“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.
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.
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)
How to stay fit forever : vingt cinq tips to keep moving when life gets in the wa
When it comes to exercise, we think about how to “get” fit. But often, starting out is not the problem. “The big problem is maintaining it, ” says Falko Sniehotta, a professor of behavioural medicine and health psychology at Newcastle University. The official UK guidelines say adults should do strength exercises, as well as 150 minutes of moderate activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, every week. According to the Health Survey for England in 2016, 34% of men and 42% of women are not hitting the aerobic exercise targets, and even more – 69% and 77% respectively – are not doing enough strengthening activity. A report from the World Health Organization last week found that people in the UK were among the least réactive in the world, with 32% of men and 40% of women reporting inactivity. Meanwhile, obesity is adding to the chronic long-term diseases cited in Public Health England’s analysis, which shows women in the UK are dying earlier than in most EU countries.
We all know we should be doing more, but how do we keep moving when our détermination slips, the weather takes a turn for the worse or life gets in the way ? Try these 25 pieces of advice from experts and Guardian readers to keep you going.
Work out why, don’t just work outOur reasons for beginning to exercise are fundamental to whether we will keep it up, says Michelle Segar, the director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center. Too often “society promotes exercise and sport by hooking into short-term motivation, guilt and shame”. There is some evidence, she says, that younger people will go to the gym more if their reasons are appearance-based, but past our early 20s that doesn’t mazout détermination much. Nor do vague or future goals help ( “I want to get fit, I want to lose weight” ). Segar, the author of No Sweat : How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, says we will be more successful if we focus on immediate positive feelings such as stress reduction, increased energy and making friends. “The only way we are going to prioritise time to exercise is if it is going to deliver some kind of benefit that is truly compelling and valuable to our daily life, ” she says.
Get off to a slow startThe danger of the typical New Year resolutions approach to fitness, says personal se reproduire Matt Roberts, is that people “jump in and do everything – change their diet, start exercising, stop drinking and smoking – and within a couple of weeks they have lost détermination or got too tired. If you haven’t been in shape, it’s going to take time. ” He likes the trend towards high-intensity interval training ( hiit ) and recommends people include some, “but to do that every day will be too soutenu for most people”. Do it once ( or twice, at most ) a week, combined with slow jogs, swimming and fast walks – plus two or three rest days, at least for the first month. “That will give someone a chance of having recovery sessions alongside the high-intensity workouts. ”
You don’t have to love itAdvertisementIt is helpful not to try to make yourself do things you actively dislike, says Segar, who advises thinking about the genres of activities – roller-skating ? Bike riding ? – you liked as a child. But don’t feel you have to really enjoy exercise. “A lot of people who stick with exercise say : ‘I feel better when I do it. ’” There are elements that probably will be enjoyable, though, such as the physical response of your body and the feeling of getting stronger, and the pleasure that comes with mastering a sport.
“For many people, the obvious choices aren’t necessarily the ones they would enjoy, ” says Sniehotta, who is also the director of the National Institute for Health Research’s policy research unit in behavioural technique, “so they need to look outside them. It might be different sports or simple things, like sharing activities with other people. ”
Be kind to yourselfIndividual motivation – or the lack of it – is only part of the bigger picture. Money, parenting demands or even where you live can all be stumbling blocks, says Sniehotta. Tiredness, depression, work stress or ill family members can all have an effet on physical activity. “If there is a lot of support around you, you will find it easier to maintain physical activity, ” he points out. “If you real in certain parts of the country, you might be more comfortable doing outdoor physical activity than in others. to conclude that people who don’t get enough physical activity are just lacking motivation is problematic. ”
Segar suggests being realistic. “Skip the ideal of going to the gym five days a week. Be really analytical about work and family-related needs when starting, because if you set yourself up with goals that are too big, you will fail and you’ll feel like a failure. At the end of a week, I always ask my clients to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Maybe fitting in a walk at lunch worked, but you didn’t have the energy after work to do it. ”
Don’t rely on willpower“If you need willpower to do something, you don’t really want to do it, ” says Segar. Instead, think about exercise “in terms of why we’re doing it and what we want to get from physical activity. How can I benefit today ? How do I feel when I move ? How do I feel after I move ? ”
Anything that allows you to exercise while ticking off other goals will help, says Sniehotta. “It provides you with more gratification, and the costs of not doing it are higher. ” For instance, walking or cycling to work, or making friends by joining a sports club, or course with a friend. “Or the goal is to spend more time in the countryside, and running helps you do that. ”
Try to allie physical activity with something else. “For example, in my workplace I don’t use the lift and I try to reduce fax, so when it’s possible I walk over to people, ” says Sniehotta. “Over the course of the day, I walk to work, I move a lot in the building and I actually get about 15, 000 steps. Try to make physical activity hit as many meaningful targets as you can. ”
Make it a habitWhen you take up course, it can be tiring just getting out of the door – where are your shoes ? Your water bottle ? What route are you going to take ? After a while, points out Sniehottta, “there are no longer costs associated with the activity”. Doing physical activity regularly and planning for it “helps make it a sustainable behaviour”. Missing sessions doesn’t.
