One of my all-time favourite tools for next level strength development is Cluster Training.
A concept which has been around for over 70 years, it follows the simple rule of extending the rest break between one or several repetitions within a set.
For example, instead of bench pressing your 5RM (the maximum amount of weight you can lift for 5 reps) at 90kg for five uninterrupted reps, you would choose your 3RM or 4RM for the same amount of reps but with a rest break of 30-45 seconds between each rep.
This simple method has several advantages:
Maximal recruitment of fast-twitch fibers
Fast-twitch fibers are the type of muscle fibers which are great at performing heavy lifts and explosive actions. They also respond better to growth than slow twitch fibers.
Because we are keeping the intensity throughout the set very high (thanks to the rest break between reps), we are maximally recruiting those fibers not just in the first few reps but in ALL reps.
As such, we have a more frequent maximal recruitment of those fibers and therfore better strength and muscle gains.
Doing a higher amount of intense work
Because we are resting between reps, we are able to put in a higher amount of maximum effort work. The more maximum effort work we are able to produce, the stronger we get. As such, we are not prone to nervous system fatigue in the last or all but last repetition of a set.
Going back to the example of the bench press, you are able to squeeze out five reps at your 3RM or 4RM instead of your 5RM. More work at higher intensities means better strength gains.
Increasing muscle mass
Mechanical tension is the key factor for building muscle mass. The heavier the weight, the greater the mechanical load on the muscle fibers.
Due to the sustained high intensity, cluster sets allow us to impose maximum mechanical tension onto the muscles, which makes it a very powerful tool for hypertrophy.
Repeated “maximal efforts”
Doing clusters feels like doing continuous one-rep maxes. You perform a rep, you rest, you set back up, and lift. It is like is a rhythm of preparation, performance, and rest, in which our body and mind keep are forced to keep paying attention.
A new strength stimulus
Cluster training is great for overcoming plateaus. The nervous system gets a new stimulus and is able to operate at heavier loads more frequently without getting depleted. The brain perceives the new challenge as something worth investing additional energy resources into.
Sample loading parameters
Below is an example of a loading scheme for cluster training. While there are many different types of cluster training, this one is the most simple one.
Exercise: Bench press
Intensity: 3RM or 4RM (or around 82-85% of your 1RM)
Rest between reps: 30-45sec
Rest between sets: 3min.
Notice the rest between reps is just enough to perform the next repetition with maximum intensity. If the rest period is too short, maximum intensity cannot be maintained. If the rest period is too long, workout time increases excessively, and we might as well perform 1-repetition maximum lifts.
The rest between sets is slightly shorter than during an ordinary strength training set, which is usually 5 minutes upwards. As we are not fatiguing the nervous system (thanks to the break between reps), the rest period between sets can be shorter.
Cluster training has helped several of my clients as well as myself gain new levels of strength in a short period of time.
I recommend this type of training for intermediate and advanced lifters. I do not recommend it for novices as continuity and a good lifting rhythm is more beneficial to them. Also, as novices do not encounter training plateaus, there simply would not be any additional benefits of this type of training for them.
If you want to take your strength to the next level, do give them a go.
You won't be disappointed.