In Part 1 of the Teaching the Clean series, we examined the difference between a Power Clean and a Squat Clean, and why when using the lift as a tool for athlete development I choose to generically call the lift the Clean. We discussed the “Why?” of using the lift and other Olympic variations as a primary staple in athletic strength programming and the most efficient ways I have learned to teach the lift in a team setting, including using the “top-down” approach.
In Part 2 of the series, we looked at moving down and teaching the Clean from the bottom up once the athlete has a solid grasp of the initial top-down mechanics. Here we studied body position of the set-up from the floor, the mechanics of the first and second pull, and then transitioning back under the bar for the catch.
In this edition we will take a look at putting the previously discussed parts of the lift together into a complete Clean, as well as check out the variations and corrective exercises that can be used to progressively improve the athlete’s technical ability when performing the entire exercise.
As we discussed and observed in the USAW graphic on power production in Part 1, the Olympic movements of the Clean, the Snatch, and the Jerk produce the highest power outputs of the ground-based multi-joint exercises used by strength coaches in athlete strength and power programming. When pulling from the floor, the production is over two times greater than that of the Squat and the Deadlift and is particularly high (five times higher) during the second pull of both the Snatch and the Clean at 5500 watts produced.
Putting It All Together
Once the athletes are comfortable and their movement from the bottom position of the 3-Position Clean looks good, we move back to the floor to begin working toward the complete lift. And while the athlete has spent time pulling from the floor with control while performing the Clean Pull and executing the second pull with the Clean from the thighs drill to improve bar control, invariably the minute you have them combine the two movements, “BOOM!” The wheels fall off. They immediately lose all semblance of technique. They forget the need for a controlled first pull and go to the “grip and rip.” They “shoot the hips,” losing the power angle. As the bar passes their knees, it is displaced 4-5 inches away from their body causing a loss of bar control, resulting in them “chasing” the bar to catch it. A complete disaster! It is always at about this moment I am scratching my head, asking myself why I wasted several weeks teaching technique only to wind up with a finished product that looked like…. Well, you know what I am thinking. It is fixable, but it is also beyond frustrating for all involved.
A few years ago, I was on my way to a 7-on-7 football game, and since it was just down the road and I had a few minutes to spare, I stopped by Vaughn Weightlifting to visit and watch Chad and Jodi teach a weightlifting class. They were working on a transition point drill with their lifters, and there was the answer to the issue we had faced for years. The following Monday we introduced what I termed the Clean Pull-PAUSE AT KNEE-Hang Clean to our kids, and it has been a staple of our program ever since.
Due to the athlete having to pause at the transition point just above the knee, this exercise keeps the athlete from “gripping and ripping” and accelerating the bar too fast from the floor and through the first pull. Another benefit of this movement is that the weak point for most athletes is holding the power position with a neutral spine and maintaining the correct body angle (shoulders covering hands) through the transition point to the second pull. The pause forces the athlete to focus on holding onto a good position, creating an isometric contraction in the spinal erectors when bracing the core.
From the pause, the athlete should accelerate the bar upward along the thighs as they complete the second pull and explode vertically, finishing with the catch. The following are some common technical flaws to keep an eye out for:
As the athletes perfect the Clean Pull-PAUSE-Hang Clean, you can slowly shorten the pause time until they eventually just transition on to the full Clean without needing to pause. It has been my experience, when working with athletes that are sport competitors and not Olympic weightlifters, that by keeping the exercise in the program one day per week, I get two birds with one stone. First, the athletes are working a technique improvement drill every week, and second, I still have two Clean variations in the workout during the week that are working on Rate of Force Development (RFD). We program the full Clean movement on Monday coupled with our Dynamic Effort (DE) upper body pressing exercise and pair the Max Effort Bench Press day with our technique/Dynamic Effort Olympic exercise (Clean Pull-PAUSE-Hang Clean) on our Day 3 workout. We have had great success following this strategy.
When you feel the athletes are ready to move on to the full Clean, go ahead and make the move. Do not wait until you feel every athlete is ready or you will never move forward. That is the beauty of this progression; on the day Cleans are programmed, you may have a majority performing the full Clean, while a few perform the Clean Pull-PAUSE-Hang Clean or the Clean from the hip or thigh variation to improve their technique. Regardless of which movement variation they are performing, they are all getting the benefits the Olympic lifts provide.
The Coach’s Eye
The term the Coach’s Eye was used in the book The System by Johnny Parker and Al Miller to describe seeing issues in an athlete’s training and then making adjustments and modifications to correct those issues. Coaching exercise technique in any movement takes time and experience to learn what to look for, be able to see it, and then fix it. You as the coach should continue to learn, experiment, assess, refine, and then do all repeatedly. One tool that helped me develop my technique-assessment and teaching skills as a coach was watching video. Before the days of cell phones, I would set up a video camera from the side angle and tape my lifters’ lifts. I would study their movement and then compare it to what I was reading in books. I also found that the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” was on point too. I would often attempt to correct an athlete’s movement by explaining what needed to be corrected. Sometimes that was as clear as mud to the athlete; then I would show them the video, and immediately the “light” came on!
Now days every phone has a camera that is better than the video camera I used back in the day. I, as well as our coaches, use video as a bridge to aid teaching and correcting technique every workout. I have the Hudl Technique app on my phone and use it daily. Over the years my coach’s eye has become rather good, but I still rely heavily on video to help our athletes SEE what needs to be corrected technically. I would advise you do the same to best help you and your athletes benefit the most. The below graphic was done with the Hudl Technique app.
