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Explosive Lifting - Part 3

If you’re new to this series of articles, please review the first and second installments. These will provide valuable background information on this topic of learning and coaching the power clean.

The last article dealt with the snatch lift, and what you learned there will be helpful in this article. The clean is the first part of the second so-called Olympic lift, the clean-and-jerk. For most trainers, the clean is easier and more comfortable to teach than the snatch. The name “clean” comes from a technical rule in the early days of weightlifting that required the bar to be lifted from the floor to its resting position on the shoulders in one “clean” motion (i.e., not touching the body before the shoulders). That meant the lifter could not use the technique popular in Europe at the time, the “continental” in which the lifter first pulled the bar to a supported position behind the buckle of the weightlifting belt, then the lift continued with a combined lower and upper body heaving action.

It helps for trainers to know all of the little details in coaching Olympic-style lifts, particularly when dealing with athletic populations. Properly performed, weightlifting technique is complex and requires a reasonable knowledge of sports science. This is the most advanced form of resistance training, but that should not deter trainers from learning and knowing how to do the lifts properly. Learn all you can about explosive lift training, but keep it simple for your clients. Use abbreviated derivatives of the snatch, the clean and the jerk for non-weightlifting clients. This article deals with learning the power clean, a simple, yet effective strength/power move.

“How Much Can You Lift?”

The usual challenge issued in a weightroom today is, “How much can you bench?” Prior to about the 1960s, before the proliferation of resistance training machines available today, the challenge was, “How much can you lift?” This almost always meant what could a lifter successfully clean to the shoulders and then push overhead. All “gym rats” knew how to clean, usually as a preliminary move for the press. In some cases, weights were cleaned and placed on the upper back for squats.

By comparison, it is rare indeed in today’s fitness facilities to see average weight trainees performing cleans. True, we do see more reference to kettlebell cleans. The current popularity of CrossFit training protocols has created a resurgence of interest in how to effectively perform power cleans.

To be sure, “clean” simply means raising the weight from a position at or near the floor, and placing it on the shoulders. Done properly, the clean is an extremely powerful, explosive move that involves nearly all of the body’s muscles in a coordinated way. But lifters can get the weight from the floor to the shoulders, even with horrible, unsafe form, and still call it a “clean.” For example, rather than pulling the bar close to the body, many novices swing the bar upward, almost like a reverse curl. This is an inefficient path for the bar. It cuts down on the amount of weight lifted and the amount of power produced, and it can lead to problems with “racking” the bar on the shoulders.

In today’s strength and conditioning field, it is common to see coaches require “hang cleans” for athletes of nearly all sports. What is really meant is a hang power clean. Lifting from the hang means the bar does not start on the floor, but it is located above or below the knees.

Like its sibling, the snatch, the clean is considered a total body lift. True, the upper body pushing muscles are not involved, but if you have a client who is pressed for time, use a combination series that includes the clean, and you quickly and easily address all muscular needs. For example:

In these cases, all major muscle groups are involved. Consider also that with high (10) rep sets of a total body exercise, heart rate and breathing are greatly taxed.

Weightlifting technique has evolved to a highly efficient means of elevating increasingly heavier weights. The techniques are specialized and may be beyond the scope of most trainers’ needs. While you may only include the power clean in the training programs of certain clients, it helps if you know more about the details of all of the explosive lifts. For your quick reference, I’ll provide an overview of various methods of cleaning.

Clean Styles

Like the snatch lift, a clean is executed in one of three methods: the squat clean, the split clean or the power clean. I’ll discuss all three styles, but our focus in this article is mostly on the power clean. This is the most likely, clean style personal trainers will use with clients not looking to specialize in weightlifting.

It can be argued that the squat clean should be taught first, as far too many people try to power clean in ineffective, unsafe ways. But learning the squat clean usually requires more flexibility, timing and coordination, not to mention outstanding leg strength to stand back up from the deep squat position.

The major difference between styles is how much weight can be lifted. Here we are not going to focus on lifting maximum weights. Let’s just learn to do the lifts properly, with light to moderate weights initially and with large explosive efforts once technique is mastered.

