If you haven’t heard of Josh Bryant and you are interested in strength sports or becoming more knowledgeable with programing for strength then look him up.
Along with creditable personal achievements, (the youngest person to bench press 600 lbs raw, won the Strongest Man in America in 2005 and totaled 2294 at the USPF Mountaineer Cup), Josh has coached the likes of Olympia athletes, D1 US sports teams and has helped some of the world’s best strength athletes to achieve new heights and set world records.
In particular he is known for the bench press having trained ‘20+ 600-pound raw bench pressers, five over 300 kg (661 pounds), two over 700 pounds and the highest bench press of all-time, a 782-pound bench by Julius Maddox‘. He has written countless E-Books on strength training and nutrition (plus he puts out tons of free content that you can easily find on social media). So pretty good all in all.
Any of Josh Bryant’s preferred methodologies would be good to look at in detail (please youtube ‘Dead Bench’), but in this article I will focus on his use of cluster sets of which he is an authority, having co-written Powerbuilding Cluster Sets with Adam Benshea. If you enjoy this article, please buy this book as it goes into an insane amount of detail on cluster sets, provides a program, as well as a huge amount of examples of cluster variations for the price of a London pint.
What is a Cluster Set?
A cluster set would typically be a number of shorter reps (of 1-5 reps for instance) performed a number of times with short rest periods (for example 10 seconds) inbetween, within a single set. For example, instead of 1 x 12, you might do 4 x 3 with 10 seconds rest between each set of 3, repeated 3 times (to a total of 12 reps).
Why Use a Cluster Set?
Our levels of fatigue climb at a faster rate during straight sets of multiple repetitions than they do with added rest periods. As such, the small breaks allow you to lift more weight, for more total volume and with the possibility of enhanced skill acquisition.
Examples of Cluster sets
Let’s take the Romanian deadlift for example and view it through the lens of wanting to focus on hypertrophy.
Imagine that you can Romanian deadlift the classic 3 x 12 with 100kgs and 90s rest periods reaching near failure (perhaps a couple of reps short) on your third set.
If instead, you performed a cluster set of 4 x 3 with 10 second pauses, then repeat this 3 x with the same 90s rest intervals. How much more could you add to the bar? Maybe 20kgs? More even? At which point you have now done your 3 x 12 with 120kg instead of 100 (which is a lot more tonnage).
Yes, there is a reduced time under tension within one continuous given set (as the reps are broken up and small rest periods integrated), however, as it is possible to do more reps, the total volume and weight used has been increased.
For those that are skeptical, consider the famed rest pause method where after you have hit failure on a given exercise you rest for 10-15 seconds and hit another few reps (and repeat until you can’t). This is a type of post-failure cluster set.
Or very similar to cluster sets are also Myo reps, which in bodybuilding terms might look like performing 15-20 reps to near failure, resting 10 seconds and performing 3-5 reps, then resting 10 seconds (and so on) until total failure has been reached.
So as an alternative, instead of going to failure and finishing with a rest pause method, or performing a Myo rep set (in which all sets are close to failure), consider performing a weight that you can do for 12-15 reps and performing it repeatedly for 5 reps with 20 second breaks until failure. Could you do it for 5 minutes? How many quality reps could you get in before you start to strain? Would starting with a lighter weight in this manner help you increase mind-muscle connection? What if once you couldn’t do 5 reps any more you dropped it to 4, then 3 reps etc.,?
More importantly, is this a training stimulus that your body is used to? If not, could it be a way to force adaptation (growth)?
You can see such methods (deemed the Jailhouse Strong Cluster Set) being used by Josh Bryant to train Jonathan Irizarry on chest supported rows:
But what if you are not so interested in hypertrophy right now and strength is your goal?
Then you are in luck. As Bryant writes, cluster sets originated from Olympic weightlifting programs as both high volume and in low rep approaches, highlighting their pedigree within strength training.
We can also see their effectiveness pop-up time and time again in strength training programs. An example would be famed strength coach Charles Poliquin who recommended performing 90% of your 1RM for sets of 5 singles with 15 second break between reps.
So if your deadlift may is say, 200kg, you would set up the bar with 180kg, and pull it for 5 singles with 10 seconds break in between.
That is seriously intense, and as Josh Bryant writes, ‘this methodology works well because you are forced to maximally recruit high-threshold motor units on every rep and set’. Added to this is the need to repeatedly step back from the bar, brace, get into position and explode, which is hard and reinforces skill under duress.
Programming Cluster Sets
There are many ways to skin a cat, and more ways to program cluster sets. Like all programming considerations, it depends on what the goal is and what stage an athlete is in their training cycle.
