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Why Clustering Should be Part of your CrossFit Training

crossfit-clustering-tortise-hare

You’ve heard the old expression about how the “tortoise always beats the hare” or “slow and steady wins the race”. We’re starting to see this more and more in CrossFit training, as the athletes who are winning/doing well at regionals aren’t necessarily the biggest and strongest athlete there. Their secret? They’ve learned to strategize their workouts as part of their daily CrossFit training.

Clustering or the “art of” breaking down your reps in a given CrossFit workout so that you can maintain an steady pace and leave enough energy in reserve to push through at the end and subsequently, blow past the individuals that came out of the gate at 100% is just one of many strategies that I’ve started incorporating into my workouts and I have to say, it works.

I know I mention him all the time, but I learned this from my trainer, Kyle Ruth, who placed 4th at the 2013 CrossFit Games Mid-Atlantic regional. 1 spot away from making it to the actual games in California. Clustering his seats was a key part of his strategy. Go look at the video of the wallball workout at regionals. Kyle broke early, all of us watching knew he could handle all of those wallballs unbroken if he wanted to, but he didn’t it was part of his strategy.

Why Clustering

I live in the south, North Carolina to be exact, and NASCAR racing is a big part of the culture around here. In NASCAR or any other applicable motor sport race, the winner is determined by who is in first place at the end of the final lap. In a 500 lap event, if you lead the first 499 laps and not the last one, it doesn’t matter. It’s the same thing in CrossFit. It doesn’t matter who has the most reps or the quicker time in the middle of the workout, it only matters when the clock stops or the first person finishes.

What you’ll see NASCAR racers and even competitive runners do is put themselves in a position during their race that they can sustain the pace until a given time towards the end, then make their push to the front. For example in a marathon, the winner may only be in first place for the last 1/2 mile out of 26.2.

See where I’m going? The goal is to perform your CrossFit workout in such a way that you’re pushing hard enough to be competitive, but sustainable, all while leaving some energy in reserve to push through at the end.

What is Clustering

So just to be clear, I’ve mentioned it a couple times above, but clustering is a term that I use to describe breaking down reps into manageable chunks in order to remain competitive, but also leave a bit of reserve to make a final push. I’ll use my other trainer, Preston Austin (26th at the 2013 CrossFit Games Mid-Atlantic Regional) as an example. Preston recently did a pretty tough WoD:
8 minute AMRAP
Power Clean, 90% of your 1 rep max

That’s the type of workout that most folks would just hear the clock beep and start lifting. But it’s TOUGH. you’re going at 90% of your 1 rep max, for 8 minutes. If you don’t put a strategy to this one, you’ll be sucking wind at minute 2.

His strategy? 4 reps per minute, minutes 1-2, 3 reps per minute, 3-5, 2 or 3 reps a minute for 6-7, then 7-8 go all out with what he had left. I watched him do this workout and he was really good about sticking to his strategy.

Another example is from my recent CrossFit competition, which was a 6 minute AMRAP of Ground to Overhead at 115. My goal, cluster strategy was 3 reps, take a step back from the bar, deep breath, walk up the the bar, 3 more reps, etc… until I hit the last minute, then I went all out. I minimized rest and maximized output. This is different than walking up to the bar, going all out and then spending 2 minutes catching my breath in between rep 20 and 21.

When to Cluster

 It varies, and you’ll tend to know it by feel but typically on anything with a high number of reps over a given period of time I’ll cluster it. Whose done Murph? Yea, you clustered that. Maybe you didn’t know it. But you broke the sets up at least. The next step would be to take that one step farther. How can I break down these reps into sustainable numbers so that I can keep moving and not stop?

When NOT to Cluster

Fran.
I could stop the answer there, but I won’t. As good as all this clustering talk sounds, there are times when clustering is not a good idea/worthwhile. Remember we’re talking about being sustainable in high rep workouts. Fran is a sprint. She’s a dirty, evil girl, but at least she’s quick. If you’re wanting a sub 3 minute, or even sub 5 minute. There’s no time to cluster the reps. You have to go all out. Essentially you need to look at it. If it’s a workout that’s performed in a short, anaerobic state/time period clusterings probably not the best bet. 100% metcon workouts are not the time to cluster either.

So there’s a chance (I hope) that I’m not bringing you anything new. Maybe your training staff calls it something different, but hopefully you can take this away and learn to start thinking through your CrossFit workouts a few minutes BEFORE you hear the clock beeping…3…2…1…GO

What strategies do you tend to use in your workouts? Are you already clustering? Share your thoughts in the comments below

  • Hesham Saeed

    Great article, I always had this idea in mind and always advice my clients to follow such philosophy. It tends to work better with athletes or clients that were involved in sports through their life as they have a better feel for their body and its capability.

    • EveryLastRep

      That’s a great point. I always tell the folks I work with to know their redline (like a car’s engine) and keep it below the redline point. Essentially we’re both telling them to keep the work aerobic instead of anaerobic.

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