CrossFit is a unique sport. It involves beginner-friendly simple movements like the air squat, shoulder press, and kettlebell swings. On the flip side, it also incorporates demanding exercises such as rope climbs, pig flips, and Olympic lifts (clean and jerk and snatch) that get elite athletes on their knees.
Most CrossFit WODs (workout of the day) consist of circuits that combine two or more movements. The CrossFit cluster takes this a step further, merging the thruster with the clean into a single exercise.
Interestingly, the thruster is a combination of two exercises — the front squat and the push press. Adding the clean to the mix makes the cluster a blend of three compound (multi-joint) movements.
CrossFit has set itself apart by requiring its athletes to perform unique and challenging compound exercises that help you work your entire body in a short time. The cluster fits the bill perfectly.
In this article, we go over the fundamentals of the CrossFit cluster, and everything you need to know about it to master the movement, including its benefits, correct form, common mistakes, variations, and the muscles worked during this exercise.
What is a CrossFit Cluster?
A CrossFit cluster combines two exercises — the clean and the thruster. The compound exercise works your entire body. Most WODs have just the right amount of clusters as chippers or in a circuit to destroy you by the end of the workout.
Each cluster begins from the ground. You must lift the bar to your hip height and catch it in the front rack position at the bottom of a squat. The rest of the movement is the same as the thruster. From the bottom of the front squat, stand up by extending your knees and driving through your midfoot. As you’re about to achieve full knee extension, use the momentum to drive the bar overhead and lock out your elbows. Return the bar to the front rack position.
In the thruster, you would go right into a squat after catching the bar and repeat for the recommended reps. However, you will return the bar to the floor with each rep while doing the cluster. Adding the cleans makes the cluster much more demanding than the thrusters.
You must follow the perfect form while performing the cluster to avoid unnecessary strain on your lower back. Lifting with a rounded back is one of the most common mistakes while doing this exercise.
Muscles Worked During CrossFit Cluster
The CrossFit cluster is a full-body exercise, recruiting almost every muscle fiber in your body. It is such an effective compound exercise that we think this section should be titled “Muscles not worked in a CrossFit Cluster.” Nonetheless, here are the muscles stimulated in this exercise:
The cluster works your quads during the initial lift off the floor; your glutes and hamstrings are activated as you get into the squat after catching the bar. This exercise is a complete leg builder that will help you add strength and size to your lower body.
While performing the cluster, you’ll experience latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, teres major and minor, and trapezius muscle engagement. Since this is a hip-hinge movement, you’ll also feel lower back stimulation.
From pulling the bar off the floor and pressing it overhead, you’ll experience shoulder engagement. Cycle through the cluster reps, and you’ll feel a sick anterior and lateral deltoid pump.
The first half of the movement involves pulling the bar to the front rack, resulting in biceps engagement. The second half requires you to press the bar overhead, which will fire up your triceps.
Performing a clean, especially while lifting heavier, requires a strong core. Your midriff and stabilizers will also be in action as you press the bar overhead and complete a lockout. Folks that lack a solid core will have trouble completing a heavy overhead lockout.
Benefits of CrossFit Cluster
Adding the cluster to your exercise arsenal entails the following benefits:
Boosts Your Skills
CrossFit involves a lot of skills. Most WODs involve a healthy chunk of high-skill weightlifting moves such as the Olympic lifts and gymnastics moves like handstand walks and ring muscle-ups.
The cluster helps you improve at Olympic lifts by incorporating the clean, front squat, and overhead press into a single movement. It will aid in improving your technique and get you better results faster.
The cluster is a full-body exercise that will help you build overall strength and muscle mass. This compound exercise will improve your functionality, making you better at other exercises and day-to-day activities.
The cluster will also improve your metabolic conditioning, boosting your performance in demanding workouts.
Helps Build Strength and Muscle Mass
The compound exercise will boost your strength and muscle mass. You must, however, program your workouts accordingly. Stay in the 1-5 rep range to focus on strength. On the other hand, the 8-12 range is optimal for hypertrophy. 
Enhances Endurance and Stamina
Perform high-rep sets of clusters, and you’d be gasping for breath. Adding cluster ladders to your WODs will help you build stamina and endurance, translating to better performance in demanding workouts.
There are several moving parts in the cluster. You need to clean the barbell off the floor, perform a squat, and then do an overhead press. Doing this exercise regularly will help improve your hand-eye coordination.
How To Do a CrossFit Cluster
The CrossFit cluster is a complex lift. You must dial in your technique to get the best bang for your buck. There will be a lot of tips and tricks, so pay close attention. Here is how to perform the cluster with the perfect form:
- Place a barbell against your shins and stand upright with a shoulder-wide stance.
- Grab the bar using a shoulder-wide hook grip. Your hip crease should be below your knees crease. This will help you use your quads in the initial phase of the lift.
- Your chest should be open, and you should look straight ahead while at the bottom of the lift.
- Pull the bar to your hip level while keeping it close to your body by driving through your midfoot.
- Pull the bar faster as it crosses your knees, and you stand upright by extending your knees.
- The bar should make contact with your hips. At this point, lean back slightly, generate momentum by getting on your heels, and pull the bar toward your shoulders.
- In one motion, jump your feet wide and get under the bar to catch it in the front rack position at the bottom of the squat.
- Get out of the hole explosively by driving through your midfoot.
- Press the bar overhead as you reach the top of the movement.
- Move your head through your arms to achieve a lockout.
- Lower the bar to a front rack position.
- Repeat for reps.
CrossFit Cluster Tips
- Pull the slack out of the bar at the bottom by pulling the bar slightly off the floor. This will help ensure a smooth upward movement.
