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Building muscle when you’re new to weightlifting is mostly a game of patience and persistence.

As long as you show up, finish your workouts, and follow a sensible diet plan, you’ll gain muscle and strength like clockwork.

After your “newbie gains” dry up, though, progress comes in fits and starts.

And it’s at this stage that many people cast their gaze about for more “advanced” training techniques, hacks, and shortcuts.

Things like supersets, rest-pause sets, German Volume Training, and so forth.

Another technique you may have heard of is known as doing cluster sets, which boils down to taking short breaks during your sets, but resting less between each set.

Some people say this method triggers muscle growth above and beyond what you could achieve with traditional weightlifting, while others say it’s a pointless gimmick.

Who’s right?

Can cluster sets help you gain muscle and strength?

And if so, are they better than more traditional training styles?

You’re going to learn the answers to these questions and more in this podcast.

By the end, you’ll know exactly what cluster sets are, how they’re supposed to increase muscle growth, whether or not they’re effective, and how to include them in your training if you choose to do so.

Let’s start at square one.

Time Stamps:

3:23 – What is a cluster set?

8:02 – Why do cluster sets? 

23:15 – What does science say about cluster sets vs traditional sets? 

Mentioned on the show: 

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Hello, and welcome to another episode of Muscle For Life. I’m Mike Matthews, your gracious host. Thank you for joining me today to learn about cluster sets. What is a cluster set? It is a weightlifting technique that involves breaking up a regular set into a cluster of mini sets. Hence the name with a short break in between each of.

Mini sets. Now, why is that a thing? Why do people do that? It allows you to do each set with a little bit less fatigue and to lift a little bit more explosively. You feel like you have more energy to give each rep if you use cluster sets versus just straight traditional sets. But how big of a difference does that make?

In terms of bottom line results, some people say that this advanced training technique triggers muscle growth above and beyond what you can achieve with just regular old weightlifting. Other people though, say it’s a pointless gimmick and more or less a waste of time. Who’s right? That is what we are going to get to the bottom of in this podcast.

By the end, you’re gonna know what cluster sets are. You’re gonna know how they are purported to increase muscle gain. You’re gonna learn a bit about the effectiveness or lack thereof, as well as how to incorporate them in your training. Most profit. If you so choose. Also, if you like what I am doing here on the podcast and elsewhere, definitely check out my sports nutrition company Legion, which thanks to the support of many people like you, is the leading brand of all natural sports supplements in the world, and we’re on top.

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Order. So again, if you appreciate my work and if you wanna see more of it, and if you also want all natural evidence based supplements that work, please do consider supporting Legion so I can keep doing what I love, like producing more podcasts like this. Okay, let’s start this discussion with a quick definition of terms as usual.

I did explain what a cluster set is in the intro, but you may not have listened to the intro. So a cluster set is a weightlifting technique where you take a normal set and you break those reps up into a cluster of. Mini sets with a little bit of rest in between each mini set. And just to make sure it’s extra clear, a set is a fixed number of repetitions of a particular weightlifting exercise.

So if you do 12 biceps curls and then you stop, you have done one set of 12. Reps and then you’d usually rest a couple of minutes and do another set. And so if you were to do, let’s say, three sets of biceps curls, here’s what it would look like if you wrote down each rep of each set in your workout journals.

So set one would be reps, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Then you’d rest a couple of minutes. Set two would be the exact same. Let’s say you have each rep in there, Rep 1, 2, 3, 4, all the way through 12. Rest a couple of minutes set. Three looks exactly the same. 12 reps each individually written down.

Rest two minutes. And that’s how traditional weightlifting works. In a cluster set scenario, though, you would break. A regular set into a cluster, a group of mini sets, and you take a short break in between each, and that break would be shorter than your normal break. So if you are normally resting, let’s say two to two and a half minutes in between a set of biceps curls, that’s what I do, for example, Then with a cluster.

Set. You would rest maybe 20 seconds in between each of the mini sets that make up the cluster set. And as far as reps, you might break up the 12 reps of biceps curls into four sets of three reps. So you would do three reps, rest 20 seconds, three reps, rest 20 seconds, three reps, rest 20 seconds, and then your final.

