Here at Momentous, we’re obviously big on the benefits of premium nutrition. Yet this is only one component of full-life optimization we seek to provide, and enjoy ourselves. That’s why from time to time we’ll share original content and re-posts from our partners that help you develop the other facets of your performance. Tim Caron is the latest addition to our team of Performance Engineers. Since starting his strength and conditioning career at West Point with Army Football, he has built a reputation as one of the brightest minds in the field.
Today’s post is a version of an article that originally appeared on the blog of the gym Tim co-founded, Allegiate, which helps everyone from pro athletes to everyday folks achieve their fitness and wellness goals at their HQ in Redondo Beach. While the essence of the article comes from Tim’s team, we’ve added a few quotes from other experts and a little of our own research to help you make the most of cluster training for your clients, players, and teams (if you’re a coach) or in your own gym sessions (if you’re an athlete).
Allegiate’s Cluster Context
We’re coming off an accumulation block based on German volume training. This involved our athletes completing 10 sets of 10 reps in each workout. For the next four weeks, we’re heading into an intensification block. In it, we’ll focus on speed, power, and strength development. Unique to this block, we’re manipulating the rest between reps with a new methodology: cluster training.
What is Cluster Training?
Normally when we train, we do a series of reps in each set and then rest. For example, in a 5x5 program, we do five reps and then rest for two to three minutes before the next set. This helps maximize strength going into each set. With cluster training, the design is all about the rest between reps – rather than between sets.
So during this training block, we’re going to have our athletes complete a rep and then rest. Get another rep and rest again. Then get one more rep and rest. That will comprise one set. This work-to-rest program design is called intra-set rest and builds in a lot more rest between reps.
Why do we need more rest? Because this allows us to lift more weight and hit higher tonnages in a training block.
Tonnage is a term that quantifies overall load used during a period of time. A simple equation to figure it out is weight x reps x sets = tonnage. So for example, 100 pounds x 10 reps x 10 sets = 10,000 pounds.
Tonnage has been used for decades as a qualifier for national and international levels in weightlifting. Theoretically, if a person can accumulate a higher total of weight in a period of time, they should be able to compete at a higher level.
How do we manipulate sets and reps to achieve a higher overall tonnage?
We can do 10 sets of 10 reps to achieve morphological changes. “Cluster training is an effective way to trigger hypertrophy with higher intensity in a relatively short amount of time,” said Sean Waxman, founder of Waxman’s Gym and coach to many Olympic and World Championship-level weightlifters (who, coincidentally, just returned from visiting Tim Caron and his fellow coaches at Allegiate when we interviewed him). “By breaking 20 reps per exercise up into four sets of five reps where you do two reps, rest, do one rep, rest, and then do two more reps, you can jump from the 60 percent of an athletes one-rep max you’d usually use in sets of five reps to 80 percent. This can trigger greater hormone release and allow you to build muscle and boost strength simultaneously.”
Alternatively, if your goal is to increase power or force production, you could prescribe 10 cluster sets of three reps to achieve more neuronal changes.
There is a concept called Prilepin’s chart which describes the volume people can hit at specific intensities in a training session.
With this data, we can formulate strategies to squeeze more out of our training if we know:
- Our results are the aggregate of how much total weight we can lift in a period of time (tonnage)
- There’s a specific amount of weight we can hit per specified number of reps
- We have a pretty good guideline to go off for how much volume we can handle in a training session
Fatigue is often the limiting factor when trying to perform more repetitions. This is the basic premise as to why we cannot go forever at a specific intensity. Fortunately, cluster training allows us to push past fatigue.
Typically, the brain tells the body to stop when either the central nervous system or muscular system starts to fatigue, or when fuel stores are exhausted. Either way, we’re going to have to stop at some point, no matter how much we may want to keep going.
While cluster training cannot banish fatigue completely, it can help us game the system a little due to intra-set rest it builds in. If we are asking an athlete to perform three sets of three reps, adding more rest between each is how we enable them to squeeze out 91% when normally they can only handle 90% for this kind of volume.
An additional benefit of utilizing cluster training in this way is that by reducing fatigue, it helps ensure an athlete can continue to apply proper and safe technique to a squat, deadlift, or any other exercise with a weight that would usually be beyond them for the prescribed volume. “There’s no sense in lifting heavier weights if you’re doing so incorrectly, because this will simply groove faulty and potential harmful motor patterns,” Waxman said. “One of the great things about cluster training is that because the extra rest reduces fatigue, lifters are able to maintain movement quality and precision, which is particularly important with the snatch and clean and jerk. When we’re doing cluster sets in the 85 to 90 percent range, we’ll do the first rep, rest for 30 to 45 seconds, and then complete the second rep.”
The Rule of Relative Intensity
Let’s take a moment to talk about relative intensity and see how it relates to cluster training. If you’re a member at Allegiate and you look at the top of your card, you’ll see a color-coded percentage. That is reflective of the relative intensity we are training at for any given week. This is based on a rep/intensity chart, which helps predict a number of reps you should be able to use at a specific intensity.
Believe it or not, we do not work at 100% for the entire block. We progress from 70%, 80%, 90%, and finish at 100% (the latter being your one-rep max). Working sub-maximally has incredible benefits, including building motor patterns in response to the stress and begins a process of progressive overload over the four week training block. When an athlete gets to the fourth week, they should be able to hit 90-92.5% of their max for three reps.
The intent is to handle higher intensities for increased volumes so we can accumulate more tonnage. If fatigue is coming from either the muscular system (replenishment of ATP/PC) or from the central nervous system (update or transmission of neurotransmitters), we can override that by building rest in between sets.
If our limiting factors have a lower impact, we can utilize higher weights than we normally can. And if we can use higher weights than normal, we can get stronger. That’s the power of cluster training.
- J. Kenn, The Coach’s Strength Training Playbook.
- AJ Morales-Artacho et al, “Muscle Activation During Power-Oriented Resistance Training: Continuous vs. Cluster Set Configurations,” The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2018.
- JJ Tufano, et al “Acute Effects of Hypertrophy-Oriented Cluster Sets on Work, Power and Velocity,” European Journal of Sports Science, (supplement to Vol. 2) oral presentation, 2014.