Keep Going With Cluster Sets -
Written by Mike Over

Im OVER it.straight sets just need some fine tuning sometimes. Being in the gym for over 15 years, I’ve grown accustomed to how the mind and body works. I’ve worked with thousands of people over the years including professionals and everyday busy moms and dads.

One thing that I have come to find is that boredom in training is bound to happen at some point. You can have all the “experts” out there say what they want on how it’s what gets results and you must stick to the basics to progress… but at the end of the day, being consistent is what matters most and I’ve found a love in programming to help my clients and myself better adhere to their training and even break plateaus.

Im OVER it, with straight sets. Many of us just don’t have 90+ minutes to spend tip toeing around the gym scrolling social media between sets. We need to get the most work done in the least amount of time possible, so I’ve grown on a few things to maximize performance and one of them happens to be cluster sets.

Cluster sets can be a useful tool for increasing one’s total work and volume during a workout. They allow for the potential to perform more reps with certain percentages while attempting to avoid form breakdown.

What are they: Cluster sets are made up of smaller micro sets within each set. They have short intra-set rest periods between 5-30 seconds. For example, lifting a set of 8 reps, but splitting it into two mini-sets of 4 reps with a 10-sec rest in between.

It is important to note that cluster sets differ from normal sets in that:

  • Cluster Sets Have Intra-set Rest Periods (can be 10-45 seconds)
  • Cluster Sets Maintain Higher Rep Speed Than Straight Sets as the goal is to keep velocity HIGH
  • Cluster Sets Maintains Lower RPE Reps Than Straight Sets
  • Straight Sets Activates Higher Threshold Motor Units Than Cluster Sets

Here are some simple examples of how you can structure a cluster set for the following training modality:

  • Power: 4-5 total reps, so a cluster could look like: 2-2-1 or 2-1-1.
  • Strength: 5-7 reps, so a cluster could look like: 2-2-1 or 3-2-2.
  • Hypertrophy: 8-10 reps, so a cluster could look like: 3-3-2 or 4-3-3.

Some key things that they can help with:

Improved Performance

A review of cluster sets in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research asserts that cluster sets can reduce fatigue in a training session, leading to more consistent performance in the gym. (1) Like I mentioned, when you have something new and exciting to try, you will naturally increase dopamine levels and a new stimulation can be sent to elevate your gym performance.

More Total Volume

We discussed it above, but working with higher intensities can create a limitation when aiming to hit higher reps. Cluster sets work to displace work over smaller sets, allowing an athlete to hit more reps at a greater intensity. A 2015 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology demonstrates that cluster training compared to traditional sets promoted greater total work volume and higher average power. (2) Basically, you can get more work done in a fraction of the time. A key for myself being a dad of a 2- and 3-year-old and many men I work with.

May Help Increase Strength

More research compared subjects who followed traditional sets (4 x 10) and intra-rest interval sets (8 x 5) throughout 12-weeks. Authors found that both groups increased their strength in the tested lifts and saw a shift in muscle fibers, but the intra-rest set group saw slightly greater increases in strength. Although, researchers note that this could be due to the groups shifting their 1RMs every four weeks, thus allowing the five-rep group to increase quicker, as it’s fewer reps per set. (3)

We are not saying this is a gold standard for increasing strength, but it can serve as a way to help, since you can accumulate more volume in a shorter time span.

Greater Total Power

One way to measure power is your ability to lift heavy weights as fast as possible. Since cluster sets have you lift fewer reps at a time and rest more than traditional sets, you’ll be able to lift heavier weights at a faster rate, skyrocketing your power output.

Additionally, I like to use them to break plateaus and eliminate boredom in phases of programming. You can break past sticking points, allowing yourself to lift a little heavier to help you get through certain moves you might find yourself stagnant in.

Many of us want to get the most out of our training, and as a coach in the industry it’s my job to find the most efficient and effective ways for this to happen. One of them, in my opinion, is routinely programming clusters into some of your main lifts and watch yourself become slightly more aroused to train, sustain, and stay consistent.

What do you think? Have you done cluster sets? What are some of your favorite methods?

  1. Tufano, James & Brown, Lee & Haff, Guy. (2017). Theoretical and Practical Aspects of Different Cluster Set Structures: A Systematic Review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 31. 848-867. 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001581.
  2. Oliver JM, Kreutzer A, Jenke S, Phillips MD, Mitchell JB, Jones MT. Acute response to cluster sets in trained and untrained men. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2015 Nov;115(11):2383-93. doi: 10.1007/s00421-015-3216-7. Epub 2015 Jul 17. PMID: 26183257.
  3. Oliver, Jonathan & Jagim, Andrew & Sanchez, Adam & Mardock, Michelle & Kelly, Katherine & Meredith, Holly & Smith, Gerald & Greenwood, Mike & Parker, Janet & Riechman, Steven & Fluckey, James & Crouse, Stephen & Kreider, Richard. (2013). Greater Gains in Strength and Power With Intraset Rest Intervals in Hypertrophic Training. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 27. 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182891672.
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