Reps, and depending on what you were going to do next, you might rest, let’s say a minute, and then do another round of cluster sets, and that would be the pattern that you would repeat for as many sets that you want to do of biceps curls in this fashion. Now, during the rest periods between each mini set, people also generally.

The weights or put them down, they don’t hold the weights for the 20 seconds. And so that means, for example, on the bench press, if you were using cluster sets, you would do three or four reps. You would then put the bar back on the pins, rest 20 seconds, un rack the weight, do another three or four reps and repeat that until you’ve gotten, let’s say 10 or 12 reps.

And then you would rest for a minute or two. Do another round of that until you’ve finished all of your cluster sets for the exercise. Now, as far as programming goes, you can work this out in many ways, but generally each cluster set involves somewhere around 10 to 20 total reps or two to six. Reps per mini set, and then you have the 20 to 30 seconds of rest in between each mini set and one to maybe two minutes of rest in between each cluster set.

You don’t find this technique used much with lower rep ranges and much heavier weights. So for example, loading the bar with 80 or 85% of your one rep max and doing let’s. Three mini sets of just two reps each is not how this technique is usually used. It is usually used with lighter weights and higher rep ranges.

Now, if this sounds familiar to you, if it sounds like rest, pause. Training. It is very similar. It’s a close cousin to rest pause sets, which use a very similar strategy. And if you want to learn about that, you can find a podcast I posted some time ago on it. You’re gonna have to go a bit back in the feed to find it or just search the.

Feed or my YouTube channel, and if you would prefer to read about it, you can find an article I wrote [email protected]. Now, in case you are wondering, the primary difference between rest pause training and cluster set training is with a rest pause set. You take it to muscular failure or just short of it, and then you rest maybe 20 or 30 seconds.

Then you do another set near failure. Followed by a short rest period and so on until you have reached a predetermined number of total sets or a point where you fail to get a certain number of reps per set, usually four or five. And again, you can learn all about that in the podcast I recorded on it or the article [email protected].

Okay, so now that you know what a cluster set is and how it is generally, Programmed. Let’s talk about why. Why is this a thing? Why do people do this? The main reason people do cluster sets is because of a phenomenon you have likely experienced yourself, so toward the end of a normal weightlifting set.

The last couple reps are the hardest, right? That’s when the bar starts to slow down or the dumbbells start to slow down and your technique starts to falter by interspersing some rest, a little bit of rest. In between these mini sets though, you can reduce the amount of fatigue that you feel through. Out the mini set, and that can help you lift the same amount of weight for more total reps per set, or maybe lift the same amount of weight for the same number of reps, but complete each rep a bit faster or with better techniques.

So the rationale here is by using cluster sets, you are reducing fatigue in your workout and you are doing more productive volume. You are avoiding junk reps or junk volume. and you’re able to give more energy to each and every rep. And taking that line of thinking further, if that is correct, if you can move more weight in your workouts, or if you can use better technique and better engage the muscles you are trying to train, you are going to gain more muscle and strength.

Time and because people generally use cluster sets with the big important exercises, the big compound exercises like the squat bench, overhead press, and deadlift, if cluster sets can help you move the needle on those exercises just a little bit faster, that can make. C, a significant difference in your bottom line results because those are the exercises that most drive improvements in whole body strength, which most drives improvements in body composition in whole body muscularity.

And that’s especially true in intermediate and advanced weightlifters not. As true with beginners, but once your new begins are exhausted, the most reliable way to continue getting bigger is to continue getting stronger. And the most effective way to continue getting stronger all over the body is to get stronger on the squat.

Bench overhead press and deadlift. And so again, if cluster sets can help you gain strength a little bit faster on those exercises, it will almost certainly translate into a little bit more muscle growth. Now that is the theory. How true is it? Some people say that cluster sets are just as effective of.

Tool for enhancing muscle growth as rest pause sets or blood flow restriction training, for example. And again, the main benefit that advocates of cluster sets claim is that by doing your training that way or by doing a portion of your training that way, you are going to do more total reps in your workouts.

And that is going to translate to more muscle gain over time and more strength gain over time. And there is. Truth to that. So if we assume that you are lifting sufficiently heavy weights to maximize muscle and strength gains, let’s say no lighter than 60% of your one rep max, and probably ideally in the range of 70 to maybe 95% of your one rep max.