Squat Clean

Most competitive weightlifters use a squat method in cleaning. Basically, it’s a matter of standing up and then squatting down. Actually there’s a lot more to it, but that’s the simplest way to envision the squat clean.

All clean styles begin in the same manner. Place the feet under the bar so the bar is over the widest part of the foot. The feet remain flat during the initial pull from the ground. Squat down with a flat back (neutral spine) until the hands reach the barbell. Hands are placed about shoulder width apart, although this varies with the lifter, his limb lengths and his flexibility. The hands grasp the bar with a pronated (overhand) grip.

In the starting position, the lifter’s hips are a bit higher than the knees, with the shoulders forward of the barbell. The first portion of the clean is simply to extend the hips and knees, picking up the barbell as in a deadlift. Looking at pictures of a clean with the bar on the floor (get-set position) and the bar at the level of the knees (end of first pull), the torso angle remains about the same, with only the extended knees contributing to the effort. When the bar is at knee height, the shoulders are still forward of the bar.

Done properly, the next part is tricky. As the shoulders continue to lift upward, the barbell approaches and brushes the thighs. The knees are actually under and slightly in front of the bar, with the feet still flat and arms straight. From this position, the lifter explosively pushes the bar upward with the lower body and reaches what’s known as a “triple extension” position in which the ankles, knees and hips are fully extended.

Without pausing at the top of the pull, the lifter now aggressively pulls under the still rising barbell. This is done with a contraction of the trapezius muscles and a sharp flexion at the elbow joints. The bar remains very close to the torso during this phase.

The lifter pulls the bar onto his shoulders, with the elbows high and the wrists extended. Then, a quick descent into the full bottom squat position is followed by a rapid recovery to a standing position (like a front squat). The lifter gains his balance, takes a breath, and returns the bar to its starting position to perform another repetition.

Nearly everyone knows that in training and in competition, weightlifters simply drop the barbell back to the platform. The use of rubber “bumper” plates and reinforced weightlifting platforms allow this action without causing excessive damage. Lowering the weight this way is not required, especially when performing reps with less than maximum weight in a power clean, as we’d expect most personal trainers to instruct.

There may be several reasons why the squat-style clean is not appropriate for personal trainers to introduce. Some considerations:

Split Clean

Once a very popular technique, it is rare to see a split clean performed in today’s weightlifting competition. The pulling portion of this lift is nearly identical to the squat style, but the top pull must be a bit higher since it takes longer to move the feet fore and aft (the split) as opposed to simply squatting under the weight when fixing the barbell on the shoulders. Factors to consider if you want to introduce the split clean:

But the split clean can be easy to master and is fun, especially when your clients alternate which foot goes in which direction. Doing fairly high (5-10) reps in the split clean certainly is a lot of exhaustive work, so watch for and correct any technique breakdown.

Since the split clean involves a motion almost identical to a lunge, those clients who have successfully performed lunges with sufficient weight can take to this lift pretty quickly. And, as in the split snatch, athletes who use a lunge position in their sport (tennis, hockey, etc.) may find the split clean to have good crossover value to their sport.

Power Clean

The power clean is pretty much the same as the squat or split clean except the final receiving position is not very low. The lifter bends his knees only about four to six inches to “catch the weight” in a partial squat position. It’s important to keep the feet under the hips and not get into a wide, distorted position with the bar on the shoulders.

Before attempting any clean instruction, be sure your clients can successfully and confidently perform front squats with their hands fully grasping the bar. Although the power clean does not involve squatting down low, the resting position on the shoulders (with elbows high) is a crucial safety consideration. This is not the time to have low elbows or try to hold the weight on the fingertips or the chest, instead of securely on the shoulders.

Top-Down Learning Progression

As we covered for the snatch, learning to clean is pretty easy when you start from the top position and work down. In other words, learn the most powerful, explosive part first and then work lower until the bar starts on the ground. And, as with the snatch lift, you’re best off starting with the bar safely located on pulling blocks or the “technique scoops” found on many modular platform training racks. This allows for an easily repeatable position for each rep. Pulling from “the hang” can work, but it’s not for beginners.

