As a strength and conditioning coach I’m always assessing the best ways to help my athletes perform better. As a result, I constantly see the debate about power lifting vs olympic lifting and what is better. At the end of the day, sports performance comes down to who can display more explosive power and strength frequently. So that means that Olympic lifting and performing endless power cleans is the best for power development, like most of would have you believe.
That’s false. Olympic lifting takes a lot of time and coordination to learn. That isn’t a bad thing if you have time but it certainly isn’t for everyone. Athletes need a certain degree of hip, shoulder and thoracic spine mobility in order to effectively perform any type of power movement effectively. Even though I’m not a Olympic lifting guy, I do teach my athletes how to power clean. It’s easy to learn and the majority of the athletes whom I train can see some pretty fast strength and power gains by becoming proficient in this movement.
Many Types of Power Cleans
The beginning part of the power clean is the “clean” phase that starts from the floor. You clean the barbell from the floor and explosively lift it to your shoulders. The end of the clean phase should look like the front squat. Some of the more popular types of the power clean include
Squat clean: The athlete attempts to sit under the weight and allows their hips to drop. This allows you to clean more weight since you don’t have to pull the bar as high and you can use your hips to get underneath it.
Split clean: The finish here looks like a lunge and is fantastic for athletes that have to perform in a single leg stance or for those who are more proficient during a single leg movement.
Hang Clean: One of the easier movement to perform, the bar starts around your knees as opposed to the floor. Since it’s a hang power clean you can use more weight.
Note: During the traditional power clean your hips shouldn’t go lower than parallel. The goal here is to really pull the bar up and accelerate as fast as you can.
So why should you consider using a power clean?
On top of power cleans being the easiest olympic lift to learn they also can help to develop accessory movements such as the back squat and deadlift. A power clean allows you to train with faster speeds and higher velocity. Muscle fibers respond to higher speed. A power clean will also help you get bigger traps and more explosive gluteus and hamstrings. Since you have to perform the clean so fast you ignite your fast twitch muscle fibers.
The act of performing a power clean will also help you to develop greater wrist and hip flexibility. Even if you’ve never trained wrist mobility you have to achieve a certain amount of range of motion in order to lift correctly.
The Three Phases Of The Power Clean.
We already discussed the starting portion of the power clean but there’s actually two different pulls involved in the movement. Most people lose it during the 2nd part of the pull. During the second phase you want to pull the bar from your mid-thighs to your shoulders based off of your hip extension. This is intended to be an explosive movement. This is where the term triple extension comes into play. You want extension from your calves, hamstrings and glutes.
How to increase your flexibility for the power clean.
The key to a better power clean lays in your flexibility at three key areas, the wrists, hips, and thoracic spine.
Holding a unloaded barbell in the front squat grip is a fantastic way to improve your wrist flexibility. Make sure to fight to keep your elbows straight forward the whole time.
Moving onto your hips you need to work your hip and ankle mobility. Hip and ankle mobility are essential for a proper power clean. Watch both of these videos.
Your thoracic spine is tough to develop since most people sit at a desk all day. Rounded shoulders and tight chest muscles will severely limit your power clean strength. Make sure to work your chest flexibility to improve your t spine mobility.
Exercises to learn the power clean.
In my experience, there are a few movements that are excellent teachers for learning the power clean. Since the beginning is so similar to the deadlift, you should practice explosive deadlifts with submaximal weight. Keep the weight low and explode up fast making sure to lock your hips out at the top.
Rack pulls are another fantastic exercise since you can set the pin at whatever height you like. Work through multiple ranges of rack pulls to improve hip extension strength.
Glute ham raises are also a great power clean teaching tool. Since they maximize hip extension you’ll be in the groove when you start the power clean. Remember, glute strength is essential for power clean development.
How to set up for the power clean
Notice how the three previous movements are helping us learn how to power clean properly? Begin with a shoulder width stance and keep your weight on your heels. Make sure to shift your weight backwards. Your barbell grip should also be a hook grip using your thumb so that you don’t pull with your biceps as much. Lastly you want your shoulder blades back and your chest and shoulders up and squeezed together. Make sure to keep your chest up when you start your power clean.
Power clean start: Keeping your arms straight and locked the entire time. Do not bend your arms. Keep your knees locked out like you would in a stiff leg deadlift. Drive your hips backwards. This is essential for the proper power clean. Make sure to work your hamstring mobility. Squeezing your gluteus together, drive the weight back on your heels and pull with your hips.
Power clean step two: We’re trying to get the bar to your shoulders here now. Your goal is to get the bar against your throat. To facilitate this you want your chest to be nice and big, Try to get the bar on top of your shoulders. Next, keep your elbows high so that you can catch the weight while saving your elbows. Lastly, keep your elbows pointing as straight forward as possible. The tighter your base the better off you are.
The third phase of the clean is very similar to the mid level deadliest position. Your arms are still straight and your hips are still back. At this point you want to jump your body up. Just jump straight up with the bar.
From here you want to stomp the floor and fight to keep your elbows high. Again, keep your elbows pointing straight out.
Phase Four is to finish the power clean. This is a fast and explosive switch. You’ll pull slowly from the floor and accelerate once your above your knees. Do NOT pull fast, a fast pull will knock you out of balance. You want to finish with your hips higher. In deadlifting we’re taught not to have our hips high but we want it in the power clean. If you’re feeling a tightening in your hamstrings then you’re on track.
Now there are numerous power clean errors that prevent people from performing the lift properly.
Form: Chest up, shoulders back and weight shifted onto the heels. Make sure to look forward at all times. I often see people looking down and that limits how effective of a clean you can have.
Stop using your arms: You want to let the bigger and stronger traps and upper back perform the majority of the work. The hook grip will eliminate all of your potential arm pulling issues.
Get your elbows higher. This is why front squats work very well for teaching the power clean because you can keep your elbows higher. If you’re still having a hard time make sure that you’re stretching your wrists and triceps frequently.
Lock out with your glute: The explosive nature of the power clean will cause you to fall back. Throw your hips forward and don’t allow yourself to get pulled back. Turn on your gluteus.
Don’t fall forward: This goes in line with what I said above. Keep the weight on your heels and make sure the bar is touching your mid-thigh. Once the bar reaches your mid-thigh its time to pull up.
Don’t get discouraged by the power clean and your technique.If you’re technique is failing you need to go back to the basic movements of deadlifting and front squatting. Continue to work your mobility drills and you’ll see your power clean improve fast!