If you learned everything you knew about training from your local Bally’s or 24 Hour Fitness, you could be forgiven for thinking that a squat is an exercise performed in a Smith machine with a padded tube wrapped around the middle of the bar, or that a pull-up is something you need a special body-weight-neutralizing machine to perform, or that “mixing things up” means doing preacher curls before incline curls, instead of the other way around.
You aren’t that guy, of course, but just for a moment imagine that you are. Picture yourself in the gym one morning or evening, going through your usual lower-body routine of leg presses, leg extensions, and leg curls, when you see a guy do something completely foreign to your eyes.
He loads an Olympic barbell with a 45-pound plate on each side, and sets it on the floor. Since you’ve rarely seen anyone in this gym lift a weight from the floor, you have to stop what you’re doing and watch.
He crouches over the bar, with his knees bent and back more or less parallel to the floor. First he pulls it past his knees, which doesn’t seem terribly odd. But then he suddenly straightens his body and shrugs his shoulders while rising up on his toes, flinging the bar up the front of his legs and torso before ducking down into a squat as the bar lands on the front of his shoulders. He descends into a full squat, then rises back up until he’s standing straight with 135 pounds of metal sitting next to his collarbones.
You aren’t sure what you just witnessed. It looks like something you once saw a 4-foot, 10-inch Bulgarian do in the Olympics, except that lift somehow ended with the bar over the little guy’s head. You’ve certainly never seen an American lift like this.
The lifter bangs out three more reps before he sets the bar on the floor and steps back to catch his breath. You notice that everyone in the weight room has stopped to watch, including the gym’s trainers, who seem convinced the guy has broken a rule, even if they can’t decide which one.
Six Reasons to Get Your Clean On
As I said, you aren’t that guy. You’d know a power clean if you saw one. But, unless you played sports in college or dabble in CrossFit, chances are you haven’t yet tried them, or done them with the frequency and intensity it takes to see results.
If you’re an athlete, power cleans and other modified Olympic lifts get an enthusiastic thumbs up. The movement pattern may not precisely mimic anything you’d do on a field or mat, but the total-body power it helps you develop is useful in just about everything.
“Athletes have to react to any change in their playing environment quicker than their opponent,” says T Nation contributor Matthieu Hertilus. “Lifting explosively can help.”
For bodybuilders, the answer is also yes, but for different and somewhat more nuanced reasons:
1 – Cleans recruit more muscles than standard gym exercises
“Very few, if any, other strength exercises involve more articulations,” says veteran T Nation coach Christian Thibadeau. A power clean involves movement at the ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints. That means you’re using your calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, traps, deltoids, and forearms, as well as the core muscles that come into play to stabilize your spine throughout the movement. Cleans, Thibaudeau says, “are unparalleled in terms of implicated muscle mass.”
2 – Cleans makes you a better lifter
Even the most serious lifters in today’s gyms rarely attempt exercises more complex than squats, deadlifts, and bench presses – all of which are great exercises for strength and size development. But adding power cleans to your programs can make you better at those lifts.
“When you build explosive strength, you train the muscles to more readily activate the higher-threshold motor units,” says author, coach, and neurophysiology nerd Chad Waterbury. “The best bench pressers in the world have tons of explosive strength. If you’ve ever watched a world-champion bench presser train, you’ll notice how fast the barbell accelerates compared to the lesser mortals.”
You’ll also develop better balance and coordination, improving your form on front squats and other classic muscle-building exercises.
3 – Cleans get you yoked
Well-developed glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors are crucial for athletes as well as bodybuilders. But you can develop those posterior-chain muscles with deadlifts, squats, good mornings, glute-ham raises, and just about any other lower-body exercises you’ll find in the powerlifting playbook.
Power cleans bring one more set of muscles into the mix: upper traps.
“The traps have to fire explosively in conjunction with the legs to accelerate the bar upward with enough force to get you underneath the bar,” Hertilus says. “Look at some of the best middleweight Olympic weightlifters and you’ll see the density of their traps.”
4 – Cleans help you get ripped
Even when performed for relatively low reps with long rest intervals, power cleans are metabolically taxing, due to their explosive nature and enormous muscle recruitment. You can intensify this effect by bumping up the reps and decreasing rest periods.
But, with apologies to our friends at CrossFit, it’s not a good idea to go apeshit with the volume. Power cleans are among the most technique-sensitive lifts you can tackle, and when volume comes at the expense of form, you’re putting yourself (and possibly those around you) at risk for an injury. Even if you don’t get hurt, you don’t want to reinforce faulty recruitment patterns by lifting with sloppy form while you’re fatigued.