Clean Pull (High Block Position)

Let’s start very simply. In fact, for many, this exercise will provide all the power-producing results needed, without the need to actually take the bar to the shoulders. The bar sure doesn’t go very far, but peak power production is quickly realized. Using a Myotest accelerometer (click here for more info), you can quickly and accurately measure peak power.

Adjust the barbell and/or lifter position so the bar is at about mid-thigh level when the knees and ankles are slightly flexed. The elbows remain straight and pointed to the sides (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1 (above): Clean Pull (high) - Ready to explode upward. Knees and ankles are slightly flexed, bar at about mid-thigh.

From this starting position, explosively jump upward to fully elongate the body, remaining momentarily balanced on the toes (see Figure 2). Check for a strong vertical lifting action with the lower body, not an effort to pull with the upper body or arms. This is a very short duration action; it’s also highly explosive. Lifters aren’t concerned with developing muscle mass here. They are training ground based, triple extension, lower body power. There’s no need to raise the bar above navel height.

Figure 2

Figure 2 (above): Clean Pull (high) - Top of explosive jump phase. Balanced on toes, trapezius shrugged, arms straight.

Power Clean (High Block Position)

After a few workouts with your client demonstrating a coordinated, powerful and balanced clean pull, it’s time to move to a full power clean from a high block position. The initial part of the lift is identical to what has just been mastered. Now, let’s add that aggressive arm pull (see Figure 3) to accelerate the lifter’s body under the bar as the bar continues upward.

Figure 3

Figure 3 (above): Power Clean (high) - Pull-under begins at top of explosive jump phase. Focus is on the lifter quickly pulling down, not attempting to further elevate the barbell.

After exploding upward, the lifter pulls against the bar and flips the elbows over quickly to create a solid “rack.” The lifter’s body is lowered about six inches into a partial squat position with the feet flat and turned slightly outward, hips directly over the heels and the spine locked rigidly in position (see Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4 (above): Power Clean (high) - Bar is securely on the shoulders, elbows up, back neutral. Receiving depth is that of about a half squat.

The lifter then stands up, followed by lowering the bar by flipping it off the shoulders and slowing some of the bar’s descent with elbow flexion. Add a slight bend to the knees and stop the bar on top of the blocks and set up for the next repetition.

The power clean from the high blocks is a very explosive motion that depends on a powerful triple extension, followed by a coordinated pull under the weight.

Clean Pull (Low Block Position)

After several sessions of power clean from the high blocks, reposition your client for the most challenging part of the lift. Adjust the blocks and position the bar just below the patella (see Figure 5). Manipulate either the bar height or the standing height of your client to get this position right.

Figure 5

Figure 5 (above): Clean Pull (low) - Bar just below kneecaps, shoulders forward of barbell, back and arms straight. Note the barbell sleeves are resting on the blocks, not the plates.

Have your client flex forward at the hip, with the shoulders moving forward of the feet. The knees are nearly straight. This position resembles a good morning, except the bar is in the hands, rather than on the upper back. Check to be sure the shoulders are forward, the back is neutral and flat and the balance is in the middle of the foot. There should be a big hamstring stretch in this position, as the hamstrings play a crucial role.

Take the next step slowly. Once your client demonstrates proper technique lifting slowly, speed can be added. Initiate the lift by raising the shoulders upward while extending the hips. This is accomplished by strong hamstring involvement. Due to the hamstring stretch (and that thing we call the stretch-reflex), the hips move toward the barbell as the body seeks its biomechanically strongest position (see Figure 6). The bar again makes contact at about mid-thigh level.

Figure 6

Figure 6 (above): Clean Pull (low) - This is the transition phase in which the barbell is lifted back to the position used in the high block position. The lift continues as previously performed.

This position is identical to the previously practiced high block posture, except the weight is not artificially supported. There’s a slight weight transfer from the middle of the foot to the front of the foot. However, the heels remain flat until the very last moment. Don’t encourage bouncing the bar off the thighs, as many novice weightlifting coaches advise. Teach that this explosive motion is actually a push upward against the barbell, using the lower body to achieve most of the power potential available here.

