Cluster Sets: What Are They? How To Use? (Complete Guide)

cluster sets are made up of smaller constituent sets within each set

Simple straight sets are the norm for most athletes or general gym-goers, and they work well for training goals including power, strength, and hypertrophy. Over the years, new and innovative ways of performing training have gained popularity, including a method called “cluster sets”. The rise in popularity is driven by scientific research to back its efficacy for making gains.

But what are cluster sets and what do they do? Cluster sets are made up of smaller constituent sets within each set. They have short intra-set rest periods between 5-30 seconds. For example, lifting a set of 6 reps, but splitting it into two mini-sets of 3 reps with a 10-sec rest in between. Cluster sets allow you to lift more weight or perform more reps.

In this article, we will cover a comprehensive guide to cluster sets by explaining:

  • What cluster sets are
  • How cluster sets differ from straight sets
  • What cluster sets are shown to do
  • How to use them for power, strength and hypertrophy

Cluster Sets: An Overview

The method of cluster sets is a protocol for performing sets in which one set contains smaller constituent sets. 

The small sets within each larger set have short intraset rest periods between a few seconds and half a minute. 

These short breaks allow either more weight to be lifted per set, more repetitions than straight-set work would permit, or both at once; they can also lead to higher lifting speeds during these high-intensity bursts.

Whether you choose to lift more weight, reps, both or neither depends on what adaptations you are seeking to gain in your muscles. You could be looking to develop explosive strength, maximum strength, or hypertrophy.

The protocol of cluster sets was used by Olympic weightlifters since the late 1940s and it was not until 2008 when rigorous research was done to test its effectiveness.

Cluster sets are one of many special protocols you can use in strength training.  Check out our article that outlines 10 Special Movements To Increase Your Powerlifting Strength

Cluster Sets vs Straight Sets: 5 Differences

The 5 main differences between cluster sets and straight sets are:

  • Cluster Sets Have Intraset Rest Periods
  • Cluster Sets Maintain Higher Rep Speed Than Straight Sets
  • Cluster Sets Maintains Lower RPE Reps Than Straight Sets
  • Straight Sets Activates Higher Threshold Motor Units Than Cluster Sets
    • Cluster Sets Enable Variable Loading Within Sets

1. Cluster Sets Have Intraset Rest Periods

The definition of a straight-set is a group of repetitions performed immediately one after the other with zero rest or negligible rest between sets.

The cluster sets allow the existence of singular or multiple rest periods within the set dispersed in whatever desired way between certain reps.

2. Cluster Sets Maintain Higher Rep Speed Than Straight Sets

Due to the nature of cluster sets by having intraset rest periods, this enables recovery from performing reps. The recovery allows dissipation of the build-up of waste products within muscles that cause the muscle to fatigue during performance.

This fatigue makes the muscles weaker and therefore makes the execution of subsequent reps slower. By having these intraset rest periods, there is less degradation of the speed of the reps. 

This makes the average speed of reps performed to be faster in cluster sets than straight sets.

3. Cluster Sets Maintains Lower RPE Than Straight Sets

As cluster sets enable fatigue to dissipate throughout the set, this enables more work capacity for reps to be performed.

 So when a cluster set is compared with a straight-set of the same total reps and load used, the RPE or rate of perceived exertion of the reps tend to be lower i.e. the reps tend to feel easier.

This means that you can leave more reps in reserve by the end of the set in cluster sets than straight sets.

4. Straight Sets Activates Higher Threshold Motor Units Than Cluster Sets

As there are no rest periods in straight sets, this means that there is a gradual build-up of waste products that fatigue the muscle throughout the set. As the reps get harder and harder, you slowly activate higher threshold motor units.

High threshold motor units are activated when high force is demanded i.e. when lifting heavy weights or when muscles are fatiguing. High threshold motor units are responsible for most of your strength and muscle size gains.

Cluster sets reduce how much harder the reps can get and so with straight sets, you may end up activating higher threshold motor units.

5. Cluster Sets Enable Variable Loading Within Sets

Having a rest period opens up the opportunity to use more than one loading on an exercise. This opens up creative ways of organizing cluster sets with desired ranges of loading.

You can keep things simple and use a standard single load protocol. You can also choose variable loading where you can choose an undulating approach where the load goes up and then down, or you can choose an ascending approach where the load goes up after each mini set.

