Cluster Training for Size

Operation Enduring Freedom and New DawnYou may have heard of cluster training before, but chances are you’ve never incorporated it into your training. Well I seriously advise you to think about adding it to your arsenal of muscle building tactics.

Cluster training is an old school method of lifting but has been made famous again by the well-known and respected strength and conditioning guru Charles Poloquin.

What exactly is cluster training?

To perform a cluster set you complete a set to failure (when I say failure I mean lifting until you couldn’t perform another rep but being able to complete the set) then resting for a short interval and then performing another set number of reps (this will be less than the original set) then resting again and then performing another set number of reps and so on.

I like to perform cluster’s in sets of 2 and resting for 30 seconds between clusters until I have equalled the number of reps from the original set to failure.

So usually if you were performing a 6 rep cluster it would look like this:

  • 6 reps up to maximum
  • Rest 30 seconds
  • Perform 2 more reps
  • Rest 30s
  • Perform 2 more reps
  • Rest 30s
  • Perform 2 more reps.

How can Cluster Training make me bigger?

Cluster training allows you to get more out of your training than performing traditional sets, it teaches your body to recover quicker and increases the intensity. To induce muscular hypertrophy you need to use the proven methods of Force, Volume, Intensity, progression.

If muscular size is your goal then you probably know training volume is important along with training intensity. Traditional training protocols for muscular size theorize about using a volume of between 8-12 reps for 3-4 sets for each body part, while this volume is generally accepted to be sufficient I find that the intensity in training like this is seriously lacking so overall hypertrophy can be limited.

Cluster training allows you to lift heavier weights for more reps and you know what that means? Yep, you guessed it bigger muscles. There is a growing amount of evidence that more growth hormone is produced by the body when it is forced to lift heavy weights with little rest periods.

Great but how heavy should the weight be?

When a very heavy load is used the greater the tension in the muscle is, therefore the greater the size and number of motor units is recruited so the greater the potential for growth. This means in order to recruit the most amount of motor units and in the right way we need to lift between 70-90% of our 1RM for a particular lift. This roughly works out to be between 15 & 5 reps.

When lifting a weight up to 80-85% of 1RM you will recruit every motor unit in the trained muscle, when lifting below 80% of 1RM the biggest motor units (the ones most susceptible to growth) are only recruited towards the end of the set. This means we should be aiming to use cluster sets at around 80-85% of our 1RM. I have found through trial and error that using sets of 6 reps stimulates more muscular growth.

Example workout

So to pull of this together into a full blown workout I like to use ramping up sets until I hit my maximum for the number of reps I am aiming to achieve and then on the last set I hit the cluster sets.

So a bench press ramping cluster set I would perform would  look like this:

  • Warm up set – Just the bar
  • Ramp set 1 – 50kg 6 reps.
  • Ramp set 2 – 70kg 6 reps.
  • Ramp set 3 – 90kg 6 reps.
  • Ramp set 4 – 100kg 6 reps.
  • Ramp set 5 – 110kg 6 reps.
  • Ramp set 6 – 115kg 6 reps Managed the 6 reps but knew I couldn’t manage the 7th.
  • Rest 30s, 2 reps, rest 30s, 2 reps, rest 30s, 2 more reps.

I don’t like to rest more than 1 minute between ramping sets so the intensity is kept high.

Using Cluster training after a number of ramping sets allows you to get “in the zone” and really switch on all of your motor units, it also allows you to progress the amount of weight lifted naturally rather than artificially, i.e. you lift heavier weights when your body allows you to. So some weeks you may only lift the same weight when you come to the final set but other weeks you’ll be able to progress and lift a heavier weight for your final set. If you are putting 100% into every rep of every set you’ll progressively lift heavier weights as time goes on.

There are endless possible ways you could use cluster training and there are different ways of performing clusters, I’m interested in muscular hypertrophy so the examples given are designed to elicit maximum hypertrophy.

How Often should I train a muscle group?

Research has shown us that 72 hours after a muscle has been trained is sufficient rest to again train that muscle. Some people need longer, you will have to see what works best for you. I like to train each body part twice per week, however there are caveats to this. I listen to my body, if I’m feeling particularly tired after several weeks of intense training I’ll back off and only train each body part once per week or perform a de-load week.

Cluster training is best incorporated into a properly periodised training program, like any type of training you need to keep changing it in order to progress. Trust me after 4-6 weeks of using cluster training you’ll be experiencing serious fatigue but you’ll also experience a serious growth response in your muscles. You can use cluster training with any lift but I have found the best results using it in my compound lifts at the start of a session while I am fresh.

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