The more frivolous the subject, the more fervently people will argue about it. This is especially true about fitness. People get so bogged down in the details that they miss the important overarching concepts – the forest for the trees…The foundation of training must be correct before digging deeper into the details.
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I actually find it strange that more hasn’t been written about cluster training recently. There was a period of time there when it was quite popular, but now it seems that it’s fallen back into obscurity, and I have no idea why.
Cluster training is an effective tool to shock your body into new gains, as well as break up the monotony of taking a straight sets approach to your lifting. Beyond that, it’s cool, it’s different, and it’s something that will have the other members of your gym asking you, “What are you doing?”
What Is Cluster Training?
Cluster training involves using short, inter-set rest periods (usually ranging anywhere from 10–30 seconds), which act to allow us to do more reps with a heavier weight.
Note: To help paint a clearer picture of how cluster training works, throughout the article I’m going to use the running example of doing a back squat with your 5RM to explain how it works.
Now, the difference between cluster training and traditional lifting is that in traditional lifting, using our example from above, you’d do your sets of squats for 5 reps, rest for 2-3 minutes between sets, and then move on to the second set.
In cluster training what we do is break that set of 5 reps down into 4 mini-sets of 2 reps, with a 10-15 second break in between each mini-set. This effectively allows us to do 8 reps of squats with our 5RM.
I know that being able to do 3 extra reps doesn’t seem like much at first, but when you realize it equates to a 60% increase in output, you start to notice how effective cluster training can be. By employing clusters into our training in this fashion we can effectively “cheat” a set and perform more reps than we would normally be able to.
What Are the Benefits of Doing Cluster Training?
All of the benefits of cluster training arise from the ability to do more reps with a heavier weight. Whenever you’re able to keep intensity high whilst doing more reps, you’re always going to see an immediate carryover to improvements in strength and muscle gains.
The beauty of cluster training is that you can easily manipulate the sets/reps/rest scheme to make it more biased to inducing strength or hypertrophy gains, depending on what your goal is.
For example, if strength is your main goal, you should aim to keep the load of the movement high (at or above 90% of your 1RM), and the reps low (mini-sets of 1-2 reps), with shorter rests (10-15s).
In the case of hypertrophy, clusters allow you to take a weight that you’d normally use for building strength (i.e. a 5RM), and push the number of reps you can do with it out into the more hypertrophy-friendly reps ranges of 8-12 reps – thereby increasing the total time under tension, and placing a greater degree of mechanical stress placed upon the muscle.
Another benefit of cluster training is its ability to break through strength plateaus. Seeing as most people haven’t been exposed to cluster training methods before, it stands to reason that they will see their biggest benefit from it the first time they do it.
How to Cluster Rest Intervals
There are a number of ways you can set up cluster training (and, as stated earlier, it can be altered to suit your goals), but the crux of the method lies in the short rest intervals between reps, or multiples of reps. Make sure you re-rack the bar when you rest, and utilize the entirety of the rest period – both during and after your set.
Below there are a few sets/reps schemes to get you started. Before we move onto that, it’s important to note that you can utilize cluster training on most exercises, but seeing as we’re looking for mostly strength and muscular gains, it makes sense that the best exercises to use are the bigger, compound barbell exercises.
Okay, let’s look at some ways to set up your cluster training. The first thing you’ll notice is that the set/reps for clusters are written in a weird way. Don’t freak out, they’re quite easy to understand, and I’ve given a detailed explanation on the first example so that you know exactly what you’re doing.
Strength Cluster #1
5(4×2)-10s w/ a 5RM
In this set up you’ll do 5 total clusters (the first number), and each cluster is going to consist of 4 mini-sets of two reps (the bracketed numbers). You’re going to rest 10-seconds in between each mini-set, and you’re going to use around your 5RM in load.
