Cluster Sets are a highly-effective programming option for those trying to fit a lot of training into a small amount of time. They can be generally summarized as groups of reps separated by very short rest periods. These rest periods tend to be between 10 and 30 seconds. These clumps of reps are great for increasing training density and accumulating fatigue. Due to their versatility, there are many iterations of cluster sets. 5 sets of 1 separated for 30 seconds rest, 10 rep sets separated by 10 seconds of rest for 5 minutes and plenty more can all be called cluster sets. Strength and power tend to require more rest and less reps while hypertrophy and muscle endurance will need more reps, more sets and usually less rest.
Cluster sets can be very effective for those with visual-impairments because they allow one to work hard in one place before moving on to the next exercise or implement. Working in one place on one thing will eliminate large transition times and the increased stress of finding the next piece of equipment. This allows one to work as hard as possible on the exercise instead of the logistics.
Let’s break down some ways to program clusters so you can begin exploring this concept for your own benefit.
Strength-Biased clusters will consist of less reps per set, less total reps and greater rest periods. This allows for greater weights to be used which can greater build strength.
Some good strength clusters are:
5 sets of 1 with 30 seconds of rest
3 sets of 2 to 3 with 20-30 seconds of rest
2, 2, 2, 2 at your 5-6 rep max
These rep schemes will be good and challenging with large weights. Just be sure to do them with exercises that do not leave you vulnerable when fatigued. Use a spotter or safe machine if needed.
Lactate Clusters or Fatigue Clusters is what we will call the in-between between very intense clusters and very voluminous clusters. With these, you will be pushing yourself to the limit sooner than with more high rep and set clusters. My favorite scheme that fits in this category is from Josh Bryant of Jailhouse Strong. He used a trainee’s approximate 8 rep max as the loading and had them do 8 grueling reps. Just 15 seconds later, this was followed up by 4 sets of 2, also separated by 15 seconds of rest. So you get 16 reps at your 8 rep max in a horribly condensed time. He used it with barbell incline bench while spotting for safety. I have used this with front squats progressing my weight up week after week and seen very fast quad growth. Whatever exercise you choose, again make sure it is safe or you have a reliable spotter in case the fatigue catches up to you a little early.
Hypertrophy Clusters will need to accumulate more reps with light to moderate weights. You can use higher reps, more sets, shorter rest periods or all of the above. You can also use a time interval to work in with a particular rep and rest scheme, trying to get as many sets as you can with good form. These hypertrophy clusters can vary wildly.
Here are a few to get you thinking:
10 reps, rest 15 seconds, 5 minute clock
6 reps, rest 20 seconds, 10 sets
3 reps, rest 30 seconds, 12-15 sets. This one would be heavier but get lots of volume in due to the number of sets.
As you can see, these schemes can vary wildly. Just make sure they get lots done in less time still.
Below are a few workouts I drew up using cluster sets at the gym or at home. Keep in mind these can be used to do body part split workouts and conditioning work as well. For more ideas, look up some of Josh Bryant’s videos on YouTube.
Full Body Strength and Hypertrophy Cluster Workout
Push Press: Work up to 5 sets of 2 with 20 seconds rest between
Push Press: Using 60% of the previous weight, do as many sets of 3 as you can with just 15 seconds between. Here is the twist, you have to rest that 15 seconds with the weight locked out overhead. Have fun!
Deadlift: 5-10 sets of 1 at 80-85%, 30 seconds rest between reps.
Deadlift: 5 reps at 50-60%, only lower the weight to an inch above the floor each rep to keep you under tension. Rest 30 seconds between sets, do as many sets as you can with great form, stop at first sign of form breakdown.
Pulldowns or Pullups: 5 minutes of 3-5 reps with 15 seconds between sets.
DB Front Squat: Set a timer for 5 minutes. Do 8 reps, rest 20 seconds, 8 more reps. Adjust the weight as needed as you fatigue. Go for the full 5 minutes.
Cable Tricep Extensions: 6 reps, rest 15 seconds, 5 minutes.
Upper Body Hypertrophy
Warmup with 3 sets of 15 Dumbbell Incline Bench, Dumbbell Curls, and Bent Over Dumbbell Rows.
Light DB Skull Crushers on Floor: 10, rest 20 seconds for 5 minutes
Seated Dumbbell Press: 6 reps, rest 20 seconds, 10 sets
Machine Bench Press, Incline, decline or flat: 8 reps, rest 20 seconds, 8 rounds, do these at a heavier weight!
Cable Rope Bent-Over Row: 8 reps, rest 15 seconds, 10 sets, adjust weight as needed during, erring on the side of heavy.
Cable Tricep Extensions: 6 reps, rest 15 seconds, 6 sets heavy, 6 sets medium, 6 sets light. Do all 18 sets back to back to accumulate the fatigue.
Cable Rope Bicep Curls, twisting the handles apart at the top of each rep: 10 reps, rest 20 seconds, 5-8 sets
Lower Body Hypertrophy
Leg Extensions: 8 reps, 20 sec. Rest, 8 rounds
Squat variation (hack squat, back squat, safety-squat bar squat): worked up to a 10-12 rep max then do 8, 2, 2, 2, 2 with 15 seconds of rest between. Rest 3 minutes and repeat with 90% of the original weight.
Leg Curl: 5 reps with a 5 second lowering phase (eccentric), rest 15 seconds, 5 minutes. Start aggressive on the weight then lower it as you can’t get five reps.
Single Leg Calf Raises off deficit: 4 reps each leg back and forth for 4 minutes. Get that cramping contraction at the top and tough stretch at the bottom of every rep.
At-Home Cluster Workout
Bodyweight squats: 5 reps, rest 20 seconds, 3 minutes. Focus on great form and slowly increasing depth if you are stiff.
Easy pushup variation: 5 reps, rest 20 seconds, 3 minutes. Feel free to use a wall, easier hand position, or do them off your knees. Whatever helps you warmup and not burn out before we even get started!
For this workout we will use back to back exercises then short rest, sort of a cluster superset workout.
Exercise Pair #1: 5 lunges each leg straight into 8 pushups. Rest 20 seconds and repeat for 5-10 sets.
Exercise Pair #2: Jump Squats and Side Plank Leg Lifts. Perform 6 jump squats straight into 5 controlled side plank leg raises each side. Rest 15 seconds and repeat for 4-6 rounds. Lower rounds to make sure you keep good form on the leg lifts.
Finishing Exercise: Burpees. Do 5, rest 20 seconds and repeat for as many rounds as you can stringing all 5 together in rapid succession. If you are a cyborg, do 8-10 each round.
Hopefully this gave you some more ideas of how to challenge yourself safely and effectively. Now go get after it.