“Maximise the recruitment of high-threshold muscle fibers, increase strength, muscle, and volume using this advanced training tactic.”
With the Covid-19 situation still a series of openings and lockdowns around the world it means that gyms are open in some places, while in some countries they may have to wait a little longer.
I have been getting a lot of questions especially from my clientele who live in Melbourne, Australia, since they are still under severe lockdown and have no gym access available and are wanting to have a sure-fire gameplan ready for them once those restrictions are lifted.
In saying that, I thought it might be a great idea to share the game plan I would do if my goal was to get back much of the strength that may have been lost during lockdown, muscle coordination in key lifts and of course maximising my muscle growth.
Because let’s face it, building an aesthetically attractive and masculine physique is the goal of 99% of the male population.
Let me introduce you to the Cluster Set Method, while this method is not necessarily new I am often surprised at how little publicity this awesome method actually receives let alone how many coaches actually use or know how to use this method within their programming.
Now, being a male myself I do pride myself on having some sort of commendable strength related to my big lifts but my priority is and always will be about building an aesthetically attractive and masculine physique. Let me explain why I feel this method is necessary to kick-start your training coming out of lockdown.
Why the Custer Set Method
Whether you have just come out of lockdown or are still patiently waiting you most likely have been performing some sort of bodyweight, resistance banded or dumbbell-based training without any of the heavier more intense barbell work that you may have been normally performing in the gym.
While you may have been able to perform variants of exercises like the bench press, squat or deadlift and many others there will still be a degree of inefficiency in performing these lifts and expecting yourself to be where you were at before lockdown.
I know some of your may be in a hurry to build muscle and get back into shape but it’s been long established that muscle growth from a training program doesn’t actually happen for a while – it takes around 3-5 weeks before any substantial muscle growth will occur!
The first 2-3 weeks of any new program there will be a neuromuscular adaptation before any muscular adaptation (growth) will occur. So it makes even more sense to spend time getting this initial phase of training right so that once your body is primed you can take advantage of the muscle you may have not been able to build if you just went balls out from the get go.
Another reason why this method is a perfect starting point has to do with your ability to coordinate muscles within exercises as this is crucial to your ability to build muscle.
By performing lifts at a high enough level of intensity you can recruit high-threshold motor units which means you will be stimulating a higher number of muscle fibers within the muscle of that lift and in time will improve your muscles recruitment and coordination.
This means by simply stepping back in to the gym you are opening yourself up to a new stimulus that the body can adapt to and your motivation levels are going to be at an all-time high. The perfect time to take advantage of what you could consider as a potentiation phase that will set you up nicely before progressing into a more muscular hypertrophy specific plan of attack.
Understanding Cluster Sets
Firstly, it’s important to understand that the central nervous system is in charge of the recruitment of motor neurons, starting with the smaller motor units before the larger motor units.
This is known as the Henneman Size Principle. 1/p>
Remember I mentioned when lifting at a high enough level to recruit high-threshold motor units, all this means is that your body will recruit the smaller motor units and thus muscle fibers before it can recruit the larger muscle fibers so it is important to make sure you are truly lifting at the recommended percentage of your lifts which you will find in the subsequent sections below.
Now, cluster sets are when you perform a certain number of reps, rest a short amount of time, then perform the same amount of reps or slightly lower for a given amount of “intra-set clusters”.
By lifting at this high level of intensity it will expose you to greater amounts of volume being lifted at this intensity within a set.
What makes this even sweeter is when considering muscular hypertrophy, the intensity of which we lift plays a significant role from both a % of your 1RM and the proximity to momentary muscular failure.
So when we use cluster sets we have the intensity side taken care of and when we add the short rest periods between reps or ‘clusters’ your body has just enough time to replenish some energy (ATP) so you can continue lifting at that intensity.
A key point to what I have just mentioned is to make sure you are lifting at a high enough level of intensity so it would be wise to have a solid understanding of your 1RM or even performing a strength test before beginning this method to further pinpoint your exact percentages and weight in which you will need to be lifting with.
