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 Personal Strength Training 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…

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