Using our squat example, this is what it’d look like:
- 2 reps @ 5RM, rest for 10-seconds (remember to rack the bar)
- 2 reps, rest 10s
- 2 reps, rest 10 seconds
- 2 reps, rest 2-3 minutes
- Move onto cluster #2
- Repeat as above for clusters 2-5
Strength Cluster #2
5(6×1)-15s w/ a 3-5RM
This follows the same process like the above example, except that you only do a single rep in each mini-set. The slight adjustment in reps allows you to use a heavier load, and make it a little more strength-oriented.
Muscle Gain Cluster #1
5(3×3)-15s w/ a 6RM
Again, this follows in the process as the two examples above, except that in this set up you’re going to do 3 mini-sets each consisting of 3 reps, with a 6RM. This will allow you to do 9 total reps with a 6RM, and skew the training effect more towards gaining muscle.
Muscle Gain Cluster #2
3-4 sets of AMRAP until you hit 15 total reps – 30s w/ 85% of 1RM
In this example, you’re going to find a weight that’s around 85% of your 1RM, and you’re going to do as many reps as you can (without going to complete failure) before racking the bar and resting for 30-seconds. After the short rest, you’re going to again try and get as many reps as you can, before re-racking the bar and resting for another 30-seconds. Continue in this fashion until you hit a total of 15 reps.
Repeat for 3-4 total clusters. Typically you’d hit anywhere from 5-8 reps in your first mini-set, and then have the reps slowly decrease for each subsequent mini-set from there.
I like using clusters because they’re a change of pace from the regular training methods, they’re hard as hell, and they work. Bring them into your next training cycle, and I know that you’ll end up loving them as well.
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John and Elise Glaze describe their experience training at WFAC, how getting stronger has improved their quality of life, and how they intend to live a long and active life.
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If you’re feeling stuck, frustrated that your efforts haven’t delivered the results you wanted, and you are spinning your wheels, then the answer is a simple, yes. You should audit your training.
What do I mean by audit your training? Well, it’s simple really. You need to make sure what you’re doing will actually get you where you want to go. This sounds obvious, and you’re probably thinking that of course if you train hard you’ll get there, and I get it, I really do—but if that’s the case why aren’t you there now? You’d be surprised by how many people I see that tell me the same thing, and when I review what they’ve been doing it paints a pretty similar scenario. They haven’t achieved the results they want because they haven’t really trained for it.
It’s All About the Goal
Let’s take a step back from your weekly training, even monthly training, and look at the big picture. The most important part of any program isn’t the exercises we use, it isn’t the sets and the reps or the time even. The single most important part is the goal itself. Without a goal how do we know how to set up all of the former? We don’t really, do we?
Step one of auditing your program is to outline your goal—and be very specific with this part. “I want to be jacked” doesn’t count. “It would be nice to be a little stronger” doesn’t count, either. It needs to be something you can actually plan to achieve. Something specific like, “I want to add 10kg to my squat.” Or “I want to lose 5kg and maintain my muscle mass.” Even “I want to get as strong as I can” will work. Your goal also needs to have some form of time constraint on it. For example, “I want to add 10kg to my squat in the next 2 months.” Great—we now have a goal. So, you need to figure out your specific goal, and then write it down.
From here, work backwards. Once you know what the goal is and what the time constraints are you can start to map out your program. This is where we start to think about planning the way in which we will progress throughout the program. Are you going to make weekly increases in sets/reps/weight? Are you going to increase the time we spend running? Are you going to make more/less frequent increases? Obviously this is an outline. I’m not suggesting you need to have every single incremental increase planned (although you could), but you need to have an idea of the planned increases, at the very least.
Map Out Your Plan
After this, we can then map out all the fun stuff like which exercises you’ll use and how you’ll structure your training week. When you do this, it’s important to prioritize your plan according to your goal. So, if the goal was to increase your squat but you only squat once a week, and you spend three workouts hitting chest and back, it’s probably not a surprise you don’t achieve a great increase in your squat, right? (You’d be surprised how often this is the case.) When you structure the week, go by order of importance and filter down.
