In the gym, an overwhelmingly common practice to boost size and strength is to simply perform straight sets of exercise, just like they did in the old-school days. Sure, this plan may be tried, tested and true, but it offers few options if you’ve found that you’re in a plateau for either your size or your muscular development. It’s important that you find ways to manipulate your muscles to get a bit more out of every rep, to maximize gains and breeze past plateaus like it’s their job.
But first, a science lesson.
Your muscles rely on two substances for immediate bursts of energy (the same kinds of energy needed to do a heavy low-rep set in the weight room): creatine and phosphorus. For immediate energy, the body creates ATP (adenosine triphosphate), coming from these two substances. This is crucial for understanding how to take advantage of this system to get gains. This creatine phosphate system lasts a mere 10 to 15 seconds before it’s almost completely depleted. The only thing that can bring it back is rest.
Enter cluster-set training.
Applying this theory to your workouts means considering the amount of time it takes to perform a given lifting set. If you’re training for 10 or fewer reps, chances are, you’re in this energy system. Instead of doing a straight set of 10 or a heavy set of three to five (which could easily take just as long because of the load), it’s more efficient to get more out of the weight you lift by taking one or more breaks midway through your set. Even 10 seconds between will allow your ATP to partially rejuvenate itself and give you the energy you need to squeeze out even one extra rep — which is more than what you could do naturally.
Clusters for strength.
Simply choose your five-rep max in a big movement (squats, deadlifts and bench press work great for this method), and instead of performing five, just do four reps. Rack the weight and rest for a full 10 seconds. Next, take the weight off the rack again and perform another two reps. If you feel like a champ, then add another single after 10 more seconds of rest. If you’re spent, however, let the set end after your double. In either case, you’ll have just performed more than five reps with your five-rep max. That’s not too shabby — you can employ this using your three-rep max, also (2+2 or 2+1+1).
Clusters for size.
Size training usually takes more volume and requires a lifter to “chase the pump” and potentially employ high lactate training methods. With that said, you can use your 10- to 12-rep max as your new frame of reference. Instead of doing a full 12 reps, perform ladders. Pick up the weight and perform just two reps. Rest for 10 seconds, then perform three reps. Rest 10 more seconds, then perform five reps. Rest once more for 10 seconds and then perform 10 reps. By this point, your muscles will be screaming, and so will your lungs. You’ll be breathing heavy for the entire week.
The benefits of this method go beyond simply having done a total of 20 reps with your 12-rep max, however. In addition to the conditioning aspect, this also builds mental resilience because the amount of reps being asked of you increases as the set goes on and you begin to get more fatigued. That will bring more attention to quality of movement and recognizing what a proper and controlled “push” should feel like. A little grind can do the body good and help a lifter get through a sticking point in his or her progress.
The moral of the story: Mix it up. Given that your lifestyle habits are already on point, that’s the only way to kick the redundancy of a stalled program. Cluster sets can provide the stimulus you need, regardless of the nature of your goals. Feel free to play around with them until they stop working. By the time you return to straight sets, you’ll feel like Hercules.