Earlier this year, I began experimenting with cluster sets in my training. If you’re not already familiar with them, cluster sets are multiple (usually 6-10) sets performed with very short rest (45-90 seconds) between sets. You might guess that cluster sets can be incredibly challenging, and you’d be right! The question, of course is: Are they actually beneficial?
Personally, I didn’t really enjoy training with cluster sets, with one exception. For the most part, I found that I made smaller progress than had I just taken more rest between sets and used more weight. But deadlifts were another story — at least, when I used cluster singles instead of cluster sets. In fact, I think using cluster singles for deadlift training is a fantastically productive method that every powerlifter should try.
Benefits of Cluster Singles
One of the obvious shortcomings of cluster sets relates to their high aerobic demands. Even one of the relatively “easy” protocols I tried — six sets of six reps with one minute rest between sets — became more a test of endurance and lung capacity than of strength, at least when used with compound movements. Because you’re only performing one rep at a time, cluster singles are much easier in this regard.
More importantly, the deadlift really tends to benefit from sets of one rep. Deadlifting for multiple reps can be really deceptive — you can usually rep out with weights pretty close to your one-rep max.
Writer’s Note: That’s probably because of the stretch reflex: the extra bit of strength and momentum you get from the “rebound” after performing the eccentric portion of a movement. In a powerlifting competition, however, you don’t get the benefit of a stretch reflex, since you don’t perform the eccentric until the lift is completed. So using multiple-rep sets not only causes you to overestimate your abilities, but also trains your body in a slightly different way than you’d use it in a meet.
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So that whole pec thing may have been a #falsealarm – feeling pretty damn good today with 295 beltless for 5 singles and a set of 5 in deadlifts. But honestly, injuries are often a #mindfuck just as much as a physical problem, and it’s always #bettersafethansorry 🤕 A week or two after a minor injury, you should be physically able to get back at it, but it can still be #scaryaf. Nothing wrong with that! Start too light, take it slow and controlled, and put yourself in an environment where you feel most comfortable. That’s why I hit up the #kinesiotape today and got @elevated_ape to spot me with all of 185 pounds, despite feeling zero pain or tightness in any movement. Take it slow, it’s not a race! (In case you’re wondering, I think I mistook a serratus spasm for a pec pull.)
Furthermore, the setup of the deadlift is often overlooked, but it’s a hugely important part of the movement. So many people just “grip and rip” without paying any attention to how they take hold of the bar in the first place. Those same people tend to struggle with glute, hamstring, ab and lat tightness in the deadlift. Training with singles forces you to practice the setup over and over again.
Unfortunately, it’s really easy to burn out training with singles, especially on a lift as demanding as the deadlift. To really challenge yourself with a set of just one rep, you have to be using at least 85% of your one-rep max, and probably over 90%. Training with such heavy weights day-in and day-out can really beat up your body.
Cluster singles get around that shortcoming. By training with many singles and short rest periods, you end up challenging yourself even with lower percentages. In fact, cluster singles are deceptively hard — I first tried them using a “conservative” 10 sets of one with 45 seconds between sets, and just 70% of my 1-RM really kicked my ass! But I enjoyed the variety and mental challenge they presented, so I stuck with them, and after a few weeks, really got into the groove. This meet prep, I’m training exclusively using cluster singles.
[Want a bigger deadlift, but your hinge is holding you back? Check out our How-To Romanian Deadlift Guide for some assistance!]
How to Program Cluster Singles
You’ve probably already picked up on my main point here: Cluster singles can be really useful, but only if you use them in a way that works for you, and that can be pretty challenging. As always, there are no right answers, but here are my recommendations for incorporating cluster singles in your training.
1. Start too light.
As I mentioned above, cluster singles are deceptively challenging. I would recommend that your first cluster single workout use no more than 65-70% of your 1-RM, for 8-12 singles, with 45-60 seconds between sets. I think you’ll find that to be almost as challenging as a single set of 8-12 reps with the same percentage.
2. Progress slowly.
One of the benefits of cluster singles is also a drawback: you have many variables to work with to create a smooth progression. While it’s tempting to just pile on weight, I suggest that you actually progress very slowly in terms of percentages until you really have the hang of the method. Instead, add a few reps, or take slightly longer between sets. For example, a beginner progression might look like this:
- 65% x8x1, 45 seconds between sets
- 65% x10x1, 45 seconds between sets
- 70% x8x1, 60 seconds between sets
- 70% x8x1, 45 seconds between sets
3. Be honest.
It’s so easy to take a few extra seconds between sets, or to just do a single or two and then crank out the rest of the reps all at once, but resist the temptation! This method is all about the long game: over time, it’s incredibly effective, but you have to trust the process. If you’re going to do it, do it right.
I know I’ve written pretty glowingly about cluster singles, and that’s because they’ve really worked for me. As always, remember that the only important thing is what works for you. I encourage you to give cluster singles a try, like I’ve explained here, but if you don’t enjoy or benefit from them, there are other productive ways to train. After all, plenty of deadlift greats have trained using regular old sets of five.
You’re never going to find a real “secret” other than hard work and consistency, but having fun with your training, trying new things, and learning about your body is a big part of the process. So give this a shot, and if you really find it helpful, please let me know — I’d love to hear from you.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.