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Cluster Training: The Athlete’s Size and Strength Edge

All sport coaches would like big, strong athletes and most combative athletes want to be big and strong. However, most athletes and coaches run into a problem when training for both size and strength at the same time. The longer an athlete trains; usually they begin to hit a plateau with their current routine. They increase the volume (an increase in sets) or they increase the intensity (percentage of 1 repetition maximum, not perceived muscular discomfort), however they do not do both. Volume training is great for increasing muscle mass, and increasing strength-endurance, however it is not an effective method for stimulating neural (strength) gains.

Muscle mass is generally stimulated by neural gains. The higher the athlete’s maximal strength levels, the higher the intensity used in repetition exercises can be used. Another problem coaches and athletes run into with neural training is the rest intervals must be higher in intensity training for recovery of the neural system (CNS).

The problem is in the old saying, a trainee can train hard (intensity) or train long (volume) but cannot do both. Some coaches, such as T-Nation’s Chad Waterbury have proposed using a low(er) intensity 75-85% bracket and increasing the volume to accommodate this intensity bracket and a decrease in the rest intervals (i.e. 10 sets of 3 with a 6 repetition maximum, with 60 seconds rest intervals). While this is an excellent method and I am not putting it down, I feel there is a better way to work in a higher intensity bracket (80% to 100%) and utilize sufficient volume to increase both size AND strength!

Generally, novice athletes and trainees can make fantastic gains within the 60-70% intensity bracket, usually working their way to 80%. This 80% threshold rule is that strength generally is stimulated above this percentage and this usually calls for a decrease in sets and an increase in rest intervals. So our method will be working above this 80% threshold in every scenario.

Enter Cluster Training

Cluster training is not a new concept; in fact most Olympic weightlifters use this method without knowing it! Some very well know authors have done much to bring this powerful method to light such as Charles Poliquin, Christian Thibaudeau, and Mike Mahler to name a few. Olympic weightlifters must drop the weight to the ground after each repetition; this is followed by a short pause, and another repetition. Most Olympic weightlifters outside of the super-heavy weight division sport tremendously muscular, athletic physiques to go along with their incredible strength!

Cluster training allows the athlete or trainee to utilize intensity above the 80% threshold rule (generally even higher 85-100%), with sufficient volume to increase both strength and size (i.e. more reps at a higher intensity). However, this method is highly demanding on the central nervous system and is not recommended for beginners or high school freshmen and sophomores. While this is a powerful method, it should only be applied to ONE lift per movement group (horizontal push/pull, vertical push/pull, etc.) or ONE exercise per body part. Another caveat is that this method necessitates excellent spotters. If you do not have at least one good spotter, do not do this method. This is not a method that will be kind to an athlete if their spotter(s) decide to take a nap! Cluster training must also be broken into, not jumped into. I show will a progressive model to breaking into cluster training and moving into more advanced methods. Coach Thibaudeau breaks them into levels, level 1 consisting of three methods, level 2 consisting of three methods and level 3 consisting of two methods. For athletic purposes I will only be covering levels 1 and 2, level 3 will come at a later time.

Level 1

The first progression in cluster training is the extended 5s method, coined by Coach Thibaudeau. The goal of the extended 5s method is for the athlete to do 10 repetitions with a weight they can only do for 5 repetitions. Obviously this is an outstanding growth stimulus, as there is an increase in both intensity and volume (85% x 10 repetitions). An extended 5s set would go like this…

The athlete takes their 5 repetitions maximum (RM) and does 5 reps and then racks the bar. Resting approx 7-12 seconds (counted out loud by a training partner or spotter), the athlete then un-racks the bar and does another 2-3 repetitions. Upon racking the bar again, another rest of 7-12 seconds is taken, and a final 2-3 repetitions are performed. The goal of the set is to get 10 repetitions total. Generally an athlete will need two to three pauses to accomplish this. The athlete rests 3-5 minutes and repeats 3-5 times. This is an excellent introductory method to cluster training! Here is a summary…

Extended 5s Method

· Load- 80-85% of 1 RM or 5 RM (repetition maximum)

· Reps- 5 Reps with 5 RM, 7-12 pause, 2-3 Reps, 7-12 pause, 2-3 Reps

· Sets- 3-5

· Rest Intervals- 3-5 Minutes

· Target Goal- 10 Repetitions with a 5 RM

The next progression in cluster training is the classic cluster method. Charles Poliquin wrote about this method in his text Modern Trends in Strength Training (2001) and Mike Mahler has written articles on this method calling it Rest-Pause Training. Regardless of the name, it is a powerful and effective method. This method is best used for increases in relative and maximal strength and hypertrophy of the type II-B muscle fibers (the ones with the most potential for force and power output). This method uses a higher intensity bracket than the extended 5s method, usually 87-92% of 1 RM and attempts to hit 5 intermitted repetitions with that load. A classic cluster set would go like this…

