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Do You Really Need to Do Power Cleans?


Athletes in many sports need both strength and power to perform at optimal levels. What is the difference between strength and power? Strength is defined as the ability to apply force and/or overcome resistance to movement. Strength is best developed by lifting heavy weights for low repetitions (e.g., one to six reps). Power is defined as the work done per unit of time or more simply as strength multiplied by speed. Power is best developed by use of a broader range of resistance. However, there must be acceleration and high movement speed (velocity) for power to be fully developed (1, 3, 5, 12).

When lifting very heavy weights in traditional strength exercises (e.g., squats, deadlifts, bench presses, chin ups, etc), the movement speed can be quite slow (1, 3, 11-13), which is not ideal for power development.

Therefore, there may appear to be a quandary between the development of strength and power. Strength entails lifting heavy weights, typically performed at slower speeds, whereas power exercises entail acceleration throughout the range of movement and faster movement speeds. If you try to lift lighter weights more explosively in a traditional strength training exercise (e.g., squats and bench press), then the lift starts off with acceleration, but by half way up in the range of motion, the muscles will start to decelerate the weight to stop it from “jerking” the muscles/tendons at the end of the range of motion (12-14). So instead of teaching/training the body to accelerate, this method actually teaches it to decelerate. For power training, we need to perform special exercises that allow for high lifting speed and acceleration through the entire range of movement, not deceleration half way up (1, 3, 5, 11, 12).

So training to increase power should entail both heavy resistance, slower speed exercises for strength development (increasing strength is still vital for power development) and other exercises that entail higher velocities and acceleration for the entire range of movement to stress the fast-force attributes of the muscle (11). So where do movements such as power cleans fit into the picture? Are they “full acceleration/high velocity” exercises? Do we need to be performing them if we wish to increase muscular power?

The Olympic Weightlifting “Myth”

Some data has shown that Olympic-style weightlifters generate very high power outputs in exercises like the clean, snatch and jerk (7). Accordingly, many strength and conditioning coaches believe that athletes must do power cleans and other exercises with very high power outputs derived from Olympic-style weightlifting to develop power in athletes from other sports that require high power output or speed. Some even say that athletes aren’t performing “real power training” unless they are doing power cleans and these types of exercises. Some coaches even belittle trainers who don’t prescribe power cleans, questioning their credibility. But is this true? Do we really need to embrace power cleans to train all power athletes? Are there other ways to train for power without having to resort to these “difficult to coach” and “difficult to learn” weightlifting exercises? What does the scientific data say?

The Scientific Data on Power Exercises

Biomechanics is used to determine if an exercise is a true power exercise. Does it entail acceleration to the end of range as well as high movement speed (velocity)? “True” power training exercises are exercises that entail acceleration throughout the entire range of movement. That includes the Olympic-style weightlifting lifts such as power cleans, but it also entails all forms of jumps and throws (1-3, 10, 12, 14). Table 1 (below) provides an example of some strength exercises and their counterpart power exercise. If an exercise entails acceleration throughout the entire range of movement, then it is classified as a power training exercise.

Strength Exercise Power Exercise Counterparts
Squat     Bodyweight jumps 
  Jump squats with extra weight
Split squat     Split leg jumps 
  Alternating jumps with extra weight
Deadlift  Power shrug jumps and clean pulls 

Power cleans/snatches
Bench press Medicine ball chest pass

Bench throw in Smith machine
Military press Push jerk
Push up Plyometric clap push up

 

Table 1

We can use biomechanics tools to measure the distance the barbell (plus athlete) travels during a rep and divide this by the speed that it took to travel that distance. In simple terms, to measure power output. Table 2 (below) provides some examples of why exercises are strength or power exercises, using a standard biomechanical conversion and terms. The distinguishing quality is that the power exercises entail acceleration or high velocities all the way to the end of the movement. The higher the score in watts at the end, the higher the power. Differences in power output can be mainly attributed to the difference in the speed of the movement.

Table 2

Table 2 (above) - Estimated power output during a 100 percent 1RM and 100 percent maximal power effort for different exercises for a theoretical athlete with a body mass of 75 kg. These calculations are for the concentric portion of the lift only. Please note that lifting at less than 100 percent 1RM will result in higher power outputs for the strength exercises, due to faster lifting speeds, but still willnot match the power output of the power exercises.

* Lifts except the bench press/throw also require the lifting of the body mass (75 kg). The barbell mass and the body mass become the system mass, and this combined mass is used to calculate power output.

So the difference is clear between strength and power exercises. What about the difference between power exercises like jump squats (see Figure 1) and power cleans? Researchers from Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, studied just that in a number of different studies. One study showed that overall jump squats evoke much higher peak power than power cleans, by as much as 40 percent (6)! Another study comparing hang cleans and jump squats in Australian Rules footballers found both fairly equally distinguished the fastest players and best jumpers in the team (8). Although as the resistances get heavier, in the range of greater than 60 percent 1RM, then power clean power output starts to surpass that of jump squats. And another study using professional rugby league players found jump squats slightly better than hang cleans in their predictive relationship to sprinting ability (4). So clearly jump squats may be a better power exercise for generating high power outputs and distinguishing speed and jumping ability.

