Without question, power cleans are a phenomenal tool in your pursuit of high performance strength and muscle. The problem is, they can be difficult to learn. Most cleans are downright atrocious. You see things like starfish legs, excessive knee valgus, and a gross lack of coordination, none of which have a place in the weight room. Hang cleans, however, are a great, doable, alternative. Here's what the most advanced version (with the added front squat) looks like:
Few lifts develop total body power and explosiveness like the hang clean. I prefer it to the power clean because of its quicker teaching time and the elimination of most mobility restrictions when pulling from the floor. Classic exercises like deadlifts are best for developing pure strength, but for explosiveness and gains in athletic performance, cleans bridge the gap between strength and speed better than any other weight room exercise.
The hang clean requires movement from the wrist, elbow, shoulder, ankle, knee, and hip joints, making it a total body exercise. This makes the clean a better bang for your buck deal than just about any other exercise. The corresponding muscles that cross each of those joints must work in cooperation to accelerate a heavy resistance, stabilize the spine, and explosively transfer power. No resistance exercise requires the biomechanical and coordinative demands of the clean. As a result, this unique exercise blends sudden strength, power, and coordination to build a high performance, show-and-go body.
The clean requires triple extension of the hips, knees, and ankles in a coordinated, explosive pattern – a movement that simulates the triple extension in both sprinting and jumping. If you stumble on a sport that isn't improved through more powerful triple extension, coordination, and being able to absorb and transfer force, let me know. Until then, the Olympic lifts are a vital training tool for athletic performance.
When applied correctly with submaximal resistance (40-75% 1RM), hang cleans are a great tool for training speed-strength and strength-speed. Except for competitors in Olympic lifting and athletes being max tested in the clean, training with submaximal loads provides an awesome training stimulus without compromising technique. Unlike squats and deadlifts, cleans aren't an exercise you're able to "blast through" when fatigued because they have a high neurological demand. Freshness and optimal technique are imperative for maximal training effect, brute intensity, and strength.
- For maximum strength: 90-95% of 1RM for 2-3 sets x 1-2 reps and 2-5 min. recovery.
- For greater strength-speed: 70-85% of 1RM for 4-6 sets x 2-4 reps with 2-3 min. recovery.
- For greater speed-strength: 50-65% of 1RM 4-6 sets x 2-4 reps with 1-2 min. recovery.
Hang cleans will get you absolutely jacked. They not only stimulate your forearms and traps, but nearly 200 muscles in the body so that you get a huge anabolic surge and training effect. Nearly every muscle fiber is engaged and firing to maximize explosiveness, stabilize the core for transfer of load, and to execute the clean correctly.
This ultra-efficient exercise ignites the central nervous system (CNS) to recruit more muscle fibers, challenge fast-twitch muscle fibers, and potentiate the nervous system to allow the use of greater training loads on subsequent exercises. Take a look at any experienced Olympic lifter and you find a jacked posterior chain with thick glutes, spinal erectors, yoked traps, and meat hooks for forearms. Whether you want yoked traps to fill out T-shirts or powerful hip extension for a faster pull and stronger lockout, hang cleans will develop a truly impressive physique.
- 4x6, 5x5, and 6x4 at 65-85% of 1RM with 1-2 minutes recovery are all awesome hypertrophy protocols.
I'm not a fan of "cleaning" the snot out of people until projectile vomiting ensues and a highly technical exercise becomes a sloppy conditioning tool. There's an inverse relationship between lifting intensity (%1RM) and volume, and increasing both simultaneously is a recipe for injury and faulty movement patterns, not high performance. That said, intelligently planned cleans get you absolutely shredded. Cleans, especially when performed with a full front squat or low catch, are metabolically demanding. The explosive nature and muscle recruitment requirements will leave you absolutely floored when done with proper technique and short rest.
- 5x5 with 60% of 1RM with 60 seconds of rest or less.
- 5x5 cleans with 75% of 1RM with 90-120 seconds of rest.
Technique is still key, but don't be afraid to push the tempo. Cleans will leave the most seasoned lifters and athletes heaving, hawing, and pushing the red-line of metabolic demand.
