Cluster Training For Breakout Strength

Lifting a 4-rep max 5 times in a single set is impossible, right? Not with cluster sets, the technique that redefines your limits and sets a new benchmark for strength!

Sometimes lifting is really, really simple. Sure it can get a little complicated—especially as you advance—but the basics never change. Want to get strong? Lift something heavy a bunch of times. Want to get stronger? Lift something heavier a bunch of times. Your body adapts to the demands it experiences. This is what's known in training and rehab circles as the "specific adaptations to imposed demands" or SAID principle.

Unfortunately, in action things get complicated pretty quickly. For instance, say you can only lift a given weight four times. Should you:

  • lift it until you can't lift it anymore; or
  • find a way to lift it more times than you think you can?

Don't worry, this isn't going to be another article about forced reps and other adventures beyond failure. On the contrary, once you get the hang of the technique known as "cluster sets," you'll get stronger using heavy weights without forced reps coming into the equation.

Intrigued? You should be.

The Cluster Set

In a cluster set, you utilize intraset rest periods to perform more reps than you would normally be able to. Unlike a standard rest-pause set, however, you won't perform reps to exhaustion or failure first—quite the opposite, in fact. During a cluster set, you perform a certain number of reps, rest, and then repeat the routine until the set is over.

During a cluster set, you perform a certain number of reps, rest, and then repeat the routine until the set is over.

Let's use that 4-rep max as an example. Using the cluster method, you would perform 5 reps with it per set, one rep at a time, with 20 seconds of rest between reps. You're essentially performing multiple mini-sets within each cluster.

Programming clusters can be a bit tricky. You need to use a load heavy enough to impose a significant demand and promote strength, but not so heavy as to overwhelm the body and disallow the goal number of reps. You also need to perform enough total reps to yield better results than you could get with a standard set, but still avoid failure.

For these reasons clusters are best used with a load of at least 85 percent of your one-rep max. I realize this can make using cluster training seem like a daunting task, but the solution is all in the planning. This table isn't set in stone, but use it as your starting point when putting together a cluster-training program.

Cluster Training

% 1 RM Reps per Mini-set Total Reps per Cluster
82-85% 3 8-12
85-87% 2 8-10
90%+ 1 5-10

Keep in mind that the primary goal of cluster training is to improve strength and power. Sure, you might gain some muscle, but don't treat this like traditional bodybuilding training. On the contrary, you want to avoid failure in order to get all of the reps done in a smooth and explosive fashion. But make no mistake: Cluster training is still a very demanding method. Think about it: It's typical to perform as many as 20 reps with a load of 90 percent of your one-rep max. That's a lot of work!

Because the weights are so heavy, cluster training shouldn't be utilized for more than a few strength-oriented movements per training cycle. In the program below, clusters are reserved for one upper-body and one lower-body strength movement only. Using them for more than this can compromise your results and increase the risk of injuries.

Now that some ground rules have been established, use cluster training to boost your squat and bench in a four-day-per-week program over the course of four weeks.

Week 1

Day 1
1

Barbell squat

3 sets of (4x2) reps, 20 sec., 85%, rest 3 min.
Barbell Squat Barbell Squat

2

Bulgarian split squat

3 sets of 20 reps, rest 60 sec.
Bulgarian split squat Bulgarian split squat

Triset
3

Leg extension

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Leg Extensions Leg Extensions

Leg curl

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Leg curl Leg curl

Decline sit-up

3 sets of 30 reps, rest 60 sec.
Decline sit-up Decline sit-up

Day 2
1

Bench press

3 sets of (4x2) reps, 20 sec., 85%, rest 3 min.
Bench press Bench press

2

Incline dumbbell press

3 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Press Incline Dumbbell Press

Superset
3

Reverse-grip bench press

3 sets of 8-10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Reverse-grip bench press Reverse-grip bench press

Dumbbell fly

3 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Dumbbell Flyes Dumbbell Flyes

Day 3
Superset
1

Clean high pull

4 sets of 5 reps, rest 60 sec.
Clean high pull Clean high pull

Weighted pull-up

4 set of 5 reps, rest 2 min.
Weighted pull-up Weighted pull-up

Superset
2

Romanian deadlift

3 reps of 8-10 reps with 3-sec. eccentric, rest 30 sec.
Romanian Deadlift Romanian Deadlift

Dumbbell row

3 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 30 sec.
Dumbbell row Dumbbell row

3

Ab wheel roll-out

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 60 sec.
Ab wheel roll-out Ab wheel roll-out

