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Only the Strong Shall Survive: Clean Up

Very few coaches in this country know how to teach the power clean.

After my strength athletes have been training for some time, they usually request more variety in their routines. Since they’ve been doing power cleans and have mastered good form, I suggest they try doing the full clean. Typically, they frown and look worried, mumbling that the lift is too complicated for them. It isn’t.

In fact, the full clean is a rather simple exercise, and most people can achieve decent technique rather quickly. Since it’s an explosive lift, those who possess high levels of athleticism learn faster than those with lesser levels. That doesn’t mean the less gifted shouldn’t try the exercise, however. In many cases those who struggle early on end up handling more weight in the long run.

Before I let athletes try to do a full clean, they must be able to perform two other skills. They must be able to rack the power clean properly. By properly, I mean their elbows must be high and the bar must rest across their front delts. It also helps if they’ve learned to snap the bar at the top of the power clean. A powerful finish is essential on a full clean.

The second necessary skill is closely associated with the first. Before they attempt a full clean, athletes have to be able to do a front squat using good form. If lifters can keep their elbows high during a front squat and can do a power clean, then they can do a full clean. It’s simply a matter of practice. Most are pleasantly surprised to find that they can do a full clean right away. It’s a more natural movement than power cleans.

Unfortunately, very few coaches in this country know how to teach the power clean’primarily because they’ve never done it themselves. The few who do teach it are almost always former Olympic weightlifters, and they’re generally found in training centers, not in health clubs or fitness facilities. That’s a shame because the full clean is so useful for all athletes. Baseball players take to it readily, as do tennis players and those who play football, basketball and lacrosse. It’s also extremely useful to throwers in track and field.

The main reason why full cleans are so beneficial to athletes is that they involve so many of the large muscles of the body in a dynamic fashion. When performed even with adequate form, the full clean works the legs, hips, back, shoulders and arms. While it’s true that other exercises also work all those groups, they don’t do it in quite the same manner. The full clean forces the nervous system to work harder than any other exercise, with the exception of the full snatch. You need a high level of mental concentration on this lift, and in the process of having to think so precisely through each phase, the nervous system gets a serious workout. That’s the reason many athletes are completely beat after a full clean session. Draining the nervous system is more fatiguing than tapping into the reserves of the muscular system.

Not everyone agrees with me on this point, but I firmly believe that when coordination, timing and speed are built into an exercise, it enhances those attributes, which can carry over to any other physical activity. If athletes perform a high-skill movement in the weight room, it will benefit them in their chosen sport. How can it not help?

Some coaches who attempt to teach the full clean make it too complicated and end up confusing lifters. They include far too many keys, which isn’t necessary in order to learn the lift. As athletes progress and start handling big weights, their form must be refined constantly, but in the beginning simplicity is the best approach.

If athletes can do a power clean and a front squat using at least good form, I can teach them to do a full clean in about 15 minutes. I didn’t originate the system I use. I learned it from Morris Weissbrot, the longtime coach of the Lost Battalion Hall Weightlifting Club in New York City. We worked a clinic together at Rutgers University, and he demonstrated the drill. I was most impressed because he taught a group of football players to do full cleans in a short period of time. None of them had ever done the lift before. I’ve used the drill ever since because it is very basic’and I like basic.

My version may not be identical to the way Morris taught it, but he gets full credit for devising the system. I have my athletes take plenty of time to warm up and stretch. Because the rack is so important, they must stretch the shoulder girdle and wrists’especially the wrists, since they take the brunt of the stress. I encourage all beginners to tape their wrists in preparation for doing the full clean. In fact, taping your wrists is never a bad idea for any exercise in which you’re going to place those relatively delicate joints under stress. As the saying goes, An ounce of prevention.’

After the lifters have done some ab and lower-back work, such as hyperextensions, and stretched their shoulders thoroughly, I have them do a few sets of power cleans with a light weight to warm up their pulling muscles and help them establish the line of pull.

Now they’re ready to do the drill. Each set consists of three parts. Initially, that’s difficult for lifters to understand because they aren’t accustomed to doing multiple steps in a single set, but after a couple of sets they quickly learn what I want them to do.

Step 1 is to power-clean the bar and then do a front squat. That sets the pattern. Step 2 is to stand up with the bar, set yourself firmly, lower the bar to just above your knees and do a hang clean. Once the bar is racked on your shoulders, go into the deep bottom position. That’s really the hardest step to learn. Eventually, you have to do it in a smooth, fast motion. You must pull the bar high, just as you do when performing a power clean, then react when it reaches its apex and move instantly into the deep bottom position. It’s difficult to do because there’s so little time to make the conversion from pulling to moving your body downward, but that’s exactly the point. When you try to clean a heavy weight, there can be no hesitation at the conclusion of the pull. You must react in a flash and drive into the hole.

In step 3 you start the bar from the floor, pull it high, just as you did on the power clean, but when it reaches its zenith, you drive into the bottom once again. In other words, the final stage of the three-part drill is a full clean. The first two reps are merely setups to aid you in the final one. The timing is the most difficult part to learn in the drill, and it takes time, so don’t get discouraged if you can’t do the full clean correctly right away. Despite that caveat, athletes often surprise me. In many cases athletes who have had problems learning correct form on the power clean have a natural feel for the full clean.

