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Cluster Sets: A Novel Method for

Introducing Additional Variation into a


Resistance Training Program
Greg Haff, PhD, CSCS,*D, FNSCA
ASCC Strength Scientists Course Coordinator
Senior Lecturer - Strength and Conditioning
Edith Cowan University
This paper was presented as part of the NSCA Hot Topic Series.
All information contained herein is copyright of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).

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Cluster Sets: A Novel Method for Introducing Additional Variation into a Resistance Training Program

Introduction
Logically structured and systematically sequenced variation is a cornerstone of an appropriately designed periodized strength and conditioning
program (1). The ability to introduce variation into a resistance training program can include manipulating training load, number of sets and
repetitions, exercise order, exercise density (i.e., number of exercises in a session, cycle, or period of training), training focus or priority, and rest
intervals between sets (5,6). A relatively new method for introducing training variation into a training program involves manipulating the training set
structure. This can involve varying the intraset rest (or inter-repetition rest) interval and/or training load (5,6,7). This type of set modification has
been defined as a cluster set and may offer a novel stimulus for maximizing power output and movement velocity (7,8).

Types of Sets
When examining the literature there are two main set structures, the traditional and cluster set, that can be utilized in a resistance training program
(5). The most common set configuration used by strength and conditioning professionals is the traditional set. This involves a series of repetitions
that are performed with the same load in a continuous fashion (5,6,7). While these traditional set structures are generally better suited for inducing
hypertrophy, increasing strength, or improving strength endurance, they may not be the best configurations for improving movement velocity, power
endurance, or power output (5,17).
The second most common set structure is the cluster set, which was developed as a means for improving the overall quality of the training set by
increasing the velocity and power profile of the training set (5,6,7). Typically, the cluster set structure utilizes a 5 - 45 s rest interval between each
individual or series of repetitions, which results in increases in power output, barbell velocity, and barbell displacement when compared to traditional
set configurations (5,6,7,8,9,13,14).
A variety of cluster set structures can be created (Table 1), but there are generally four basic variants. These variants include the standard, undulating,
wave, and ascending cluster set (5). The standard cluster set involves placing a 5 - 45 s rest interval between individual repetitions or clusters of
repetitions, while resistance or training load is held constant. For example, a total of 10 repetitions at 75% of 1-repetition maximum (1RM) can be
programmed for a given set with 15 s separating every pair of repetitions. This example provides the following loading pattern for a 10/2 cluster set:

Another strategy could be to utilize a 5-s rest after each individual repetition, yielding the following loading pattern for a 10/1 cluster set:

Overall, the standard cluster set structure can be oriented in several different fashions where the number of repetitions contained in the cluster are
varied or the rest interval is manipulated to change the physiological stress stimulated by the cluster set (Table 1) (5).

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Cluster Sets: A Novel Method for Introducing Additional Variation into a Resistance Training Program

Table 1: Example Cluster Set Variants.


Type of
Cluster

Standard

Wave

Ascending

Undulating

Cluster
Complexity

Novice

Novice
Intermediate

Intermediate

Advanced

Inter-Repetition Rest
Interval (s)

Sets

Reps

Example Cluster Set Repetition Loading Structure (% of 1RM/repetition)