In summary don’t use a weight that allows you to complete each cluster set too comfortably. This is going to go a long way in allowing you to become more neurologically efficient within the movements and your ability to recruit muscle fibers.
Cluster Method Workout Placement
I am sure you already have an idea with what exercises will be used and when to perform them but let’s quickly go over the basics. The primary exercises or ‘A series’ of your workout is where the cluster sets will be programmed.
The sets following the A series will be backed off in regards of intensity and situated within the functional hypertrophy (6-8 reps) & hypertrophy (9-12 reps) strength quality. The intent behind these exercises is to further fatigue each muscle group by focusing on maximum tension rather than load purely.
While the cluster set method can be used across the full spectrum of ranges, it’s predominantly known for being used with loading patterns of 1-5 reps per cluster.
For this program and for the purpose of maximising the recruitment of high-threshold motor units, we will be using the clusters within a 1-2 rep loading scheme.
How to Perform Cluster Sets
The general approach is to use a weight heavy enough to perform the target number of reps based off the first set. While there are many different variants in how to perform cluster sets this will also change the required percentage to lift with.
In our case we will be working off 90% of your 1RM, so the perfect approach would be to either already know your 1RM or to perform a strength test the week before you actually start in order to have a better handle on your percentages.
Let’s use the bench press for example. If my first set of clusters is 2-1-1-1 and I know I could maximally lift 150kg for 2 reps, I would then use 90% of that weight for my initial set of clusters.
The first cluster set would look like this:
- 300 lbs (135 kg) for 2 reps (rest for 15 seconds)
- 1 rep (rest for 15 seconds)
- 1 rep (rest for 15 seconds)
- 1 rep (rest for 180 seconds)
Now that our bases are covered, let’s dig into the rest of the program.
Due to the high amount of intensity that will be lifted within each session, this will be a 4-day intensification phase rotating between a lower & upper body day focus that will last 4 weeks.
The lower body days will see the primary lifts rotated between a squatting & hip hinge movement pattern.
The upper body days will see a super set format used where there will be a shared focus between push/pull movement patterns in the horizontal & vertical planes.
As you move into each successive week, there will be 1 rep added into each cluster set, this will see you complete your final week of cluster sets for reps of 2-2-2-2.
- Week One – 2-1-1-1
- Week Two – 2-2-1-1
- Week Three – 2-2-2-1
- Week Four – 2-2-2-2
The exercises after your ‘A series’ are all about maintaining continuous tension. Inside your B & C series of exercises, it is important to use a weight that is heavy enough to complete the target rep range whilst also making sure you can maintain the required tempo.
Across the 4-week intensification phase, your upper body will see a total of 22-24 working sets per session, and the lower body will see a total of 17 working sets per session. This will set you up nicely for your next phase where I would suggest a 6-8 week muscle hypertrophy specific phase.
What Do You Mean By Tempo?
The tempo in which we lift within any given exercise is known as ‘Time Under Tension’ (TUT). This just refers to the 4 phases of lifting that are seen within each rep. (See image below)
So if we use the bench press as an example and the tempo used in the above image of 4-2-1-0.
The 4, would see you lower the bar at a 4 second count.
The 2, would see you pause at the bottom isometric (hold) for 2 seconds.
The 1, would see you lift the weight back up in 1 second.
The 0, would see you have no hold at the top isometric.
As you will see below, I have actually also used the letter ‘X’ in the third column or concentric portion of the lift. This simply means that you need to emphasis lifting explosively.
The Workouts and Schedule
Below you will find the weekly schedule that will see you start with your week with the upper body. Due to intense nature of this program the lower body is always performed after the upper body day to allow any of the back muscles and the erector spinae that may be taxed to get enough rest in and not impede your ability to complete the upper body lifts.
