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Power Cleans Suck, Here’s Why

by 27 comments

Power cleans: guaranteed to make a kid run faster and jump higher. Oh, no, wait, that’s PF Flyers, right? Jokes and my apparent hatred aside, I love the Olympic lifts. The grace, mobility, and strength displayed during a well performed snatch or clean is inspiring.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with them, and I have no qualms with anyone that does them. Qualms, I have, however, with people that: use them as the answer to everything, see them as the only way to train the lower body for power, think of them as a “must” for athletes, try to teach them in large group athletic settings, and can’t do them correctly (which, sadly, is most people as you will see).

FORM FOLLIES

I used to clean a lot. Looking back, my form sucked. If all you care about is hoisting as much weight from the ground to your shoulders, your form probably sucks too.

Buddy Morris once said that everyone in America pulls from the lower back. Professional weightlifters, however, use their hips. Here’s what Bret Contreras said in a recent article on T-Nation:

While most individuals bend with a blend of spinal, pelvic, and hip motion, weightlifters possess unique movement patterns at the hip. Stu (McGill) states that:

“Olympic Weightlifters attempt to do the opposite – they lock the lumbar spine close to the neutral position and rotate almost entirely about the hips.”

Of course, Olympic weightlifters are better at hip hinging than normal individuals, but the importance of this information is that the movement patterns developed in the weight room transfer over to everyday life. Master the hip hinge first and everything else seems to fall into place.

This is hard to conceptualize, so look at the pictures below. The first two are random YouTube guys.The third is Taner Sagir. The fourth, Pyyros Dimas.

Compare the YouTubers to the professionals. The YouTubers have bent knees, bent hips, and the bar is away from their body. The pros, however, have straight legs, fully extended hips, and the bar close to their body.

GUTSY GOALS

If you look like the YouTubers, your clean isn’t delivering the PF Flyer promise. This is normal, as hinging takes time to learn. A lot of time. It also means stripping weight from the bar. A lot of weight. People don’t like sacrificing a lot of time and a lot of weight. So they don’t. But they should.

Serious athlete aside, you’re better off for learning how to power clean. It’s a complex movement, and learning how to do complex things is a good thing. And if you perform it using the technique I describe below, it’s indicative of a solid hip hinge—something everyone should have.

AN ATHLETE’S POWER CLEAN

The problem most people have with the power clean starts with the double knee bend, which is usually accepted as a must. The double knee bend happens after the legs initially straighten. After the bar clears the knees, they re-bend back underneath the bar for one last upward heave.

For most people, the hips never snap forward after this happens, meaning the lower back and shoulder jerk combined with a quad push is really what propels the weight in the air. Its turns the movement into a vertically loaded exercise, much like a jump squat.

But we care about the hips. We need the hips. Hip extension and the glutes are where power is cooked up. And the double knee bend, used ignorantly, turns the oven off. It turns hip extension into knee extension.

Luckily there’s another way to do cleans and snatches in the single knee bend technique. Once the legs straighten initially, they don’t re-bend under the bar. So using our romanian deadlift position for reference, the hips snap forward without a second knee bend—similar to a kettlebell swing.

Since there is no “jump” portion of the lift, the quads and patellar tendon are saved extra stress. There’s no aggressive stomp with the barbell crashing down on the clavicles.

Not as much weight can be handled with this technique, especially when learning it. But that doesn’t matter. It’s like dismissing the front squat as a useful exercise because the back squat can be loaded more. More weight is arbitrary and progress is relative. Getting stronger is different than lifting more weight.

THE HINGE, DECONSTRUCTED

Before venturing into power cleaning this way, you have to learn how to hinge. My go-to exercise for teaching this is the romanian deadlift (RDL). There are other hip exercises out there, but none teach standing hip extension quite like the RDL. If you hinge correctly, I’d guess that 90% of your problems would go away, chronic knee pain included. It’s a fundamental aspect of my book, An Athlete’s Guide to Chronic Knee Pain. Learning it is critical.

So if you want to quest towards an athletic power clean, here is a rundown

  • Learn how to hinge with the hips coming to a strong lockout with the glutes squeezed, especially from a RDL
  • Incorporate this into the power clean by foregoing the double knee bend and stomp
  • The feet stay planted on the ground the entire time, simply shoot the hips forward and whip the weight in the air once you hit the RDL position
  • After some practice, you can come up on your toes and do this
  •  Even then, there’s no need to stomp or reposition the feet.

TL;DR

The power clean has limited application for large group athletic settings. But if you’re going to use it, learn how to hinge with your hips to make it more effective and save your body wear and tear.

Photo Credit: Flickr, Crossfit

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25 comments… add one

  • Great points Anthony. I simply perform Hang Cleans with some of my athletes because they are going to do them in college. That’s literally the only reason. As Buddy Morris has made the point several times, it takes 10,000 reps to become an expert of something. I just don’t see an non weightlifter becoming an expert. An athlete doesn’t have enough time with the need to obtain sport mastery through the very needed skill acquisition of their specific sport(and even position in their sport). In other words, the athlete has to learn the skills of their sport where as athletes that are weightlifters require skill that consists basically of 2 complex lifts.
    With the lack of a “sports system” in the US, the athletes that I deal with require much more time and need more athlete movements like running, jumping, accelerating/decelerating. I find my time much better spent working on these various “athletic skills” which will transfer to their sport more so than working on an OL. I appreciate the lessons learned from sitting back and transferring force(hip hinge and extension) via the OL, but it’s much easier and more transferable using various jumps or med ball throws when working with athletes. I refuse to hear jerk off “weight coaches” telling me that something taught via a “lift” will transfer to something done on field or turf when training an athlete. I appreciate the OL’s as a tool. But not THE tool when teaching an athlete to become a better athlete.
    Just my 2 cents in training athletes like athletes…

    Reply
    • Totally agree Scott. What can be accomplished through the Oly Lifts can be accomplished via much simpler means. But, as you mentioned, some athlete’s are going to have to face them some day. And those that already do, this is the best way, in my opinion.

