I’m not much of a prognosticator and I couldn’t pick a winning horse at the track to save my life, but I can say this with total confidence: if you’re still following that free workout you got handed to you when you signed up at Planet Fitness, you aren’t doing cleans.
Should you be? If your goal is to be bigger, stronger, and more explosive, the answer is yes.
Savvy athletes and fitness enthusiasts perform the power clean or squat clean in their strength and conditioning program to develop explosive power, rate of force development, dynamic flexibility, and to improve athletic performance.
The clean involves taking a barbell from the floor or hang position and placing it in the front racked position in one explosive movement. The clean (with the jerk portion) is one of two weight lifting exercises performed at the Olympics, the other being the snatch.
Olympic lifts have also been shown to improve vertical jump performance, and Bill Starr considers the power clean to be one of the “Big Three” exercises of weight training.
However, some coaches and personal trainers exclude variations of the clean in their programming because of difficulty teaching it, potential injury risks, or simply because they can’t perform clean themselves.
I’m here to help. This article will break down the clean into its key parts to make it easier to learn, so you too can start reaping the benefits of this awesome exercise.
First Things First
Before we get into teaching you how to clean, let’s go over some of the lingo:
- Clean. The word by itself implies the bar is lifted off the floor.
- Squat Clean. Receiving the clean by pulling yourself under the bar by performing a deep squat.
- Power Clean. Receiving the clean by pulling yourself under the bar by performing a quarter squat.
- Hang Power Clean. Implies the starting position of the bar isn’t on the floor – can be mid-thigh, just above the knees, or just below the knees. The bar is received in a quarter squat.
- Power Clean from Blocks. Implies the starting position has the barbell resting on blocks – can be mid thigh, just above the knees or just below the knees. The bar is received in a quarter squat.
The Top-Down-Approach to Learning the Clean
The Front Racked Position & Front Squats
When just starting out, it’s helpful to learn the final bar position first, namely the front racked position. This bar position is best taught by performing a “hands-free-front squat,” a great beginner exercise I stole from coach Michael Boyle.
Place a bar in a squat rack at chest height. Walk up to the bar and with your arms straight out in front of you like a zombie until it touches your throat. Make sure the bar is resting on your deltoids.
Un-rack the bar, step back, and stand with your heels shoulder-width apart with your toes slightly turned out. Keep the zombie arms and squat down. The goal is to reach hip crease below knee angle – think of how a baby would squat. Keep your chest up and arms “up” or else you’re going to dump the bar.
Also, keep your heels on the ground and spread the floor with your feet. This keeps your knees out to track in-line with the toes and activates important stabilizers in your hips (hip abductors). Stay “long and tight” in your trunk and drive the floor away to stand up. Perform a few until this idea of “front racked” feels comfortable.
When you progress to an actual clean and you’re in the front racked position, which is the final destination of the bar in the clean, the elbows are high and pointing forward with the hands under the bar, just outside of the shoulders. In this position, sometimes referred to as a “shelf,” the bar is situated on the deltoids, not the clavicles and definitely not entirely on the hands. The “meat” of the shoulder is where the bar sits.
Many athletes/people have issues with the flexibility required to get into this position and most often, this position is very uncomfortable and unnatural to people who’ve never front racked a bar before.
Common complaints include, “The bar is choking me!” or “I can’t get my hands in a comfortable position,” to which I say with the utmost empathy, “Suck it up buttercup, you’ll get used to it. Now grow a set.”
Also, remember that the fingers do not get sandwiched between the bar and the deltoids. First, that’s really uncomfortable and second, it’s wrong. Remember, your grip on the bar in the front racked position will be just outside shoulder width apart.
Warm up the wrists by performing wrist circles. Also, gently pull your fingers back to extend your wrists, or place your hands on a bench with your fingertips facing you. Gently rock back and feel the stretch in your forearms.
If you’re still having problems with this position, try playing around with your hand placement on the bar – try wider or narrower width grips until you find a comfortable position. Some coaches like to have the hands a thumb-length from the end of the knurling, but play around and see what feels right.
Another thing to think about is an open/closed grip on the bar while it’s in the front-racked position. Some athletes/trainees can keep a closed grip while others will barely have their fingertips under the bar. Over time, you’ll get more flexible – just keep working on the wrist extension stretches described above.