- You can skip jumping your feet out if you are comfortable with your initial stance and can use it to push the weight overhead.
- Your elbows should trace over the bar in the initial part of the lift and drop below the bar as you catch it in a squat. This will help you keep control of the barbell.
- Avoid rounding your back or looking down in the initial phase of the cluster, as it can put unnecessary strain on your neck.
- Driving through your heels or toes will throw you off balance. Drive through your midfoot to maintain your center of gravity.
- Target Muscle Groups: Back, Legs, Shoulders, Arms, and Core
- Type: Strength
- Mechanics: Compound
- Equipment: Barbell
- Difficulty: Intermediate
- Best Rep Range: 8-12 Reps
Common Mistakes While Performing a CrossFit Cluster
Stay clear of the following cluster errors for optimal gains and to avoid injuries:
Like all the other exercises, you only get better at the cluster with practice. Since this is a compound movement, lifters tend to make several mistakes initially. You must not yank the bar off the floor in the first half of the lift, as it can throw you off balance.
Keep your chin tucked and your eyes locked straight ahead throughout the exercise. Tilting your head toward the ceiling or the floor will again make the lift unstable. Plus, many lifters get on their toes too soon. You must wait for the bar to reach your hip level before using your feet to generate extra momentum.
Not Warming Up
The cluster is a full-body exercise, meaning a lot can go wrong while performing this exercise. Many people increase their odds of injury by not warming up before a workout. You must spend 10-15 minutes warming up before a training session for optimal performance.
Furthermore, compound lifts like the cluster require a decent amount of mobility. You must work on improving your flexibility and mobility to get better at the Olympic lifts.
Going Too Heavy
This is one of the most common mistakes lifters make while doing the cluster. Since this exercise is a combination of three lifts, many people load the bar with more weight than they can handle, assuming that they can muscle through the lift. However, letting your ego get the better of you jeopardizes your form and puts you at a greater risk of injury.
Variations and Alternatives of CrossFit Cluster
Use the following cluster variations and alternatives to add variety to your training regimen:
This cluster variation uses dumbbells instead of a barbell. Although many lifters might think it is easier than the conventional cluster, it is not the case. The dumbbell cluster requires a different skill.
- Grab a dumbbell in each hand and stand upright with a shoulder-wide stance.
- Push your hips back, hinge at your hips, and bend your knees to lower the dumbbells to your floor. Place the dumbbells on the outside of your feet at the starting position.
- Lift the dumbbell to your knees by driving through your quads and midfoot.
- Drive your hips forward and extend your knees as the dumbbells cross the knees.
- Generate momentum by lifting your heels off the floor when the dumbbells reach your hip level.
- Drop under the dumbbells and catch them over your shoulders.
- Explode out of the hole and push the dumbbells overhead as you complete the movement.
Pro Tip: Ensure you’re using your quads to power off the floor by getting your hip crease below your knee crease at the bottom of the movement.
The thruster is a great exercise to forge a more robust cluster. It is just like the cluster, minus the cleans while doing multiple reps.
- Take a shoulder-width stance and stand upright with a barbell against your shins.
- Grab the bar at shoulder-width using a hook grip.
- Clean the bar into a front rack and get into a squat.
- Explode out of the hole by driving through your midfoot.
- Press the bar overhead as you extend your knees.
- Lower the bar into a front rack.
- Perform a squat.
- Repeat for recommended reps.
Pro Tip: Hold the bar in the front rack position using a full grip. Balancing the bar using only your fingers can make the lift unstable.
The clean is an Olympic lift, which needs a lot of practice to master. However, sticking with this exercise will make you better at most other CrossFit compound lifts, as it will help develop a stronger base.
- Stand with a shoulder-wide stance with a barbell placed against your shins.
- Grab the bar with a hook grip.
- Maintaining an open chest and flat back, pull the bar to your knees using your quads.
- Drive your hips forward and extend your knees to bring the bar to your hip level.
- From here, lift your heels off the floor to pull the bar toward the ceiling.
- Get under the bar and catch the bar in a front rack position while jumping your feet out.
- Stand upright.
Pro Tip: Drive your knees outward during the initial phase of the lift, as it will help engage your legs to generate power.
The next two exercises on the list are among the nine basic movements of CrossFit. The front squat is a compound exercise that primarily works your quads.
- Start with the bar in a front rack position with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Use a shoulder-wide stance and turn your toes slightly outward.
- While maintaining an upright torso, lower into a squat and go as deep as possible.
- Return to the starting position.
- Repeat for reps.
Pro Tip: You must have decent upper body, overhead, hip, and lower body mobility to perform a front squat with an upright torso.
The push press is a basic CrossFit movement that will help you build upper body strength and explosiveness.
- Start in the front rack position and a shoulder-width stance.
- Drop into a shallow stance.
- Extend your knees rapidly and push the barbell overhead while raising your heels off the floor.
- Lock out your elbows at the top and drive your head through your arms.
- Lower the bar to the front rack position.
Pro Tip: Your elbows should be under the bar at the starting position, as it will help you generate power.
CrossFit is a high-intensity sport that combines weightlifting, gymnastics, and cardio. Olympic weightlifting exercises form the basis of the CrossFit resistance training WODs and help work your entire body in a short time.
The CrossFit cluster is one of the most effective functional exercises to help you build strength, muscle, endurance, and balance. Use the cluster alternatives and variations listed in this article to take your WODs to the next level. Best of luck!
- Krzysztofik M, Wilk M, Wojdała G, Gołaś A. Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Dec 4;16(24):4897. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16244897. PMID: 31817252; PMCID: PMC6950543.
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