10/1

65/1

65/1

65/1

65/1

65/1

10/2

65/2

65/2

65/2

65/2

65/2

10/5

65/5

65/5

6/1

85/1

85/1

85/1

6/2

85/2

85/2

85/2

6/3

85/3

85/3

4/1

90/1

90/1

4/2

90/2

90/2

25 35

2/1

95/1

95/1

30 35

10/1

60/1

65/1

60/1

65/1

60/1

65/1

6/1

70/1

75/1

70/1

75/1

70/1

75/1

5/1

70/1

75/1

70/1

75/1

70/1

5 35

5/1

75/1

80/1

85/1

90/1

95/1

5 35

6/2

75/2

80/2

85/2

90/2

95/2

5 35

10/1

65/1

70/1

72.5/1

75/1

77.5/1

10/2

70/2

75/2

80/2

75/2

70/2

10 15

6/1

80/1

85/1

90/1

85/1

80/1

20 30

6/2

85/2

90/2

85/2

25 35

3/1

85/1

90/1

85/1

5 35

65/1

65/1

65/1

65/1

65/1

5 15
10 15
15 20

85/1

85/1

85/1

20 30
25 35
30 35

90/1

90/1

20 30

80/1

60/1

65/1

60/1

65/1

5 15
5 35

75/1

72.5/1

70/1

65/1

5 15

Note: These are only example intensities; they can be modified depending upon the goals of the training phase where the various types of
clusters are employed.
For example, if the target goals of a phase of training are strength endurance or hypertrophy, the overall number of repetitions contained in the
set should be higher and the rest interval between each individual repetition, or a series of repetitions, should be lower. Conversely, if strength and
power are the target goals less repetitions should be contained in the set, but longer rest intervals should be placed between the series of repetitions.
The standard cluster set configuration can be further adapted by introducing variations to the resistance used during each repetition or series of
repetitions (5). Three basic loading modifications can be made to the cluster set that allow for the creation of the undulating, wave, and ascending
cluster set variants. With the undulating cluster, the resistance used in the set is structured in a pyramid fashion where the load is progressively
increased and then decreased. For example, an undulating cluster might look like the following:

Generally, the undulating cluster is constructed with an even number of repetitions so that a pyramid loading scheme (i.e., ascending to a target
load and descending back to the original load) can be formatted. The overall programmed load for the cluster set is the average of all the
intensities performed for each of the repetitions completed in the set. For example, in the 6/1 cluster above the average intensity of the set is

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Cluster Sets: A Novel Method for Introducing Additional Variation into a Resistance Training Program

71%. Conceptually, the descending arm of the undulating cluster series results in a potentiation effect, with higher power outputs and velocities of
movement (7). Because of this potentiation effect, the undulating cluster set is recommended for use during strength, strength-power, or peaking
phase of a periodized training plan.
Another potential loading modification to the structure set is the wave loading structure (5). The wave loading structure utilizes a loading pattern
where loading alternates between two or more targeted loads throughout a set. For example, a wave loaded cluster set could be structured in the
following fashion:

As with the undulating cluster set model, the wave loaded cluster set attempts to create a potentiation effect by performing lighter loads after the
completion of higher intensity efforts. Because of the basic structure of this type of cluster set, it is generally employed during strength or strengthpower phase of a periodized training plan.
The ascending cluster is slightly different than the undulating cluster in that the weight is increased with each repetition, or cluster of repetitions, and
ends with the highest load as the last repetition or cluster. For example, an ascending cluster might look like the following:

The central premise that underlies the ascending cluster is to work the athlete up to higher intensity efforts. Because of this targeted outcome,
the use of the ascending cluster is typically restricted to the strength-power or peaking phase of an overall strength and conditioning plan. More
complex cluster sets can also be created by altering the number of repetitions contained in the cluster, while also employing undulating, ascending,
or wave loading patterns. For example, the following set structure may be created:

An additional method for varying cluster sets involves modifying the rest interval between clusters to target specific training outcomes (5,6). For
example, a shorter rest interval (<10 s) will target more of the strength or power endurance end of the spectrum, while longer rest intervals (30
- 45 s) will focus more on strength and power development (Table 2). Ultimately, the structure of the cluster set is dictated by the phase of the
periodized training plan and the adaptive response targeted by the employed cluster set and periodization plan implemented by the strength and
conditioning coach (5,6).

Table 2: Basic Cluster Set Rest Interval Patterns.


Rest Interval

Targeted Attribute

Period of the Periodized Training Plan

5 15s

Strength or Power Endurance

Strength Endurance or Hypertrophy Period

15 30s

Power Development

Strength or Strength-Power Period

30 45s

Maximal Power

Strength-Power or Peaking Period

Note: These rest intervals are only suggestions, as numerous possibilities exist depending upon training focus.