Figure 1

Figure 1 (above) - The jump squat exercise in a Smith machine is a power exercise because the loss of foot contact from the floor allows for full acceleration; the athlete can generate both high forces and high speeds late in the movement range.  

Why? Well, power cleans should only be done explosively, the speed of movement varies little with the addition of extra resistance and accordingly with extra resistance added to the barbell, power actually goes up, whereas jump squats and throws slow down with extra resistance. So, unless you need power output generated against heavy resistances (e.g., in rugby or American football), jump squats would be a more beneficial exercise for training power. Given this data plus the examples in Table 2, it should be clear that you do not need to do power cleans to effectively train power in athletes. They are a good exercise, but so are jump squats. I would argue that power cleans and the like are actually at the final frontier of the power training spectrum and only for athletes who need power against large resistances. Everyone else can benefit from simple power exercises like jumps, hops and throws.

Why Does the Myth Exist?

In my opinion, the myth that you must do power cleans and the like if you want to train to improve power exists for only two reasons. One is that coaches don’t understand the biomechanical data, that jump squats actually result in higher power outputs overall and especially so with lighter resistances (less than 60 percent 1RM of an athlete's squat strength). If they don’t know that, they can be educated about it now. The second reason is, if they do know the biomechanical data, then why would they continue to insist on starting power training with power cleans? Well, they are difficult to teach, so the second reason may be that the ability to teach them is a skill set that some coaches like to boast they possess over other coaches and trainers. By promoting power cleans as necessary for all power training, those who are adept at coaching these exercises guarantee themselves employment over those who are less adept.

But why make simple things more difficult then they need to be? If you want to improve vertical jump for basketball or volleyball, you don’t need to do cleans because their “kinetic profile” resembles that of a jump, you can actually do weighted jumps that don’t just resemble the kinetic profile, they replicate it!

Suggested Power Training Progression

Table 3 contains the progression I use when first introducing athletes to power training. Lower level athletes readily respond to basic strength training such that it will also increase their power for the first few years of training, so if they haven’t done basic strength training, start there first. If, after a period of basic strength training, athletes have good body control and possess decent general strength, they are ready to start at stage 1. From here, it is a steady progression up to stage 4a, with time in each stage determined by the coach or trainer mainly based upon technical adaptation. It is up to each trainer whether to utilize steps 4b, 5a, 5b and 6, based upon their abilities to coach these exercises, the training equipment available and the suitability of these exercises for the individual athlete. As a general recommendation, athletes who need very high levels of strength and power, such as in rugby, American football, judo, mixed martial arts and so on, can benefit from stages 4b to 6. Athletes who require power with more of a speed component such as tennis, boxing and in fact most other sports, do not need to embrace stages 4b to 6. The “power through speed” that they require is best developed by the methods used in stages 2 to 4a. Accordingly, many athletes do not need to be taught how to do power cleans. Jump squats with and without extra weight, various hops, medicine ball and Smith Machine bench press throws (see Figure 2) will all serve to increase their power development in an easy to teach and easy to learn manner.

Figure 2

Figure 2 (above) - The bench press throw exercise with a Smith machine. The loss of hand contact with the barbell allows for full acceleration throughout the entire range of movement, making this exercise more conducive to power training.

STAGE 1
Name Introduction to Power Training
Objective Learn to develop force rapidly, accelerate and safely decelerate
Content Paused rep bodyweight jumps, hops and medicine ball throws 
STAGE 2  
Name Speed Power Training
Objective Learn to do exercises explosively and repetitively
Content Same exercises as above but with no pause between reps. Use resistances up to 20% 1RM when skill is better
STAGE 3
Name Ballistic Power Training
Objective Increase power with increased resistance, attempt to maintain speed
Content Barbell jump squats and bench press throws with up to 40% 1RM
STAGE 4a
Name Maximal Power Training
Objective Maximize power by use of even heavier resistance
Content Barbell jump squats and bench press throws with 40-60% 1RM
STAGE 4b
Objective Introduce simple power versions of weightlifting exercises
Content Power shrug jumps, pulls and push presses, emphasize speed and technique
STAGE 5a
Name Explosive Power Training
Objective Introduce kinetically altered strength exercises that entail faster lifting speeds
Content Squats, bench presses, deadlifts (60-75%1RM) etc with bands and chains (10-20+%1RM)
STAGE 5b
Objective Introduce power clean from hang or boxes
Content Lighter to medium resistances (50-80% 1RM), emphasize speed and technique
STAGE 6
Name Heavy Olympic Weightlifting
Objective Introduce heavier weightlifting exercise versions
Content Power cleans from floor, snatches, jerks etc up to 100% 1RM

Table 3

Below is a brief description and rationale for the stages outlined in Table 3 above.

