The power clean often spreads like a game of Telephone around gyms and garages—the further it moves from the original source, the less it resembles a worthwhile movement and instead becomes a way to get thoroughly jacked up through crappy instruction and even crappier execution.
With the sport of weightlifting being so obscure in the US, it can be extremely difficult for guys to find a qualified coach, which is why many use it as an excuse to replace them with less-than-optimal alternatives.
The power clean, if performed correctly, will provide a unique stimulus for improving hip and knee explosiveness, which will translate to more strength and more muscle. And in my opinion, it can absolutely be learned without a coach.
But like any skilled movement, the power clean will not be mastered quickly. No matter how well you learn, you will never be completely finished. That's why your goal shouldn't be immediate mastery, but relatively quick development of safe and effective technique so you can put it to work in your training program.
Meet The Power Clean
A clean brings a barbell from the floor to the lifter's shoulders. The power qualifier describes the height at which the bar is received and arrested: with the upper legs above horizontal. That is, in a clean, the athlete receives the barbell on the shoulders at some height between standing and squatting, continues into the bottom of a squat position, and finishes the lift by standing again.
In a power clean, the athlete pulls the barbell identically, but must receive it on the shoulders and stop moving downward before sinking past a parallel squat. In other words, the power clean means the athlete must pull the bar higher, get under it quicker, and stop moving immediately.
Check Your Ego, Son
No matter how strong you are, you must start with an unloaded barbell for the initial learning stages. Some of you may even need to use a lighter technique barbell.
Don't concern yourself with weight at this point–be patient, learn the movement well, and very quickly you'll be capable of lifting far more than you will if you insist on loading up immediately. Go hide in the corner of the gym if you're embarrassed. When you re-emerge, you'll be proud of your power cleaning ability.
The following steps should each be performed until you become comfortable with them and can do them consistently. Keep the number of consecutive repetitions to a maximum of five.
From the Top Down
While it may seem odd to learn the power clean backward, I want to point out that you can't go to a place that doesn't exist. Without a receiving position, we can't pull under the bar. Without a pull under the bar, we can do a power clean. So let's start there.
The receiving position for the power clean is the same as the clean, which is (or should be) the same as the front squat–meaning, the bar is on your shoulders. Receiving power cleans in the hands and arms is a great way to set yourself up for hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder injuries.
Also, we want to "receive" the bar rather than catch it. To catch something requires that you're not contact with it immediately prior. In contrast, we want to maintain a tight connection to the bar throughout the movement until the last possible moment when the bar is finally supported on our shoulders.
Step 1 – Grip the bar with your hands about a fist-width outside your shoulders–your hands should not be in contact with your shoulders at all in the top position. From here, relax your grip, lift your elbows, push your shoulders forward and slightly up, and let the bar roll onto your fingers and into the space between your deltoids and your throat. (If this space doesn't exist, you're either not pushing your shoulders forward and up, or you need to work on your scapular mobility.)
If the bar is placing too much pressure on your throat, pull your head straight back–do not tilt it back. If the bar is in contact with your clavicles, you need to shrug your shoulders up a bit more.
To be sure the bar is supported by your shoulders and not your hands, remove your hands from under the bar and extend your arms in front of you. The bar shouldn't move.
This is the position in which you will be trying to receive the bar.
One of the most common mistakes is not actively pulling under the bar after accelerating it upward. With lighter weights, you'll be able to simply drop under the bar in time. As weights get heavier, you will not be able to accelerate the bar as much, and the lower resulting momentum means less time before the bar changes direction, which in turn means you have less time to change direction and position yourself under the bar. In these cases, an active and aggressive pull against the bar is necessary for you to beat the bar.
Step 2 – Standing tall with the bar at arms' length in front of you, pull your elbows as high as possible, directing them to the sides as they rise. This will bring the bar to about lower chest level. Don't lean forward over the bar, and don't try to lift it–lift your elbows instead.
Step 3 – From this scarecrow position, pull your elbows back and whip them around the bar into the receiving position you practiced earlier. Imagine the barbell as the pivot point for your elbows and make sure it stays right up against your body. As your elbows come around, the bar will rise to your shoulders, and you can relax your grip and let it settle into the proper receiving position.
