One of the constant battles in training is the opposing forces in time management in the gym.
Rest longer to get more out of each working set.
Or pack more sets into a session for greater training density.
It is so often a tricky balance to get right, athletes and general gym goers alike are time poor so fitting enough of the right stressors into a training session, but not squash the session so jam packed that it just becomes cardio.
The good news is there is a solution.
One of the best ways to minimise fatigue in your training without letting the rest periods balloon out is to use cluster sets.
Clusters are a reimagined way of strength and power training.
Instead of a few longer sets with long rest periods (the traditional 3x8 or4x6), clusters takes those long sets and reps and chops them up. Introducing more frequent short rests into the work sets, enabling you to maintain higher training velocities.
When they are programmed correctly they are a significantly more efficient way to train, allowing you to (1-2):
- Lift the same weight
- Perform the same number of reps
- With the same total rest
- Accumulate less fatigue
All while achieving a higher average velocity and power across the session!
Tufano et al showed this in 2016 (1), comparing two different cluster protocols with a traditional 3x8 training session. Both the XX and XX cluster approaches showed significantly higher velocity across the same training load and total number of reps than the traditional set-rep protocol.
Both the four rep and two rep cluster methods saw only 1-5% velocity loss for the entire working series, compared to the ~24% fatigue seen in the traditional sets.
My favourite clusters
There are plenty of ways to slice the cluster cake, and your imagination really is the limit, here are a few examples:
It's also worth keeping a few logistics pieces in mind for your clusters:
How to write clusters.
Clusters are a new way of programming your strength and power exercises and they don't quite fit into the traditional 3*12 (120sec) model.
1*8.3(30) or 3*4.3(30/120)
These are two examples of cluster nomenclature.
1*8.3(30) would be 1 set of 8 clusters, each cluster has 3 reps, with 30 seconds rest between each.
3*4.3(30/120) would be 3 sets of 4 clusters, each cluster has 3 reps, with 30 seconds rest between each cluster and 120 seconds rest between sets.
This is by no means a law, you might find a better way to explain your clusters, if so let me know!
Set up and dismount time will factor in hugely, eating up your energy and rest time more than you think.
Deads and rack cleans are gold, Barbell bench is good too, back squats are tricky and dumbbell bench can be a downright nightmare for cluster training.
The trickier the set up, the less clustery you can be. There is more risk every time you have to restart the movement (think walking the bar out of the squat rack) and more chance of a wonky preparation leading to suboptimal reps. Stick with 4+ reps on any barbell squat or dumbbell bench type activity and don't include the set up time in the rest period.
Always make sure you give your clusters a test run before programming it for an athlete.
Spend the time getting your training environment right before jumping in.
Take the time to set up your work space.
If you are going to need water mid cluster, keep it handy.
Need to chalk up after every 3rd cluster? Bring the bowl close.
Put your stopwatch/phone in an easy spot to hit stop and start.
The point is to reduce fatigue, not increase it.
Clusters are designed to increase the quality of your training allowing more power output across the same weight and total reps. So don't hesitate to increase the rest periods should you need it, or break one long string of clusters into two shorter strings.
And of course monitor your velocity/power through out the clusters, you could set a velocity stop limit or use a fatigue cut off to end each string of clusters and trigger a longer rest period.