And let’s also assume that you have some progression built into your training, which means that you are working to add weight to your lifts. Over time, you are working to get stronger than an effective way. Further increase muscle growth is indeed to increase volume, which can be measured in different ways.

And one way to look at volume is the total amount of reps that you’re doing. So again, if you’re lifting heavy weights and you are achieving progressive overload, if you can squeeze in more reps per week, more effective reps per week. Major muscle group. Then if you do that consistently enough, you can expect to gain muscle faster than if you did fewer reps.

Now, of course, there is a point of diminishing returns, and if we’re talking about volume in the context of muscle and strength gain, I more prefer to look at hard sets, which I credit Greg Knuckles for. He’s the guy who introduced me to this concept and a hard. Is a set with sufficiently heavy weight that is taken sufficiently close to technical failure, which is the point where your form starts to break down.

And in this case, one to two reps shy of technical failure, meaning you have one or two good reps left in the tank. So you’re on the bench and you just did rep number eight and it was hard, and you think that you could probably get one more good rep before your elbows start to flare or your butt starts to come off the bench.

That is one rep shy of technical failure. That is one good. Left in the tank. And so that is a hard set, heavy weight taken close to technical failure. And you can look at your training volume through that lens and see how many hard sets are you doing per major MU group per week. And if you are an intermediate or advanced weightlifter, you are probably going to have to do something around 15, let’s call it a range of 13 to 16 hard.

Per major muscle group per week to really make progress. And in fact, increasing volume is one of the primary changes that many novices need to make as they advance into their intermediate phase and eventually get stuck. For example, many guys who are following my bigger, leaner, stronger program and many women who are follow.

Fin Leaner, Stronger program can do quite well with that for the first minimally, for the first year, maybe two years, maybe three years, depending on many factors, but for most people it’s probably one to two years before progress grinds to a halt. And the main reason for that is those programs just do not provide enough volume for Intermediate Weightlifters to continue gaining muscle and strength because those programs.

10 to 12 hard sets per major muscle group per week, which is great for people who are new to proper weightlift. They do not need to do more than that, and if they do more than that, they are almost certainly not going to gain more muscle and strength. So the only reason, if you are a guy who has yet to gain your first maybe 25 pounds of muscle, or if you’re a woman who is yet to gain her first 10 to 12 pounds of muscle, the only reason to do more.

10 ish hard sets per major muscle group per week is, I guess to burn more calories and to have more fun in the gym if you like working out in the gym enough to spend more time than you need to get the best possible results. Beyond that 10 to 12 hard sets per major muscle group per week. You are well into the territory of diminishing returns, and if you go too, As a newbie, if you were to try to do, let’s say, 20 or 25 hard sets per major, most group per week, you would enter the territory of negative returns.

You could actually put yourself in a position where you are gaining less muscle and strength than if you were doing half of. The amount of volume simply because you are not able to recover adequately from that much training. And that would be the case for intermediates and even advanced weightlifters too.

20 hard sets for Major MUS group per week is probably the absolute most that any of us natural weightlifters can get away with. And. It would not be 20 for every major muscle group, 20 hard sets per week, because that would be absolutely grueling. If you open up Excel and you start programming that, you’ll see what I mean.

You’d be in the gym, you’re probably doing two a days. You’d probably be in the gym three plus hours, five to six days per week and just start there. Just imagine trying to recover from that much. So anyway, coming back to cluster sets, as you can use cluster sets to do more reps in your training, that can have the same effect as doing more hard sets.

Those are not exactly interchangeable, but it can have the same effect in that you can jumpstart muscle and strength gain by going from a certain number of reps per week for a major muscle group. It’s gonna be a range of course, but it’s probably gonna be a tight range. If you are not periodizing your training.

For example, let’s say you generally are just working in the 10 to 12 rep range, and you do that for months. Sometimes you’re gonna get nine, sometimes it’s 11, sometimes it’s 13, but it’s gonna be a pretty tight range. It’s probably gonna be mostly 10 to 12. Now, if you were. Take the same weights. And now instead of doing, let’s just say for one exercise, you are doing three sets generally of 12 reps, and you average out 12, let’s just say, right?

So 36 total reps. If you were to now incorporate some cluster sets into that exercise, and you were to, let’s say, bump that up to 45 reps now with the same weight, if you did that often enough, and if you had. To inc it enough into your training, theoretically, that could help you gain muscle and strength faster.