5 – Cleans work your core
You need a strong core for all the major multijoint lifts that employ heavy loads, like squats, deadlifts, and weighted chins. That’s especially true for power cleans and other explosive lifts. But once you’re ready to add cleans to your routine, you’ll find your core strength improves rapidly and dramatically. “Lifting explosively requires the recruitment of many additional muscles to stabilize your body,” Waterbury says. “This builds total-body stability and strength.”
6 – Cleans just look cool
Anyone can do a biceps curl or leg extension. They’re the first things they teach newbies at commercial gyms. Power cleans are at the opposite end of the exercise hierarchy. You need a solid base of conditioning, coordination, and weight-room experience before you learn the exercise, and then you need focus and effort to master it. It’ll be a while before you’re ready to pull heavy weights from the floor to your shoulders.
But once you’re there, you’ll be among a small percentage of lifters who can do one of the best exercises in the world for strength, power, muscular development, and overall conditioning.
And you’d better believe the other lifters in your gym will notice.
A Sober Approach to the Clean
Sometimes you’ll hear the power clean described as the sum of its component parts – a deadlift followed by an upright row followed by a front squat. And if that’s the way you approach it, you’ll probably have trouble mastering the exercise. It’s better to think of it as a vertical jump with a controlled landing.
“The key is pushing the ground away from you as forcefully as possible, and pulling yourself underneath the bar to catch it,” Hertilus says.
Stand with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart, with toes pointed outward slightly. Squat down and grab the bar with an overhand grip, your arms just outside your legs. Keep your back flat or slightly arched, your chest up, and your shoulder blades retracted.
The initial set-up is similar to the deadlift, except you want your shoulders farther out in front of the bar, as you see in the picture to your right. You should feel tension in your hamstrings; it means your posterior-chain muscles are loaded for the lift.
“In the clean, there is the first pull and then the second pull. They are continuous, but distinct,” says strength coach Charles Staley.
Although the first pull looks like a deadlift, the technique is different. Staley cautions you not to try to rip the bar off the floor. “The lift starts off slowly and then culminates into an explosive, full-body extension,” he says.
Start by pulling with your legs, straightening your knees so the bar can travel on a straight upward path while staying close to your body.
“This is also a good time to emphasize a small yet crucial detail, which is to turn the elbows out,” Hertilus says. That will help you avoid using your arms in the second pull, which will slow you down and minimize the work performed by your traps.
Your shoulders are still out in front of the bar, with your hips high.
As the bar rises above your knees, thrust your hips forward, pulling your body upright. Your knees will bend slightly as the bar moves past them, but this isn’t something you need to focus on.
This begins the “power” portion of the power clean. As you straighten your knees and hips, you’re going to pull so hard that you come all the way up on your toes. This is the “vertical jump” part of the lift. When your lower-body joints reach full extension, rapidly and violently shrug your shoulders to give the bar maximum upward velocity.
At this point of the lift, your arms are still straight, with your elbows turned out, as the bar moves straight up along your torso. It’s important not to pull with your arms. They’re the equivalent of lifting straps at this point – you just need them to hold the bar, not accelerate it.
As your shoulders get as high as they’re going to go, reverse directions and pull your body back under the bar. This includes two simultaneous movements:
- Bend your knees and hips to a quarter- or half-squat position.
- Bend and rotate your arms under the bar so your upper arms are parallel to the floor and the bar rests on your front deltoids.
Even though you’re catching the bar, rather than projecting it upwards, there’s nothing passive about this part of the clean. You’re forcefully pulling your body back down. Olympic lifters stomp the floor as they come down off their toes. In the video to your right, in which Hertilus demonstrates the power clean from four different starting positions, you can hear the stomp on each repetition. (It makes almost as much noise as the bar does when it’s dropped from shoulder level.)
Stand up to complete the repetition, then lower the bar to the floor … unless you can get away with dropping it, which is a lot more fun.
Variations on a Clean
As you can tell from the detailed description of the exercise, it’s not something you can expect to do competently the first or second time you try it. It takes time. You may want to start with these variations:
Clean shrug from hang
This exercise focuses entirely on the second pull, helping you learn to extend your body while forcefully shrugging your shoulders to generate maximum upward momentum on the bar.
Start with the bar just above your knees, which is the transition stage of the power clean. You want your hips bent so your torso and thighs form a 135-degree angle. Put another way, your arms, which hang straight down toward the floor, form a 45-degree angle with your torso.