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Cluster Sets: A Novel Method for Introducing Additional Variation into a Resistance Training Program

Rationale Behind Cluster Sets


The rationale that underlies the cluster set is based upon an attempt to maximize the quality of each individual repetition performed during a set
(5,6,7). With a traditional set, the velocity, power output, and barbell displacement will decrease as a result of accumulative fatigue created during the
set (7,8). Support for this contention can be seen in the reductions in maximal force generating capacity, rate of force development, and the rate of
relaxation that can occur in as little as 5 - 9 maximal contractions (20). Additionally, it is likely that performing continuous repetitions during a set
will stimulate a greater reduction of phosphocreatine (PCr) stores which will result in an increased reliance on muscle glycogen and thus, a greater
increase in lactic acid production (4). The elevations in lactic acid may explain some of the performance decreases seen during a traditional set noted
in the literature (7). Specifically, lactic acid accumulation has been linked to reductions in force generating capacity which occur as a result of the
hydrogen ion stimulating a reduction of the number of high force cross-bridge attachments in fast twitch fibers (3,19). Additionally, there is an associated reduction in the force generated per cross-bridge attachment in the fast twitch fibers (3). This reduction in force generated per cross-bridge
attachment results in a reduction in the ability to express high power outputs, which is typically noted when comparing traditional and cluster set
training structures that are employed with explosive or ballistic exercises (7,8,9,11).
The cluster set offers a method to reduce some of the metabolic fatigue that is generated during a traditional set (5). The introduction of a short
rest interval between individual or a series of repetitions appears to result in a partial replenishment of PCr during the intraset rest interval which
is reflected in a performance enhancement. Support for this line of reasoning can be found in the scientific literature where 15 s of recovery can
result in a restoration of half of the fatigue-induced force decrements, effectively returning force generating capacity to ~79.7% of the pre-fatigue
capacity as a result of the partial replenishment of fuel substrates (19). Based upon this evidence and the literature exploring cluster sets with varying
inter-repetition rest interval durations, it appears that training strategies that employ inter-repetition rest intervals have the ability to allow for higher
power outputs to be performed for each repetition contained in the set (7,8). Because the cluster set primarily affects velocity and power output,
this training structure is best suited for explosive or ballistic exercises such as those seen in weightlifting movements like jump squats or bench press
throws (7,8).
Conversely, traditional set structures appear better suited to significantly increase muscular hypertrophy or maximal strength levels (13,17). Even
though the traditional set produces more accumulated fatigue there is evidence to suggest that traditional sets result in greater strength gains when
compared to cluster sets (13,17). It is possible that these increases in strength are predicated by an increase in high-threshold motor unit activation
(14,17). Additionally, it is possible that the significant metabolic fatigue (i.e., lactic acid) stimulated by the traditional set increases the recruitment
of high-threshold motor units (10,15,18). Regardless of the physiological rationale, it appears that traditional set structures are best for maximizing
muscular strength, muscular endurance, and producing greater degrees of hypertrophy when compared to the cluster set. As such, traditional sets are
probably best suited for exercises that target these attributes.

Exercises That Should Be Used With Cluster Sets


The conceptual framework that spawned the creation of the cluster set centered on the desire to increase the quality of individual repetitions
contained in a training set and maintain technical proficiency with weightlifting exercises (7). It is well documented that during a traditional set
movement velocity, power output, and force production declines (7,8,17). Additionally, in weightlifting movements, there is a reduction in technical
proficiency as the number of repetitions in the set increases (7). Based upon these occurrences, the vast majority of weightlifters perform <5
repetitions per set with the classic lifts (i.e., snatch, clean, jerk, power clean and power snatch). Therefore, in order to utilize higher repetition
schemes the cluster set offers a means for maintaining technical proficiency whilst maximizing power output and power endurance.
Research on the cluster sets has typically employed the clean pull, bench press, and jump squat (7,8,13). Based on the theoretical underpinnings of
the cluster set, explosive exercises are the preferred choice for utilizing the cluster set structures (Table 3), while the traditional set is best suited for
strength-based exercises (5).

Table 3: Exercises Best Suited for Cluster Sets.


Weightlifting Movements

Weightlifting Derivatives

Ballistic Exercises

1. Snatch

1. Power Clean

1. Ballistic Bench Press Throw

2. Clean

2. Power Snatch

2. Jump Squat

3. Jerk

3. Clean Pull
4. Snatch Pull
5. Push Jerk

Note: These are only examples, other exercises may be used in a cluster format but generally ballistic, explosive, or
weightlifting exercises are traditionally used with cluster sets.