Now that’s cool, but some of my more astute listeners will be wondering about regular sets. Could I just do another normal set? Then of 12 reps and achieve the same effect. So in this case, could I just do a fourth set instead of using cluster sets? And the answer is probably, to my knowledge, no studies have directly compared the muscle building effects of doing regular sets versus cluster sets with the reps matched.

But based on what we know about muscle growth, I think it’s fair to assume that the results would be very similar, which of course then raises a question of. Bother with cluster sets, if you could just do more regular sets. And the answer is you don’t have to bother with cluster sets. You can just do more regular sets.

But there is an area where cluster sets shine and that is breaking through plateaus on specific. Exercises and specifically with isolation exercises. So for example, let’s say your workout calls for three sets of H 10 reps of dumbbell side raises with 30 pounds, and you’re using double progression, which means that you are working in a rep range here of eight to 10.

And once you can get, let’s say one, two, or three sets of 10 reps, the top of your rep range, you increase the. 2 35 pounds, and whether you wait for one set of 10, two or three, just depends on the programming and how experienced of a weightlifter you are. If you’re new, you can probably get away with one or two.

If you are more experienced, it’s probably going to require hitting three sets of 10 reps. For the increase in weight to stick, meaning for you to be able to move up to 35 pounds and now get at least seven or eight reps with it and not get five or something, because that is not necessarily moving ahead.

If you go from being able to do three sets of 10 reps with, let’s say one set of 10 reps with 30 pounds and. In your subsequent sets, it’s maybe nine and then eight. And you go, Oh, but I got one set of 10 here. I’m gonna move up. And you grab the 30 fives and now it’s like 5, 5, 4. Is that actually better?

No, it’s not. When you use Tubble progression and you increase the weight, you wanna make sure that you were able to get the bottom of the rep range with that new weight. If you are one rep shy because you increased in the middle of a workout, so let’s say your progression model calls. Two top sets before you move up to top of your rep range sets before you move up and you do that and on the third you get seven.

In this case, reps instead of eight, I would say. Okay, let’s see how it goes the next time around. Now if the next time around when you’re fresh, you grab those 35 pound dumbbells and it’s like 7, 7, 6. I would say, Nope, let’s go back to 30 and let’s now work up to three sets of 10 reps in a row. And then the progression should stick, so to speak.

And so let’s say though, that’s what you’re trying to do, right? You’re trying to get from 30 to 35 pounds and for several weeks you have been getting eight reps or nine reps, and after five or six reps, your shoulders are burning and it’s real hard to squeeze out those last couple of reps before your form starts.

Fall apart. And let’s also assume that you are eating the right amount of calories and you know what you’re doing with your macronutrients and you understand the importance of a calorie surplus if you want to maximize muscle and strength gain and you’re sleeping enough. And my point was saying those things is because often when people are stuck with muscle and strength gain, especially if they are experienced weightlifters, they’re just not eating enough calories every day, that’s very common.

Or they’re not eating. Carbohydrate that’s very common with the popularity of low carb diets. And then they switch to a higher carb diet and they immediately can start making progress again, or they’re not sleeping enough and so forth. So let’s just say you have your fundamentals in, by using cluster sets, you might be able to get one or two more reps on each set, which would allow you to hit the rep target and move up and.

Now if this sounds like a training hack, a way to artificially goose up the number of reps you’re doing per cluster set by, let’s say resting a bit more in between your mini sets. So instead of resting 20 or 30 seconds, you start resting 45 seconds and then you find that allows you now to get an extra three reps in to the whole cluster set.

So whereas previously you would crop out at let’s. 10 reps in the cluster set by extending the rest period in between the mini sets. Oh, you find you can get 13 reps now. That’s not how you want to use cluster sets. You want to use them exactly as I have described, just 20 to 30 seconds of rest in between each, and you want to use them tactically.

And sparingly. And again, for my part, I think they are best suited to isolation exercises, even though many people do use them with compound exercises. I think it’s much smarter to do regular sets with compound exercises. And if you want to increase volume, just do more regular sets. But in the case of an isolation exercise, you’re stuck on despite having good workout programming and good dietary compliance and good sleep hygiene.