Step 4 – When you can rack the bar smoothly on your shoulders with some consistency from this scarecrow position, begin the drill from arms' length and perform the entire movement smoothly. Make sure the elbows come up and out, not back. This is the arm movement of the pull under the bar.
Step 5 – When you're comfortable with this, you can put it to use and move on to actually pulling under the bar. Starting again from the scarecrow position with your feet about hip-width apart, pick up and move your feet quickly to your squat stance as you perform the pull under the bar, pulling yourself into a quarter-depth squat. When you can do this smoothly, begin the drill with the bar at arms' length.
Accelerating the Bar
Step 6 – With the bar at arms' length and your feet hip-width and turned out slightly, tighten your glutes to extend your hips through the bar slightly and shift back to your heels as much as possible. This will place you with your legs approximately vertical and the hips slightly hyperextended. This approximates the position you should be in at the top of your pull (although your ankles will be somewhat extended during the real pull).
Step 7 – From this extended position, push the hips back, bend the knees slightly, and let the bar slide down your legs until it reaches your lower thighs. In this position your back should be extended securely, your shins vertical, the bar in light contact with your legs, and your shoulders slightly in front of the bar and your knees. Keep your head up and your eyes forward.
Step 8 – Re-extend slowly into the simulated finish position, making sure to actively pull the bar against yourself with your lats and shoulders, keeping your weight over your heels. Gradually increase the speed at which you go from this thigh position to the extended position, making sure to continue pushing against the floor with your legs as you extend your hips. You will naturally begin rising onto the balls of your feet at the top–just be careful to keep your weight back so you stay balanced in the same position.
Step 9 – When you've increased the speed enough, you will feel the bar popping up, and possibly slightly forward. Let it rise, but guide it up close to your body by keeping your elbows traveling up and out like you did when practicing the pull under.
Step 10 – Once you're comfortable with this controlled pull, it's time to put the pieces together and perform a power clean from the hang position. Set your thigh position carefully and ensure proper balance before initiating the lift.
Drive your legs against the floor and finish the hip extension completely with the glutes. The moment you've reached this finish position with the legs and hips, pick up and move your feet to your squat stance and perform the pull under into a quarter squat–do not try to pull the bar higher by shrugging it up.
Congratulations, you've just done a hang power clean.
As you continue practicing, keep in mind that the actual depth at which you receive the bar will increase with the weight because of your decreasing ability to accelerate and elevate the bar. If you perform your pull under correctly, you will always be in the right place to receive the bar because of the connection you're maintaining.
From the Floor
While the hang power clean itself is an excellent exercise for hip and leg explosiveness, I still like pulling from the floor.
The goal for the pull from the floor is to put you right into the same hang position you've been lifting from. We want a photo of you taken at the moment the bar hits the lower thighs during a power clean to look identical to a photo of you in your hang starting position. To do this, your position off the floor may have to deviate a bit from your normal deadlifting position.
Step 11 – With your feet about hip-width apart and turned out slightly, place the bar over the balls of your feet. Get your clean grip, set your back in a complete arch, push your knees out slightly, and drop your hips until your shoulders are directly above the bar. From the side, your arms should be approximately vertical.
Your knees or thighs may be in light contact with the insides of your arms. If you can't keep your back extended in this position, you need to work on your flexibility and back strength. Keep your head up and your eyes straight ahead. The bar does not need to be touching your shins.
Step 12 – Break the bar from the floor without jerking and shift to your heels immediately. As the bar passes your knees, make sure to actively pull it back toward your legs. It should remain in immediate proximity to your thighs, and it should come into contact by mid to upper thigh. As you reach the thigh position from which you lifted previously, accelerate aggressively to the top of the pull.
Initially, the pull from the floor to the hang position can be done very slowly to ensure proper positioning. You can even perform partial lifts from the floor to the thighs with a pause in the hang position. As you get more comfortable and consistent, the speed of this pull can be increased. At any speed, there should never be a point at which the bar slows or pauses.
Like Your Momma Always Told Ya: Practice Makes Perfect
As you continue performing power cleans, don't hesitate to return to any of these drills to practice elements of the lift that are giving you trouble. In fact, it's not a bad idea to run through several reps of each drill as part of your warm-up.
If you decide to include power cleans in your training program (and why wouldn't you after learning all the steps?) make the commitment to continue improving your execution.
Because the better your power clean, the better your body will look and perform.