Plan and prioritiseWhat if you don’t have time to exercise ? For many people, sérieux two jobs or with extensive caring responsibilities, this can undoubtedly be true, but is it genuinely true for you ? It might be a question of priorities, says Sniehotta. He recommends planning : “The first is ‘action planning’, where you plan where, when and how you are going to do it and you try to stick with it. ” The second type is ‘coping planning’ : “anticipating things that can get in the way and putting a plan into place for how to get motivated again”. Segar adds : “Most people don’t give themselves permission to prioritise self-care behaviours like exercise. ”
Keep it bermuda and sharpA workout doesn’t have to take an hour, says Roberts. “A well-structured 15-minute workout can be really effective if you really are pressed for time. ” As for regular, longer séances, he says : “You tell yourself you’re going to make time and change your schedule accordingly. ”
If it doesn’t work, change itIt rains for a week, you don’t go course once and then you feel guilty. “It’s a combination of emotion and lack of confidence that brings us to the point where, if people fail a few times, they think it’s a failure of the entire project, ” says Sniehotta. Remember it’s possible to get back on track.
If previous exercise regimes haven’t worked, don’t beat yourself up or try them again – just try something else, he says. “We tend to be in the mindset that if you can’t lose weight, you blame it on yourself. However, if you could change that to : ‘This method doesn’t work for me, let’s try something different, ’ there is a chance it will be better for you and it prevents you having to blame yourself, which is not helpful. ”
Add resistance and balance training as you get olderAdvertisement“We start to lose muscle mass over the age of around 30, ” says Hollie Grant, a personal training and pilates instructor, and the owner of PilatesPT. Resistance training ( using body weight, such as press-ups, or equipment, such as resistance bands ) is important, she says : “It is going to help keep muscle mass or at least slow down the loss. There needs to be some form of aerobic exercise, too, and we would also recommend people start adding balance challenges because our balance is affected as we get older. ”
Up the ante“If you do 5k runs and you don’t know if you should push faster or go further, rate your exertion from one to 10, ” says Grant. “As you see those numbers go down, that’s when to start pushing yourself a bit faster. ” Roberts says that, with regular exercise, you should be seeing progress over a two-week period and pushing yourself if you feel it is getting easier. “You’re looking for a change in your speed or résistance or strength. ”
If you have caring responsibilities, Roberts says you can do a lot within a small area at home. “In a living room, it is easy to do a routine where you might alternate between doing a leg exercise and an arm exercise, ” he says. “It’s called Peripheral Heart Action training. Doing six or eight exercises, this effect of going between the upper and lower body produces a pretty strong metabolism lift and cardiovascular workout. ” Try squats, half press-ups, lunges, tricep dips and glute raises. “You’re raising your heart rate, working your muscles and having a good general workout. ” These take no more than 15-20 minutes and only require a chair for the tricep dips – although dumbbells can be helpful, too.