When teaching the Clean, you will have athletes who struggle with some of the body positioning required to perform the variations safely and efficiently. The areas I most often see them have problems are:
Athletes who have trouble getting into the start position, where they cannot keep their feet securely on the ground in the tripod position, generally have a lack of adequate ankle mobility. This issue is usually a result of tight gastrocs muscles and can be improved by consistent stretching and mobility work. It is beyond the scope of this writing to go into the specifics of improving ankle mobility, but if you need guidance in this area I recommend checking out Squat University as Dr. Aaron Horshig posts a lot of great content on this topic.
If the athlete is having difficulty being able to set the back into a neutral spine position, the fix is as simple as teaching them how to retract the shoulders (pull the shoulders back and squeeze the shoulder blades together) and brace their core. Although not rocket science, it will require the athlete to coordinate the muscles involved and practice bracing. Also, making a conscious effort to always maintain good posture and continuing to develop strength in both the upper and lower posterior chain will be of great benefit.
For the athlete that gets anxious and has trouble controlling their first pull from the floor to past the knees even after using the Clean Pull-PAUSE-Hang Clean exercise, I suggest having them perform some additional drill practice outside of the team workout. A simple drill to assist the athlete on developing the needed control is the Clean Pull to Knee. In this drill the athlete focuses only on the first pull, pausing at the knee and returning to the floor. Have the athlete perform 3 sets of 3-5 reps of the movement with light to moderate weight.
Being able to receive the bar/assume the Front Rack position will likely be the issue you see more than any of the others. This issue is primarily a result of poor posture, the loss of mobility in the thoracic spine (T-Spine), and tight Latissimus Dorsi muscles (Lats). The reasons for these issues being so prevalent in today’s young athletes were discussed in detail earlier in the Mobility, Stability, Technical Refinement and CNS Activation blog series
Two exercises I have found to efficiently correct these issues are the T-Spine Mobility Twist and the Prayer Stretch. Both are easily embedded into our workout during our first rotation, which is a four-exercise Mobility Circuit. It may take some time for the athlete’s mobility to improve to the point where they can attain a good position, but with consistency they will get there. There are other exercises I prescribe in different cases, but these two—along with the strategies discussed in detail in the mobility blog series—are my “go to” correctives.
The hip hinge—which is the key to the Romanian Deadlift (RDL), the first and second pull of the Clean, and the Squat—is simply a matter of getting the feel of the movement. My cues are to “unlock the knees, hinge (push) the hips back slightly, and lower the upper torso with the back set in a neutral spine position.” Some athletes “get it” right away and others struggle until “the light comes on.” For those athletes who need additional help with the movement, I use the following hip progression drills when needed:
As I have mentioned many times before, you must know your “Why” for your philosophy. Some coaches have the philosophy that training for absolute strength in the Squat and Deadlift are the way to go. In my humble opinion, power production and speed are king, and developing them with the Clean has been my priority. Based on anecdotal data over the past two decades, this philosophy has paid off and transferred to success on the field and on the track. I say this and I believe this: “Train fast, become fast! Train slow, become slow!”
From 1999 through the spring of 2018, I was the strength coach at the same school and our strength program was well established. I remember introducing my program in the spring of 2000, and I was ecstatic over having 15-20 athletes that could Clean 200+ pounds. As my program became more rooted and the teaching progression continued to improve, the numbers continued to rise each year to the point where it was not uncommon to have 30+ athletes with a 1RM over 225 pounds and as many as 8-10 of those Cleaning 275+ pounds in any given off-season.
In the summer of 2018, I changed schools and was tasked with introducing my strength program from square one. This provided an opportunity to assess my teaching progression, as I was teaching to an entirely new group of athletes who were learning it from scratch. The below graphic shows the numbers attained by athletes who have participated in an established program for several years and the numbers for athletes from program introduction to finishing their second off-season.
Always remember that you are training a sport athlete, not an Olympic weightlifter. Work to perfect their technique, but where the Olympic lifter is focusing on the perfection of only the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk, the sport athlete is performing a variety of additional exercises, as well as perfecting the technique of their sport. Consequently, you will not have the time as a coach to implement too many “lift specialization exercises” to address every minute detail of the lift. Choose a few variations and work them to the point of perfection.
Always keep more focus on good movement patterns and bar speed rather than on how much weight the athletes are lifting. Remember the Clean is about Rate of Force Development (power production) not absolute strength. I program intensities for the Clean in the range of 70-85% of Training Max (TM) most of the time. Intensities of 90%+ are only programmed once or twice every 5-7 weeks.
The Olympic lifts are power producers and should not be used for muscle hypertrophy or conditioning. I do not recommend programming sets of more than 5 reps. A set with any more than 5 consecutive reps
causes high fatigue, technique breakdown, and increased risk of injury. Remember your “WHY” of programming the lift.
In this edition we have discussed how to move from training the lift in individual parts to combining those parts into one efficient movement. We have examined problem areas that will arise and the best methods, exercises, and correctives for eliminating those issues. We explained how important the “eye of the coach” is to teaching, assessing, and correcting exercise technique, and the tools available to assist you developing your eye. I hope the material presented was of benefit to you and you will continue to follow Builds Champions in our discussion of athlete development.