If you have multiple goals that’s 100% fine (within reason). Just follow the same principles. As a general rule, the main portion of your workout should be focused on training the main goal, next should be things that may assist you (known as assistance work), and after that train anything else you feel like might be a good idea. I like to think like this: Do what you have to do, then do what you should do, and only after that do what you like to do. That’s a pretty sure-fire way to stay honest about your training.
Once you’ve mapped out your program, you need to revisit your goal, then re-read your program. Make sure it matches. Do this several times and make sure that your program reflects your goals. That’s how you make progress.
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“Of all the places I trained in during extremely cold weather, the most memorable were the winters at Fielder’s Shed. There was no insulation and no heat… I can recall one workout right around Christmas time, and I was the only fool stupid enough train. It was bitter cold, 17º F with wind chill in the single digits. I could easily have bailed, but I didn’t, and I ended up getting in a very productive session.”
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Buy my template, and you’ll not only get stronger, but it’s all you’ll ever need. Have you ever heard a popular coach or trainer say this?
Templates are for sale, usually as an ebook or a PDF downloadable file with illustrated instructions. The pitch includes that it’s easy to understand, to do, and promotes consistency. It’s often a twelve, sixteen, or twenty-four-week program that you can repeatedly do without much change.
And that’s the big selling point—that it’s simple, therefore you can do it over and over. The coach will make supporting arguments such as if you focus on the basics, that they consider necessary in a training program, anyone can keep progressing indefinitely. You only need to have enough discipline and pious obedience to the doctrine.
Why Training Programs?
There’s nothing wrong with a training template. Some are very well designed and helpful to a vast majority. This is because people fit into one of just a handful of physiological categories from a training standpoint, and the need for individual variation is much less than most think.
But when the creators of these programs insist that their twelve-week program is all anyone ever needs to increase strength, and some of them do claim this, things get weird. Claiming this is misleading, and it can stunt the growth and long-term development of young, easily influenced lifters. It also hinders their mental insight into the training process.
There’s the unspoken problem with training programs being written by coaches who only have experience lifting on drugs and coaching athletes who have consistently used them. I’m no idealist thinking that a coach like this doesn’t have good ideas to bring to drug-free lifters. You can gain insight from watching and working with the fringes of any sport or practice.
But a training program needs to be considered from the perspective of the coach. If the coach isn’t upfront and claims, a workout plan can be repeated for the natural lifter with little change or variation over time, particularly with training volumes, it creates confusion.
To understand why a template can’t be repeated endlessly, we need to learn about changes that come with a developing lifter with advancing chronological and cumulative training ages. We’ll start with sequential.
Changes As We Age
Physiology changes with physical age. This means that the type of training you do will have to be modified each year. There’s another candle on your birthday cake. How much of each component of training and how much work you can do will need to be adjusted? But the degree of change depends on when you started training and how consistent it has been. A forty-year-old lifter who’s been at it since adolescence will need a higher level of work to sustain strength than someone the same age who started in their mid-thirties.
The effectiveness in which we buffer stress as we age changes regardless of the workload to which we’ve adapted. You can see this with how often a younger person can lift weights close to their max compared to someone older.
Someone in their early twenties can not only max out and do more volume above 90% of their one-rep max than someone in their forties, but they can also recover better and benefit from it more. The capability to do this diminishes with age. The training you do should not only reflect how old you are when you start training and the volumes you’ve built up to, but also how old you are now.
Changes In Content the Longer You Train
Training programs can have a reasonable degree of creative input from the individual writing it. Still, there are unnegotiable standards that every training system and the plan has to meet to be effective.
Variation is one of these foundational aspects. Some put far too much emphasis on change and think of it inaccurately. But the difference in volume over months, training cycles, and years of training are crucial. Varying exercises and modes of training for inexperienced athletes too frequently can be somewhat detrimental to progress. But training volumes and even exercises do need to eventually be switched, modified, and rotated through to ensure development as the athlete matures.
