Using Cluster Sets to Break Bodyweight Training Plateaus

In bodyweight training, you will often see long, awe-inspiring sets that make you fatigued after having watched them.

One of the benefits of training without weights includes the ability to pump out high volumes of basic exercises.

Think pushups, pullups or rows.

Regardless if your end goal involves strength or hypertrophy gains, you will at some point begin to plateau during your workouts. Especially if there isn’t a lot of variation in your training methods.

And I hope you do reach a plateau.

If you’re not pushing yourself to at least moderate levels of discomfort during a non-deload week, you’re going to be stuck in a perpetual cycle of looking and performing to an average standard. This means you will not improve, at all.

We at don’t accept average, and neither should you.

So… if I feel like I’ve reached a plateau and I’m no longer improving, what should I try?

A strategy that has worked for me is the notion of cluster sets, which you can apply in both a physical, and mental sense.

Let me explain.


Physical Cluster Sets


A traditional understanding of a “cluster set” involves performing an amount of rep(s) at a very high intensity, having a brief pause/rest, and completing your set.

With respect to weight lifting, this will allow you to hit more reps in the 85%+ range of your one rep max.

Breaking up your set like this also functions as a way to add more variation to your workouts over time.

More variation, when used sensibly, will stimulate recovery and make sure overtraining does not occur. In turn, this promotes physical longevity, and keeps you performing well over time.

You’ll also find, due to completing more difficult (85%+) reps, your previous plateau(s) no longer seem so insurmountable.

Cluster training plateau FitnessFAQs

Time, patience and training variation will help you surpass plateaus


In turn, the goal of physical cluster sets is as follows:

An increase in strength and power due to moving heavy loads for more repetitions.

With bodyweight training, cluster sets work well with improving both your weighted movements (weighted chinups, weighted dips) and power movements (muscle-ups, 90 degree pushups).


Weighted bodyweight training example


To give an example, assume that the heaviest weighted pullup you can do for a single is 40kg/88lbs.

Now, assume that I’ve asked you to do a single set of weighted pullups; 6 reps with 35kg/77lbs.

Based on your max output of 40kg, this would be pretty difficult. To achieve what I’ve asked, you’ll have to break up the set to hit the numbers.

One valid approach would be to do 3 reps, rest for 30 seconds, do 2 reps, rest for 30 seconds, then complete your last rep.

If I then ask you to do another set of 6 after a long rest period, this may be even more difficult and you would have to scale back accordingly.

The strategy to use here could be to do 2-2-2 reps, each with a 45-60 second rest in between.

Even though your working sets are broken up in this way, the total volume (and intensity) remains high. This volume could not be completed if all reps were naïvely attempted at once.


Mental Cluster Sets


Do you ever find that, at times, completing your sets is less about your ability to physically push through them and more about a lack of mental fortitude?

If so, mental cluster sets are an option for you.

I define mental clustering as a mind game you’re playing with yourself. By simply changing how you count your reps, you’ll be surprised at how much more you’re able to do.

Here’s how you would apply it to your bodyweight training.


Unweighted bodyweight training example (sets of 10)


Let’s assume now that we’re operating on the other end of the intensity spectrum; completing exercises with bodyweight only (no extra weights).

With this drop in intensity, you should be able perform a higher number of uninterrupted reps than before.

Assuming again that you’re able to do a single 40kg/88lb pullup, performing 10 strict bar pullups is not outside the realm of possibility.

This is where a mental strategy for your set will serve you well.

Two approaches are possible here:


  1. You count from 1-10 in your head, incrementing the number after each rep.
  2. You mentally break up the set into reps of 5-5 (or 2-2-2-2-2)


In my experience, option #2 provides a slight mental edge when completing my sets.

Instead of viewing a set of 10 as a mountain of work, breaking it down into two mini sets of five can reduce the difficulty from “there’s no way I can do 10 more” to “only 5 repeated twice? I think I can manage that“.

Bodyweight Cluster Training FitnessFAQs


When I’m fatigued, I’ll willingly take any mental advantage I can get which can help me finish my sets.

But how does this work? Could this have something to do with the fact humans psychologically fare better working with smaller numbers?


If you’re interested in Psychology, learn about Miller’s Law. Or if you’re lazy, Miller’s Law states that the number of objects an average human can hold in memory is 7 ± 2.

(Note: You’ll also find plenty of posts online stating that any large goal you set should be broken up into smaller, more manageable tasks. Irrelevant here, but worth mentioning)

Try out mental cluster sets and see if it works for you.


Bodyweight Cluster Sets – My Verdict


It’s not difficult to find research about (physical) cluster sets and its applicability to weightlifting.

For instance, the following conclusion was made from Gregory Haff, PhD in his 2008 paper (available online) about cluster training with barbell movements:


Current data suggest that strength and conditioning professionals should consider using this novel training stimuli [cluster training] as part of their training plans, especially when working with explosive exercise such as the power clean, power snatch, and potentially pulling exercises (clean and snatch).


But what about bodyweight training, does it have a similar carryover?

I’m confident that it does.

Bodyweight movements, when performed well, require power.

Try doing muscle ups, weighted pullups or pushups without power and see how you fare.

More power equates to improved strength, improved quality of reps, and a safer execution of what you’re doing.

I believe cluster sets work best as a variation to your regular continuous sets. By mixing up your training in this regard, as discussed above, you’re challenging your body in a novel way, forcing it to adapt accordingly.

You’ll also break through any plateaus due to completing more reps close to your max output.

Oh, and mental cluster sets? Those can be used right now in your training, with nothing more than a slight tweak to your mental counting strategy.

Now, go forth and continue developing your strength and power. I also look forward hearing about any plateaus you’re able to overcome.

Readers, do you use any mental tricks to help yourself get through tough sets? Have you tried cluster set training before with either bodyweight training or weightlifting? What was your experience? I’d like to hear about it.