Please know that an active rest day means to not just sit around all day. A simple daily step goal of 8,000-10,000 will do the trick.
|Monday||Upper Body 1|
|Tuesday||Lower Body 1|
|Wednesday||Active Rest day|
|Thursday||Upper Body 2|
|Friday||Lower Body 2|
|Saturday||Active Rest Day|
|Sunday||Rest day (take one full day off per week)|
|Upper Body 1 – Phase 1|
|A1. Neutral Grip Pull Up||6||2-1-1-1||40X0||90 seconds|
|A2. Flat DB Press Pronating||6||2-1-1-1||40X0||90 seconds|
|B1. Bent Over Single Arm Supported DB Row – Prone Grip||3||6-8||30X1||75 seconds|
|B2. Seated Single Arm DB Arnold Press||3||6-8||3020||75 seconds|
|C1. 60 Degree Incline DB Curl – Supinated||2||8-10||30X0||60 seconds|
|C2. Ez-Bar Triceps Extension||2||8-10||30X0||60 seconds|
|Lower Body 1 – Phase 1|
|A1. Trap Bar Deadlift||6||2-1-1-1||40X0||180 seconds|
|B1. DB Split Squat||4||6-8||40X0||75 seconds|
|B2. Prone Leg Curl – Plantarflexed||4||6-8||30X1||75 seconds|
|C1. BB Hip Thrust||3||8-10||3020||45 seconds|
|C2. Unilateral DB Farmers Walk – 25m each side||3||8-10||30X0||45 seconds|
|Upper Body 2 – Phase 1|
|A1. Incline Bench Press||6||2-1-1-1||40X0||90 seconds|
|A2. Barbell Bent Over Row – Prone Grip||6||2-1-1-1||40X0||90 seconds|
|B1. Flat DB Press – Neutral Grip||3||6-8||30X0||75 seconds|
|B2. Single Arm Lat Pulldown – Supinating||3||6-8||3011||75 seconds|
|C1. Cable Rope French Press||2||8-10||20X0||60 seconds|
|C2. Seated DB Hammer Curl||2||8-10||30X0||60 seconds|
|Lower Body 2 – Phase 1|
|A1. Safety Bar Back Squat||6||2-1-1-1||40X0||180 seconds|
|B1. DB FFE Split Squat||4||6-8||40X0||90 seconds|
|B2. Kneeling Leg Curl – Dorsiflexed||4||6-8||40X0||75 seconds|
|C1. 45 Degree Back Extension||3||8-10||30X2||75 seconds|
|C2. Cable Woodchop||3||12-14||30X0||60 seconds|
Sports Nutrition Considerations
Seeing as though your performance will be of importance and to tolerate these higher intensities being lifted and overreaching nature, I would add in pre-workout 5g of creatine monohydrate alongside 5g of beta-alanine for further benefits in endurance performance and increase repetitions to failure.
However, if you don’t enjoy the tingling sensation known when using beta-alanine, you can also spread your dosages into 1-2g taken 3x throughout the day. 3, 4
Where to from here?
Once completing this phase of programming and IF your goal is to maximise muscle growth, I would highly recommend moving into a muscular hypertrophy specific plan of attack over the next 8-16 weeks depending on how much time you can commit to building muscle.
Whether you are an aspiring physique competitor or simply a physique enthusiast, this is the best plan of attack to follow after completing the cluster set method.
1. Culbertson, J. Y., Kreider, R. B., Greenwood, M., & Cooke, M. (2010). Effects of beta-alanine on muscle carnosine and exercise performance: A review of the current literature. Nutrients, 2(1), 75–98.
2. Kreider, R. B., Kalman, D. S., Antonio, J., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Wildman, R., Collins, R., Candow, D. G., Kleiner, S. M., Almada, A. L., & Lopez, H. L. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1), 18.
3. Milner-Brown, H. S., Stein, R. B., & Yemm, R. (1973). The orderly recruitment of human motor units during voluntary isometric contractions. The Journal of Physiology, 230(2), 359–370.
4. Robinson, R. (2009). In mammalian muscle, axonal wiring takes surprising paths. PLoS Biology, 7(2)