And Cluster sets may help you progress to heavier weights, at which point you can just go back to your normal style of training.

If you like what I’m doing here on the podcast and elsewhere, definitely check out my sports nutrition company Legion, which thanks to the support of many people like you, is the leading brand of all natural sports supplements in the. Now before we wrap up and talk practical application, I want to quickly review a study that is often cited as proof that cluster sets are indeed better than traditional sets and specifically on big compound lifts.

So this study was conducted by scientists at Charles University and the researchers had 9, 23 year old men with at least 18 months of weightlifting experience. Two workouts. So in workout one, the men performed six sets of squats for as many reps as possible. And then in workout two, the men performed as many cluster sets of squats as possible.

Now, before doing the workouts, the researchers helped each weightlifter find a weight that would allow them to reach. Peak power output for a single rep. Now, keep in mind, power is not the same as strength and the weights the people were using were significantly lower than what you would normally find on a strength training program.

But it is reasonable to assume that the workouts that improve power will also improve strength, at least to some degree. And so the scientists had the lifters do both of the workouts and everyone finished their sets, whether they were doing traditional sets or cluster sets, when their power output fell below 90% of their max power for two consecutive.

Reps. So this is when the bar starts to slow down and technique can start to get sloppy. And the key finding of this study is that the weightlifters were able to get four to six reps in each cluster set on average versus just three to four reps per traditional set. And all of the reps were, at least in the cluster sets, were fast.

Smooth and snappy. Think the first couple of reps in a normal set, even with heavy weight. And so what that means is the cluster set training technique allowed the lifters to get in about 25% more quality reps than the traditional set group. And many people say that. Can lead to greater strength gain over time, and that in turn would lead to greater muscle gain.

And that’s fine. I understand that claim, but there’s a bit more to the story because the weightlifters took considerably more time to finish their workouts when they were using cluster sets. So on average it took them about four minutes to finish a cluster set, whereas it only. 25 seconds to finish a traditional set.

And as these guys did six sets of squats in their workouts, we’re looking at about 24 minutes to do it cluster, set style, and only about 15 minutes to do it traditional style. And that’s not a huge difference, a nine or 10 minute difference, but that can add up. Over weeks and months of training, especially if you’re doing a lot of cluster sets.

And that’s fine if you are okay with a little bit longer workouts. But again, I’m thinking about okay, if we’re gonna spend more time in the gym, what if we just use that time to do more traditional sets? Wouldn’t that be just as good? And the answer is yes, It almost certainly would, because while it’s true, Cluster sets do help you do more high quality reps in a single set.

That’s just because you’re resting during the set. If you look at the total amount of reps you can do in a given period of time, cluster set style versus traditional style, it’s more or less the same. So in the case of the study that I. Just shared with you, if the weightlifters had been given 24 minutes to do their traditional sets, they could have completed probably about nine sets instead of six, which would’ve meant that they would’ve done actually slightly more reps than the 24 minutes of cluster set style training.

So the key takeaway here is if you match the amount of time, That you are spending training, you almost certainly are gonna do just as well with traditional sets versus cluster sets. And so that brings me back to the primary reason to use them is to help you break through plateaus with isolation exercises and maybe variety.

I guess that could be another reason. If you’re just bored with traditional sets and with your workouts in general, then maybe a cycle. Cluster sets will spice things up and just make your workouts a bit more fun, which will make you probably exert yourself a little bit more in them, which of course can turn into better results or make you look forward to your training more, which can result in more muscle and strengthen gain over time.

Because again, the more. Into your workouts, you are, The more energy you’re gonna bring to them, the more focus you’re gonna bring to them. And that does translate into actual results. You’re not gonna notice a difference in the day to day, but over time it can make a difference. All right. Now that we have all of the theory out of the way, let’s wrap up with a summary of the practical, how to actually use cluster sets.

And I’ve given. Pretty much all of the details along the way, but let’s just review them here. So again, with your big compound lifts, I recommend traditional sets and heavier weights. Let’s say no lighter than 70 to 75% of one rep max, which translates to probably about 10 to 12 reps as the top of the rep range that you are working in with your big compound lifts.

And I would recommend spending a lot of your. With heavier weights, a lot of your time in the range of, let’s call it 75 to 85% of one rep max, or 80 to 90% of one rep max. And so cluster sets, again, are specifically best for isolation exercises. And I could list a lot of them here, but I think you know what isolation exercises are.

