By special request, I have been asked to share my experience with cluster training. I was first introduced to cluster training by Jason Kaiman, who learned about it through his trainer. Jason’s trainer is a highly qualified and certified trainer of the Poliquin School.
My first experience with cluster training was rather abrupt. It was a “do this” workout with little detail added to the theory or science behind the method. This is in no way a slight to Jason – after all, who wants to talk science when you’re on the gym floor and ready to throw some weight around? I enjoyed the workout so much that I had to know more about it.
Cluster training, also known as inter-repetition training, is a method of training that incorporates rest/pause into a working set. This increases the overall intensity of the lift using prolonged repetitions between sets. I came to learn that there are a couple forms of cluster training, each specifically tailored to specific goals. I was introduced to the Classic (Strength) Method.
In the classic method, you start with a weight that is equivalent to your 3RM (a weight you can do a maximum of three repetitions with, usually 90 percent of your 1RM). After one repetition, rack the weight and rest for about 10 to 15 seconds, then perform another repetition. Do a total of five repetitions and then take a three-minute rest. That is one set. Jason and I performed five sets, which is typical, although I did find some literature that instructed anything from three to five sets.
Although you are not dealing with the heaviest of weight, this is a very taxing exercise and you will find yourself exhausted by the end of it. Be sure to warm up properly prior to beginning your sets. A standard 10 to 15 minute warm-up is sufficient to include basic stretches and light lifts.
Cluster training can also be tailored for an emphasis on hypertrophy. This is a higher volume training method that is performed with a lighter weight. Using a weight equivalent to your 6RM, perform five continuous repetitions, rack the weight for 10 to 15 seconds, perform two more continuous repetitions, rack the weight for 10 to 15 seconds, then perform one final repetition. You end up performing eight total repetitions. Rest for three minutes and that is one set. As before, the norm is three to five sets. I have come to really enjoy this particular method. I’m big on volume and have found that I get the best results when I tailor my workouts to move through many rep ranges – essentially training for strength and size.
Finally, cluster training can be performed with an emphasis on power. To train for power you want to train in the 90 percent range of your 1RM. Much like with strength, the rest/pause will offer a small window to recover enough that you can execute the lift with enough force to push the weight while remaining in the power training zone; however, to fully take advantage of the power training method you need to change the repetition pattern. Rather than performing a single repetition before the rest, you perform two repetitions, rack the weight for ten seconds, and then perform two more repetitions. Do this four times and then rest for three minutes. This is one set.
Why does cluster training work?
There are a couple of theories on how cluster training works. The science of it all goes beyond my expertise, so the following explanations are simply summaries of the results I found in my research.
ATP, or Adenosine Triphosphate, is the energy used for muscular activity that is stored in muscle cells. When you exercise, the energy that is used to execute the lift is provided by the ATP system. When you take a rest between set, the ATP system start to recharge and recover, which is why you are able to perform subsequent sets. It is said that three minutes is required to fully recharge, however, it can be up to 70 percent recharged after just 30 seconds. The rest/pause of a cluster set lets you take advantage of the energy system by allowing it to charge just enough to continue to perform repetitions with a heavier weight.
When you exercise and lift towards a greater level of fatigue, lactic acid starts to build in the muscle. Rest/pause allows you to alleviate the fatigue amidst the set to allow for a more forceful lift. Longer sets with higher reps produce more lactic acid which increases fatigue. A term labeled Post-activation Potentiation (PAP) is used to describe an increase in force production of the muscle following a previous muscular contraction. Cluster sets allow you to take advantage of PAP.
Implementing Cluster Training
You can use cluster training as often or as little as you like. You can base your entire workout around cluster training, or simply pick and choose certain exercises that use the method. I personally do not base an entire workout around cluster training. I vary my workout so frequently that I actually intermittently use cluster training as a “muscle shocker.”
Cluster training works best when performing an exercise that involves a rack and/or bar. This makes it easier to re-rack and rest between repetitions as opposed to picking up and putting down a dumbbell. To really shock my system I love sticking a set of cluster dead lifts into the mix! However many exercises you choose to perform for a set muscle group, it’s entirely up to you how you want to train it.
Cluster training is very taxing. You may choose to fully incorporate this method, but adequate rest will be needed. Be sure to allow at least two days before hitting a muscle again. At the beginning you will most likely have to go longer than two days. My workouts cycle on a weekly basis, so once a week I have a chest emphasis, shoulder emphasis, back emphasis and so on. By resting a week between training the same muscles I don’t experience any fatigue, pain or over training.
I have used cluster training in both cut and bulk phases. There is no difference between when you choose to implement the workout. The only difference you may find is that you will have greater energy and the ability to lift heavier on a bulk.
The supporting literature behind this method is very interesting. I highly recommend to you continue your research into the science and variations of this technique. You will find a wealth of information beyond my level of expertise that will further explain the technical components of the exercise. I look forward to hearing about your experiences with this method. Feel free to share on Twitter by tagging @LifeStrength, @JAstorina and @Team_Kratos.
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