One of the primary staples of my strength training program over the past 35 years is the Clean. I used to label it as the Power Clean but have changed my terminology because when training sport athletes I do not specify where they catch the bar. In official weightlifting terms, a Power Clean is caught with the knees at 90 degrees or greater flexion (parallel or above) and a Squat Clean is caught with knee flexion at less than 90 degrees (below parallel). For general strength training purposes, I do not specify where the athlete catches the bar.

When I am training Olympic weightlifters, I will specify which lift we are training (i.e. Power Cleans or Full Squat Cleans), as it is a determining factor on the focus of our training goal for a particular session or cycle.

Why the Clean?

I believe the Olympic lifts in general contribute greatly to athletic performance, and in my opinion the Clean and its variations crossover the best. Benefits of a well-executed Clean are as follows:

  • Triple Extension at the ankle, knee, and hip
  • Increased Rate of Force Development (RFD)
  • High power production
  • Improved muscular coordination
  • Improved mobility
  • Learning multiple movement patterns that transfer to athletic performance
  • Increased ability of the body to absorb force and decelerate

I discussed each of these in detail in my blog titled If I Could Only Choose One Lift To Train My Athletes, so I will not go any further in depth on these here.

Taking the Weight Room to the Game

The graphic above illustrates power production data shown in watts produced for the major multi-joint strength training exercises most utilized by strength coaches when training sport athletes. As the data shows, the Olympic lift variations are the top power producers and generate significantly higher outputs than the traditional powerlifts of the Back Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift. Also, the variations of the Clean and the Snatch that emphasize the second pull as well as the Jerk develop the highest outputs of all the lifts. This would beg the question: If the second pull produces the most power, why pull from the floor? I believe it is up to the strength coaches to determine what lifts they program and why. They MUST know their “why” to that question. I have heard more coaches say they program from the hang because it is easier to teach than because the lifts from the hang produce the most power. In my opinion the reasoning should not be because it takes more knowledge, effort, and time to teach pulling from the floor, but because performing from the hang produces the greatest power. Personally, I teach and use both variations and know why I choose to do so.

To receive the benefits and keep the risk versus reward high on the reward side, the lifts must be taught with attention to detail and performed with excellent technique. The Oly lifts are technical in nature because they are explosive total-body movements with lots of moving parts. To make teaching the Clean less overwhelming, the movements are broken down and taught in individual components. This is known as the Part-Whole Method of teaching. This teaching method is less complicated and enables athletes to grasp the correct movement patterns in less time. Once the athlete has a firm grasp on each individual component of the lift, you put them all together into the complete movement. My intent in this series is to give guidance on what I have found to be the best way to teach the lift in a group or team setting.

Teach from the Top Down

The years 1995-1998 were HUGE for me as a strength coach regarding learning to correctly teach the Olympic lifts. In June 1995 I attended the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) National Conference and the pre-conference symposium that was presented by USA Weightlifting (USAW). I was blessed that one of the primary instructors of the USAW Club Coach course was Coach Mike Burgener. At the time Coach Burgener was the head coach for Team Southern California, one of the best USAW weightlifting teams in the country, and a high school coach who taught Olympic weightlifting classes at his school. He had developed some techniques to teach the Oly lifts to large groups using PVC pipes. That one takeaway helped me immensely in my teaching Clean technique in the team setting. I started a USAW Club at the small school where I was coaching, using the club as a training extension of our sport training, From 1996 until my departure in 1999, we produced a number of School-Age and Junior national level Olympic weightlifting competitors, including future National Champion, Team USA World Team member, and 2004 Olympic Alternate Jodi Wilhite (Vaughn). Coaching athletes year-round in the Olympic lifts allowed me to learn, observe, and experiment, which helped develop me into a much more efficient and productive coach.

I prefer to start teaching from the top-down by using the PVC drills learned from Coach Burgener to teach correct body position of the Clean and Snatch from the Power Position, as well as the pull mechanics for the second pull. Getting the body in the correct position and learning to hinge at the hip and then pull the bar upward through simultaneous extension at the knee and hips is one of the critical factors in developing a successful clean and reducing the risk of injury. When correctly taught and executed, the stair-stepping repetitive nature of the drills ingrain movement patterns into muscle memory. It is of the utmost importance that the motor patterns be as biomechanically efficient as possible. Detail and movement are CRITICAL!! I tell my athletes if they perform 100 reps with incorrect technique, it takes 1,000 perfect reps to correct the poor motor patterns they have developed. In the images below, I list a visual of what I am looking for in the drills as well as coaching cues I use in my instruction. These are actually more “wordy” than I like, but I believe it’s better to give a good explanation at the introduction of a new topic; as the athletes gain a better understanding of your terminology, you can shorten the cues down to less verbiage.

The power position is applicable to and utilized in most sports. The ability to align the body properly is a critical first step to the desired effective movement of triple extension of the ankle, knee, and hip, and ultimately maximum power production.

Keeping the hips back and the shoulder “covering” the hands is critical to maintaining a good power angle in the hips and back and to holding the bar on or near thighs throughout the pull, thus helping to retain the bar close to the body throughout the entire movement. When the bar gets away from the body during the second pull, it is more difficult to control the movement and there is a higher probability the athlete will have to “chase” the bar during the catch phase.

