A while back I had the opportunity to attend a conference and listen to some of the best college strength and conditioning coaches in the country spill some of their secrets for success. The last guy to talk was Jay Hooten from Northwestern University. His topic centered around how he trains the football team, efficiently training 90 guys in a one-hour span while still getting in quality lifts. His big secret: Cluster Training.
I'd heard of cluster training before, but never really used it in my training. Honestly, I have no idea why because it's awesome!
Cluster training involves using short, intra-set rest intervals ranging anywhere from 5 seconds to 20 seconds.
In traditional training, you do something like 3 sets of 10 reps and rest 1-2 minutes between sets. In cluster training, the goal is to achieve more "time under tension"—by getting in as many quality reps as possible in less time. You break that single set of 10 reps into 4 mini-sets of 5 reps, with a 10-second break between mini-sets. Essentially, you get in 20 reps with a weight that would typically be used for a 5-rep max.
It might not seem like much, but I guarantee once you try it you'll fall in love. By putting clusters in your training you basically "cheat" a set and perform more reps than you normally would be able to.
There are a number of ways to set up cluster training, but its key principle is short rest intervals. When strength is your main goal, keep the load high (at or above 90% of your 1RM) and the reps low (mini-sets of 1-2 reps), and use shorter rest periods (10-15 seconds). In the case of hypertrophy, clusters allow you to take a weight that you'd normally use for building strength (e.g., a 5RM), and push the number of reps you can do with it into the more hypertrophy-friendly range of 10-12 reps.
RELATED: How to Perform Cluster Sets
Here's an example of the set/rep scheme I would use if I were looking to improve strength:
4(2×2,2×3)-10 sec w/ 5RM
What that algebra-looking equation means is: you do 4 total clusters (first number), each consisting of 4 mini-sets—2 mini-sets of two reps and 2 of three reps (numbers in parentheses). The last number is the amount of time you rest between mini-sets.
Muscle Gain Cluster
4(4×5)-15 sec w/ 7RM
Nothing different except that the weight you use will be significantly lighter.
Still confused? Check out the video.
Clusters are an awesome addition to your workout if you're pressed for time, stuck in a rut, or just want to feel extremely pumped. There really is no wrong way to do them. Just mess around with the rest and rep intervals until you find one that fits you well.
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