There comes a point in time where linear progressions and simple undulations in volume and intensity are no longer effective in producing progression. After several years of consistent strength training, an intermediate to advanced athlete will need to use more complex methods of progressions to avoid plateaus. One of these methods, effective for both gymnastics improvements as well as strength and hypertrophy, is known as cluster training.
Cluster training involves sets with built-in, intraset rest periods ranging from 10-30 seconds, which allows for more weight, reps and total volume lifted within a single set. For example, in the context of strength, instead of doing 4 sets of 6 repetitions, the athlete would perform 4 sets of 2.2.2 repetitions with 30 seconds of rest between each cluster. This allows for the same amount of volume in the first example, but the added rest within each set allows for heavier loads to be lifted, thus increasing the intensity of the exercise. In layman's terms, clusters are a powerful way to add both volume and intensity into a single training piece to build strength and/or hypertrophy.
This article will provide context on how to use cluster training for both strength and hypertrophy progressions for intermediate to advanced strength training athletes, as well as how to use cluster training within gymnastics progressions for individuals of all levels.
Within the context of gymnastics, there are two reasons to add cluster training to your programming. The first and most effective way to make progress is by using eccentric cluster repetitions to develop concentric skills. This can be used for beginners who are looking to get their first pull-up to advanced athletes who are working towards one arm pull-ups, etc.
Eccentric exercises consist of slow, controlled movements wherein muscles lengthen throughout the entire exercise. Let’s use the example of someone who wants to develop an L-pull up.
The end goal would be to complete 3 consecutive eccentrics, with uniform speed lowering, for 7-10 seconds, through the entire range of motion. The entire range of motion in this example would be from the chin over the vertical plane of pull-up bar to full lockout of the elbows in the bottom. Once that has been successfully completed, individuals should have the capability to perform a concentric L-Pull Up; starting at the bottom and pulling themselves up to the very top! Now, how do we use eccentric clustering to get there?
A typical starting point would be to perform 3 sets of 2-3 cluster repetitions with a 3-5 second eccentric, resting 10-30 seconds between each cluster and 3 minutes of rest between each set. Knowing where to start and how long to rest between each cluster will depend on the athletes’ starting points and current capabilities. This can be determined through a fitness assessment. The first step in progressing them towards their L-pull up will be to increase the length of the eccentrics until the individual can perform 3 clusters with a 7-10-second eccentric. The next step would be to decrease the amount of rest between clusters until they can perform 3 sets of 3 back to back repetitions.
The second reason to use cluster sets in the context of gymnastics is to improve the amount of work you can perform in a single set. Let’s say an intermediate strength training athlete has the ability to complete 8 unbroken strict pull-ups with a goal of hitting 12 unbroken reps in the near future. Once that individual has exhausted progressions through volume accumulation work such as repetition addition and additional set training, clusters are a strong next step. Instead of training on the eccentric part of the movement, as described in the example above, this style of cluster training focuses on the entire movement, both eccentric and concentric, with an end goal of chaining more reps together in a single set. Here is an example on how to use cluster chaining as it relates to gymnastics training.
Week 1: Pronated Strict Pull Up 126.96.36.199 x3 sets; resting 20 seconds between each cluster and 3 minutes between sets.
Week 2: Pronated Strict Pull Up 188.8.131.52 x3 sets resting 15 seconds between. each cluster and 3:00 between sets
Week 3: Pronated Strict Pull Up 184.108.40.206 x3 sets resting 10 seconds between each cluster and 3:00 between sets
Week 4: Pronated Strict Pull Up 220.127.116.11 x3 sets resting 5 seconds between each cluster and 3:00 between sets
Week 5: Pronated Strict Pull Up 4.4.4 x3 sets; resting 20 seconds between each cluster and 3:00 between sets
So on and so forth …
It is important to remember that in order to avoid plateaus, you must ensure that certain benchmarks have been met first before jumping to cluster training. Volume accumulation, adequate scapular strength and stability and proper strength is necessary to avoid plateaus from progressing to quickly. This is why working with a coach who understands both simple and complex levels of progressions within each training module is imperative for long-term success.
Strength and Hypertrophy: Clusters
In a traditional strength setting, it is common to see compound movements performed in a 5x5 format using around 85% of your 1 rep max. Cluster training allows for high percentages of your 1-rep max to be used while maintaining the same amount of volume. This results in the recruitment of higher threshold motor units, which is imperative for hypertrophy training.
A few examples of cluster training as it relates to strength:
- Bench Press 4 x 2.2.2 @ 87% 1 rep max; rest 20 seconds between clusters and rest 2:30 between sets
- Back Squat 3 x 3.3.2 @ 80% 1 rep max; rest 15 seconds between clusters and rest 3:00 between sets
Cluster training is also useful for increasing power. In 2010, a study showed that cluster training allowed participants to perform a high number of repetitions while maintaining the velocity of the lifting motion due to the intraset set periods. Whereas traditional training programs would have caused so much fatigue within each set so that the velocity of each repetition decreased overtime.
A few examples of cluster training as it relates to power:
- Power Clean 5 x 18.104.22.168.1.1; rest 15 seconds between clusters and 2:00 between sets
- Bench Press with Chains 3 x 2-2-1; rest 20 seconds between clusters and 2:30 between sets
The goal will dictate which movement you will use, how many reps to perform within each set and how long your rest periods should be between each cluster. Below is a general rule of thumb:
- Power: 4-5 total reps each set, 15-30 seconds of rest between clusters, 2-3 minutes between sets
- Strength: 5-7 total reps each set and 10-30 seconds of rest between clusters, 1-3 minutes between sets with
- Hypertrophy: 8-10 total reps per set and 10-20 seconds of rest between clusters, 1-1:30 minutes between sets
Just like any training program, understanding an individual's goals, training age, gender, resiliency, neuromuscular efficiency, etc. is essential to create an optimal training program that will elicit the best results over a long period of time. If you are tired of using templates and guesswork to support your individual needs in the gym, it’s time to look into personalized fitness. Click the link below to schedule a free strategy session with a Central Athlete coach to learn more! Your hard work inside and outside the gym should give you the results you are looking for, and we are here to ensure that it does!