When it comes to teaching the clean, there are many ways to skin the cat. This progression is meant to teach competence, not perfection and mastery. Mastery takes years of intense practice and scrutiny, a luxury most coaches, lifters, and athletes don't have. Instead, this will have you competently performing hang cleans during your next workout.
1 Romanian Deadlift, or RDL
This is the starting position when pulling from the blocks or hang position. Keep the chest tall and hold the bar at hip height against the mid-thigh. Brace the core and hinge the hips back rather than reaching for the ground. The bar should pass just below the knees while the spine stays welded before returning back to standing position with full hip extension.
2 Hackey Pull
Begin with an RDL position and the bar just below knee-level. Accelerate the bar as it passes the knees, aggressively extending the hips forward, "popping" the bar off the thighs. This movement teaches you to reach full-hip extension before breaking at the elbows during the pull. If the elbows bend, the power ends. The hips must extend first or the athletic carryover of triple extension is minimized, thereby reducing speed and power. If you jump forward or drop under the bar too early, you're likely missing hip extension.
Note: This is to teach hip extension, so be conservative with programming so that you don't get in the habit of bouncing the bar away from vertical. Eventually, the bar will be moving up a body that's "retreating" from it while maintaining a vertical path with hip extension. If "pop" is minimal, you're likely out of position, lining the shoulders up behind the bar.
3 Muscle Clean
The muscle clean is very similar to a hang clean, except the bar sits in a higher position above the knee. Hinge back slightly and use a short, explosive hip action to accelerate the bar vertically and rack it on the shoulders. The arms do a fair amount of work to "muscle" the weight to the shelf position. This is a fantastic way to bridge the gap between the hackey pull and a full hang clean.
4 Hang Clean
Once hip extension is engrained, complete the second pull and catch phases. As you finish extending the hips, knees, and ankles, shrug the shoulders, bending the elbows as the bar rises and transferring the "weightless" bar. As the body reaches full extension, aggressively pull the body underneath, rotating the elbows forward, racking the bar on the front deltoids in the shelf position. Loosen the grip and allow the wrists to turn upwards and the elbows to stay parallel with the ground.
5 Hang Clean With Front Squat (Advanced)
Hip extension is the primary component we're looking to maximize, but as you advance and full-extension becomes automatic, it's important to learn to drop the hips AFTER extension. With the bar racked in the shelf position, drop into a front squat, keeping the elbows up and arms parallel to the ground. After the catch and while maintaining the shelf position, drop into a front squat. Eventually, you'll learn to rapidly pull yourself under the bar during the catch phase, using a front squat to finish off the lift. In time this grooves a smoother transition into a low catch, effectively allowing higher workloads to be used and providing a greater training stimulus.
6 The High Pull (Optional)
The high pull is a great exercise for accelerating the bar AFTER hip extension is reached. (It also builds a thick yoke!) The problem is that it's difficult to reach full hip-extension during execution of the high pull. For that reason I prefer to train the high pull as a muscle-building exercise and use it sparingly with most athletes. Either way, it's best to experiment with the high-pull and see if your execution fits your goals.
- Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID): Hang cleans are a very technique-intensive lift, best programmed with optimal form and specific goals in mind. Specific adaptations occur based on the imposed demands, so if you allow sub-par triple extension and faulty technique, you won't maximize the clean and gains will be minimized. Lazy form leads to injury and bad results – eliminate it.
- Missing Lifts: It happens occasionally, but it shouldn't be common. Cleans are extremely technical – consistently missing lifts will lead to faulty patterns and minimized sports performance carryover. Missing lifts is the result of inappropriate load or technical error. Avoid both for best results.
- Ugly Catches: We've all seen it: A good clean until the catch, and then legs split apart and stagger, there's valgus collapse on one leg, and the trainee takes a few steps to stabilize himself and get the hips underneath the bar. Leave your ego at the door. Be intelligent with your loading and ability levels. The clean is a great tool to train triple extension and the absorption of force with proper mechanics. Treat it as such and be smart.