Push yourself away from the floor as fast and powerfully as you can, straightening your knees and hips and coming all the way up on your toes. Shrug your shoulders to complete the second pull.
Instead of dropping down and catching the bar, stop the exercise there, and lower the bar for the next rep.
Quick warning: No matter how many shrugs you’ve done recently, nothing prepares your traps for this exercise. You will be sore the next day, and the day after, and quite possibly the day after that.
Hang clean progression
In the video to your right, Hertilus demonstrates three versions of the hang clean. The first starts with the bar just around mid-thigh level. The second begins just above the knees, and then the third starts just below the knees. (The fourth lift is the full power clean from the floor.)
In case you’re wondering what he’s doing in between variations on the video, it has nothing to do with the exercise. He’s just adjusting his grip. When you start doing power cleans from the floor with heavier weights, you’ll want to reset your grip with each repetition.
The bar will roll across your palms to the ends of your fingers when you catch it on your shoulders, and it doesn’t always roll back to the correct position in your hands when you lower it. You may, for example, find you’re holding the bar with eight or nine fingers, instead of the perfect 10. It’s not a problem to lower the bar with a digital deficit, but you sure as hell don’t want to try to lift it without all your soldiers on the front line.
You can also start the hang clean from an elevated position, with the bar resting on blocks or the safety bars of a squat rack.
Chad Waterbury provided us with this workout progression to master the power clean.
Do the workout three times a week, with at least one day in between. On all exercises, use a weight you’re pretty sure you could lift six times with good form. (Obviously, you’re going to use trial and error here; nobody walks into the gym knowing their 6RM for front squats or calf raises, much less clean shrugs.)
|Hanging leg raise||5||3|
Again, do the workout three times a week, with at least one day in between, and on each exercise use a weight you’re pretty sure you could lift six times with good form. On the hang clean, start in Week 3 with the bar at mid-thigh level. For Week 4, start with the bar just above the knees, and in Week 5, start with the bar just below your knees.
|Dumbbell or barbell reverse lunge||5||3|
|Dumbbell single-leg deadlift||5||3|
Dumbbell single-leg deadlift
Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand holding them in front of your thighs. Bend forward at the hips, lowering the weights toward the floor, as you extend your right leg behind you. Do all the reps, then repeat the set with your right foot on the floor and left leg extending back.
Chad put together two workouts, the first one for bodybuilding and the second one for strength.
On the bodybuilding program, you want to use a weight you could lift six to eight times with good form. Do the workout twice a week.
|Bulgarian split squat||8-10||4-6|
For the strength program, use weights you could lift four to five times with good form. Do the workout twice a week.
|Bulgarian split squat||3-5||3|
Another way to learn the clean, or to practice it regularly if you already know how to do it, is to incorporate the exercise into barbell complexes. You can do these at the beginning of your workout as a warm-up.
In a complex, you do multiple reps of a series of exercises without putting the bar down. So if the complex calls for four reps of Romanian deadlifts, high pulls, and jump shrugs, you’ll do all four reps of RDLs before you do four reps of high pulls, then four reps of jump shrugs. Then you put the bar down to recover for the next set.
Hertilus put together three complexes to hit your muscles in different ways and to emphasize different parts of the power clean. Pick one of the complexes to do at the beginning of your workout, and do it three times. Take as much time as you need between sets; excess fatigue hurts your form, and bad form has a way of reinforcing itself over time.
Focus first on form, and then on speed. Load is your last consideration. You don’t want to sacrifice form or speed for the sake of using a more impressive-looking weight.
Complex 1 (catch emphasis)
- Drop Clean: x 3
- High Drop Clean: x 3
The drop clean is a variation on the hang clean in which you start with your legs and hips extended and the bar at arm’s length, resting on your front thighs. It’s the same position you’d use to start an upright row or reverse curl.
From there, you jump – if you pause the video of Complex 1 to your right, you’ll see Hertilus’ feet come off the floor on each rep – as you shrug your shoulders to move the bar upward. Then you drop under it for the catch.
The high drop clean starts with the bar halfway up your torso. Your shoulders are elevated and elbows bent. Jump from that position, and catch the bar.
Complex 2 (transition and second pull emphasis)
- Romanian Deadlift: x 4
- Hang High Pull: x 4
- Jump Shrug: x 4
You know how to do Romanian deadlifts – push your hips back and lower the bar until it’s just below your knees.
As you reach the bottom position of the fourth RDL, do a hang high pull: pull the bar to your mid thighs (the transition), and then pull it to your upper chest. It’s an explosive upright row.
