The power clean encompasses a combination of three reasons why you hit the gym:
You want to look better naked.
You want to reduce pain and feel better.
You want to improve strength and performance.
Yet, many of the most effective exercises, including the power clean, can be complicated.
It can take months of technical practice to do them optimally. More often than not, people get frustrated and quit, or they charge ahead with reckless abandon until the exercises become useless, at best, and injurious, at worst.
This exercise builds head-to-toe herculean power.
It’s damn effective, but it’s complicated. Like any exercise that involves both heavyweight and explosive movement, your technique is paramount for both improving performance and minimizing your chance of injury.
Fortunately, I have a solution: a simple step-by-step progression that will have you performing a decent power clean within a single workout.
Now, you won’t have the technical mastery to compete in the Olympics, but your technique will be solid. You’ll acquire the skills to build a dense, powerful physique and the safety to avoid snappin’ yo bones like a training fail video.
The Power Clean requires total body coordination and synchronization of movements.
Now, you’re probably reading that saying, “What does that even mean?” and I hear you. Think back to middle school: remember when Billy grew nine inches that one year and couldn’t figure out how to use any of his limbs and he looked like a drunk baby giraffe in gym class?
That’s a lack of coordination. Since most of us stop playing sports in our teens, a lack of coordination is one major roadblock to looking, feeling, and performing like an athlete.
The Power Clean requires movement through the wrist, elbow, shoulder, ankle, and knee, making it one hell of a bang-for-your-buck exercise.
Since so many joints are moving, the corresponding muscles that cross each joint must work together to take the barbell from the floor to your shoulders in a single smooth motion. That means nearly every muscle from your feet to your shoulders work in cooperation and explosively transfer power.
No exercise requires the biomechanical and coordinative demands like the power clean. It’s a unique exercise that blends sudden strength, power, and coordination to build a high performance, show-and-go body.
The triple extension of your hip, knees, and ankles in a coordinated, explosive pattern simulates a similar triple extension in both sprinting and jumping.
While primarily a performance-based exercise (or as a training exercise for Olympic weightlifting), power cleans will get you absolutely jacked when coupled with higher rep work at the end of a workout.
By hitting nearly 200 muscles in your body, it creates a massive anabolic surge to drive muscle growth.
They also fire up your central nervous system, which in turn, helps increase muscle fiber recruitment. This activates high threshold muscle fibers, most responsible for explosive movements and muscle growth, and stimulates a huge anabolic surge.
Whether you want yoked traps to fill out your t-shirt or a powerful hip extension for a faster pull and stronger lockout, power cleans will help you develop a truly impressive physique.
There are many ways to teach and learn power cleans. Teaching the power clean as a tool for Olympic lifts is different than as a tool for performance, crossfit, or physique enhancement.
Regardless of the goal, building up to a proper power clean workout requires progression. That means breaking down the exercise into its key movements, and practice them separately before combining it into one fluid movement.
Since we’re not talking about the mastery of movement that you’d need to impress judges in an elite weightlifting competition, we’ll focus on getting you jacked by moving safely and competently. In other words, you need sufficient clean form, but not perfect clean form (which would take years of dedicated Olympic lifting training).
– This is the starting position.
– Keep the chest tall and hold the bar at hip height against your mid-thigh.
– Brace your core and push your butt back like you’re ready to twerk. You should feel a hamstring stretch. (and perhaps a full stretch through your posterior chain)
– The bar should pass just below the knees while the spine stays welded.
– When you return to a standing position, squeeze your glutes into the full hip extension.
– Begin with the bar just below knee-level.
– Accelerate the bar as it passes the knees, aggressively extending the hips forward, and “popping” the bar off the thighs.
– This movement teaches you to reach a full hip extension before breaking at the elbows during the pull.
– One easy cue to help remember that the hips need to extend first is, “If the elbows bend, the power ends.”
– If you jump forward or drop under the bar too early, you’re likely missing hip extension.
– This is to teach hip extension, so be conservative with bouncing the bar too far horizontally. Eventually, the bar will be moving up a body that’s “retreating” from it while maintaining a vertical path with hip extension.
– The high pull is a great exercise for accelerating the bar AFTER the hip extension is reached.
– This teaches vertical displacement of the barbell and really pulls your traps into the exercise. It also helps you build thick shoulders and the ultimate “power look”.
– Side note: the high power from the hang position or holding the barbell around knee high is an excellent muscle builder due to the added eccentric stress due to resetting the reps and controlling the bar down after each pull.
The hang power clean is both a great stand-alone exercise for building thick traps, explosive power, and an important progression to build technique towards the full power clean.