For instance, you might want to target a specific movement, break a plateau in your strength training, or find a way to break the monotony of previous training blocks. This might mean implementing cluster sets in a hypertrophy block for low repetitions to maintain strength in compound lifts, or performing them with high reps to gain size (or both?).
On the other hand it might be that high rep cluster approaches are used in various forms in a hypertrophy block, where lower weight, short rest continuous clusters are mixed with slightly higher weight, longer rest (30-45s) clusters.
Then, in a subsequent strength block they could be implemented by using very high weight but changing the rest periods from shorter to longer on different days or weeks. You could also apply clusters to other activites outside of lifting. For instance maximal effort weighted jumps performed in the same manner as prescribed by the Poliquin cluster set. The world is your oyster.
The Jailhouse strong and Poliquin methods described are on the extreme end of the spectrum of cluster sets. They are brutally effective ways to force lifters with some experience into new growth, or to break plateaus in strength.
It is important to note that Josh trains some of the best athletes and bodybuilders around, but it does not mean that any normal person can do what his lifters do and expect the same results or to not get injured.
The issue being that cluster sets could quite easily exceed your MRV (maximal recoverable volume) and therefore lead to issues such as overtraining, or just end up being junk sets (sets which exceed the necessary stimulus for strength and growth).
Moreover, as there are so many repetitions, you better make sure you have healthy joints and a good muscular base, because the intensity of such an amount of repetitions under high weight loads can lead to further irritation of that niggling shoulder or elbow that has bothered you from time to time.
As such, for more early stage lifters, regular gym goers or lower intermediate lifters (let’s say, looking to compete in powerlifting or strongman but not yet entered a first competition), and especially older lifters, these methods can be tweaked slightly to provide very effective results with less risk of injury.
For instance, maybe try comparing some Myo sets with a few select cluster sets on specific exercises which recover more quickly than larger muscle groups like the quads, such as the forearms, biceps or calves.
Note the difference between the different forms of training and how how both can be programmed to help you achieve your goals. Also consider varying the way in which clusters are being performed as Josh does with Jonathan in the previous video. This might mean slightly lengthening rest periods but increasing weight, or not going to failure on all exercises.
Play around with it and find out what works best for your body type (and buy Josh’s book to get more ideas gosh darn it!).
Programming Cluster Sets For Strength
For strength, there are loads of ways to program clusters and please try them.
I have found that more beginnerish (lifters with at least 1 year of training behind them) to intermediate lifters that I have programmed for have had good results hitting between 80-85% for 4 singles with 10 – 20 second breaks between repetitions on the major lifts (such as squat, bench and deadlift, or variations of these). This would be one set.
The break time between reps, is usually the time it takes to take a step back (or sit up) and reset from the barbell. The lifters would then repeat this 3 times with around 120s break in-between sets.
After, I would have them drop the weight by 10-20% (depending on the lifter) and perform 2 sets of 3 repetitions (again with the same cluster approach of stepping back from the barbell each time), focusing on moving the weight more explosively.
While this approach might not be as intense and therefore not as effective for some lifters as to the Poliquin method, there is less stress on the body, and for less advanced lifters, less likelihood of a break down in form or risk of injury.
As the people I write programs for are mostly powerlifters, there is high degree of specificity in this approach, as the lift is performed as it is in competition (meaning singles), takes a great deal of effort, and has the added benefit of a lot of practice breathing and bracing, which for most of us should be a point in focus in the gym.
Why 4 reps? This is personal preference. In training one size does definitely not fit all, and the needs and psychology of lifters varies greatly.
If the lifters are looking to move on from their 5 rep program, and are used to grinding out that 5th rep, there is a considerable mental change in reducing that classic set by one rep but increasing the weight slightly and not allowing intensity to drop off.
Not only can the lifter feel like they can attack the lift more, but they can keep focus on form and ultimately reinforce good habits. Paired with this, it is a good idea to then have the lifter reduce the weight by 10% and hit another 5 sets of 3 more explosively (which is what Josh Bryant would call Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT)), directly after the cluster sets, to add volume and train the lifter to increase their power output while again, reinforcing technique.
How to use cluster sets in training all depends on the lifter and individual goals. As previously stated, there is not a ‘one way fits all’ method.
Consider the goal, what is needed from the training and how such training methods can be best applied…but also give it a go! So many top-class lifters and coaches have had success implementing these methods.
For the third time, buy Josh Bryant’s book! It’s cheap, has a ton more information in it than has been stated in this very limited article. It could take you or your athletes to new levels.