During the past several months of the Covid-19 lockdown, folks have had an abundance of free time on their hands, and many have spent that time participating in discussions on social media, especially Twitter. I use Twitter to follow, share and discuss topics within the field of strength & conditioning and performance training for athletes. There have been multiple discussions that have piqued my interest and evolved into some great learning experiences among strength & conditioning professionals. One topic that I always enjoy is: “What is your go-to exercise if you can only choose one?” After reading many different coaches’ thoughts and discussions, and putting some solid thought into where I stand on the question, here is what I came up with.
My answer to this question has always been: “If I could only choose one exercise to program my athletes’ training around, it would be the Power Clean.” However, after years of holding this unwavering belief, I have modified it a bit. My answer to that question will now be the Clean & Jerk. So why the change, you ask? My decision is based on two primary concepts: 1) movement progressions and 2) “killing as many birds with a single stone as is possible.”
Often you will hear coaches say they do not use Olympic lifts such as the Clean because they are too hard to teach, the learning curve is too long, or the risk-to-reward benefit is too high, etc. I respect a coach’s opinion and right to program as they feel is best for them as a coach and for their athletes. There are many ways to skin the proverbial cat, and you cannot and should not pigeonhole everyone into one philosophy. For me, the Olympic lifts—especially Clean variations—have been a staple in my programming from the start, although my reasoning for this has evolved over the years.
Originally my reasons had to do with the triple extension and the promotion of power that occur during the lift. As my understanding of the science behind the movement and concept of Rate of Force Development (RFD) grew, my belief in the importance of the lift in athlete development became even stronger. With increased understanding through the years, my philosophy has solidified. Here are my thoughts on the benefits you get from the Clean & Jerk:
- When correctly performed, Rate of Force Development (RFD) is increased.
- Increased ability of the body to absorb force and decelerate.
- Improved muscular coordination.
- Improved mobility.
- Learning multiple movement patterns that transfer to athletic performance.
- Ability to expand the exercise menu from one complex movement (really two lifts), into combinations of potentially 11+ different exercises.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at each of these.
The aspect of “triple extension” and increased power output has long been a known positive of performing the Olympic lifts in strength programs for athletic development. However, the movements must be performed with proper technique to achieve triple extension and maximize increased power output. Research studies by Dr. John Garhammer showed that power outputs for the Olympic movements, when executed correctly, were the highest of various multi-joint exercises, with the Jerk, Snatch and Clean ranking first through third respectively, producing more than twice the number of watts over the Deadlift, Squat and Bench Press.
A benefit of the Clean that is often overlooked is the body’s improved ability to absorb force, as well as the deceleration that occurs during the catch/receiving phase of the lift. Both characteristics are extremely important in sports that include collisions, body-to-body contact and rapid change of direction, such as football, basketball, volleyball and soccer, to name a few.
Improved Muscular Coordination
In both the Clean and the Jerk, a specific movement sequence is followed for the lift to be safely and efficiently executed. For example, the movement of the Clean progresses from: stationary starting position > controlled pull > rapid acceleration > “dropping under” the bar > absorbing the force and decelerating the movement on the catch. Improper sequencing or lack of muscular coordination at any point will negatively affect the lift.
The athlete’s mobility is improved through body positioning and full range of motion (ROM) of movement. In order to align the body in the proper position to safely and efficiently pull the bar from the floor in the Clean, the athlete must have and continually improve mobility in the ankles, knees and hips, as well as stability in the lumbar spine. During the catch the athlete must have sufficient mobility in the thoracic spine (T-Spine) to allow the elbows to elevate enough to receive the bar and allow it to rest across the anterior deltoid. A lack of mobility in the T-Spine and/or a lack of flexibility in the lats will restrict this movement, preventing sufficient elevation of the elbows and resulting in increased stress on the wrists. T-Spine mobility is also critical to safe and efficient overhead movement in pressing/jerking movements. Restricted movement due to immobility in the T-Spine often forces the athlete to compensate by trying to mobilize the lumbar spine (hyperextension) to achieve the desired overhead bar position.
If the athlete lacks the necessary mobility to safely and successfully perform the Clean or Overhead Press/Jerk, there are several baseline mobility modalities a coach can prescribe. However, their explanation is beyond the scope of this blog.
Learning Multiple Movement Patterns
While performing a Clean and/or a Jerk, there are several different movement patterns that occur naturally and are important to the development of the athlete. The following are used throughout not only the lifts under discussion but also most strength exercises:
- Bracing of the core and neutral spine (lumbar stability)
- Hip hinge and extension
- Full Squat
Ability to Expand the Exercise Menu
The ability to expand the exercise menu from one complex movement (really two lifts) into combinations of potentially 11+ different exercises makes the Clean & Jerk a valuable training tool. Here are a few of the many combinations that can be used:
- Clean Pull from floor (Conventional Deadlift with pronated grip)
- Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
- Clean from floor
- Clean from thigh/knee
- Clean from hip
- High Pull
- Front Squat
- Strict Military Press
- Push Press
- Push Jerk
- Split Jerk
- Clean Pull from floor + Clean from hip
- Clean Pull to knee > Pause > Clean from knee
- Clean Pull from floor > RDL > Clean from thigh
- Clean from floor + Front Squat
- Clean variation + Push Press
- Clean variation + Front Squat + Push Jerk
These are just a few of the exercise combination you can put together from the Clean & Jerk.
Of course, you must teach the Clean and the Jerk, but in my opinion, it is well worth it to do so when you can get this much “bang for your buck.” All you need is a bar and bumpers, and you can get a total body workout that develops strength and power while simultaneously improving mobility and coordination, all in a limited time setting.
To those who will argue that teaching these lifts is too time consuming or the learning curve is too long: I disagree. I have taught and utilized the Olympic lifts, especially the Clean, as the backbone of my programming for 30+ years with what I feel is great success. It is much like anything else; once you establish a solid teaching progression that is utilized repeatedly over time and continually evolves, the more efficient the teaching process becomes. And, as the saying goes, “Anything worth doing takes time to master.”
“Chase perfection and you’ll eventually catch excellence!”