Ahhh…clusters. The squat clean/thruster movement combo you love to hate!
I am not overly proficient in the Olympic lifts (but getting better!) or with thruster cycling. Because of this, clusters are not on my list of “Exercises I Want to See in a WOD!”
Back in 2020, I had a CrossFit competition qualifying workout that involved clusters.
I had practiced the movement, like, once or twice before I attempted the workout…
…I didn’t work out too well.
My advice: don’t be like me! When you’re doing CrossFit, do a cluster this week!
Table of Contents
What is a “CrossFit Cluster”?
The cluster sounds like a complicated movement and, to be fair, it does take a bit more focus and technique than your run of the mill deadlift. However, if you can remember just two movements, the CrossFit cluster starts to make a lot more sense.
The (squat) clean
and the thruster
The end result? Skip to the 16:25 mark to see some heavy clusters from the 2023 CrossFit Open
Why Do we Cluster?
As complicated as CrossFit clusters sound, it makes one wonder why we even do them. What are the actual benefits?
The hard and direct answer: CrossFit makes us do them.
We haven’t seen clusters in the CrossFit Open (yet), but, basically everybody who did well in CrossFit Open Workout 23.2, clustered their attempts during part B.
And sometimes guys show up at your place and want to max out on clusters.
On a more practical level, the cluster is an extremely efficient exercise. It works an astounding number of muscles and modalities in a single movement.
The quads and glutes bear the brunt of the exercise with the hamstrings and back muscles assisting with the initial squat clean.
The back muscles assist again, this time in the press out, along with the core muscles. The shoulder and triceps muscles pick up where the leg muscles left off, helping to finish the lift off.
CrossFit Cluster Endurance Benefits
Think about how you feel after you do a set of thrusters, whether in a dedicated thruster WOD or by themselves.
Maybe not totally smoked, but you’re not going to want to be doing these all morning.
Clusters provide a similar stimulus…just more so.
This is the bad news.
The good news is that with every set of clusters, your cardio capacity is slowly expanding. The complexity of the movement combined with the breathing demands make the cluster a king of promoting endurance development.
An added benefit is these endurance gains are achieved without slogging away on a rower or doing double-unders by the hundreds.
If you want to win on the barbell, do clusters.
Build Strength for Cleans, Thrusters, and Clusters
Like anything else, singular focus and specialization leads to the best outcomes.
If you want to get better at cleans, you should do cleans.
If you want to get better at thrusters, you should do thrusters.
However, clusters produce “externalities” like few other exercises.
If you do clusters, you’ll get better at clusters…and…cleans…and…thrusters.
You simply have to get better at cleaning and thruster-ing to make progress in the cluster. This improvement will take place with little thought or additional effort. Instead, your subconscious screams “I need to bounce out of the squat clean faster!” or “I have to push through my legs more!”
And you’ll find you hit a more technically-proficient clean than you ever had in a dedicated set of 3!
(Barbell) Cluster vs. Dumbbell Cluster
Like most lifts, the CrossFit cluster has a dumbbell counterpart.
Oddly enough known as the “dumbbell cluster”.
As you might expect, this movement utilizes two, equally weighted dumbbells and closely mirrors the movement pattern of the barbell cluster
A major between the dumbbell cluster and the barbell cluster is the greater speed in which you can squat clean the weight. This speed significantly reduces the time it takes to do each rep.
Skip to the :19 second mark and watch how Frederik Aegidius starts CrossFit Open workout 20.2. The workout called for dumbbell thrusters, but the first rep of each set is essentially a dumbbell cluster.
I challenge anyone to do a barbell cluster in ~ 1 second!
If you want to up the challenge and pace of your cluster workout, consider switching to dumbbells!
How to Prevent CrossFit Clusters Injuries
While the potential for injury exists with any type of physcial movement, with a little patience, you can safely perform clusters.
These are my 4 tips to staying safe with clusters
1. Learn the individual movements that make up the cluster first
Get comfortable with the squat clean and the thruster before moving on to clusters
2. Work on solo cluster sets before incorporating them into a WOD
Clusters feel very different when you are under fatigue and pairing them with additional movements. Don’t attempt a cluster WOD without working the movement first.
3. Gradually add weight
Common cluster WOD weights are in the 95-pound to 155-pound range for men and the 65-pound to 105-pound range for women. Work up to these weights; don’t load these up on Day 1!
4. Break up the movement if it gets too heavy
Truth be told, in my CrossFit cluster workout mentioned above, the 155-pound clusters got really heavy, really fast. I checked the movement standards and concluded that breaking the movement up into a power clean, front squat, and push press was permitted. It wasn’t the most efficient (or fast) approach, but it allowed me to gut out a few extra reps.
CrossFit Clusters WODs
Mastered the movement and ready to work clusters into your WOD? Give one of these a try!
Beginner CrossFit Clusters WODs
This cluster WOD is all about getting you moving, particularly when you don’t feel like it. 4 rounds of this will go by fast but will feel incredibly slow at the same time.
This spicy AMRAP was designed to wear you out in even the most poorly equipped hotel gyms. Try to hang on to the dumbbells for the entirety of each round for an added challenge. Your grip won’t appreciate it!
Intermediate CrossFit Clusters Workouts
The good news is, unlike the 20.2 workout, you have an end in sight (as opposed to a 20-minute AMRAP) and one less rep per round. The bad news: you have to do clusters…ten rounds of them!
This WOD promotes the same impending doom of burpees that “Kalsu” does with the same heavy weight. Thankfully, the required number of clusters is only 1/5 of the required thrusters in the original WOD.
Advanced CrossFit Clusters Workouts
This the WOD I was talking about. You can still find a bunch of people’s qualifying videos online, but you won’t find any RX athlete who finishes workout. I think I made it into the fifth round but got time capped. I was just happy it was over!
(I personally think these times are a little extreme. If you’ve clustered before, you’ll easily be “Elite” here!)
The women get a bit more of a challenge with this one and with a relatively quick couplet of exercises, you’re expected to move quickly. very quickly.
Frequently Asked Questions
So, I’ll be honest with you: as comprehensive as that explanation of the clusters CrossFit movement was…there is a lot more to go over on the topic. Let’s take a look at a few more of the most popular clusters questions:
Yes! The sky really is the limit with clusters. You can do:
Burpee dumbbell clusters (do a burpee first, then go directly into the cluster)
Single-arm dumbbell clusters (only use one dumbbell)
Yes! Clusters usually don’t get insanely heavy, but in big sets, you’ll likely feel the strain in a number of places. If a weight belt makes sense (it probably won’t in a complex WOD) and you don’t mind rolling the knee sleeves on, equip up!
Clusters shouldn’t be a staple of your workouts. They occasionally come up in CrossFit programming, but aren't considered to be a fundamental movement. However, they can be good movements when you want to throw a wrench into a WOD every month or so.
I would also suggest working a cluster into the opening repetition of every thruster. This will help you to move faster in the thruster sprint WODs like Fran.
Clusters: The Verdict
The cluster is a niche exercise that is an advanced form of the squat clean and the thruster. Mastering it will enable you to perform better in CrossFit clusters workouts and will help you to refine the two movements that comprise it.
CrossFit clusters workouts are not the most common movement. With that in mind, don’t worry if you haven’t quite perfect your cluster technique. Just don’t wait until they show up in a qualifying event or in a competition to try them out!
A lot of front squat-esque movement going on in every cluster. See where you stack up in our article of front squat and back squat strength standards.