Day 4
1

Military press

4 sets of 5 reps, rest 90 sec.
Standing Military Press Standing Military Press

Triset
2

Front plate raise

4 sets of 15 reps, no rest
Front Plate Raise Front Plate Raise

Lateral raise

4 sets of 15 reps, no rest
Side Lateral Raise Side Lateral Raise

Dumbbell shoulder press

4 sets of 15 reps, 60 sec. rest
Dumbbell Shoulder Press Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Triset
3

Rear-delt raise

3 sets of 15 reps, rest 20 sec.
Rear-delt raise Rear-delt raise

Skullcrusher

3 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 20 sec.
Skullcrusher Skullcrusher

Incline dumbbell curl

3 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Curl Incline Dumbbell Curl


Week 2

Day 1
1

Barbell squat

3 sets of (4x2) reps, 20 sec., 85%, rest 3 min.
Barbell Squat Barbell Squat

2

Bulgarian split squat

4 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Bulgarian split squat Bulgarian split squat

Triset
3

Leg extension

4 sets of 10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Leg Extensions Leg Extensions

Leg curl

4 sets of 10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Leg curl Leg curl

Decline sit-up

4 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Decline sit-up Decline sit-up

Day 2
1

Bench press

4 sets of (4x2) reps, 20 sec., 85%, rest 3 min.
Bench press Bench press

2

Incline dumbbell press

4 sets of 10-12 reps, rest 60 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Press Incline Dumbbell Press

Superset
3

Reverse-grip bench press

4 sets of 8-10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Reverse-grip bench press Reverse-grip bench press

Dumbbell fly

4 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Dumbbell Flyes Dumbbell Flyes

Day 3
Superset
1

Clean high pull

5 sets of 5 reps, rest 60 sec.
Clean high pull Clean high pull

Weighted pull-up

5 set of 5 reps, rest 2 min.
Weighted pull-up Weighted pull-up
If you can't use weight, just perform as many reps as possible.

Superset
2

Romanian deadlift

4 reps of 8-10 reps with 3-sec. eccentric, rest 30 sec.
Romanian Deadlift Romanian Deadlift

Dumbbell row

4 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 30 sec.
Dumbbell row Dumbbell row

3

Ab wheel roll-out

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 60 sec.
Ab wheel roll-out Ab wheel roll-out

Day 4
1

Military press

5 sets of 5 reps, rest 90 sec.
Standing Military Press Standing Military Press

Triset
2

Front plate raise

4 sets of 20 reps, no rest
Front Plate Raise Front Plate Raise

Lateral raise

4 sets of 20 reps, no rest
Side Lateral Raise Side Lateral Raise

Dumbbell shoulder press

4 sets of 15 reps, 60 sec. rest
Dumbbell Shoulder Press Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Triset
3

Rear-delt raise

4 sets of 20 reps, rest 20 sec.
Rear-delt raise Rear-delt raise

Skullcrusher

4 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 20 sec.
Skullcrusher Skullcrusher

Incline dumbbell curl

4 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Curl Incline Dumbbell Curl


Week 3

Day 1
1

Barbell squat

4 sets of (5x1) reps, 25 sec., 90%, rest 3 min.
Barbell Squat Barbell Squat

2

Bulgarian split squat

4 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Bulgarian split squat Bulgarian split squat

Triset
3

Leg extension

3 sets of 8-10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Leg Extensions Leg Extensions

Leg curl

3 sets of 8-10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Leg curl Leg curl

Decline sit-up

3 sets of 50 reps, rest 60 sec.
Decline sit-up Decline sit-up

Day 2
1

Bench press

4 sets of (5x1) reps, 25 sec., 90%, rest 3 min.
Bench press Bench press

2

Incline dumbbell press

4 sets of 8-10 reps, rest 60 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Press Incline Dumbbell Press

Superset
3

Reverse-grip bench press

3 sets of 8-10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Reverse-grip bench press Reverse-grip bench press

Dumbbell fly

3 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Dumbbell Flyes Dumbbell Flyes

Day 3
Superset
1

Clean high pull

4 sets of 5 reps, rest 60 sec.
Clean high pull Clean high pull

Weighted pull-up

4 set of 5 reps, rest 2 min.
Weighted pull-up Weighted pull-up

Superset
2

Romanian deadlift

3 reps of 8 reps with 3-sec. eccentric, rest 30 sec.
Romanian Deadlift Romanian Deadlift

Dumbbell row

3 sets of 10-12 reps, rest 30 sec.
Dumbbell row Dumbbell row

3

Ab wheel roll-out

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 60 sec.
Ab wheel roll-out Ab wheel roll-out

