I know what I am about to say is controversial and I will take some heat for it. So, let's get right to it.
I don't think that most athletes, and certainly most young athletes, should be using the Clean (Power Clean, Snatch, etc.). Most college athletes are doing them, but many are executing the movement with poor form. I see more and more strength coaches posting their youth athletes doing Cleans, but that doesn't automatically make it a good idea.
This isn't to say the movement patterns aren't beneficial—they certainly are. But doing them with a weighted barbell isn't the best option. Instead, there are alternatives that are hugely beneficial, and in my opinion, a better choice for almost all athletes. These alternatives are the Sled Clean Pull and the Sled Snatch, two movements you have likely never seen before.
First, let me say that I have been using Olympic lifts myself, and with the athletes I coach, for more than 20 years. I was certified as a USA Weightlifting Olympic lifting coach back in 2005, before it was cool. I also worked out on a platform with a freakishly strong 15-year-old named Mat Fraser who went on to become a world CrossFit champion. Olympic lifters are the strongest and most powerful beasts out there. I am a huge fan of Olympic lifting, and if you are an athlete who wants to be an Olympic lifter or are working with an athlete who wants to become an Olympic lifter, that's awesome.
But most athletes are not going to be Olympic lifters. They are using the Olympic lifts to improve for their sport, typically with the goal to become stronger and more powerful. There are four basic problems with this approach.
1. Proper technique is, actually, hard to learn. And poor technique is very likely to lead to injury or long-term problems. This alone should be enough to stop most young athletes from doing Olympic lifts.
If we take a Power Clean, for example, which is the simplest form to learn, it is more common than not to see poor form in both the takeoff (which is hard on the back) and the catch (which is hard on the shoulders, wrists, back and knees).
One of our Olympic athletes, one who has won multiple World Championships as well as several Olympic medals, is incredibly strong and powerful. He has a lifting coach. His catch in this Power Clean, however, is awful. I would find it unacceptable from any athlete I work with. His elbows are down and his hips are essentially in front of his feet and shoulders (a common catch mistake), which places unbelievable strain on his knees and lower back. Learning these lifts takes a lot of time, time which is likely spent better elsewhere, which leads us to point two.
2. Research has shown that using loaded jumps is just as effective as Olympic lifts for developing lower-body power. When it comes to training, we should aim to do what works and also what is simple. Olympic lifting may work, but it certainly isn't simple.
3. Deriving real power development from an exercise hinges on using maximal effort. Most athletes are not comfortable enough or proficient enough to put maximal effort into a Power Clean, and this is especially true with youth athletes. Most of them are just going through the motions.
4. You really need platforms, bumper plates and a good barbell if you're going to be consistently training with Olympic lifts, which can be costly. If the bar's collars don't spin well, athletes shouldn't be using it. And in most gyms, including many college gyms, the bars aren't suitable.
Here is an 11-year-old athlete that I work with doing Power Cleans with just a weighted bar. He has been coached for some time and has decent technique, including a good catch, and his knees don't collapse. But I wouldn't load him up on weight at this point. It's clear that he isn't putting much effort into this, but we have tried heavier weights, and at his size and age, the technique breaks down quickly with more weight.
Now, here he is doing a Sled Clean Pull.
I showed him this exercise once prior to filming this video, and this is his first time trying it. His start position is very good. He is clearly demonstrating triple extension and driving his hips. And he is using maximal effort, as the weight on the sled is about equal to his body weight.
At the :19 second mark of this video, you can see the Sled Snatch:
Again, he had seen this exercise once and this is his first try. Here he is learning real drive and true triple extension. Just look at this picture:
The movement essentially forces you into a good starting position. And he was the one to decide to play around with dropping into a full overhead squat at the end, likely because he has seen enough Olympic lifting videos.
So, the benefits of using the Sled Clean Pull and Sled Snatch are:
- Incredibly easy to learn and intuitive
- Very safe
- There is no catch, and no lowering (or dropping) the bar
- It can be done with maximal effort by those who've just learned the move
- It is basically a weighted jump, but in a horizontal plane (the one we actually move in most of the time)
- It can be done with a sled that can be made in 20 minutes for $20
If you want to learn more about how and why I became such a fan of sled training, head to my website SledRX.com.