Better Workouts, Faster Results: The Benefits of Cluster Sets
One of the advantages that I have as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS for short) is that a lot of the “latest” workout trends that are propped up by fitness influencers have been known by the CSCS community 5 to 10 years prior, sometimes even longer! One of the training strategies that I’m surprised hasn’t taken off, which most of you can truly benefit from, are cluster sets.
So, what are cluster sets? Essentially, cluster sets involve performing sets in which a short rest period takes place in the middle of said set. In other words, let’s say you were seeking 10 repetitions, but you’re using a weight that is higher than your 10 repetition maximum (RM) weight, such as the weight you’d use in your 8RM. Since you’re not going to be able to reach the 10 rep target if you did all reps at one go, you would, instead, perform 5 repetitions, take a 10- to 20-second rest, then pick it back up and complete the remaining 5 repetitions. Both men and women fitness enthusiasts can benefit greatly with this method.
Your training volume is the total amount of work performed. For example, to calculate your training volume for the squats you did in last leg day workout, you would multiply how many Sets x Reps X Weight you lifted. Strength & Conditioning (S&C) experts agree that volume is one of the primary drivers that can help to optimize muscle size growth (hypertrophy). With cluster sets, since you’re utilizing more weight than you would have used with a conventional set that employed sequential repetitions, you’re able to increase your training volume.
My clients are giant fans of cluster sets for a major reason — it gives them a chance to take a little break and clear their minds, while still getting in more volume! Since you can take anywhere from 10-30 seconds break in the middle of the set, you don’t want to take a break any longer than that, otherwise you would lose a lot of the metabolic stress within the muscles, which is also important for building up muscle mass. Therefore, you need to be disciplined about not taking a longer break than assigned when performing cluster sets.
You know when you’re performing a set that the latter repetitions are noticeably slower than the earlier ones? This is because your power output decreases since you’re becoming more and more fatigued after each repetition you do. Since cluster sets give you a chance to get a short intra-set break, this allows you to complete each repetition with a similar amount of power output. This can be especially beneficial for athletes, such as football players, that want to be able to maximize their power in the explosive moments of the game.
What makes me love cluster sets is that they reduce the deterioration of technique that often happens; this happens a lot when lifters train until failure. The main reason why most S&C coaches prefer that their athletes stop their repetitions with 1 or 2 repetitions in reserve (RIR), rather than continuing until they get to absolute failure is that athletes are really strong, so the large amount of weight their lifting is going to lead to potentially catastrophic injuries when training technique deteriorates. With cluster sets, proper form is more likely to be maintained since less fatigue is experienced.
On that note, with the mid-set short rest that you get from cluster sets, this reduces the amount of fatigue you experience. By incorporating cluster sets into for your heavier lifts, this allows you to save much of the energy you would have otherwise expended with conventional sets. Saving this energy allows you to improve your performance in the following exercises that you have left in your workout for the day. This is different from training until failure, where you are doing all of the repetitions until you can't.
For my busy adults out there, unfortunately, you can’t be like some of these young fitness influencers that can seemingly spend all day at the gym, instead, you have a real job to tend to, as well as being a good mother or father. Because of this, it would behoove you to be time-efficient with your training routine, and cluster sets can be a helpful piece. Since cluster sets allow you to increase your training volume since you’re using heavier weight than if you had done conventional sets, you will be able to gain muscle mass faster or, at least, be more efficient in maintaining muscle mass.
Don’t wait until fitness influencers start promoting cluster sets as if they came up with them. Add clusters to your workouts to help you increase your training volume, reduce fatigue, save time, and, of course, look like a total genius in your gym because you’re ahead of the curve.