Cluster Training Methods

In the first part of this double-header we introduced the concept of cluster training and why it might be useful to look at incorporating it into your training. Now for the fun part! Today I’ll talk you through some of the different cluster methods and hopefully give you some ideas to implement in your programmes.



‘Textbook’ Cluster Methods


If using textbook-style cluster methods then each facet of the workout will be predetermined prior to the workout. Rest intervals, in-between both clusters and sets, are variables that alter the intensity of a session; these methods are good at making sure that these variables are controlled. These styles lend themselves to training strength and power more so than hypertrophy.

Standard Cluster

The standard cluster workout will be written in the format sets x reps/cluster (inter-repetition rest). Let’s take an example of ‘Squat, 3 x 6/2 (15secs)’. Here we have 3 sets of 6 squats and with the 6 reps performed in clusters of 2. We have 15 seconds rest in-between these clusters of 2. Once again, good for strength and power development.

Undulating Cluster

The only revision with the undulating variation is that the load changes over the workout. Instead of performing 5 cluster sets @100kg, you may, for example, go 90kg, 100kg, 105kg, 100kg, 90kg. This can be a good option for power training as the ascending portion helps really excite the central nervous system and the descending portion will help increase power output as the load reduces. By training with a variety of loads it also means that you’re hitting more points on that all-important force-velocity curve.


Rest-Pause Methods

The terms rest-pause and cluster training are often used interchangeably and I guess there isn’t really a problem with that. Personally, I’d say that rest-pause style sets are different given that the inter-repetition rest isn’t normally predetermined; the majority of coaches suggest two or three slow, deep breaths in-between the clusters. Rest-pause is traditionally more strength-hypertrophy orientated than traditional cluster training because of the reduction in the inter-repetition rest.

Standard Rest-Pause Set

The key for me here is the intensity; pick a weight slightly greater than the amount of reps you want to perform. An example would be 5 reps @3RM; cluster the reps into singles and then rest-pause in-between each rep.

Extended Sets

You complete your traditional set of, for example, 5 reps and then perform a designated amount of additional rest-pause reps. For example, in a 5+5 set @6RM, complete the first 5 as normal then rest-pause as required until the extra 5 have been completed. The legendary ‘20 rep breathing squats’ routine is an example of an extended set. This is great for hypertrophy training as it allows you prolong the total time under tension.



Cluster training will soon have you working your way up the rack

‘Personal Record’ Methods


I’ve grouped these together as ‘personal record’ workouts as the general aim of both is to is try to trump yourself on the next workout. It doesn’t always have to be an improve-at-all-costs affair though; it’s also a good method to auto-regulate on. Auto-regulation simply means adjusting what you do depending on how fresh you’re feeling. If you feel like smashing it then by all means go for it, if not, get some good solid reps in the bag and then call it.

Timed Sets

It’s a simple premise; select an exercise, choose a weight, decide on a time limit. How you cluster (i.e. singles, triples, etc.) will primarily be dictated by the loading and you take as long as you feel you need to in-between these clusters. Perform as many reps as you can within the time limit and note down that number. Times in the region of 10-20mins work well for single exercises and this can work for strength, power and hypertrophy depending on how you attack it. It doesn’t just have to be one exercise though. You can set up supersets, circuits, or even entire sessions and complete as many reps as you can. This is a fantastic way of upping your conditioning and torching some serious fat!

Total Reps

A similar concept to the above only this time we set the amount of reps rather than the time limit. Perhaps the most popular of the total rep style workouts is the ‘100-chin-ups’. Split into 10’s, 5’s, or whatever you need to get the job done. As with the timed sets, the total reps idea isn’t just limited to a single exercise. You can try planning mini-circuits, or an entire workout, and seeing how fast you can complete it. Google the ‘300 workout’ if you’re not already familiar with it.


Key Points to Remember

These methods have many slight variations depending on the goal they set out to attack, but the common theme is increasing training density. Feel free to experiment with your own variations; just keep these general training principles in mind when you’re planning your training and you won’t go far wrong:

  • For strength – keep the majority of the loading above 85%1RM
  • For power – keep the bar speed above 90%max
  • For hypertrophy – keep the total time under tension high
  • In all cases – don’t work in only one rep-range and use training to failure techniques sparingly – if at all
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