How to Use Rest-Pause and Cluster Sets To Get Extra Reps
You can't overstate the importance of rest. A break of a minute or more between sets allows you to regain enough strength for your next set, and days between working a body part foster recovery and muscle growth. There is also a third potential benefit of loafing—rapid recovery during sets. There are two ways to do this: the old but neglected technique of rest-pause and the trendy system of cluster sets. Rest assured, both will enable you to compile more growth-inducing reps. Here’s how.
The rest-pause technique is one of the more overlooked training intensifiers. Maybe that’s due to bad branding, as the name insinuates an easy workout ahead. But trust us, despite the name, there is nothing easy about it.
Rest-pause has always been associated with high-intensity training, made popular by goldenage bodybuilder Mike Mentzer, and HIT has never been very fashionable due to its ultralow-volume approach. Often, sets dips as low as one to two, with reps in the four-to-six range. But you don’t have to be a HIT man to benefit from rest-pause. As with supersets and forced reps, anyone can use it as a means of pushing sets beyond failure.
Let’s say you reach failure on a set of shoulder presses at 10 reps. You’d rerack the weight, keeping your hands on the bar, and wait 10 to 15 seconds before going again. The rest allows you to pump out another three reps. Then you rest again and get another one. Therefore, rest-pause has not only allowed you to scrape up four extra reps, but those reps were all at near failure, and instead of one failure point (at 10 reps), you’ve had three (at 10, 13, and 14 reps), meaning you’ve extended your set by racking up the sort of reps that best stimulate growth. That’s why rest-pause should be in your workout arsenal.
Cluster sets are similar to rest-pause, as they’re a type of intra-set break, but they differ because they have only one true failure point.
Let’s return to our example of shoulder presses done with a weight that limits you to 10 continuous reps. Cluster sets break your set into more manageable subsets. Per our example, you’ll perform three subsets of four reps each to total 12 reps. You’d perform four reps, rack the weight but keep your hands set, wait 15 to 20 seconds, do another four reps, rack the weight again, and then do a final subset of as many reps as possible, typically getting three to five. If you get four reps on each of the three subsets, you’ve done 12 in an extended sequence, with two breaks, instead of 10 continuous reps. Because they enable you to get one to three more reps versus a typical set, clustering is an excellent way of breaking through strength plateaus as you accumulate more total volume. Your mind and muscles grow accustomed to totaling more reps with the same weight, or the same reps with more weight. This requires some planning. If you can get eight continuous reps, break your three subsets into three reps each. If you can get 10 continuous reps, try for three subsets of four reps. And if you can do 12 continuous reps, aim for three subsets of five reps. In each case, push your final subset to failure.
Putting it together
To supercharge intensity (and muscle growth), you can combine cluster sets with the rest-pause technique. Let’s stick with the shoulder press example. If you were pressing with weight that you can hoist 10 continuous times, you would get four reps, rest 20 seconds, get four more, rest 20, go to failure (four). Rest 15 seconds, then start rest-pause by doing as many reps as you can (two), rest 15, and go to failure one last time (one). With a total of 70 seconds of rest, you’ve totaled 15 reps, 50% more than you could do without pausing. Combining cluster sets and rest-pause is a double-barreled assault, so utilize this no more than three times per workout. Resting may be the key to cranking up your intensity.