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).
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.
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.
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.