      Reply
  • This is why the hang clean is so awesome. If you start from a hang with your legs basically straight like a partial RDL, you are forced to use your hips. I always hang clean and rarely power clean from the ground. For some reason, I like snatching from the ground better though.

    Great article!

    Reply
    • True Drew. But even then it can be done incorrectly. Less so though. Much easier to teach from the hang though.

      Reply
  • Hi Anthony, great article – loved your idea about foregoing the double knee bend. Care to elaborate more on “Getting stronger is different than lifting more weight”. Thanks.

    Reply
  • I understand your ned to make provocative titles and all, but wouldn’t this be so much more appropriately named “why people suck at power cleans” ?

    Reply
    • It could be, Dylan. It could be. But I’m power clean bipolar. For some populations, I hate them. Others, they are OK barring this technical issue.

      Reply
  • Anthony,
    Everyone has started throwing around the term “hip hinge” and how important it is, but many people have begun to do this movement emphasizing the shin stay perpendicular and some even perform the hip hinge with their shin behind their ankle.

    In my opinion the proper hip hinge allows for knee bend forward, which demonstrates posterior chain control over the tibia in knee flexion. Teaching hip hinging with a vertical or posterior shin, in my opinion goads the it band into assuming some control over stabilizing the hip and knee.

    The forward knee bend being controlled by the posterior chain is what makes compound leg exercises work IMO. I dont like much of the form Ive seen of the hip hinge.

    Here is an article by Smitty who I usually think alot of. Whats your take on this?

    http://www.dieselsc.com/learning-the-hip-hinge/

    Reply
    • Domenic,

      The hinge, in it’s simplest form, should be originally taught with little shin angle because that’s the movement. Once you learn that, then incorporating it into more complex patterns is fine. But it’s whole crawling before walking before running bit.

      Reply
  • I get the idea, I just think its wrong. It places way too much tension on the hamstrings and way to little on the glutes. Take those diesel pics, you agree with the angle being posterior as shown?

    Reply
    • I don’t like the “negative” shin angle because it tells me people are carrying weight on their heels too much. So I don’t like the angle either, but I know their rationale for doing it. They ust don’t want the quads to be involved in any way.

      Reply
  • Great great post Anthony! I was interested in what people are blogging about “these days” concerning the power clean, and when i read your title, I was a bit worried to say the least! But luckily I found out you teach the power clean exactly like i teach my athletes: without the double knee bend to activate the posterior chain properly. Too bad there are all to little articles like this, people are focusing too much on how much they can lift instead of how they lift it.
    Friendly regards from Finland!
    - Johan Lahti
    R5 Athletics & Health

    Reply
  • Gabriel Cuevas June 24, 2013 4:34 am

    Do you think power cleans are sufficient to balance the action of the bench press? In the NSCA’s guide to program design, their sample in season program goes like this: 4×4-6 power clean, 4×6-8 squats, 4×6-8 bench press, 4×4-6 reps push press. Is this a sufficient maintance program that will preserve a healthy shoulder girdle balance?

    Reply
    • Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on what sport you’re playing. If you’re doing football or something notorious for wrecking shoulders, it’s not ideal to have a pressing intensive program.

      Having said that, I don’t believe that our presses and pulls are necessarily directly opposing (Ie: do rows for every bench, chins for every overhead). In general, I do more back work though simply because the power clean isn’t an active upper back exercise. Most of the power is driven from the lower.

      Reply
  • Can you point me to some videos of Male Professional Olympic Weightlifters doing Power Cleans properly so I can watch them please? I usually learn the best by carefully watching people perform lifts.

    Reply
    • Any Olympic weightlifter that’s a professional technically does them “right,” it’s just that it depends on the goal. I’d be an idiot to pretend they weren’t doing them “properly.” Just think RDL and explode the hips through.

      Reply
      • Gabriel Cuevas August 26, 2013 11:51 pm

        Just don’t do the feet stomp thing.

        Reply
      • O I have no doubt that any Olympic lifter would do them right. I guess I should have been clearer. What I meant was I wanted to be pointed to some videos of Olympic weightlifters doing power cleans, because I was searching on YouTube but could only find non-Olympic weightlifters doing them and when I found videos of Olympic lifters doing something it was cleans, not power cleans. It seems from what I have seen they mostly do cleans. I guess I didn’t need to add “properly” as they would be doing them thus all the time. What is RDL? Please excuse my ignorance.

        Reply
        • Romanian deadlift.

          There are many videos of power cleans on YouTube from Olympic weightlifters. Just have to find them, and sadly, I don’t got the time. Keep looking. They’re there. Besides, the form doesn’t change much.

          Reply
          • Romanian Deadlift. Gotcha. Thanks. May you be blessed by seeking YHWH the Most High and his Truth.

  • This is an interesting tactic to perform the lift correctly. Do you have a video or a link to one of how it would look when done properly (with the single knee bend)? Thanks!

    Reply
    • It looks like an RDL. Keep in mind most high class WL don’t do this overtly, nor do they do the double knee bend. The DKB is actually only really taught with emphasis in America, methinks. The Chinese, for instance, pull to the hip.

      Reply

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