Without hesitating, the lifter explodes upward (as in Figure 2) and creates a rapid acceleration of the barbell. As before, have your client do several workouts of low block clean pulls, working on developing a smooth, powerful action.

Power Clean (Low Block Position)

After a few successful workouts, this pull leads to a full power clean from the low blocks. The bar is caught as before when the lift was practiced from the high blocks (see Figure 7). 

Figure 7

Figure 7 (above): Power Clean (low) - After explosive upward leg drive and quick pull-under, the bar is caught in a half squat position.

The power clean from the high blocks is pretty simple and straightforward. But success from the low blocks is a challenge. Be prepared for a good deal of slower, more methodical work to coordinate this pulling action into a balanced, explosive effort. Don’t rush this stage of learning!

Power Clean (From the Floor)

It’s really easy doing power cleans from the blocks, either high or low. But you and your client may soon decide it’s time to lift from the platform. This is the full range-of-motion power clean that can (when performed properly) produce 3000 or more watts of power.

Keep in mind, except with true strength/power athletes, it’s not necessary to do the full movement power clean. But let’s go ahead and discuss the details, just in case.

Make sure the client can achieve a proper “get-set” over the barbell (see Figure 8). Be sure there is a flat, neutral spine with the arms straight. When done correctly, the starting position may feel somewhat awkward, like the bar is too far in front. But the bar’s trajectory from the floor is not straight upward. The bar moves slightly (one to two centimeters) toward the lifter’s shins.

Figure 8

Figure 8 (above): Power Clean (floor) - Starting position with feet and back flat, arms straight. Shoulders are in front of the bar.

It may be time well spent having your client practice the initial lift-off from the floor to the knees (see Figure 9) before trying to perform the full lift. Once the lifter is comfortable with the starting position and lift-off sequence, move right to the full power clean. All of the previous work lifting from the blocks should quickly pay off, with successful incorporation of the lower body producing an explosive upward motion followed by a quick pull under and rack (see Figures 10, 11 and 12).

Figure 9 Figure 10

Figure 9 (above): Power Clean (floor) - Identical to Figure 5, minus pulling blocks. Lift-off requires only hip and knee extension. Torso position does not change to this stage.

Figure 10 (above): Power Clean (floor) - Identical to Figures 1 and 6, minus pulling blocks. Knees under bar, bar at mid-thigh, feet flat, arms straight. Ready to explode upward.

Figure 11 Figure 12

Figure 11 (above left): Power Clean (floor) - Explosive triple extension, ready to quickly pull under the barbell.

Figure 12 (above right): Power Clean (floor) - Solid receiving position with bar on shoulders, elbows high, back and feet flat. Bar is caught at about half squat depth.

Training the Clean

Most athletes perform some version of the clean at least twice a week. Usually this involves anywhere from four to seven sets, taking perhaps 20 minutes to complete. As with all of their exercises, weightlifters normally use sets of three or fewer reps. But your average client doesn’t need to train like a weightlifter, so feel free to lighten the load and increase reps to five or more. Keep the reps intentionally low in the early learning stages.

With clients sufficiently prepared, feel free to mix in all three clean styles. But for many clients, simply focusing on the power clean, from the floor or from the blocks, will be enough to improve explosive power. Consider as well, you can utilize heavy weights (more than can be used in the power clean) for the clean pulls. Once proper pulling technique is established, consider throwing in a few sets of heavy clean pulls from the floor or from either block position. Just be sure to focus on keeping these explosive in nature.

You now have a good background on implementing the two Olympic-style lifts into everyday training for clients from varied background and with divergent goals. Most trainees take to the power clean more easily than to the power snatch. But mixing in both movements, along with assistance exercises like pulls, pays big dividends. Benefits include improved muscular development of the spinal erectors and trapezius muscles, improved coordination due to total body involvement through a large range of motion and a focus on increased muscular power. As a training variant or when included in a circuit, using light to moderate resistance with fairly high (five to 10) repetitions in the squat or split clean quickly stresses the cardio-respiratory and nervous systems.

I hope you are enjoying the challenge of including explosive lifting for your clients. The final and fourth installment of this series deals with the jerk portion of the clean-and-jerk. It’s time to get the barbell overhead! Stay tuned!