Workout Tips

Cluster Sets for a Quick Workout

Only have a few minutes to get in a good session at the gym? Here's one that delivers fast results.

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Bodybuilder Performing Back Row Exercise
Josh Bryant / YouTube

You only have 30 minutes to get in a good workout before getting on with your day. No easy task, especially when the gym is packed with people who spend more time texting and yammering than lifting. 

So, what's a time-crunched weightlifter to do? 

Cluster sets. They are simply sets with built-in, intra-set rest periods that allow for more weight, reps, and total tonnage lifted. It all translates into a hell of lot more volume in less time. So instead of the played-out, early 1990s three sets of 10 reps, the cluster sets you do will last for five total minutes; you will do 3-6 reps, then rest for 15 seconds until five to six minutes is complete.  

The following back workout is a perfect example of putting the cluster set technique to use. Give it a try (once a week to start) to see how much volume you can achieve in just 30 minutes. 

Exercise 1: Smith machine rack pulls

This is just a partial deadlift in the smith machine. Set the bar approximately one inch below the knees. If you do not have a machine, you can use a power rack or set a barbell on boxes at the appropriate height. Load the barbell with a weight you could perform 12-15 repetitions with but perform six, rest 30 seconds and do this for six minutes straight, completing as many sets as possible within six minutes.

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Exercise 2: Pullups (mechanical advantage drop set)

From start to finish, pullups will be done in five minutes. You will do four reps, rest 15 seconds, and repeat this sequence for five minutes. You'll start with wide-grip pronated pullups; if you hit failure, you will move to supinated chinups; and, finally, if you hit failure there, go to neutral-grip pullups. If you can do more than 15 wide-grip pullups fairly easily, add weight. If you have a problem with pullups, opt for band-assisted or use assisted machines, which are common in most commercial gyms.

Exercise 3: Seated rows

Perform a seated row with a neutral grip on a plate-loaded or cable machine—which one is not important, your full effort is. Pick a weight you can complete 15 reps with but do it for six, rest 15 seconds, and repeat this for five minutes. Make sure to keep this exercise very strict. And hold the contraction position for one second.

Exercise 4: Straight arm pulldowns

This exercise, again, allows no room for error. Make sure you feel your lats do the work. Perform 10 reps in a slow, controlled style, rest 15 seconds, and repeat this for five minutes. If you do not have a cable stack you can always use bands. Remember: feel over function.

Final Thoughts

Building a huge back requires your full effort, but not endless hours of your most precious time. You have the desire and now the means to accomplish this objective, even in the most crowded commercial gym settings.

Check out the cluster set technique in action, during this high-volume back routine. 

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