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Cluster Sets: A Novel Method for Introducing Additional Variation into a Resistance Training Program

When looking at the cluster set it is clear that it allows an athlete to increase the quality of the training set and may also allow the development of
power endurance. For example, traditionally sets of 10 are never performed with weightlifting movements such as the snatch or power clean because
of the technical flaws that arise when performing continuous repetitions or high-volume training (>sets of 3 - 5 repetitions). By employing a
cluster set, an athlete is allowed to get partial recovery, maintain power output, and develop a degree of power endurance, while maintaining proper
lifting technique. For example, with the power clean a cluster set can be created that can develop power endurance and be employed in the strengthendurance/hypertrophy phase of training:

With the 15 s recovery an athlete can capitalize on the partial recovery that the cluster facilitates, while still developing the capacity to repetitively
produce high-power output efforts (19). Ultimately, the various cluster set structures allow strength and conditioning professionals the ability to add
variety to training plans to magnify an athletes adaptive potential.

Integrating Cluster Sets into the Periodized Training Plan


As with any training intervention, cluster sets must be applied in the context of the goals of the periodized training plan (1). The ability to
manipulate the inter-repetition rest interval and the loading pattern allow the set to be structured in a way that targets an athletes specific needs and
the goals set forth for the training period or cycle. Overall, strength and conditioning professionals can manipulate the cluster set scheme, interrepetition rest interval, and loading paradigm to meet the target training outcome goals.
For example, in a strength-endurance phase the targeted attributes are generally to enhance muscle hypertrophy, strength endurance, and power
endurance (16). In this scenario, the majority of the sets used should employ traditional set structures, with standard clusters used for specific
exercises, such as the power clean or power snatch, in order to enhance power-endurance capacity (5). In Table 4, an example of how the cluster set
can be integrated into a typical strength-endurance training session is presented.

Table 4: Example Integration of Cluster Sets into a Strength Endurance Phase.


Intensity
kg

% 1RM

Inter-repetitionRest
Interval(s)

Traditional

40

29%

10/2

Standard Cluster

84

60%

15

10

Traditional

98

70%

10

Traditional

105

75%

Exercise

Sets

Repetitions

Set Type

Overhead Squat Warm-Up

10

Power Snatch

Snatch Pull from floor

Snatch Grip RDL

Note: percentages are based off a 1-repetition maximum snatch of 140 kg; RDL = Romanian Deadlift; A 2 - 3 min rest is used
between each set.
In this example, standard cluster sets are only implemented with the power snatch where two repetitions per cluster are performed with a 15-s
inter-repetition rest interval. All other exercises contained in the training session utilize traditional training sets because they are better suited for
hypertrophic and strength-endurance development.
In this period of training the standard cluster set is the preferred choice for the development of power endurance. In this phase, the sets loading
structure can be modified to include either an undulating or wave loading paradigm. Traditionally, during the strength-endurance period the load is
held constant for novice athletes and the undulating or wave structure is reserved for more advanced athletes (Table 1).

When the targeted outcome of a training period shifts toward strength development, the standard cluster configuration is still a useful tool, but more
complex methods such as wave, ascending or undulating structures may be warranted. These structures allow an athlete to experience greater loads
in power-based exercises, which can effectively improve loaded power development and the ability to repetitively apply high-power outputs against
different loads. For example, if utilizing a power clean in a strength phase, one may consider a total set loading of 92% with a 5/1 cluster. To achieve
this, an undulating cluster with the following repetition loads would be used: 130, 134, 138, 133, 130 kg (Table 5).

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Cluster Sets: A Novel Method for Introducing Additional Variation into a Resistance Training Program

Table 5: Example Integration of Cluster Sets into a Strength Phase.


