Build Explosive Power With Cluster Sets

STACK Expert David Scott-McDowell says if you are looking to increase the number of quality reps at a given load, try cluster sets.

When designing a strength and conditioning program to improve performance, the most important aspect is to introduce appropriate training variables in a systematic and logical order. This ensures that we stimulate the improvement of specific physical capacities. Planned variation is an important factor for the program to encourage adaptation, avoid overtraining, potentiate subsequent training phases, promote recovery and elevate performance.

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Methods such as cluster training, drop sets, and rest pause sets offer ways to introduce variation in a training program. Typically, strength and conditioning coaches have a large toolbox they can draw from for incorporating variation into training. The toolbox may include exercise selection, training intensity variation, volume manipulation, training session density, and even rest periods. Specific changes in training can lead to more rapid improvements in performance and minimize the monotony often associated with training. A good rule of thumb states that the higher the individual's training age, the more quickly he or she will adapt to the current training program, and the more important systematic variation becomes.

Manipulating set structure can be a powerful way to add variation. I have previously written on rest pause training as a way to manipulate set structure. Manipulating the rest pause structure to facilitate strength and power gains is typically referred to as cluster training.

Cluster training is performed with lower rep ranges and heavier intensities than typical rest pause configurations. The goal of cluster training is to perform more reps with a heavier load at a higher speed to increase the overall intensity of the workout and promote increased strength and power development.

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How Does Cluster Training Accomplish This?

Build Explosive Power With Cluster Sets

Similar to rest pause training, short pauses/rests are used to promote some recovery, which allows for higher loads to be used on subsequent reps. Two most common methods are used for this type of training: undulated and flat-loaded. Typical cluster training can be performed for between 2 and 5 reps, for 1+ sets.

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Undulated clusters involve taking short rests (10 to 30 seconds) between reps where the weight is increased 1 to 2.5% each rep. The idea is that the previous rep will potentiate the upcoming one. A typical undulated cluster set may be programmed like this:

1 /3 @ 87.5/90/92.5% (30s), which means:

  • 1 rep @ 87.5% 1RM
  • Rest 30 seconds
  • 1 rep @ 90% 1RM
  • Rest 30 seconds
  • 1 rep @ 92.5% 1RM
  • Rest 3 to 5 minutes
  • Repeat

Flat-loaded cluster sets are performed for similar reasons. The only difference is that the load does not change between reps. A flat-loaded cluster may be programmed like this:

1/3 @ 90% (30s) which means:

  • 1 rep @ 90% 1RM
  • Rest 30 seconds
  • 1 rep @ 90% 1RM
  • Rest 30 seconds
  • 1 rep @ 90% 1RM
  • Rest 3 to 5 minutes
  • Repeat

Using clusters promotes partial recovery between reps and subsequently produces higher power outputs of each rep compared to traditional continuous reps. The short rest periods minimize the accumulation of blood lactates, which is an enemy of power production. Accumulation of lactate affect muscle contraction negatively.

Clusters are best used on Olympic lifts and power lifts. These types of exercises require great coordination and skill. The short rest times allow the athlete to refocus on technique and minimize accumulated fatigue between reps. This allows the lift to be performed with higher loads more safely, thereby increasing the total number of good reps in each training session. Furthermore, this set and rep configuration is best employed by advanced athletes, since they possess the requisite training age to benefit from the use of higher loads. Beginner and intermediate athletes do not yet need to resort to advanced methods for continued progress.

If you are looking for a way to increase the number of quality reps at a given load in your workout, give cluster sets a try.


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Topics: WORKOUTS | EXERCISING | OLYMPIC LIFTS | POWER | ADAPTATION | RECOVERY | LIFTS | INTENSITY | FATIGUE