Total training volumes also often need to increase over time. The longer you’ve been training, the more work you need to get stronger and build more muscle. As training age (how long you’ve been consistently training) increases, so must the total volume of work you do. Total volumes require us to look at training from a macro view, which accumulates the overall volumes that need to increase with each block of training.
Increase Over Similar Phases
When looking at phases of training, we need to consider them over several months. You can think of a phase of training as the time dedicated to emphasizing the development of physical quality. Adequately designed training will include periods of hypertrophy cycles with high volume intended to build muscle, and work capacity followed by strength cycles with lower volumes. However, heavier weights followed by a peaking cycle consist of even lower volumes but lots of practice lifting near maximal loads. Volumes and intensity need to fluctuate during each of these cycles. But, the more experienced the lifter becomes, the more the average volume he or she will need to add to these hypertrophy and strength cycles to retain strength and push farther.
Typically every year, the lifter would have to do more volume in each of the phases of training to keep seeing improvement. This means that if you were to keep detailed records of your practice, the hypertrophy and strength cycles you planned for this year would have more total volume in main lifts than the respective training cycles from two years ago.
Even as your maxes increase and with it the daily weight you use in training, the total volume of work will need to increase over time because you will become more proficient and better at absorbing the stress from this work. Training plans must account for this, and any template that does not clearly define how volume should increase is incomplete and eventually useless. Don’t use it as a long-term training guide.
Change in Qualification of the Lifter
Although the total minimum volume that a lifter will need to use in training will gradually increase over time, the qualifications of the weightlifter influence the degree of change. These qualifications are based on body weight, gender, and ability. While, in theory, each lifter will be able to and require higher average volumes as years of consistent, hard training, the degree to which this increases can vary from groups in each qualification level.
The average volume a lifter will need, in theory, has to increase over the years of training. But as a lifter advances to a higher qualification, volumes may decrease in certain phases of training as compared to someone with similar experience but who is smaller and weaker.
The clearest example would be of a young male powerlifter who continually gains body weight over years of competition. Let’s say this young man started competing in powerlifting in his early twenties and weighed under 200 pounds. He began as a strong kid who quickly squatted over four hundred pounds. As he advanced in age and experience, he began gaining body weight and moving up several weight classes. His strength and ability skyrocketed, and during this intermediate period, as he improved, he started to calculate the increase in his volumes even as he handled heavier weights.
Fast forward ten years, and he became an elite level powerlifter. He now weighed well over 300 pounds and could squat over 900 pounds. He began to gradually reduce the volumes he used in certain training phases simply because he was unable to recover. Yes, he had built a very high specific work capacity, but the weights he now had to use in daily training were just too high to complete the same measure of volume.
Eighty-five percent of 400 pounds does not break the body down the same as 85% of 900 pounds, no matter how you slice it. Eventually, the absolute weight that you are dealing with becomes the most significant determining factor. This is especially true in a peaking phase for competition when you are training with 90% or more of a very high 1RM. At this level, with these kinds of weights, volumes will need to be decreased so that you can recover and benefit from practicing near maximal loads. The training plan needs to take this into account.
I’m using an extreme example, but it doesn’t discredit the point. With consistency in training, lifters can reach a point where they need to adjust and even reduce the volume in similar training phases merely because they can’t recover and grow stronger from the stress of such heavyweights. Training plans have to stay dynamic and account for these changes.
Why Are Templates Like These So Popular?
Most consumers make purchases based on emotion, impulse, or a connection they feel they have with the company or the individual that created the product. It’s also prevalent for those in the fitness community to get very attached and loyal to a particular coach, trainer, or training method.
Many people stick with a personal trainer, even with doubts about their education and ability, because they feel like they have a connection. Similarly, people stick with methods and systems of training because it was the first thing that worked for them. These systems and programs are popular, and luck plays a big part in who’s programs and services we see first.