After the fourth rep, go to jump shrugs. These are the same as clean shrugs, described earlier, except you’re jumping as high as you can off the floor on each rep.
Complex 3 (full power clean progression)
- Hang Clean from Upper Thighs: x 1
- Hang Clean Above the Knee: x 1
- Hang Clean Below the Knee: x 1
- Hang Clean at the Ankles: x 1
Start with the highest possible starting position for the hang clean, with the bar at your upper thighs. This is a bit different from the drop clean shown in the first complex, since your torso is leaning forward slightly at the start.
From there, do one rep each of the hang clean above the knee and below the knee. The final movement is more or less the starting position of the power clean. If you were using 45-pound plates, or lighter bumper plates with the same diameter as 45s, this is where the bar would be at the start of each rep.
Is It Safe?
Anyone who’s been around the iron game a few years knows the risk-reward calculus: The more challenging the lift, and the more ambitious the load, the higher the risk for injury. An explosive exercise like the power clean, which requires a lot of practice to master, presents more risk than, say, the abductor machine.
If you aren’t used to doing explosive lifts, Hertilus warns that the foot slam on each rep can lead to knee inflammation. And there’s always some chance of lower-back injury if you aren’t able to brace your core properly.
You might also find the exercise tough on your wrists. Waterbury says you need to be able to extend your wrists about 70 degrees backwards to be able to do the exercise with perfect form. That could mean some remedial flexibility work for your wrist flexors. “Those muscles are typically as tight as guitar strings on weekend warriors because they spend so much time gripping, and so little time stretching,” he says.
Hertilus recommends lots of front squats, using the clean grip rather than the crossed-arms bodybuilding style. “You start in the squat rack [as shown in the photo at right], and progress to taking the bar from the rack and holding the position,” he says. “It’ll feel awkward at first, but the more times you do it and the longer you can hold it comfortably, the better you’ll be able to handle catching a clean.”
Another concern is the risk to other people. Commercial gyms aren’t set up for explosive lifts, which require much more room than conventional exercises. An Olympic bar is seven feet long, and you need some space on either side – three feet is ideal.
If you went to a facility that specializes in training athletes, you’d probably see several Olympic weightlifting platforms, which are eight feet wide and set several feet apart from each other, usually with a rack of weight plates in between. And that’s in a gym where everyone knows that the lifter might plan to pull the bar from the floor to his shoulders.
So you have to employ some caution and common sense when doing power cleans in a commercial gym. You probably aren’t going to have enough room to do them safely during peak hours, and even in off-hours, make sure you have at least three feet of clearance at either end of the barbell.
Another potential problem is the gym’s management and staff. They probably aren’t used to seeing Olympic lifts, and may not even know what they are. Set a bad example by doing power cleans in a crowded area or dropping the weights when you’re finished, and there’s a good chance you’ll be told they’re officially banned. You might find yourself banned as well.
Here are the most important points to remember about mastering the power clean:
- Do them at the beginning of your workout, right after a general warm-up with mobility drills. You don’t want to do an exercise with this many moving parts when you’re fatigued.
- Be patient. With traditional bodybuilding routines, you can cycle in new exercises with little or no learning curve required. Anybody can do a hammer curl without specialized instruction. Nobody masters the power clean the first or second time out.
- Go light. Start with a broomstick, or the lightest barbell in your gym. Your ego will survive a few workouts with an unloaded bar.
- It’s easy to add weight once you’ve got the movement nailed, especially if you’re a strong guy to begin with.
- If you meet someone with experience in Oly lifts who’s willing to give you free instruction, accept the offer. No matter how carefully you study articles and videos, there’s just no substitute for hands-on coaching.
- And if you get a chance to train at a facility that specializes in Olympic lifting, or to take a class, jump on it. Your local university might have a weightlifting coach with a cool French Canadian or Eastern European name who’s forgotten more about coaching these lifts than most of us will ever know.
I know a few older bodybuilders who spend every fall performing Olympic and power lifts exclusively. It’s just about moving big weights fast, and they love it. After a few months, they return to their bodybuilding routines feeling stronger, refreshed, and ready to shave their forearms again.
Power cleans, in other words, won’t take the place of bodybuilding exercises, but they’re a great complement. They increase your strength, power, coordination, and overall weight-room competency, on top of building muscle mass in your legs, glutes, spinal erectors, and upper traps.
Plus, they’re fun in a way that other exercises aren’t. If you’ve spent years grinding out sets and reps with a controlled tempo, you can’t believe how liberating it is to move a barbell as fast as it’ll go.