For example, for a straight-set of 6 reps, you can only perform a singular weight throughout the set. For a cluster set of 6 reps constructed of mini-sets of 2 reps, in that cluster set, you can perform 2 reps of 225lb, then 2 reps of 235lb, then 2 reps of 245lb.

5 Benefits Of Using Cluster Sets? (What Does The Research Say)

the 5 benefits of using cluster sets

There is now definitive research that outlines the benefits of using cluster sets in your training. 

Here are the 5 benefits of using cluster sets: 

  • Cluster sets can maintain quality technique of the individual repetitions 
  • Cluster sets can be a Higher training stimulus for power output 
  • Cluster sets can be used to reduce intra-set and inter-set fatigue 
  • Cluster sets can be used for power-endurance 
  • Cluster sets can be beneficial for strength and power in hypertrophy training

1. Cluster Sets Can Maintain Quality Technique of the Individual Repetitions

Research suggests that the use of cluster sets can help enhance the technical qualities of each individual rep that is performed. This is particularly relevant for strength or Olympic weightlifting type movements.

With traditional sets, you have a continuous accumulation of fatigue after every rep you perform during the set. What this fatigue can do is bring out your weaknesses during the exercise as your weak points will struggle and subsequently the way you move in later reps will differ.

This is undesirable especially if it is a technically demanding movement such as the snatch or cleaning and jerk. When you execute a movement in a certain way, you reinforce that way of moving. So if your technique breaks down from fatigue, you reinforce poor movement patterns.

Want to learn more about improving your technique, check out our article categories on: 

2. Cluster Sets Can Be a Higher Training Stimulus for Power Output

Research also suggests that using inter-repetition rest intervals (i.e. using cluster sets) can enhance the power output of the repetitions and is superior to straight sets. 

This is because there is a reduction in fatigue and so the power output of each rep is higher. 

Power output is an important quality for explosive or ballistic movements, which transfers to field sports, court sports, and Olympic weightlifting. 

Check out my other guide that explains whether powerlifters should do more explosive movements like Olympic lifts

3. Cluster Sets Can Be Used to Reduce Intra-set and Inter-set Fatigue

Research has shown that cluster sets do reduce intra-set and inter-set fatigue. By incorporating rest periods within each cluster set, you are going to decrease the overall difficulty of the reps and reduce fatigue build-up. 

This can be useful for programming reasons short term and long term.

In the short term, you may be trying to reduce the effect that one exercise has on the other, so using cluster sets may help manage how fatigue a muscle is before a subsequent exercise.

In the long term, if you are in a period of training where you are looking to increase physical readiness to perform by deloading or tapering, you can incorporate cluster sets to do that. 

4. Cluster Sets Can Be Used for Power Endurance

Cluster sets have been shown that it can be useful for training for power endurance, which is the capacity by which an athlete can repeatedly exert a certain amount of explosive force for a duration.

This is particularly useful for sports athletes who have to repeatedly express multiple bouts of intense activity such as sprint cyclings, tennis players, etc.

5. Cluster Sets Can Be Beneficial for Strength and Power

Cluster sets have also been shown to produce greater gains in strength and power when performing hypertrophy training. 

In this research study, the total volume load and training intensity were equated.  

In other words, one group wasn’t doing more work or lifting more weight compared to the other.  It was simply that one group broke their sets into mini sets (clusters), and one group didn’t.  

We discuss this more in our article on Breaking Through A Bench Press Plateau

3 Ways To Program Cluster Sets

3 ways of programming cluster sets

As the rest periods open up a window of opportunity of changing loads, there are different ways you can design a cluster set. 

Here are 3 ways of programming cluster sets:

  • Standard Cluster Sets
  • Undulating Cluster Sets
  • Ascending Cluster Sets

Standard Cluster Sets

Standard cluster sets use a single load throughout the cluster sets so nothing changes between each mini-sets within a cluster set.

How To Read Standard Cluster Sets In A Program

Standard cluster sets are written in the format of:

  • (Sets) x (total reps in 1 cluster set) / (reps in each mini-set)
  • E.g. 3×6/2 is 3 sets of 6 reps with 2 rep clusters

Undulating Cluster Sets

Undulating cluster sets incorporate a rise in load which is followed by a lowering in the load. 

