We, as CrossFitters, are constantly seeking out new challenges that can test our physical and mental limits at the gym. One such challenge that has gained popularity within our community is the exercise known as the “cluster.” In this blog, we’ll break down exactly what this movement is, how to perform it correctly, and why you should get excited the next time you see it programmed in a WOD.
What are Clusters in CrossFit?
A cluster, in the context of CrossFit, is combination of two other exercises: a squat clean and a thruster. Let’s dissect these foundational two movements first, then put them together to describe the cluster. Note that these can be performed with a variety of weights, including barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, bumper plates, and medicine balls. We’ll describe the barbell versions in this blog, but feel free to use whatever equipment you have!
A squat clean (also known as a “full clean” or just a “clean”) is an Olympic lift that involves bringing the barbell from the ground to your shoulders. The movement begins by lifting the bar off the ground in a manner similar to a deadlift. Once your ankles, knees, and hips are fully extended, forcefully shrug your shoulders and pull your body under the bar, receiving it in the bottom of a front squat. Then, while keeping the bar on your shoulders, ascend to an upright standing position to finish the movement. Check out the video below for an awesome visual explanation of the squat clean.
A thruster is a combination of a front squat and a push press. The movement starts with the bar on your shoulders in a front rack position. Descend into a front squat, then rise rapidly, using momentum to stand and press the barbell up. The movement is completed when your knees, hips, and arms are fully locked out with the barbell overhead. See the video below for more details on the thruster.
Now that we understand the squat clean and the thruster, we can combine them to create a cluster! The “squat” portion of the squat clean becomes the “front squat” portion of the thruster. Therefore, the movement begins by lifting the bar off the ground to hip height and receiving it in the bottom of a front squat. Next, initiate the ascending phase of the squat. When you are about to fully extend your hips and knees, drive the bar up overhead. Once you are standing with your elbows and the barbell locked out overhead, you have successfully performed a cluster!
If you’re performing multiple reps of a cluster, you MUST bring the bar back to the ground and re-squat clean it after you press it overhead. This distinguishes a cluster from a thruster. Every rep of the cluster must begin with a squat clean, whereas a thruster begins with the bar at your shoulders and therefore does not need to return to the ground after being lifted overhead. Here’s a great video demonstrating multiple reps of a cluster.
How to Perform a Cluster
Executing clusters requires precision and control. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown to ensure you understand every point of performance:
Begin by standing with your feet roughly hip-width apart behind the barbell. Using a hook grip (more about this here), place your hands on the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Your shoulders should be positioned just in front of the bar, core should be braced, and back should be flat.
The first pull describes when the barbell is moving from the ground to knee height. Your hips and shoulders should rise at the same rate as you extend your knees. This means the angle of your torso should NOT change from your starting position until you pass your knees. Keep your arms straight and heels down during this phase.
The second pull describes when the barbell is moving from above your knees to your hips. During this time, rapidly extend your hips to move your torso to a vertical position. Continue to keep your arms straight and heels down.
Hips, knees, and finally ankles extend as the barbell passes your hips and you come onto your toes.
Shrug and Pull Under
Shrug your shoulders forcefully and pull yourself under the bar to receive it in the bottom of a front squat. Hips should be below “parallel” (meaning below the level of your knees) if possible.
Ascend from Front Squat
Drive your whole foot into the floor and knees out (in line with your toes) as you rise. Keep your chest and elbows up and core braced to maintain a neutral spine.
As you get close to fully standing, utilize momentum to transfer the force into a push press. Explosively extend your hips and knees and come onto your toes while simultaneously pressing the barbell overhead. Lock out your elbows and push your head “through the window” created by your arms. Ensure the barbell is in line with the middle of your foot and stabilize. This will complete 1 rep of a cluster.
Return to the Floor
Bring the barbell back to the floor to begin your next rep.
Benefits of Clusters
Clusters offer a multitude of benefits that contribute to both strength and conditioning gains:
Clusters target various muscle groups, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, core, shoulders, and triceps, to provide a comprehensive workout.
Incorporating clusters into your workouts can help increase the strength of all the involved muscle groups. This can translate to being able to lift heavier in not only this exercise, but also others like the deadlift and split jerk.
The explosive nature of this multi-step movement elevates your heart rate and can improve both cardiovascular and muscular endurance.
Clusters are a time-efficient way to work on multiple aspects of fitness, making them a popular choice in CrossFit WODs.
Concluding Thoughts About Clusters
The cluster provides a unique opportunity to mix up your normal training by combining two commonly performed lifts into an exhausting but rewarding challenge. So, the next time you find yourself asking, “what are clusters in CrossFit,” remember that they are not just an exercise but also a chance to push yourself to evolve as an athlete. Be sure to always prioritize executing them with proper form above anything else. Come join us for a class at CrossFit LPF to try out clusters for yourself!