Next, put a little bit of weight on the bar – a bar that’s too light won’t give enough feedback. With the bar set in the cage at chest height, walk up to it, but poke your elbows forward and place your hands just outside shoulder width on the bar. Make sure the bar is touching your throat.
Adjust yourself until the bar feels comfortable on the “shelf.” Stand up, take one step back and perform some front squats as described above.
The Hip Hinge and Stiff Leg Dead Lift
The next movement to own is the hip hinge. You need to understand this movement to apply maximal force to the bar.
The hip hinge involves hip flexion with no spine flexion or extension. Essentially, your hips will work like a door hinge as you bow forward. To help learn this movement, hold a 4-6 inch long dowel rod or PVC pipe along your back – it should touch the back of your head, thoracic spine, and hips.
Slightly bend your knees and push your ass back, back, back toward the wall behind you. Maintain the three points of contact with the stick as you attempt to reach a 90-degree angle at the hips. Stand back up by reversing the motion – bring your hips forward and lock your hips at the top with a glute squeeze.
The hip hinge movement you just learned is essentially called a stiff leg deadlift, also known as an RDL or Romanian deadlift. Next do this exercise with some weight. Put some weight on a bar and pick it up with your hands shoulder-width apart. Stand straight with the bar touching your thighs. Your feet should be straight and hip-width apart. Slightly bend your knees and stick out your chest with your shoulders retracted.
Stay “long and tight” in your trunk and begin to push your hips back, back, back. Keep the bar close to you. Start to feel tension in your hamstrings. Reach approximately a 90-degree angle. Bring your hips forward to return to the starting position.
Now that you own the front racked position, the front squat, and the stiff leg dead lift, it’s time to learn the clean.
Two types of grips can be used: hook grip or closed pronated grip. Hook grip involves wrapping your thumb around the bar with your fingers “hooked” over your thumb, whereas a closed grip (double overhand grip) has your thumb on the outside of your fingers. A hook grip takes some getting used to but allows you to hold more weight.
The Hang Power Clean
The hang position starts just like the stiff leg dead lift: chest out, hands shoulder width apart, bar touching the thighs, and feet hip width apart, pointing straight.
Comfort et al. found that the mid-thigh power clean appears to be the most advantageous variation of the power clean to maximize peak ground reaction force and rate of force development.
The Pocket Position
The next drill to work on is the “pocket position.” I learned this drill from S&C Coach Eric Drinkwater.
Grab a bar and start in the hang position. Stay as tall as you can and push your knees forward. Don’t lift your heels! Now jump!
Keep your shoulders loose and arms straight. Go up on your toes and leave the floor. Your shoulders should’ve elevated (“shrugged”) passively because of the momentum created from the jump.
Practice this drill until you’re blue in the face. To help teach the straight trunk position, perform the drill with your back against the wall. This teaches the torso to be behind the bar in what’s called the second pull phase.
Once you figure out the timing and posture, perform the drill again, but this time, let the bar travel upwards. Do not pull the bar up with your arms – this should be a passive movement for the upper body.
Think of your arms as ropes with hooks. The power created from the jump should result in upward travel of the bar. Now, perform this drill until you get strange looks from the gym staff.
The Bow and Arrow
Next, you need to learn the “bow and arrow” position, a term coined by Coach Dan John.
From the hang position, slightly bend your knees, push your hips back, back, back, and jut your chin forward. Press the bar into your thighs – this tightens the latissimus dorsi muscles and creates a “tighter” torso.
Keep your chest out and shoulders retracted. Try to think “packed shoulders,” a term popularized by physical therapist and movement specialist Gray Cook. The idea is to create shoulder stability and to increase the amount of force transferred into the bar from the jump (poor posture and “loose” shoulders will lead to an energy leak).
Slide the bar down your thighs until you reach roughly mid-thigh. It’s important to keep your elbows straight during this phase. It’s natural to want to bend the elbows when creating the bow, so lock your elbows straight with the triceps.
You’ve now just created the bow. You’ll notice your chest is well in front of the bar and your hamstrings are on fire. Mark Rippetoe calls this the jumping position because it’s the same position you’d go into just before performing a vertical jump.
Time to shoot the arrow. From this “loaded” position, jut your knees forward as you start to stand. Keep your chest over the bar as long as possible. You’ll reach a point where you’re in the “pocket” position with your torso just approaching a position behind the bar. At this point, jump!
Explosively extend your hips, knees and ankles! Let the bar travel upward but keep your arms straight. Let your shoulders shrug as in the description for the “pocket position” above. This is known as a “low clean pull.”
