Why We Cluster
Written by Michele Vieux

What is a “cluster” and why do we program them? Per Webster’s, a cluster is a group of similar things positioned together. In today’s workout, for example, we are doing clusters of cleans which looks like Clean x when written out on the whiteboard. This type of set may look a little different to some of you so let me explain what the means and why we like to use it.

Example Whiteboard:
Every 4 minutes, for 20 minutes (5 sets) of:
Clean x (rest 10 seconds between singles)
Rest 30 seconds
Strict Handstand Push-Ups x max reps

As noted on the board, the . means that you rest 10 seconds between singles which is today’s prescription but the rest could be longer or shorter AND the number of reps in each set could be more i.e. 2.2.2 or even 3.2.1., depending on the movement. So for today’s cleans you are doing 4 reps per set with 10 seconds rest in between each rep of the set (followed by HSPU) for a total of 5 sets. Just a note that you are to go up in weight each set (but not within the set).

Here are some benefits to clustering your cleans (and other barbell movements). Since you are dropping the bar between reps:

1) You get a bit of rest before each rep versus no rest as is the case when going straight into the next rep. Taking that extra bit eliminates much of the sloppiness that comes with touch-and-go reps and we want to work on perfect technique.

2) It allows time to get a cue from your coach or training partner with each rep so that you may make adjustments throughout the set.

3) It gives you an opportunity to perfectly reset your start position. Treat each lift in the set as if you are preparing for a world record attempt, or at least your personal best.

4) It allows you to go super heavy and move more weight each set since you are able to lift closer to your 1RM attempt than you would for a continuous set of 4. This is possible because of the three reasons above – the rest gives your muscles a little more time to recover for another heavy load; the tip from your coach allows you to make adjustments on your technique thereby allowing you to lift more weight; and the perfect reset for each lift puts you into position and the mindset to attempt heavier loads.

Sometimes you might see clusters for bodyweight movements like strict pull-ups, handstand push-ups, push-ups and others. We typically use clusters for these movements when the athlete is unable to complete the desired rep range unbroken but we still want them to accumulate a certain number of reps per set. Doing this not only helps athletes build strength, it also allows us to measure progress. Let’s take strict pull-ups for an example. Let’s say our athlete wants to do 6 unbroken pull-ups but can consistently only get 3 without needing to rest then the number drops from there. Here’s what a cluster progression might look like for them (note that you wouldn’t move on to the next progression until you successfully complete the current):

Week 1 – 3.1.1
Week 2 – 3.2.1
Week 3 – 3.2.2
Week 4 – 3.3
Week 5 – 4.2
…and so on until they are able to achieve 6 unbroken.

So how can you use this technique in your workouts? Let’s say the strength portion calls for 6-8 reps of strict pull-ups but you are the athlete listed above who can only do 3 on a good day but doesn’t want to go back to using band or partner assistance for the movement. Then you would follow the prescription above so that you can accumulate the proper number of reps per set.

You can also use the principles of clusters to strategize for timed workouts when movements come up that you know you’ll need to break. If you’ve practiced and know your limits for those movements then you will be able to utilize the cluster to allow yourself just enough rest to keep moving throughout the workout. We’ll stick with the pull-up example and my cue to athletes to “stay under the bar” if you break. Give yourself a countdown (whatever you’ve determined as your needed rest period) then hop right back up. This keeps you in a rhythm to be able to chip away at those reps.

I saw someone absolutely CRUSH 16.2 by doing clusters of Toes-to-Bar and it was achieved by her sticking to the time frame that she determined the . to be. Hopefully you find these tips helpful in gaining strength and forming strategy so that YOU can be the next to crush your nemesis movement!