Consumers form connections with the coaches who create these programs by listening to them speak and following them on social media. They feel like they know them, however silly that may be, and as a strength and fitness personality becomes more prevalent, the more their products sell.
With this popularity, they connect and attract other circles of high-influence coaches and form a community. This community then insulates and supports each other. And really, why wouldn’t they? Being connected in this way is beneficial both financially and socially.
But the shadowy part about this community is when one of the power members begin selling a template with the type of false claims I’ve described. Maybe it’s hubris, or perhaps they haven’t the wisdom and education yet to know they’re doing a disservice. If they stand behind their creation, their friends will go on the offensive to anyone challenging the long-term efficacy of the product.
This will typically digress into a battle of status rather than an objective discourse of the material in question. The community of authorities will say something like: Who are these upstarts in the crowd that would dare challenge us? Who do they think they are?
And so the problem never gets resolved, and consumers can’t sift through what’s helpful for their long-term success and what’s not.
Fitness pros will also argue that the templates they design are for the average person who doesn’t compete and doesn’t need to focus on setting new maxes in barbell lifts.
- What does it mean to be an average person? The demographic needs to be better defined if the coach is selling a product for general use.
- If the program includes barbell lifts and a person dedicated themselves to this strength training program, the application should increase strength. And to track this, the lifter will eventually have to set a max. To do this, once again, you need training volumes to change as you approach the phase where you aim to do this. Maybe not at first, but eventually, as the individual gets more experienced. And this is true for any average person.
For Beginners Only
I’ve also heard coaches say their training programs are for beginners only. They insist their template can remain unchanged and never updated because it is a resource for the steady influx of beginners to strength training. That’s fine if that was their honest intention. But I’ve listened carefully to their message and their pitch, and it seems they never inform their audience how they will need to adjust their volume and intensity as they become more experienced or that this is even necessary.
If they were upfront, they’d explain to their customers that they’re programs are great for newcomers but lack the progression to develop lifters passed the beginner’s stage. Keeping quiet about this is just as dishonest and confusing as selling the program as something to repeat forever.
Take a look at the training template you’re about to start. See if it will help you right now and if it will use it. But remember that right now is not forever.
Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.
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Strength Training and Myasthenia Gravis
by Rosemary Spellman | October 15, 2019
In January 2018, I was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis (MG), a chronic autoimmune disease which causes muscle weakness. Most folks have visual and eye symptoms, but that’s never been a particular issue for me. In my case, it manifested as weakness in my arms, difficulty with speaking and slurred speech, and problems with swallowing and chewing. My anti-acetylcholine receptor antibody (AChR) bloodwork came back positive for binding and modulating (binding means that my antibodies attach to the receptors on the nerve and destroy them, modulating means that the message doesn’t get to the nerve and so the muscles won’t contract). I am on two medications, one specifically for MG which makes the acetylcholine stick around longer, and another which suppresses my immune system to not produce as many antibodies. I also receive monthly infusions of intravenous immune globulin which is made from donations of human plasma. The infused antibodies attach to and remove the bad ones that I normally produce.
I spent some time researching MG, the various treatment methods and its symptoms before and after I was officially diagnosed. Myasthenia Gravis is a rare disease, and unfortunately there’s not very much research available for folks who are not in crisis. I managed to hunt down one article that discussed resistance training and MG, and thought that beginning a strength program might help with my symptoms. In my belly dance troupe there were two other women who had started strength training and absolutely loved it. They specifically recommended Fivex3 Training in Baltimore. I had often thought about joining the gym, but hadn’t really seriously considered it due to cost and travel concerns. However, once I was fairly stable on my medication and was receiving my monthly IV infusions, I decided to visit Fivex3 in October 2018, and talk to someone about my condition and see if strength training was an option for me. There was also a raffle for their on-boarding barbell package so I thought, why not?