Stage 1 - Introduction to Power Training

Bodyweight jumps and light resistance medicine ball throws assist in learning to accelerate and decelerate (“stick the landing or catch”). Each rep starts with a “dead stop,” so that the athletes learn to accelerate from the stop position and conversely absorb force and decelerate the resistance with good technique. Simple jump and “stick the landing,” throw and “stick the catch” exercises may be best for younger athletes. These can be seen as “go and stop” power exercises that teach acceleration and deceleration. So while we are looking to coach acceleration through the full range of movement, we are also looking to coach being able to decelerate safely for the landing or catch of the resistance. This is an important technical foundation that many coaches and athletes wish to skip. Don’t skip it!

Stage 2 - Speed Power Training

This stage entails progressing from above to a more dynamic stretch-shorten cycle version of the same exercises such as repetitive jumping and medicine ball chest passing with no pause between reps. After the simple “sticking” variety of the above exercises have been mastered, the faster “no pause sets” of multiple reps emphasizing the rapid transition from eccentric to concentric can be introduced. Light weights (up to 20 percent 1RM) can begin to be used in these exercises when increased technical mastery has been attained. The performance of these exercises, such as explosive jumps and medicine ball chest passes, may “appear” dangerous (fast!) to the advocates of “slow and controlled” training, but step 1 above should have developed good technique for deceleration, so this should be relatively safe.

These simple jumping, hopping and throwing exercises with light weights are very effective in improving power and sports tasks like sprinting and jumping in moderately experienced athletes (10, 14) but are simpler to teach and learn than other power exercises. They lay the neuromuscular foundation for effective learning of the more difficult power exercises that follow.

Stage 3 - Ballistic Power Training

This stage entails progressing from the above exercises and resistances to slightly heavier resistance jump squats with light barbells or sand tubes and bench throws in a Smith machine. The resistance may be up to 40 percent 1RM, but typically 20 to 35 percent 1RM will suffice.

Stages 4a and 4b - Maximal Power Training

Stage 4a. This stage entails progressing from the above exercises and resistances to using the heavier maximal power resistances (40 to 60 percent 1RM). This is the half way point between training for strength and training for pure speed. It is probably the single most effective stage for power development, if you had to train in only one stage (which you don’t). Again, real success in this stage depends on performing the previous stages effectively. From here, you do not have to advance along the power training spectrum unless you need to develop power against large resistances or you specifically want to learn the Olympic lifts.

Stage 4b. About this time, if you wish to perform the power cleans in the future, then easy to learn versions of Olympic lifting exercises such as power shrug jumps and basic clean pulls can be introduced. This lays the technical foundation for weightlifting exercises (i.e., learning the mechanics of pulling).

Stages 5a and 5b - Explosive Power Training

Stage 5a. This stage entails exposing athletes to heavier resistances lifted explosively. Kinetically altered strength exercises, which require the use of bands and chains in exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench press and pull up exercises, can be introduced to teach the body to lift heavier resistances (e.g., 60 tp 80 percent 1RM) more explosively. So even without power cleans, the body can be taught to lift heavier resistances in an explosive manner, with no or limited deceleration.

Stage 5b. About this time, slightly more complex derivative components of the power clean, such as power cleans from hang (see Figures 3 and 4 below) or boxes about knee height, can be introduced if so desired. These exercises lay the neuromuscular foundation for the more advanced weightlifting exercises.

Figure 3 Figure 4

Stage 6 - Heavy Olympic Weightlifting Training

After technique in the derivative power clean exercises from stage 5b appears to be well developed, more complex Olympic lifting exercises such as power clean from floor into a split receiving position, snatches and split jerks and so on, can be introduced.

Safety Considerations

With regards to safety and training progressions, some people think heavier jump squats and bench throws are inherently dangerous. I get the athletes to perform both exercises on the Smith machine, and I have never had an injury in jump squats or bench throws in my 15 years seeing 50 to 70 athletes two to four times a week, despite athletes progressing up to and regularly using 100 to 120 kg. This is because the fundamentals of learning to accelerate and decelerate the resistance safely were coached initially with light resistances (stages 1 and 2).

Exercises like power cleans and jerks may carry a slightly higher risk (or the perception of higher risk), but the likelihood of injury really depends on good coaching and equipment. If you do not have good Olympic barbells, bumper plates, a platform or the ability to confidently perform or coach these exercises, why would you?

Conclusion

Power cleans and other weightlifting exercises are great for many athletes, but you do not need to perform them unless you specifically require power against large external resistances. Other power exercises such as jumps with and without extra weight, hops and various throwing exercises also generate high power levels and have proven effective in training power athletes. If your client needed to increase power, I would recommend the training progression outlined in Table 3. This methodology initially teaches athletes how to accelerate and decelerate bodyweight and light resistances in a safe manner with graduated progression to heavier power training resistances and more difficult methods and exercises. I believe it is more effective to start with easier exercises and lighter resistances and work up in complexity and resistance. Exercises like power cleans and the like are at the final, not initial, end of the power training spectrum because of their technique complexity and because they require heavy resistances to be lifted explosively. So don’t start an athlete’s power training journey with power cleans!

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