This can be performed in a single pyramid. Alternatively, the wave loading can oscillate more frequently where the load goes up and down several times within a cluster set.

Undulating cluster sets give you the opportunity to gain exposure to higher intensities without overdoing them by incorporating lower intensities as well.

How To Read Undulating Cluster Sets In A Program

Undulating cluster sets will present the weights that are performed in the mini-sets inside the cluster set. Note that the loading will increase then decrease

  • (Sets) x (total reps in 1 cluster set) / (reps in each mini-set) (load)/(reps)…
  • E.g. 3×6/2 225/2 235/2 225/2 is 3 sets of 6 with 2 rep clusters with 225lb for 2 reps, 235lb for 2 reps, 225lb for 2 reps

Ascending Cluster Sets

Similar to an undulating cluster set, ascending cluster sets involve a continuous increase in loading after each intraset rest period but without going back down.

Ascending cluster sets give you the opportunity to increase loading compared to doing straight sets by taking advantage of the intra-set rest period.

How To Read Ascending Cluster Sets In A Program

Ascending cluster sets will present the weights that are performed in the mini-sets inside the cluster set. Note that the loading increases continuously.

  • (Sets) x (total reps in 1 cluster set) / (reps in each mini-set) (load)/(reps)…
  • E.g. 3×6/2 225/2 235/2 245/2 is 3 sets of 6 with 2 rep clusters with 225lb for 2 reps, 235lb for 2 reps, 245lb for 2 reps

How To Use Cluster Sets For Hypertrophy

how to use cluster sets for hypertrophy

Accumulating fatigue may be beneficial for producing gains in muscle mass. So for the purpose of hypertrophy, you may want to pursue shorter intra-set rest periods.

  • Recommended Intra-set Rest Periods are: 5s to 20s
  • Recommended Inter-set Rest Periods are: 1-2 mins

You can also take intensities that you would normally reserve for low reps and use them for cluster sets and attempt to get more reps in them.

  • Recommended Intensity Range: 6RM to 10RM

Related Article: Should Powerlifters Do Hypertrophy?

Example Hypertrophy Workout for Chest

Barbell Bench Press (Standard Cluster Sets)

3 x 8/2 @ 6RM

  • Prescription: perform 3 sets of 8 rep cluster sets, with each cluster set being constructed of 2 rep mini-sets
  • Rest: Take 15-seconds rest in between mini-sets.  Take 1-2 minutes after cluster set 
  • Cluster Set Protocol: Perform 2 reps, rest 15 seconds, perform 2 reps, rest 15 seconds, perform 2 reps, rest 15 seconds, perform 2 reps, rest 1 – 2 minutes.
  • Loading: 6RM means use a weight that you can only perform 6 reps with, this is roughly 85% of your 1 rep max.

Dumbbell Bench Press (Standard Cluster Sets)

3x 10/5 @ 8RM

  • Prescription: perform 3 sets of 10 rep cluster sets, with each cluster set being constructed of 5 rep mini-sets
  • Rest: Take 10-seconds rest in between mini-sets.  Take 1-2 minutes after cluster set 
  • Cluster Set Protocol: Perform 5 reps, rest 10 seconds, perform 5 reps, rest 10 seconds
  • Loading: 8RM means use a weight that you can only perform 8 reps with, this is roughly 80% of your 1 rep max.

Cable Crossover (Straight Sets)

2×15

Cable Tricep Extension  (Straight Sets)

2×15

How To Use Cluster Sets For Strength

how to use cluster sets for strength

You can use a similar approach of cluster sets for hypertrophy to strength except you may want to consider using higher intensities and longer rest times due to the use of higher intensities.

Recommended Intra-set Rest Periods are: 10s to 30s

Recommended Inter-set Rest Periods are: 3-5 mins

Higher intensity work is generally more conducive to maximal strength gains so the intensity range you would use would range in the following:

Recommended Intensity Range 4RM to 8RM or 80%+

Example Strength Workout for Lower Body

Back Squats (Standard Cluster Sets)

4 x 6/2 @ 5RM or 87%

  • Prescription: perform 4 sets of 6 rep cluster sets, with each cluster set being constructed of 2 rep mini-sets
  • Rest: Take 20-seconds of rest in between mini-sets.  Take 3-5 minutes after cluster set 
  • Cluster Set Protocol: Perform 2 reps, rest 20 seconds, perform 2 reps, rest 20 seconds, perform 2 reps, rest 20 seconds
  • Loading: 5RM means use a weight that you can only perform 5 reps with, this is roughly 87% of your 1 rep max.

