Incorporate Cluster Sets Training To Get Stronger Rep by Rep

In the gym, an overwhelmingly is that of simply performing straight sets of exercise, just like they did it in the old school days.  Sure, this plan may be tried, tested and true, but it offers few options for either your strength or your muscular development.  It’s important we find ways to manipulate our muscles to get a bit more out of every set (read, every rep), to maximize gains and breeze past plateaus like it’s your job and thats where cluster sets come in.

How the Body Creates Energy 

Your muscles rely on two substances for immediate bursts of energy (the same kinds of energy needed to do a heavy low-rep set in the weight room): Creatine and phosphorus.  For immediate energy, the body creates , coming from these two substances. This is crucial for understanding how to take advantage of this system to get gains.  The key piece of information is the fact that this creatine phosphate system lasts a mere 10-15 seconds before it’s almost completely depleted.  The only thing that can bring it back is rest.

Take Advantage of Cluster Set Training

Applying this theory to your workouts means considering the amount of time it takes to perform a given lifting set. If you’re training for 10 or fewer reps, chances are, you’re in this energy system. Instead of doing a straight set of 10, or a heavy set of 3-5 (which could easily take just as long due to the load), it’s more efficient to get more out of the weight you lift by taking one or more breaks midway through your set.  Even a mere 10 seconds between will allow your ATP to partially rejuvenate itself, and give you the energy you need to squeeze out even one extra rep – which is more than what you could do naturally without stopping.

How To Use Cluster Sets for Strength

Simply choose your 5 rep max in a big movement (squats, deadlifts, and bench press work great for this method), and instead of performing 5, just do 4 reps.  Rack the weight and rest for a full 10 seconds.  Next, take the weight off the rack again and perform another 2 reps.  If you feel like a champ, then add another single after 10 more seconds of rest. If you’re spent, however, let the set end after your double.  In either case you’ll have just performed more than 5 reps using your 5 rep max.  And that’s not too shabby.  You can employ this using your 3RM also. Simply 2 + 2, or 2+1+1.

How To Use Cluster Sets For Size

Size training usually takes more volume and requires a lifter to “chase the pump” and potentially employ high lactate training methods. With that said, you can use your 10-12 rep max as your new frame of reference.  Instead of doing a full 12 reps, perform ladders.  Pick up the weight and perform just 2 reps.  Rest for 10 seconds, then perform 3 reps. Rest 10 more seconds, then perform 5 reps. Rest once more for 10 seconds, and then perform 10 reps. By this point your muscles will be screaming, and so will your lungs.  You’ll be breathing heavy for the entire week.

The benefits of this method go beyond simply having done a total of 20 reps with your 12-rep max, however. In addition to the conditioning aspect, this also builds mental resilience, since the amount of reps being asked of you increases as the set goes on and you begin to get more fatigued. That will bring more attention to quality of movement and recognizing what a proper and controlled “push” should feel like. A little grind can do the body good and help a lifter get through a sticking point in their progress. This method works great with isolated bodybuilding patterns, and select compound movements.


The moral of this strength story: Mix it up. Given your lifestyle habits are already on point, that’s the only way to kick the redundancy of a stalled program.  Cluster sets can provide the stimulus you need, regardless of the nature of your goals.  Feel free to play around with them, until they stop working.  By the time you return to straight sets, you’ll feel like Hercules.


Lee Boyce is a personal trainer, college professor, writer, and speaker based in Toronto, ON. He travels around the world delivering seminars and workshops helping fitness professionals improve their skills, His book  (co-authored with ) is available everywhere.
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