Exercise

Sets

Repetitions

Set Type

Snatch Balance Warm-up

10

Power Clean

Clean Pull from floor

Clean Grip RDL


Clean Grip Shrugs

Intensity

Inter-repetitionRest Interval (s)

kg

% 1RM

Traditional

30

22%**

5/1

Undulating Cluster (130, 134, 138, 133, 130)

133

92%*

35

Traditional

174

120%*

Traditional

151

104%

Traditional

193

133%*

Note: Max power clean = 145 kg, Max power snatch = 135; RDL = Romanian Deadlift; *=based upon maximum power clean; **= based upon
maximum power snatch. A 2 - 3 min rest is used between each set.
In the example presented in Table 5, the undulating cluster is used with the power clean, while the other strength-based exercises utilize traditional
set loading structures. Based on the scientific literature, the traditional sets are chosen for the strength exercises because they appear to promote
greater increases in overall strength development (13,17). The cluster set structure is then reserved for the power-based exercises where power
development is targeted.
When transitioning to a strength-power period of a periodized training plan, combinations of different cluster set structures can be used to optimize
the development of power output while maintaining, or increasing, strength (Table 6).

Table 6: Example Integration of Cluster Sets into a Strength-Power Phase.


Exercise

Sets

Repetitions

Set Type

Speed Squats

Power Clean

Jump Squat

Intensity

Inter-repetitionRest Interval (s)

kg

% 1RM

Traditional

100

50%

3/1

Ascending Cluster

115, 120, 125

86%

35

3/1

Ascending Cluster

120, 125, 130

89%

35

3/1

Ascending Cluster

125, 130, 135

93%

35

3/1

Standard Cluster

60

30%

30

Note: Max power clean = 140 kg, Max Back Squat=200 kg; Max Push Jerk = 135 kg; A 2 3 minute rest is used between each set.
For example, in Table 6 a standard cluster is programmed for the jump squat, while an ascending structure is used with the power clean (5,8).
Generally, the ascending, undulating, and wave cluster sets are utilized during the strength-power phase (5). During this phase, the primary goal is
to maximize both muscular strength and power output. The strength of the ascending, undulating, and wave cluster set structures are the ability to
target various portions of the force-velocity or force-power curve (12). The ability to train various portions of the force-velocity or force-power
curve allows for an optimization of both power and strength expression that can have a direct impact on sports performance (2).

Conclusion
The set formats presented in this Hot Topic provide a framework from which strength and conditioning professionals can introduce unique training
stimuli into the preparation of competitive athletes and attempt to maximize both strength and power development. While there are numerous
applications and methods for modifying the cluster sets, there are some basic guidelines that are advisable when attempting to utilize this training
structure in a periodized training plan:
1. Cluster sets are best suited for athlete development-based programs, where both strength and power development are targeted outcomes.
2. Weightlifting, explosive exercises, or ballistic exercises are typically utilized with the cluster set structures presented in this Hot Topic (Table 3).
The most commonly used exercises for cluster sets are the power clean, clean, power snatch, snatch, ballistic bench press throw, and jump squat.
Conversely, classic exercises that are designed to target strength development generally employ a traditional set structure.

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Cluster Sets: A Novel Method for Introducing Additional Variation into a Resistance Training Program

3. The inter-repetition rest interval utilized in the cluster set is dictated by the targeted outcomes established for the period of training. For
example, short rest intervals when combined with a power clean creates greater metabolic stress and targets power-endurance development,
whilst longer rest intervals facilitate the development of maximal power output. Additionally, the rest interval can be modified to create hard
and light days of training depending upon the microcycle structure employed (Table 2).
4. Modifying the loading structure of the cluster set to employ ascending, undulating, or wave loading patterns can add an additional level of
variation to the set. These more advanced training structures are ideally suited for developing loaded power outputs and allow athletes to
become more accustomed to higher training loads. Additionally, because of the variety of loads used during the set, different portions of the
force-power and force-velocity curve are targeted. Ideally, the loading pattern chosen is in accordance with the period of training contained in
the periodized training plan.
5. Not every exercise should use a cluster set; only very specific power-based exercises should utilize the cluster set.
While the cluster set structure is a relatively new training tool there is a growing body of knowledge that demonstrates that the cluster set is a
valuable tool that strength and conditioning professionals can employ when attempting to develop power-endurance or maximal power output.

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