The athlete would take their 3-4 repetitions maximum and performs 1 rep, racks the bar, 7-12 seconds pause, 1 rep, 7-12 second pause in the rack, 1 rep, 7-12 seconds pause, 1 rep, 7-12 seconds pause, and a final 1 rep, and a 3-5 minute rest. Usually 3-5 sets are employed. Here is a summary…

Classic Cluster Method

· Load- 85-92% of 1 RM

· Reps- 5 Total Reps, intermitted, 1, pause, 1, pause, 1, pause, etc.

· Sets- 3-5

· Rest Intervals- 3-5 Minutes

· Target Goal- 5 Repetitions with a 3-4 RM

The last progression in level 1 is the antagonist cluster method. This is basically a variation of the classic cluster method, with the exception being that the athlete alternates between to opposing exercises with minimal rest (the pause is taken by the opposing exercise being performed). Reps and sets still apply, however the execution of a set is a little different…

The athlete would take their 3-4 repetitions maximum and performs 1 rep of bench press, racks the bar, proceeds to do 1 rep of bent over barbell rows, 1 rep on the bench press, 1 rep of the row, 1 rep bench press, 1 rep of the row, 1 rep on the bench, 1 rep on the row, and a final 1 rep on the bench, and 1 final rep of the row and a 3-5 minute rest. Usually 3-5 sets are employed. Here is a summary…

Antagonist Cluster Method

· Load- 85-92% of 1 RM

· Reps- 5 Total Reps each antagonist exercise, 1 Rep Exercise 1, 1 Rep Exercise 2, etc.

· Sets- 3-5

· Rest Intervals- 3-5 Minutes

· Target Goal- 5 Repetitions with a 3-4 RM on two opposing exercises

· For those who need to know antagonists, examples would be horizontal push and horizontal pull (bench and row), vertical push and vertical pull (shoulder press and chin up), quad dominant and hip dominant (squat and good morning), arms (curl and triceps extensions).

Level 2

It goes without saying that a foundation of cluster training should have been built in the previous level prior to taking on the more advanced methods here!

The first progression of the second level is named after the late Mike Mentzer, a highly successful bodybuilder. I first learned the Mentzer cluster method through Coach Thibaudeau’s excellent DVD on cluster training, and I continued to research it by reading Weight Training the Mike Mentzer Way. This is a very powerful method and should not be taken lightly. The goal of this method is to perform 4 to 5 total reps at 100-80% intensity. First the athlete will perform 2-3 singles in classic cluster fashion at 90-100% intensity and drop the weight approx 10% and perform another 1-2 repetitions with that weight in classic cluster fashion. For example…

The athlete takes 98% of their 1 RM and does 1 rep, racks the bar, 7-12 seconds pause, another 1 rep, 7-12 seconds pause, another 1 rep, 7-12 seconds pause, the spotter reduces the weight (in 7-12 seconds) and the athlete performs 1 more rep with this weight. Here is a summary…

Mentzer Cluster Method

· Load- 90-98% of 1 RM

· Reps- 4-5 Total Reps, intermitted, 1, pause, 1, pause, 1, pause, reduce weight 10%, 1 Rep

· Sets- 3-5

· Rest Intervals- 3-5 Minutes

· Target Goal- 4-5 Repetitions with a 1-3 RM

The second progression is called the drop set cluster. This is a blend of the classic cluster method and the Mentzer cluster method. Most trainees know what a drop set is, a descending scheme of dropping weight after performing some repetitions. The drop set cluster still uses high intensity (90-100%) and drops the weight 5-10 lbs per drop on single repetitions. Again 5 reps are the target goal. An example being…

The athlete does 1 rep with 98-100% intensity, racks the bar, and the training partner or spotters remove 5-10 lbs from the bar during the 7-12 seconds pause, the athlete does another single, Racks the bar, the spotters proceed to strip 5-10 lbs, athlete performs another single, racks the bar and more weight is stripped, athlete does another rep, racks and spotters reduce weight further, and athlete completes last rep. The drop set cluster allows a higher level of muscular tension, due to the repetition’s slow speed and the rep is being performed at 100% maximal momentary strength (i.e. all muscle fibers are being recruited to lift the load) (Poliquin, Modern Trends in Strength Training, 18-19). A summary can be found here…

Drop Set Cluster Method

· Load- 90-100% of 1 RM

· Reps- 5 Total Reps, intermitted, 1, pause lower weight 5-10 lbs, 1, pause lower weight 5-10 lbs, 1, pause lower weight 5-10 lbs, 1 Rep, pause lower weight 5-10 lbs, 1 Rep, pause lower weight.