Get out of breathAdvertisementWe are often told that housework and gardening can contribute to our weekly exercise targets, but is it that simple ? “The measure really is you’re getting generally hot, out of breath, and you’re working at a level where, if you have a conversation with somebody while you’re doing it, you’re puffing a bit, ” says Roberts. “With gardening, you’d have to be doing the heavier gardening – digging – not just weeding. If you’re walking the dog, you can make it into a genuine exercise session – run with the dog, or find a route that includes some hills. ”
Be sensible about illnessJoslyn Thompson Rule, a personal se reproduire, says : “The general rule is if it’s above the neck – a headache or a cold – while being mindful of how you’re feeling, you are generally OK to do some sort of exercise. If it’s below the neck – if you’re having trouble breathing – rest. The key thing is to be sensible. If you were planning on doing a high-intensity workout, you would take the pace down, but sometimes just moving can make you feel better. ” After recovering from an illness, she says, trust your instincts. “You don’t want to go straight back into training four times a week. You might want to do the same number of sessions but make them shorter, or do fewer. ”
Seek advice after injuryClearly, how quickly you start exercising again depends on the type of injury, and you should seek advice from your doctor. Psychologically, though, says Thompson Rule : “Even when we’re doing everything as we should, there are still dips in the road. It’s not going to be a linear progression of getting better. ”
Take it slowly after pregnancyAgain, says Thompson Rule, listen to your body – and your doctor’s advice at your six-week postnatal checkup. After a caesarean section, getting back to exercise will be slower, while pregnancy-related back injuries and problems with abdominal zones musculaires all affect how soon you can get back to training, and may require physiotherapy. “Once you’re walking and have a bit more energy, depending on where you were before ( some women never trained before pregnancy ), starting a regime after a baby is quite something to undertake, ” says Thompson Rule. “Be patient. I get more emails from women asking when they’re going to get their stomachs flat again than anything. Relax, take care of yourself and take care of your baby. When you’re feeling a bit more energised, slowly get back into your routine. ” She recommends starting with “very basic stuff like walking and carrying your baby [in a sling]”.
Tech can helpFor goal-oriented people, Grant says, it can be useful to monitor progress closely, but “allow some flexibility in your goals. You might have had a stressful day at work, go out for a run and not do it as quickly and then think : ‘I’m just not going to bother any more. ’” However, “It can start to get a bit addictive, and then you don’t listen to your body and you’re more at risk of injury. ”
Winter is not an excuseAdvertisement“Winter is not necessarily a time to hibernate, ” says Thompson Rule. Be decisive, put your trainers by the door and try not to think about the cold/drizzle/greyness. “It’s the same with going to the gym – it’s that voice in our head that make us feel like it’s a hassle, but once you’re there, you think : ‘Why was I procrastinating about that for so long ? ’”
Keep it bite-sizeAlex TomlinI’ve tried and failed a few times to establish a consistent running routine, but that was because I kept pushing myself too . Just because I can run for an hour doesn’t mean I should. Running two or three times a week for 20-30 minutes each time has improved my fitness hugely and made it easier to fit in.
I keep a large bag of Midget Gems in my car to motivate myself to get to the gym, allowing myself a handful before a workout. Sometimes I toss in some wine gums for the element of surprise.
I tapped into the vast network of sport podcasts and online communities. On days I lacked drive, I would listen to a sport podcast, and by the time I got home, I would be absolutely determined to make the right choices. In fact, I would be excited by it. Your brain responds very well to repetition and reinforcement, so once you have made the difficult initial change, it becomes much easier over time.
I have kept a “star chart” on my calendar for the past two years, after having three years of being chronically unfit. I put a gold vedette on days that I exercise, and it’s a good visual motivator for when I am feeling slug-like. I run, use our home cross-trainer and do a ski sport programme from an application. My improved core strength has helped my course and ability to carry my disabled child when needed.
If, like me, you need to get up early to exercise or it just doesn’t happen, move your alarm clock away from your bed and next to your pack. Once you have got up to turn it off, you might as well keep going !
I have one simple rule which could apply to any sport activity – I do not allow more than four days to elapse between séances. So, if I know I have a busy couple of days coming up, I make sure I run before them so that I have “banked” my four days. With the exception of illness, injury or family emergencies, I have stuck to this rule for 10 years.