Day 4
1

Military press

4 sets of 5 reps, rest 90 sec.
Standing Military Press Standing Military Press

Triset
2

Front plate raise

3 sets of 15 reps, no rest
Front Plate Raise Front Plate Raise

Lateral raise

4 sets of 15-20 reps, no rest
Side Lateral Raise Side Lateral Raise

Dumbbell shoulder press

3 sets of 15-20 reps, 60 sec. rest
Dumbbell Shoulder Press Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Triset
3

Rear-delt raise

3 sets of 15-20 reps, rest 20 sec.
Rear-delt raise Rear-delt raise

Skullcrusher

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 20 sec.
Skullcrusher Skullcrusher

Incline dumbbell curl

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 60 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Curl Incline Dumbbell Curl


Week 4

Day 1
1

Barbell squat

3 sets of 5 reps at 75%
Barbell Squat Barbell Squat

2

Bulgarian split squat

3 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Bulgarian split squat Bulgarian split squat

Triset
3

Leg extension

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Leg Extensions Leg Extensions

Leg curl

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Leg curl Leg curl

Decline sit-up

3 sets of 50 reps, rest 60 sec.
Decline sit-up Decline sit-up

Day 2
1

Bench press

3 sets of 5 reps at 75%
Bench press Bench press

2

Incline dumbbell press

3 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Press Incline Dumbbell Press

Superset
3

Reverse-grip bench press

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Reverse-grip bench press Reverse-grip bench press

Dumbbell fly

3 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Dumbbell Flyes Dumbbell Flyes

Day 3
Superset
1

Clean high pull

3 sets of 5 reps, rest 60 sec.
Clean high pull Clean high pull

Weighted pull-up

3 set of 5 reps, rest 2 min.
Weighted pull-up Weighted pull-up

Superset
2

Romanian deadlift

3 reps of 8-10 reps with 3-sec. eccentric, rest 30 sec.
Romanian Deadlift Romanian Deadlift

Dumbbell row

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Dumbbell row Dumbbell row

3

Ab wheel roll-out

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 60 sec.
Ab wheel roll-out Ab wheel roll-out

Day 4
1

Military press

3 sets of 5 reps, rest 90 sec.
Standing Military Press Standing Military Press

Triset
2

Front plate raise

3 sets of 15 reps, no rest
Front Plate Raise Front Plate Raise

Lateral raise

3 sets of 15 reps, no rest
Side Lateral Raise Side Lateral Raise

Dumbbell shoulder press

3 sets of 15 reps, 60 sec. rest
Dumbbell Shoulder Press Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Triset
3

Rear-delt raise

3 sets of 15 reps, rest 20 sec.
Rear-delt raise Rear-delt raise

Skullcrusher

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 20 sec.
Skullcrusher Skullcrusher

Incline dumbbell curl

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 60 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Curl Incline Dumbbell Curl


A Note on Notation

At first glance, cluster set notation looks a little strange. For instance, you'll commonly see descriptions like this:

  • (4x2) x 3, 20s @ 85%
  • 3 sets of (4x2) reps, 20 sec, 85%

What this means is that you will perform 4 mini-sets of 2 reps, resting 20 seconds between each. That's one cluster, and you'll perform 3 total cluster sets using 85 percent of yor one-rep max. Rest at least 3 minutes between each complete cluster set.

If 85 percent sounds strange or way too specific to you, maybe this type of training isn't for you just yet. It's of utmost importance to use an accurate one-rep max, ideally based off of a "training max," which is a max you could perform pretty much any day you walk into the gym. A training max should not be:

  • the max you nailed after a peaked competition program
  • the max you got the day you were psyched out on an insane pre-workout
  • the max you got that one time, but it nearly killed you

If you only know your max based off ideal conditions, try using 90-95 percent of that as the basis for this program.

Earn Your New Max

Used properly, cluster training is one of the most effective methods out there for increasing strength. While it isn't the best option for hypertrophy, it can definitely lay the framework for impressive muscle gains when followed up with a higher volume program.

Sleep big, place a major emphasis on recovery, and get adequate calories and protein.

Given the focus on low reps and heavy weight, supplementing with creatine during this program is a great choice. Sleep big, place a major emphasis on recovery, and get adequate calories and protein. This type of training can hit your central nervous system hard, so plan ahead and don't let exhaustion creep up on you.

Then, when this four-week phase is concluded, considering following it up with a higher-volume phase such as my pre-exhaust hypertrophy program to piggyback off of your new strength gains and turn them into muscle.