– Once you’ve grooved hip extension, complete the second pull and practice the catch phase.
– 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 of your shoulders in the shelf position. Loosen the grip and allow the wrists to turn upwards and the elbows to stay parallel with the ground.
Finally, we’re doin’ the damn thing.
– This begins from the floor in a position similar to a conventional deadlift, but you’ll drop your hips slightly lower for the Power Clean.
– Begin by driving your feet into the ground and standing up with the bar.
– Your shoulders should be squeezed and tension should radiate from head to toe.
– As the bar passes the middle of your shin, begin to accelerate with as much power as you can, extending the hips, driving your elbows up, and catching the bar in the shelf position.
The power clean works best with submaximal weight, meaning you shouldn’t go all out for 1-rep maxes for the sake of your Instagram account.
Rest is also essential, especially for those looking to build muscle and improve performance. That is less so for those looking to just get shredded, but your technique should stay pretty damn spot on.
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 essential for performance and safety. Don’t get caught up in chasing benchmarks like hitting a certain percentage of your bodyweight to the chagrin of the speed and quality of your cleans.
– For maximum strength: 90-95% of 1RM for 4-5 sets x 1-2 reps and 2-5 min. recovery.
– For greater power and speed: 50-85% of 1RM for 4-6 sets x 2-4 reps with 1-3 min. recovery.
– For greater muscle growth: 50-85% of 1RM For a 4×6, 5×5, and 6×4 at 65-85% of 1RM with 1-2 minutes recovery.
– 5×5 with 60% of 1RM with 60 seconds of rest or less.
– 5×5 cleans with 75% of 1RM with 90-120 seconds of rest.
– Every minute on the minute (EMOM) 10×2 reps with 70% 1RM. (Do two cleans at the top of every minute for ten minutes. If your technique goes out the window, decrease the weight.)
Proper technique is still key, but don’t be afraid to push the tempo. Cleans will leave the most seasoned lifters heaving, hawing, and pushing the redline of metabolic demand. Because they require so much energy, don’t ever do cleans in an “amrap” fashion. That’s a recipe to tweak your lower back or your wrist. Leave that and other dumb stuff (like burpees) to crossfit.
What about regular cleans?
The Power Clean denotes that you catch the weight in the “power”, or tall position. I prefer most of my clients stick to the power position as it eliminates the complexity of an added front squat and sinking into a squat position every rep. Again, if your goal is to compete in Olympic Weightlifting, then your training should focus on the strict technique required in a full clean and jerk with max weight.
Can I just do hang cleans?
If you’re primarily focused on building size then the hang position is a bit better. Because you catch the bar and reset before doing more reps you have the added benefit of greater eccentric stress in your forearms, traps, and rhomboids. Basically, that leads to more gains.
Hang cleans also give you the opportunity to perform the exercise for higher reps (but still very low, usually from 3-6 reps) and use more glutes via hip extension.
Finally, because you don’t need to go deep into hip flexion for a hang clean compared to a hang from the floor or a deep back squat, a hang clean can be a better option from an injury prevention standpoint, in particular for your lower back.
Because a hang clean is effectively a regression of the power clean, feel free to substitute in hang cleans at any time.
What if I can’t catch the bar?
First, try to loosen your grip when you rack the bar on your shoulders. The bar can sit in your fingertips with as few as two fingers underneath the bar at about shoulder-width. Otherwise, practice timed holds in the front rack position for 20-30 seconds to build flexibility.
If you’ve never practiced front squatting, then doing them in place of back squats for a few weeks get you used to the movement pattern needed to catch the bar on your shoulders and not on your wrists.
If you have wrist pain early on, go lighter so you can practice it. When you practice this motion, it’s key that the bar rests on your shoulders. Your wrists are just there for balance and support. This of course will require a great deal of thoracic spine and shoulder mobility, which could also be your limiting factor. In most cases, though, it just takes a bit of practice.
Are you doing all of this and still have direct joint pain or no way in hell you’ll ever get there? The high pull is a great substitute. For athletes using cleans as a power training tool, you can replace cleans with a combination of loaded jumps, kettlebell swings, and push presses.
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 lifter 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 power clean is a great tool, but don’t be an idiot.
Not only is this about ego, but with an exercise like cleans, going lighter can often be a bigger advantage. This is not the place for a full discussion of Cal Dietz’s force-velocity curve, but the premise is simple: sometimes want to focus on moving the weight fast, as opposed to moving more weight.
A power clean workout will be one of those days where the focus is on moving light weight quickly. Paradoxically, even this will improve your overall strength and hypertrophy.
Once you embrace this, you’re much less likely to have to worry about ugly catches, because your focus will be on moving smooth and powerfully.