There are some compound exercises that lend themselves to cluster sets like pullups chin-ups, one arm dumbbell row, barbell row, lap pull down, dip leg press hack squat, and hip thrust, I think is a pretty good list of compound exercises that aren’t as compound as the big ones, as the squat. Bench press, overhead, press and deadlift.

And in terms of how exactly you implement your cluster sets, you have options. But a simple template you can think with is you take your normal set and you break that up into several mini sets of two to six reps, and you rest. 20 to 30 seconds in between each mini set and then one to two minutes in between each cluster set.

And you don’t have to follow that exactly. You might find that you like to do two mini sets or three mini sets, and you might prefer as many as four mini sets for the same number of reps. So let’s say you’re gonna do 12 reps, you might like three mini sets of four, or you might like four mini sets of three or some other combin.

This is one of those training techniques that you need to try for yourself and take notes and just see how it works for you. And as far as how often you should incorporate cluster sets into your training, again, I think they are best used to help you break through a plateau with a specific exercise. So I can’t give a simple one size fits.

Frequency recommendation, but if you are doing a lot of cluster sets, you’re probably doing it wrong because you’re probably not stuck on seven different exercises that you’re doing every week. For me, I would say I get stuck on probably one to three exercises on any given macro cycle, which for my current training, programming, which is beyond bigger, leaner, strong.

2.0, a macro cycle is 16 weeks. And so if I wanted to work cluster sets into a macro cycle, I probably wouldn’t be doing them on more than one to three exercises every several months. And that’s really all you need to know about cluster sets. They are not a powerful training hack. They are not a shortcut to getting.

Jacked faster. They are just a useful tool to have in the toolbox, and they have very specific applications. And if you never pull that tool outta the box, that’s okay too. You don’t have to, You can continue making progress doing nothing but traditional sets. But again, if you can use cluster sets to strategically get unstuck on specific exercises.

And if you. Consistently rest. Pause sets are good for that as well, by the way. But if you do that consistently over the course of, let’s say years, you can make a bit more progress over that time period. And you can also enjoy the journey a little bit more because getting stuck sucks, right? And getting unst.

Feels great. And with that, I will stop invading your ear space and sign off. But before I do, I want to quickly let you know what I have coming for you in the next week or so of Muscle for Life. I have a best of episode coming on the best way to get jacked the ketogenic diet and three ways that working out makes you better at life.

And then starting on October. The new second edition of Beyond Bigger, Stronger is going to be officially released and I’m gonna be sharing audiobook chapters here on the podcast so you can get an idea of what is in the book and decide if you’d like to pick up a copy. I am also going to be giving away over $6,000 in free stuff [email protected].

And some of the chapters are gonna be sharing with you have to do with breaking through weightlifting plateaus. And that is something we discussed a little. On this podcast, but the chapter I’m gonna be sharing is the all in discussion on it. There’s a chapter on quote unquote super foods, and while that is usually a nonsensical marketing buzzword, there is something to be said for special foods that can further enhance health and performance.

I like to call them functional foods, and I have an episode coming on how strong you can get naturally as well as puritization. A long, very detailed discussion on periodization that is gonna help you a lot with your programming and more. All right. That’s it for this episode. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting and helpful.

And if you did, and you don’t mind doing me a favor, please do leave a quick review on iTunes or. Wherever you’re listening to me from, in whichever app you’re listening to me in, because that not only convinces people that they should check out the show, it also increases search visibility. And thus, it helps more people find their way to me and learn how to get fitter, leaner, stronger, healthier, and happier as well.

And of course, if you want to be notified when the next episode goes, Then simply subscribe to the podcast and you won’t miss out on any new stuff. And if you didn’t like something about the show, please do shoot me an email at mike muscle for Just muscle f o r and share your thoughts on how I can do this better.

I read everything myself, and I’m always looking for constructive feedback. Even if it is criticism, I’m open. And of course you can email me if you have positive feedback as well, or if you have questions really relating to anything that you think I could help you with, definitely send me an email. That is the best way to get ahold of me, [email protected].

And that’s it. Thanks again for listening to this episode, and I hope to hear from you soon.

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