The Clean, one of the most dynamic exercises, has an array of moving parts that cover every major muscle group and joint in the body. Whether it’s a Power Clean from the floor or a Hang Clean from the knees, the movement patterns are the same.
Due to its complexity, it may be easy to avoid this exercise, but it’s a staple for athletes concerned about their sports performance. I cannot think of many sports that don’t reap the benefits of a proper Hang Clean or Full Clean with heavy weight. Those benefits include increasing stability, mobility, strength, acceleration, change of direction (agility) and body awareness. The Clean does it all.
Here’s how to get the most out of this incredible lift.
Addressing the Bar
Starting with your feet, it’s important to assume a proper athletic position, one that allows you to remain strong and agile without sacrificing stability. A general rule of thumb is to keep your feet about shoulder-width apart. When in doubt, I ask my athletes to jump as high as they can and try to touch the ceiling; then, right before they leave the ground, I make them stop. When you try to jump maximally, your body naturally lines up your feet in a way that generates the most force while maintaining good balance. This is a great place to start.
Your knees start over the bar. Depending on your femur length, some knees may travel further over the bar than others.
Position your hips above your knees and below your shoulders. Ideally, the distance between the shoulders and the hip crease and the knees and the hip crease should be close to equal.
Your back should be erect and straight from the shoulders to the butt. At no point should your back ever move into flexion.
Your shoulders should remain in front of the bar. Generally speaking, if we were to take a piece of string and dangle it off the shoulder, the bar should remain just behind it. (Remember, this is not a Deadlift.) Your shoulders should also be retracted. This causes tension in the shoulders and upper back, which makes for an easy transfer of energy later on.
First Pull (think of it as the first push)
Without question, most of the problems I see when coaching the Clean come in the first ten inches of the movement. The sole purpose of the first pull is to maintain proper position so the second pull can be as explosive as possible. Starting at the feet, the weight shifts from the mid/forefoot to the heels, allowing you to slide your knees back so the bar can travel in a straight vertical line. If you don’t move your knees, you are forced to move the bar around them, pushing it out in front, preventing you from keeping your shoulders over the bar and causing it to travel a greater distance.
As they are pushed back, the knees extend. Besides getting your knees out of the way, the movement loads your hamstrings, which will cause a much-needed acceleration later, with a stretch reflex mechanism.
Your hips, back and shoulders do little moving at this time, but their function is important. They must hold strong and remain under tension to provide the best transfer of energy. Your joints should maintain the same angles you assumed in the set-up portion of the Clean.
The reason I call this first pull a “push” is because technically no pulling is going on. Instead, you simply push your legs into the ground, like in a Leg Press. The first pull, which ends roughly at the knees, lays the foundation for the rest of the movement. Consistency calls for a sound first pull.
Second Pull (still not really pulling … up anyway, mostly inward)
Now that the starting position and first pull have been established, let’s look at the second pull. It starts the acceleration and explosive phase of the exercise. It is also where a lot of power can be lost. Even after the bar has cleared your knees, you remain over the bar. Your back angle has changed slightly, but the bar remains covered by your shoulders.
The reason for this is the stretch reflex of the hamstring.
The longer you hang over the bar, the greater the stretch in your hamstrings and the more force you can generate when you release the tension. I use a spring to represent the tension of the hamstring. Along with the hamspring (hamstring … sorry, bad pun), your leverage with your shoulders aids in the next portion.
Notice I have not mentioned the arms yet. So far, they have acted solely as a pendulum. Think of your arms as a piece of string on which you want constant tension. When one end is pulled, the other end moves the same distance. Pulling a loose string may not make the other end move. This is a poor translation of energy (the string will straighten before it moves). A bent arm, as long at it remains taut, produces the same result!
Simple physics (gravity) proves that technically the weight of the bar should settle directly under the shoulders. To counter this and maintain leverage, it is crucial to actively and continuously pull the bar inward using your lats. Think this motion:
[youtube video=”AjCCGN2tU3″ /]
In weightlifting terms, this is known as “sweeping the bar.” Any excess space between the bar and the thigh can pose a potential threat later.
First let me say this: At no point do your hips come through and crush the bar. It may appear so at first glance, but what’s really happenings is a change in hip direction to facilitate the vertical path of the bar. Once the bar is near the mid-thigh or hip (depending on your arm length and bar grip), it’s time to release the pent up energy from the hamstrings and the shoulder leverage. Releasing them together maximizes the height and velocity of the bar, allowing you to lift heavier. As you can see in the pictures below, the bar continues to climb up the thigh, and a unique process occurs to ready the hips for an uppercut-like impact.
Once the bar is in place, your knees bend slightly and slide under the bar. When your torso becomes more vertical and your knees bend, it creates a shelf near the hips. Once the bar reaches the shelf, continue to stand violently. As your knees violently extend under the bar, your thighs and hips contract to launch the bar upward and inward (uppercut). Combined with shifting your shoulders behind the bar, this creates a complementing lever arm to increase the bar’s acceleration. At this point, your weight should transfer from your heels to your toes.
Note: Yellow arrow indicates the change in shoulder position and the effect on the bar during a uppercut. Blue arrow indicates the change in knee/hip position and the effect on the bar during extension.