Sumo Deadlift (Standard Cluster Sets)

3 x 4/1 @ 4RM or 90%

  • Prescription: perform 3 sets of 4 rep cluster sets, with each cluster set being constructed of 1 rep mini-sets
  • Rest: Take 30-seconds of rest in between mini-sets.  Take 3-5 minutes after cluster set 
  • Cluster Set Protocol: Perform 1 rep, rest 30 seconds, perform 1 rep, rest 30 seconds, perform 1 rep, rest 30 seconds, perform 1 rep, rest 30 seconds
  • Loading: 4RM means use a weight that you can only perform 4 reps with, this is roughly 90% of your 1 rep max.

Hamstring Curl  (Straight Sets)

2×10 with 3 reps in reserve

Glute Bridges  (Straight Sets)

2×15 bodyweight

How To Use Cluster Sets For Power

how to use cluster sets for power

Cluster sets seem to offer the most benefit for the purpose of training for power, whilst using ballistic or explosive exercises such as power cleans. You may want to take advantage of higher rest times to maximize recovery of repetition speed.

Recommended Intra-set Rest Periods are: 15s to 30s

Recommended Inter-set Rest Periods are: 2 to 3 mins

Training for power can be similar to training for strength so you may use the higher intensities. 

Recommended Intensity Range 85%+

Example Power Workout for Lower Body

Power Clean (Ascending Cluster Sets)

4 x 4/1 @ 85-92.5% of 1RM

  • Prescription: perform 4 sets of 4 rep cluster sets, with each cluster set being constructed of 1 rep mini-sets
  • Rest: Take 30-seconds of rest in between mini-sets.  Take 3-5 minutes after cluster set 
  • Cluster Set Protocol: Perform 1 rep, rest 30 seconds, perform 1 rep, rest 30 seconds, perform 1 rep, rest 30 seconds, perform 1 rep, rest 30 seconds
  • Loading: Use the following loads: 85%, 87.5%, 90% and 92.5% of your 1RM (rep max)

Push Press (Undulating Cluster Sets)

4 x 4/1 @ 85-90% of 1RM

  • Prescription: perform 4 sets of 4 rep cluster sets, with each cluster set being constructed of 1 rep mini-sets
  • Rest: Take 30-seconds of rest in between mini-sets.  Take 3-5 minutes after cluster set 
  • Cluster Set Protocol: Perform 1 rep, rest 30 seconds, perform 1 rep, rest 30 seconds, perform 1 rep, rest 30 seconds, perform 1 rep, rest 30 seconds
  • Loading: Use the following loads: 85% and 90% of your 1RM (rep max)

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Cluster Sets The Same As Rest-Pause?

Cluster sets are not the same as rest pauses. Cluster sets are similar to using rest-pause in sets, in the sense that there are rest periods within a set. Cluster sets have pre-programmed repetition and rest distribution whereas rest pauses are generally used when you reach momentary failure in order to fit in more reps.

Cluster Sets vs. Drop Sets: How are they different?

Cluster sets use rests between mini-sets but drop sets do not intentionally use rests. Drop sets exclusively use descending loads as the sets progress, whereas cluster sets have the flexibility to use ascending, descending undulating, or fixed loads.

Are Myo Reps The Same As Cluster Sets?

Myo reps are more similar to using rest-pause than cluster sets where you perform repetitions to failure or near failure before you take a rest to perform more reps. This process is repeated until you reach the desired total number of reps in a set. Myo reps and cluster sets are similar in the sense that there is a desired total number of reps in a given set.

Final Thoughts

Cluster sets are not the panacea for all training purposes and there is a time and place for using them. It is important that you choose to use cluster sets at the appropriate points in your training journey. Cluster sets can allow you to perform more volume at higher intensities but you should monitor your training so that you do not overdo it as there is a risk of injury.


About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach

Norman Cheung

Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com