Everybody loves the results of lifting weights. Few people enjoy the work of actually lifting.
Whether it’s the straining, the burn, or the demand it puts on your breathing, the discomfort of hard training is one of the reasons people begin to dread going to the gym and ultimately quit doing it. But what if there was a way to train that got you the same or better results as a gut-busting workout with half the effort? Sign us up.
The answer to your prayers may be cluster training, a method in which you use short, interset rest periods to perform more reps than you normally could with a heavy weight. For example, instead of performing a set of six reps for an exercise, resting a few minutes, and repeating, you could do three “mini sets” of three reps with the same load, resting up to 20 seconds between each. That way, you would do nine reps with a load that would normally allow you only six. Plus, since you got to rest so frequently and do fewer reps at a clip than you were capable of, the work would feel relatively easier. Because the total amount of work you perform is greater, you’ll apply a greater stimulus for muscle gains.
Cluster training has been popular among competitive lifters for decades for boosting gains, but new research has found that its propensity to improve the enjoyment of a workout is worthwhile, too. Last year, a study in the Journal of Sports Sciences compared cluster training with traditional lifting with the single-leg extension. Subjects performed four sets of eight reps with three minutes’ rest between sets on one leg and did clusters of one rep on the other leg with 17.4 seconds rest between each until 32 total reps were done. Read: The work for both legs was the same, but the way it was performed was different. Both legs gained strength. However, the subjects rated the cluster sets as less physically draining.
Jim Smith, C.P.P.S., a strength coach and owner of dieselsc.com, loves cluster training but warns that while the rest periods for clusters may seem cushy, they’re still short. “Take deep breaths, shake out your muscles, and mentally prepare for the next effort.”
While clusters may seem like a gift to those who would prefer to avoid a hard, grinding workout, Smith says you can’t do them exclusively. “Because of the heavy weight and the stress they put on your body, you should cycle clusters in three to four week blocks only.” Furthermore, there’s great value in doing longer-lasting sets—i.e., traditional strength training, with respect to building endurance and providing the muscles with enough time under mechanical tension to promote growth. So, yeah, you still have to bust your ass in the gym sometimes. Sorry.