T Nation

Cluster vs. Ladder Sets

I am wondering about the difference between cluster sets and ladder sets. On the surface, they seem to have a couple of similarities. Can both be used for strength and/or hypertrophy? Is one better than the other for hypertrophy and/or strength? Is volume, weight used, frequency different? Thanks for any feedback you can give me.

They aren’t remotely similar.

Clusters refer to performing a set with rest between reps or group of reps. For example the traditional cluster uses 4-6 reps with 87-92.5% (or a weight you would normally do for 3 reps) you get to 4-6 reps by resting for 10-20 seconds between every repetition, allowing you to rest the muscles fibers long enough to be able to perform 2-3 more reps than you normally could during a regular set.

Ladders are normally used with body weight exercises. They consist of building up fatigue so that you end up stimulating maximum fibers without using a lot of weight. For example on dips, doing…

1 rep
10 sec
2 reps
10 sec
3 reps
10 sec
4 reps
10 sec
5 reps

Basically you add one rep at each “set”… at first it is very easy, but fatigue builds up… you can also do a double ladder… for example ramping up to 10 reps then working your way down back to 1.

I personally do not like ladders at all and use them maybe once a year.

Clusters are one of the most powerful method for building strength and can be good for size, especially in advanced athletes. For intermediate a cluster of 2+2+2+2+2 with a weight you could lift 6-8 times will be effective at building muscle

Thanks. Maybe I’m thinking of the wrong thing. Ramping method maybe? I read something recently where you were talking about 2-3-5 or 1-2-3 and doing that cycle two or three times. I know it’s not clusters, maybe ramping method or wave ladders??

You’re thinking of an article by Dan John from a month or two ago. Probably the most important difference between clusters and (Dan John’s) ladders is how the intensity is regulated. Clusters are based on a percentage of RM, whereas Dan’s ladders are much more auto-regulated. You increase clusters when your 1RM goes up. You increase your ladder weight when that ladder “feels easy.” The result is that clusters will improve size and strength whereas Dan’s ladders will improve strength through CNS activation and cheating in some extra fatigue (don’t expect significant size increases). Why would you ever choose ladders over clusters? I personally think there are situations when ladders would be superior to clusters even with heavy weights, but not as a general rule. I’m doing them at the start of my program right now to wake up my muscles and hone in technique at heavier weights (2-3-5 ladder) before I move on to some 10x3s and then assistance work. I like their priming effect, and I think it makes my 10x3s go better.

You are referring to wave ladders: https://www.t-nation.com/training/wave-ladders-for-maximum-strength

The magic of cluster/ladder is pyschological (and perhaps some physiology CT?) - you increase performance for rest of workout by making weight feel lighter, more explosive, dominate more.

On days where I am “neurally off”, I also have less pump, and less desire to train. WHen I do clusters, ladders, ramps more likely than not I always “turn on”.

To me that’s the magic…it forces me to get turned on and have a great workout/performance (80% of the time, some days nothng works lol).

Alternatively, straight sets don’t do that for me and if I do one hard set (vs. multiple “practices”, waves, or clusters) the PERCEIVED exertion is a lot higher. I don’t know if that’s good or bad…the lower stuff feels better (easier) but in a good way…

Thoughts CT? Basically - should most training sessions have this sort of CNS activators (or am i confusing CNS turn on, which can be done with jumps and some lighter explosive stuff/bodyweight with waveloading/clusters which might actually be done AFTER cns activation haha)

*Best example is a gradual ramp, waveloading/clusters on squats. I have never been able to consistently do one all out top set for squats (longer than a week or two) because it’s just too damn awful and strenuous.

But if I do some waveloading/clussters (in a layer format), then I can do AMRAP with a heavy weight (likely at higher poundages and for more reps) and feel beast mode (rather than like about to die).

On upper body exercises I can muster that all out set if I want (though still prefer the ramp/waveload)…