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The Power In Cluster Sets

In our never-ending endeavor to find new ways to increase strength, size, or sports performance, we tend to tinker with any variable in a workout to find a new way to get better results. One of the results of tinkering with traditional variables in a workout is the introduction of a “Cluster Set”. Traditionally speaking, a set is any given number of repetitions of an exercise completed in succession. You pick up a dumbbell, curl it 12 times then put it down. A set of 12 has now been completed. So, how is a cluster set different from a traditional set?

A traditional set is done with no rest between reps. You pick up the weight, complete the reps you are supposed to do, then you rest before doing the next set. Cluster sets can be completed in small portions or “clusters” with rest between repetitions rather than resting only after sets. If we are doing a set of 6 back squats, we can complete that set in clusters of 2, with 30 seconds between clusters, until we complete our full 6 reps.

Why would you want to split up a traditional set into a cluster set? Due to the rest in between clusters, a cluster set is not going to produce the metabolic byproducts that a traditional set it going to produce. This means you won’t get as tired throughout the set and will be able to move with similar force, velocity, and power throughout the set. When completing a traditional set, force, velocity, and power decrease as you near the end of your set. This decrease is due to you getting tired from the continuous load you are under. By resting after every couple reps, you allow yourself to recover in the middle of your set, which makes each rep just as powerful as the last. Since cluster sets increase performance by increasing your recovery in the set, the smaller your clusters, the more effective they become. If you have a set of 8, completing your reps in cluster of 2 may produce better results than clusters of 4.

Can you get different results by completing cluster sets? You absolutely can. There are pros and cons and as always, this isn’t a one size fits all approach. Because you are doing more of your reps at higher force, velocity, and power, you can make extra gains in neuromuscular strength. Your muscles can produce force at a higher rate and at a higher velocity, without affecting muscle mass. There will also be less metabolic stress from doing cluster sets, which can help keep you fresh and ready to perform in your sport if you are an athlete in either preseason or in season training protocols.

There are some major downfalls to cluster sets though. You may not gain as much muscle mass as you would from doing traditional sets. The closer you get to failure on an exercise, the greater the stimulus is for muscle growth. Cluster sets are meant to keep you as far away from failure as possible, which will decrease the drive to improve muscle mass.

Cluster sets are a useful tool to use in training, just like every other training model. It is no secret or quick fix. Used with the right person, at the right time, with the right volume and intensity, you could see great results. The key is using the tool of cluster sets properly.

Chris Still

BS in Exercise Science


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