reps Intensity Rest (Sets / Clusters)
1 5 (3×4) 60% 20 sec / 2 min
2 5 (3×3) 65% 20 sec / 2 min
3 5 (5×2) 70% 20 sec / 2 min
4 5 (4×2) 75% 20 sec / 2 min

He accumulates a lot of volume each session (between 40 and 60 total reps), which will build some extra muscle and give him a break from handling heavier weights.

MORE WORK, LESS TIME

These are just a few examples of how you can use clusters, so if you’re in need of a change from the traditional sets-and-reps approach, give it a try. You’ll get in and out of the gym faster while still adding size and strength.

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