I used to cue athletes to drive through the heels as they pulled the bar upward, but have changed that cue to driving through the entire foot or tripod (heel, ball of foot/big toe, and pad behind pinky toe). I found some athletes took my term to drive through the heels so literally they lost contact with the front of the foot and fell back somewhat. Listening to Chad Vaughn and Dr. Aaron Horschig, I changed my cue, and it has made the understanding much cleaner.

Over the years I have added the cue to squeeze the glutes when the body is fully erect. I have found this gets the athlete in the habit of fully extending their hips at the end of the second pull, thus getting every bit of power from the glutes as we can. I do not have scientific data to support this; however, I believe it has been beneficial to our athletes.

In addition to the simplicity of these drills, one of the things I like the most is their stair-stepping repetitive nature. The athlete basically gets 15 reps of the hinge, pull, and glute lockout, which are paramount to the success of the second pull.

The second section of the drill after the Drag & Squeeze adds a shrug to the end of the movement. I have never liked the concept of using the high pull exercise. I realize it happens naturally as a result of the upward bar path, itself resulting from the velocity generated during the first and second pulls, but from what I’ve witnessed when training, it as an independent segment of the lift. The high pull exercise seems to create a bad position that is not conducive to efficiently performing the next phase, which is catching the bar. Most non-Oly athletes push their hips backward and “hunch” their upper body forward in an awkward-looking position to complete the pulling movement. Possibly an Olympic weightlifter training specifically for the sport might benefit from using the exercise, but sport athletes using the Oly variations as a tool…not so much. The concept I prefer and have had good success using is one I picked up from watching Oleg Kechko coach. Kechko, who is a former Olympian and a product of the sports system of the former Soviet Union, taught the concept of emphasizing a violent shrug at the end of the second pull, which will further propel the bar upward and actually put the athlete in a better position to pull under the bar to make the catch.

The first two PVC drill segments are performed in a controlled manner throughout the movement, smooth and deliberate. The final drill in the PVC trio gradually accelerates the bar along the thigh and adds a “pop,” or a quick final extension upward onto the toes or possibly slightly off the ground when the body is fully erect. This portion of the drill must be coached with detail to ensure that the athlete is not so focused on the final upward extension that they roll up prior to fully extending the legs and hips. This will be obvious to the observer as the athlete will be leaning and falling forward instead of being completely upright, preferably with the extended body in a slight backward lean.

Next, we must assess the athlete’s ability to safely receive (catch) the bar at the top of the Clean. We developed an assessment specifically designed for our program to test mobility, strength, and coordination for our athletes. One of the tests in the battery assesses the ability of the athlete to safely catch and hold the bar in the front rack position. When we see a safe front rack position is attainable, we will add the next drill in the progression: the Muscle Clean + Front Squat. In the case that the athlete is unable to safely secure the bar in the front rack position, which usually is the result of a lack of mobility in the thoracic spine (T-Spine) or tight Lats, we will hold off adding this movement and implement the necessary corrective exercises until the athlete can safely move into the front rack. The T-Spine Mobility Twist and several other corrective movements are discussed in detail in the previous blog, Mobility, Stability, Technical Refinement and CNS Activation Part 3.

The Muscle Clean + Front Squat teaches and refines the movement patterns of the Clean from the end of the second pull through the catch. For the purposes of getting as much work done in a short time, we “plus” the Front Squat after the Muscle Clean to work on technique and mobility during the squat portion of the movement.

The coaching cues I use are “shrug, pull, punch!” The “punch” cue I stole from Coach Joe Kenn. It is quicker and less wordy than cueing “drive the elbows through.” My key coaching points:

  • Overemphasize a VIOLENT shrug
  • The pull portion should mostly occur naturally because of the VIOLENT shrug
  • Punch elbows through as violently as you shrugged
  • Do not use legs or hips to initiate upward bar movement
  • Elbows up and squat as deep as possible in a controlled manner

Muscle Clean + Front Squat Muscle Clean + Front Squat-2

In the first video shown above, the athlete moves the bar with good speed but unintentionally uses a little hip/leg pop when initiating the pull. In the second video, the athlete is very deliberate with her movements and truly “muscles” the movement. Both techniques are OK. However, when teaching an athlete new to the Clean, I would cue them to be very deliberate in their movement until they have an efficient motor pattern established. As they become more proficient, you want them moving the bar with greater speed. In the case of an athlete that has been become more proficient in the Clean due to muscle memory, the simultaneous knee/hip pop at the endpoint of the second pull will naturally occur as they initiate the violent shrug. These three movements happening automatically is a good thing regarding the performance of the complete Clean.

In this edition I have discussed the “whys” of teaching the Olympic lifts and especially the Clean and its variations, as well as teaching using the top-down progression. We looked in detail at the PVC drills and the Muscle Clean + Front Squat exercise and their use to teach proper body alignment in the power position, how to execute efficient pulling mechanics of the second pull, and the establishment of the motor pattern of transitioning from the second pull to catch respectively. My goal was to demonstrate how using these drills has been effective in aiding me in teaching groups of athletes in a team setting. In Part 2 of this segment, we will move to discussing the starting body position and then pulling the bar from the floor.