The “triple extension” is the driving force behind the clean. If you haven’t already figured it out, the bar is the arrow, which shoots straight up. Practice this sequence, now letting the bar float up toward the shoulders by allowing the elbows to bend. This is known as a high clean pull. Do not try to upright row the bar!
This is one of the trickiest maneuvers to master – going from the hang position to the pocket position in one smooth motion. Practice makes permanent so practice, practice, practice!
Pull Yourself Under the Bar
The next movement in the sequence involves pulling yourself under the bar as you go into a quarter squat or full squat, depending on how high your second pull was.
The idea is to pull your self under the bar faster than the bar falls back down toward the ground due to gravity. How much weight you have on the bar determines how high the bar is lifted off the ground or from the hang.
As you pull your self under the bar, rotate your hands and elbows around the bar and shoot your elbows forward to create the “shelf” so you can receive the bar in the front racked position.
Stay tight in the trunk and hips (by spreading the floor with your feet) as you descend and receive the bar. Your feet should’ve moved from hip width apart (pulling stance) to shoulder width apart (squat stance).
Your feet should hit the ground just as the bar lands on your shoulders. Your elbows should be pointing forward and your hips pushing back. Stand tall, known as the recovery phase, and lock it out.
As you can see, the arms don’t curl the bar up nor do they pull the bar up. You’re jumping the weight up and essentially pulling yourself under the bar to receive it.
From the Floor – The First Pull
The initial pull of the bar off the floor is called the first pull phase and is essentially a deadlift.
Stand with your feet straight and hip width apart. The bar should be close to the shins with your hands (hook or double overhand grip) just outside shoulder-width apart on the bar.
Push your butt back, stick out your chest, retract and pack your shoulders, and slightly extend your neck. Your shoulders should be slightly over and in front of the bar. Look forward, take a diaphragmic (belly) breath of air and create full body tension. Stay tight and push the floor away.
What’s really important here is to maintain your spine angle with the floor until the bar just passes your knees, known as the “transition phase.” Do not attempt to lift the bar off the floor fast – you’ll lose the constant back angle.
You’ll notice the position of the bar at the top of the kneecaps is now the jumping position described above, but this time, the bar has some acceleration from the first pull.
Explode into the second phase by pulling yourself under the bar, controlling the receiving position in a quarter squat. If more weight is on the bar, you’ll have to pull yourself deeper under the bar because your first and second pulls will only get the bar so high off the ground, meaning that you’re pulling yourself into a deep squat to receive the bar.
With either the quarter squat or full squat, the bar should be inline with the mid-foot as you receive the bar. Stand and lock it out. You may have noticed the bar brush against your thighs during the second pull, this is known as the scoop.
The idea now would be to practice, practice, and practice. Dan John quotes Dan Gable, a wrestling Olympic gold medalist, in Never Let Go: “If it’s important, do it every day.”
Use sub-maximal loads and focus on timing and the smoothness of the lifts. Don’t worry about weight until you’re competent with the mechanics of the clean. Sets of five would be sufficient to start.
Olympic weight lifting shoes can make all the difference when performing variations of the clean or snatch. O-lifting shoes have a rigid sole with an elevated heel, which allows for more stability (compared to a really soft-sole running shoe or cross trainer) and for the knees to travel just beyond the toes a bit easier.
The lack of heel compressibility prevents any energy leaks into the ground as you apply force into the shoe. The heel also allows for better balance when you shoot your hips back as you receive the bar in a deep squat. Perform a few sets of front or overhead squats in weight lifting shoes and you’ll be convinced.
To help ingrain proper movement mechanics, perform a barbell complex as part of your warm-up. (A barbell complex involves performing a series of barbell exercises, one right after the other without putting the bar down.)
Grab an empty barbell and perform this complex to warm-up:
- Stiff Leg Dead Lift x 6
- Bent Over Row x 6
- Clean from the Pocket x 6
- Hang Clean x 6
- Overhead Squat x 6
- Good Morning x 6
Take 60 seconds rest and perform two more sets. Proceed into your muscle activation and other dynamic warm-up exercises. Now you’re ready to clean!
Performing the Olympic lifts and their variations isn’t as easy as hopping onto a Hammer Strength machine and blasting away. It takes good coaching, patience, and most of all, practice! I assure you, the returns are well worth the effort.
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