Third Pull (ironic since this is the first time you actually pull)
Once the knee extension happens with the shoulder rotation, you finally initiate the shrug and pull with your arms. However, the purpose of pulling is not what most people assume. The double knee bend and violent extension should be so powerful that it causes the bar to levitate as the extension continues all the way down to the feet. This extension should cause you to float up onto your toes and just leave the ground. (Leaving the ground is not a result of jumping but of extending violently.) Both the bar and your body should be floating. If you try to pull the bar up, your toes won’t leave the ground because the force of pulling up will cause your feet to stay planted.
Instead, you use the “floating period” to pull your body under the bar into the receiving position. I don’t care how fast you think you are. That bar will fall at a faster rate than you can. If you simply use gravity (not pulling/shrugging under) to fall under the bar, the tension of your stretched muscles will slow the process. Therefore, you won’t fall faster than, or even as fast as, the bar. The reason athletes can get under the bar is because they have the ability to successfully time pulling under a falling bar. Using your arms, you can get a head start by reversing your upward motion while the bar is still elevating. This is what people commonly call quickness/speed, although they’re not always sure why some are faster than others.
Think about it. Gravity affects each human the same way, and its rate of force pulling us down is constant. If this is true, how does one person accelerate faster than another. It’s their ability to pull under a levitating bar.
At this point, you have completely exhausted every mechanical advantage possible to heave a bar into the air, so much so that you end on your tippy-toes. The inch or two that your heel is elevated creates just enough space to slide your feet outward into a more stable, load-bearing position. It also allows your hips to drop further between your knees and shortens the distance you need to elevate the bar to get under it.
The yellow lines represent the path needed to catch the bar on your front rack (shoulders). The blue lines represent the path of the bar. The pink star represents the peak bar height and where it floats for a split second before changing direction and accelerating back towards earth.
Let’s take it back for just a second. Your back and legs have extended violently at the same time, you’ve shifted your weight onto your toes and you are now airborne with another mass that’s levitating out in front of you. What to do next?
So you stayed over, activated your hamstrings and double-knee and ended up looking like the guy in the middle photo above. Note the height of the bar. It doesn’t get any higher in this phase. Once you’ve used all your mechanics to accelerate the bar vertically, the final step is to pull yourself under the bar. The bar should be plenty high enough to get under. With your feet just off the ground, you can quickly accelerate downward by using the bar to pull yourself under faster than gravity can pull the bar down.
If you continue to pull the bar upward, your feet can’t possibly move. Why, you ask? Because by pulling up on the bar long after you should be pulling under, your feet stay connected to the floor. If your feet aren’t in contact with the floor, can you still pull that bar up? No. Why not? Because you can’t be floating and creating force.
Still not convinced. Here comes the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Load a bar with a few hundred pounds at waist level. Assume the clean position and pull as high as you can. I guarantee you’re not getting under it. Now assume the same position but pull yourself under. The weight may not move, but your body will sink under into a receiving position. It’ s not about how high you can pull, but how fast you can pull under. Use the bar to accelerate your body under it faster than the rate of gravity.
Notice the arrows pointing at the elbows. The elbows should be pointing back, not up. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m saying that that the higher you point your elbows, the less leverage you have when directing the bar back into you. Also, if you point your elbows up, it’ll take longer to move them into the receiving position.
The last two photos are self-explanatory. Your feet are now wider than they were in the starting position. The bar is resting on your delts, ideally just off your neck, not pinned against it. Your back is erect and uniformly straight. Having your heels externally rotated allows your butt to sit between your calves instead of behind them. Catching too narrow and not allowing the hips to drop between the feet causes the butt to settle behind the heels and may promote an awkward folding lawn chair effect.
Notice the receiving position for the catch. Ideally if you can get the bar off your throat, it’ll be more comfortable and not restrict blood flow. During the catch, I like to rotate my elbows forward and lock in (activating my lats). This makes the delts sit anatomically in front of the neck and allows for a little daylight between your clavicles and throat. This saves you from clavicle bruising and throat irritation and reduces the amount of chin over the bar, making it easier to execute the Jerk.
Stretches to Maximize Clean Positioning
Shoulder/Front Rack Position
Set the bar on your back as if you were going to do a Back Squat. Once you’re set, rotate your elbows as high as you can until you feel a solid stretch. This is much easier with a bar than with a PVC pipe.
Dorsiflexion (Ankle Flexibility)
Set a bar on the top of your knees at the bottom position of the Clean/Front Squat. As you press the bar into your knees, you will increase dorsiflexion. You can rotate side to side to address your glutes and adductors.
Banded Bottom Position
Wrap a band around your lower back. Holding it tightly, wrap one loop around each knee, then sit in the bottom position. This does a number of things
- Rotates you upright
- Shifts your hips forward, increasing hip mobility and ankle flexion
- Places your lower back in a comfortable position
- Externally rotates your knees and drives your hips through
- Keeps your hands free to allow for overhead positioning
The Clean is a rarely used exercise because of its complexity. I can truthfully say that in five years of college, we did not cover the Clean once. A few books tried to explain it, but they made me cringe. All of the notes, descriptions, diagrams and techniques in this article represent a compilation of knowledge I have acquired during my time as a weightlifter and coach. You can read 100 different articles on the subject and derive 100 different outlooks. I wrote this in an attempt to provide as much information as possible for the greatest number of people.