· Sets- 3-5

· Rest Intervals- 3-5 Minutes

· Target Goal- 5 Repetitions with a 1-3 RM

The final progression in level 2 is called the accentuated eccentric cluster method. Caution: this method will require a competent spotter! As you might know, I do like to accentuate the eccentric portion of an exercise (see Eccentric Training for Athletes article). This method combines the classic cluster method with an accentuated eccentric portion of the lift. Again, the set and rep scheme stays close to the classic cluster method, however during the eccentric or lowering portion of the exercise, the training partner will push down on the bar and release at the mid point. This requires a very skilled spotter! They should only apply enough resistance to have the athlete still lower the bar under control! If the bar is dropping like a bag of bricks, it is not helping the athlete it is hurting them! Here is an example…

The athlete would take their 3-4 repetitions maximum and performs 1 rep with the training partner applying pressure to the bar in the lowering portion, racks the bar, 7-12 seconds pause, 1 rep with the training partner applying pressure to the bar in the lowering portion, 7-12 second pause in the rack, 1 rep with the training partner applying pressure to the bar in the lowering portion, 7-12 seconds pause, 1 rep with the training partner applying pressure to the bar in the lowering portion, 7-12 seconds pause, and a final 1 rep with the training partner applying pressure to the bar in the lowering portion, and a 3-5 minute rest. Usually 3-5 sets are employed. Here is a summary…

Classic Cluster Method

· Load- 85-92% of 1 RM

· Reps- 5 Total Reps, intermitted, 1 with the training partner applying pressure to the bar in the lowering portion, pause, 1 with the training partner applying pressure to the bar in the lowering portion, pause, 1 with the training partner applying pressure to the bar in the lowering portion, pause, etc.

· Sets- 3-5

· Rest Intervals- 3-5 Minutes

· Target Goal- 5 Repetitions with a 3-4 RM

Advantages for the Athlete

In his Modern Trends in Strength Training (2001) text Charles Poliquin points out the advantages of using cluster training for athletes, this is what he wrote…

· A higher total number of repetitions with a higher mean intensity in the same amount of time as classic strength or neural based training

· Increased total training time under tension for the high-threshold fast-twitch fibers; a prerequisite for reaching hypertrophy of these selected fibers. This may seem contradictory to the concept of relative strength, but hypertrophy can be beneficial if it is done in the right motor units.

· Higher force/lower velocities repetitions-a prerequisite for inducing maximal strength gains.

Putting it together

Cluster training is without a doubt a growth and strength stimulus. But how do you incorporate it into a plan? Clusters should not be used for more than 3-4 weeks, or else the method will become stale and your body will have adapted to the method anyway. So the method must be integrated into a yearly plan or at least a periodized cycle.

If an athlete or coach utilizes a conjugate method approach, cluster training would fall into the plan as a Maximal Effort Method, due to its use of high loads. So one would essentially use it like this…

Max Effort Day

ME- Classic Cluster Method

Assistance work done using classic hypertrophy methods (2-4 x 8-12)

If the athlete or coach decides to utilize linear periodization, cluster training would fall within the Strength Phase bracket and each movement would be given the cluster training method.

Strength Phase

Day 1- Horizontal Push/Pull

Bench Press- Classic Cluster Method

Bent Over Barbell Row- Classic Cluster Method

If the athlete or coach is utilizing undulating periodization (i.e. rotating between various strength methods by weeks with a training cycle) cluster training could be used for maximal strength work.

Strength Weeks

Week 1 and 5

Day 1- Horizontal Push/Pull

Day 2- Hips Dominant/Quad Dominant

Day 3- Vertical Push/Pull

1 Exercise per Movement Group-

Classic Cluster Method

Cluster training is very versatile, and athletes can benefit from this method by increasing both strength and size. However, like any other training tool, this one should only be used in moderation due to the intense fatiguing effect it has on the Central Nervous System. Also this method requires competent spotters, a luxury some do not have.

Cluster training done properly can help to jump start new growth or new strength adaptations in athletes. It can also increase all ready existing levels of size and strength. Any athlete (with the proper foundation) can benefit from this style of training! Good luck implementing this method in your and your athlete’s training!

Sources & Further Study

1. Poliquin, Charles Modern Trends in Strength Training (Self Published) 2001.

2. Thibaudeau, Christian (2005) Cluster Training [DVD].

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