One Exercise to Rule Them All

The Single Best Lift For Full-Body Strength

Lead Photo Credit: R. Frank Photography, CrossFit FBO

Here's what you need to know...

  1. The clean and press is the best accessory lift for increasing your bench, squat, and deadlift.
  2. Explosive lifting is missing from most lifter's training programs, and it can pack muscle onto your frame quickly.
  3. Add the clean and press to your training in order to move the bar faster and more efficiently on all other lifts.
  4. Work towards a body-weight clean and press of 3-5 reps.

Bigger Numbers, Better Body

The clean and press combo is, flat out, the best accessory lift for vaulting the numbers of the big-three strength exercises. Let's first define a clean and press so we're all on the same page.

We're referring to a full "squat clean" where the bar is received in the rack position, followed up with a front squat. The pressing portion is a push press and not its wilder, more technical brother, the jerk.

How to Perform the Clean and Press

You have to progress through triple extension and receive the bar in rack position in a full squat. After you've landed in the full squat, return to the standing position and push-press the bar overhead.

1 – The clean

Clean 1-3
Clean 4-6

It mimics an explosive deadlift, and the scoop or receiving portion recruits many of your upper body and core muscles. It's no surprise that this part of the lift aids your deadlift.

The next part of the lift requires you to front squat the weight. Firing from the hole in a deep front squat will do wonders for adding size onto your quads and improve your strength in the back squat.

2 – The push press

Push Press 1-2
Push Press 3-4
Push Press 5-6

Using your legs to dip briefly into a quarter squat, you drive the weight overhead with speed. This part of the lift will focus on strengthening your shoulders and get your upper chest involved while moving your arms to full extension.

The best way to increase these lifts is to do them in a wisely structured program. Getting better at anything requires practice. Again, think of the clean and press as the best accessory exercise you can be doing for all of the main lifts and it should get its own day.

Explosiveness = The Missing Link

Explosively pulling weight from the ground, catching it, and tossing it overhead isn't commonly done in most gyms, and you may think that these are only exercises for Olympic lifters and CrossFitters. Or maybe you think your explosive lifting days are over since you're not playing hockey or football.

Whatever the case, explosive lifting is the most common missing link in the pursuit of heavier weight on the bar and more pounds on your frame.

The fear associated with cleaning comes from worrying about how it will affect your lower back, wrists, shoulders... and not knowing how to do it.

But if you have healthy wrist mobility, shoulder mobility, and good elbow health, you're prepared to clean and press. And, if you progress with the weights in a smart program, it'll only strengthen your lower back.

Then there's the push press portion. Aggressively tossing weight overhead can be daunting, especially after you start working with weights heavier than 225 pounds.

But if your form is correct and you progress in smart increments, it's nothing to worry about. Keep the end goal in mind. Above all else, you want to increase muscle mass and continue to add weight on the bar for the big three lifts.

Deadlifting, squatting, and benching heavy weight all put your body at risk for injury, so stop being a sissy and do what needs to be done.

Why It Works for Muscle and Power

Nothing puts muscle on an athlete's frame faster than a power exercise. Strength exercises come close, but power definitely takes the edge.

If a running back comes to me and wants to be bulletproof for the upcoming season, I give him explosive power exercises. When clients request better bench, deadlift, or squat numbers, I give them explosive power exercises.

One of my new clients, who isn't a beginner, began implementing explosive exercises in his program and he put on 12 pounds in under two months.

Using a massive amount of force over a short period of time recruits a great deal of muscle fibers. When your goal is more muscle, maximal fiber recruitment is paramount. When you clean, the body has no choice but to recruit as many fibers as possible to produce the requisite force to complete the exercise.

The push press also involves a massive amount of force development, and increasing the rate of force development is the key to lifting heavier.

Move the Bar Faster

Rate of force development (RFD) is how fast you generate force during an exercise or athletic activity. And if you aren't lifting as fast as possible on the three lifts, you're shortchanging your gains.

As soon as you hit the concentric or lifting portion of the lift, you should be moving the bar as fast as you can in a controlled manner. Since moving the bar at a fast rate requires a great deal of force production, it stands to reason that you need to train RFD.

The clean and press should be programmed with the intent to increase the amount of weight you can do in the exercise, but it should also be done with light or relatively light weight.

Newton figured it out. If you want higher acceleration, the force must be higher or the mass lower. Acceleration and force go hand in hand.

Having a programmed light week will improve your movement pattern in the exercise and give you an opportunity to attack heavy weight with similar aggression.

A good first milestone to work towards is a body weight clean and press of 3-5 reps.

Sample Training Split

Remember, the clean and press deserves its own training day. A standard split can look something like this:

Workout 1

  • Bench
  • Accessory Lifts

Workout 2

  • Squat
  • Accessory Lifts

Workout 3

  • Deadlift
  • Accessory Lifts

Workout 4

  • Clean and Press
  • Accessory lifts