The owner, Emily, was very nice, and although she didn’t really know much about MG, she was willing to do a bit of research to learn more about the disease. As it turned out, I won the raffle and decided I would start training in January 2019, once I had saved up enough money to pay for the initial coaching package. I also re-did my budget to see if I could feasibly add a monthly gym membership. When I finally decided to give Fivex3 a try, I also consulted with my neurologist about beginning a strength training program. She gave the okay, but reminded me to keep my expectations low and to take breaks frequently.
I wasn’t new to the gym scene. Prior to my diagnosis, I had done a little bit of weight training, but I would get bored quickly and never felt like I was making any progress. I also did not like doing exercises in a random order, and sometimes I couldn’t do all the exercises, which was also frustrating. During this time, I was training at my local county recreation facility, which only had machines with pictures on them, so I already felt out of my depth. Before beginning the strength program at Fivex3 Training, I decided to read Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, and definitely appreciated the scientific basis for the movements and programming.
I will admit that I was extremely nervous on my first day at Fivex3. Halfway through the squat portion with my coach, Craig Brooks, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and cry. The squat was a very hard movement for me. While Craig was coaching me through the squat, I started having flashbacks to when I was in the hospital bathroom, and I could not not get off the toilet. I told Craig about this traumatic experience and that squats scared me. He was extremely patient and understanding, and was able to explain things in ways that made sense to me, and helped me understand that I could and would actually achieve these movements. We spent six sessions working together on the squat, bench press, press, and deadlift. Fivex3 has plenty of light bars, so I was able to start with the lightest one available which helped me gain confidence with the exercises. If it had not been for Craig’s patience and commitment to me, I don’t know if I would have continued my sessions. He made me believe I could get stronger. Eight months later, I am, and getting stronger every day.
During the eight months that I have been training at Fivex3, I am happy to say that I have had only one small MG flare up, and surprisingly, I was able to bounce back very quickly. During my sessions, I make sure that I’m actually resting after my work sets and not wandering around aimlessly. Strength training gives me an objective measure of my muscle fatigue levels, which helps immensely in terms of determining the progression of this disease. During a time in March when my neurologist and I decided to postpone an infusion to see how long my donated antibodies were sticking around, I was suddenly unable to complete my heavy squats, when the previous week I had been doing squats with heavier weight without any issues. Before that particular day of training, I had not noticed any symptoms, but during my training session, I was able to determine that I was having a small flare-up before it became a crisis. I came back to training two days later and felt much better after completing some light bench and deadlift work.
I’ve been able to progress on all my lifts since I’ve had access to microplates, and only recently had to reset my deadlift. I feel less fatigued when carrying groceries up three flights of stairs because my legs are stronger. In rehearsals, I can complete particular dance movements without as much fatigue. I take very small jumps on my lifts – 1.5 lb increases on squats, press, and bench, 2.5 lb increases on deadlifts – which is very, very conservative for squats, but that is because I find squats to be the most taxing lift for me and my condition. I train twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, a schedule I am able to consistently maintain. My neurologist is very pleased that my symptoms are under control, and that I am getting stronger.
Myasthenia Gravis is an incurable disease. I am so happy that I have found Fivex3 and Starting Strength, a strength training program that has allowed me to keep my symptoms under control and has made me stronger. I look forward to my weekly training sessions, and am excited to see where things go from here. I hope that anyone else with MG gets a bit of hope from reading this and looks into strength training and Starting Strength.
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Starting Strength Coach and Doctor of Physical Therapy Will Morris presents his concept of Training Barrier Construction during the Starting Strength Nutrition and Rehab Camp held at Wichita Falls Athletic Club in October 2019.
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Starting Strength Coach and Owner of The Strength Co. Grant Broggi trains his parents for the first time, demonstrating some of the modifications made early on for prior injuries and ongoing issues.
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Starting Strength Coach and Registered Dietician Robert Santana gives a comprehensive presentation on carbohydrates during the Nutrition and Rehab Camp held at WFAC in October 2019.
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