Never use straps when doing the drill. You want to be able to release the bar in the event you fail with the lift. You can, however, use the hook grip; that is, bring your thumb under the bar and secure it tightly with two fingers. To lessen the discomfort, wrap a half-inch of tape around each of your thumbs, at the joints above the ones with the nails. Two rotations will be enough. More won’t work as well because the tapes tend to bunch up. It’s smart to start using the hook grip right away if you really want to clean some heavy weights. It’s only painful for the first couple of weeks.

Everyone quickly learns how important the correct line is. If the bar moves too far away from your body, you won’t be able to rack it properly and it will crash to the floor. Conversely, if you tend to pull it backward, you’ll end up on your seat. The biggest concern for most lifters is that they’ll fall backward, with the bar crashing down on them. Rest assured, you’ll do that at least once. What you have to learn is to relax and not fight the descending barbell. It will clear your body.

To help you find the precise line of pull, especially on the third rep of the sequence, slow the start just a bit. Instead of exploding the bar off the floor, pull it upward smoothly, feeling the ideal line. Once it comes through the middle, you can lean into it and get a snappy finish.

Here are some other key points for the second and third reps. You must fully extend your body before driving into the bottom position. If you don’t, the bar won’t accelerate upward fast enough to give you time to get under it in a solid position. When you make your move to the bottom, you must explode to the floor in a flash. Once you feel your traps contract, react, and when you hit the bottom, you must be tight’I mean rigidly tight, like a rock. Otherwise, the bar will jar you out of position.

Nearly all lifters have a tendency to feel their way through the drill for the first couple of sessions. That’s understandable. So instead of going to the hole on the hang clean and full clean, they catch the bar high. While that’s all right when you’re in the learning stage, it’s important to go ahead and do a full front squat, regardless of how high you racked the bar. Eventually, you’ll be able to go lower and lower.

Start the three-set sequence with a light weight and slowly work up to heavier poundages. Small increases are better than big jumps, since it’s really a high-skill exercise. If you move up and fail, try it again. If you fail on that attempt, reduce the weight. The drill is only productive when you succeed with all three reps. You may find, to your pleasant surprise, that you can do the drill more proficiently when there’s more weight on the bar. That’s because you’re forced to pull harder and move faster with the heavier poundage. With the lighter weights you might hesitate, which throws your timing off too much. With bigger weights you have to react in a heartbeat.

The drill is always three reps’no more, no less. The exercise is demanding, as everyone quickly learns. It’s not one of those exercises that should be hurried, particularly in the beginning. Advanced lifters can move more rapidly, but while you’re learning the technique, make sure you’re rested for each set.

How many sets should you do? That depends largely on your physical state. If you’re in top condition, you’ll be able to handle more work than someone who’s just starting back into heavy training. The rule of thumb for everyone is the same, however: When your form gets sloppy, stop. You don’t want to develop bad habits, and that’s easy to do if you become too tired. After a few sessions you’ll find that you can do three or four more sets than you could initially, but always let your technique be your indicator of when to stop.

Give the drill priority in your program on the day you perform it and also for the week. You should do some ab and lower-back work in preparation for the workout, but on the day you do the drill, you need to do it first. That’s because it entails a high degree of timing, coordination and speed, attributes that are more available when you’re fresh. The same principle applies to doing the drill at the beginning of the week. You have more energy on Monday than any other day of the week.

Once you decide you’ve done enough sets on the drill, follow up with some high pulls. Do three sets and slowly add more as you get stronger. High pulls are ideal for overloading the muscles used in the clean. In reality, the clean is no more than a high pull followed by a front squat. High pulls fit nicely in behind the drill because you’ve already established the line of pull and your muscles are thoroughly warmed up.

Since you don’t have to worry about racking the weight, you can concentrate on many of the other form points, such as keeping the bar very close to your body, driving your hips forward at the perfect moment and extending the bar high while shrugging your traps. If you did your final set in the drill with 185, do your high pulls with 225, 255 and 275 for three reps each.

After you’ve done the drill and high pulls for a few weeks, you’ll find that the combination has a very positive effect on your other pulling movements, such as the power snatch, deadlift and shrug. That’s because your technique on the drill has to be precise, and the honing of form carries over nicely. I usually have my athletes do the drill for the clean once a week.

One day you’ll find that the final rep, the full clean, is falling into the slot perfectly. It’s a wonderful feeling to pull a big weight, drive in the hole and feel the bar resting across your front deltoids, exactly where it should be. That’s when you need to put more weight on the bar and try a max single. The drill is an excellent method of warming up, but once you’re ready, start adding plates and doing singles. Small jumps are better than big ones. When you set yourself to pull a personal record off the floor, think of that final rep on the drill.

You can use the drill as a conditioning exercise or it can serve as a teaching device if you’re seriously interested in learning how to clean a heavy weight. Some lifters discover that they have a natural feel for it. If that’s you, the next step is to learn how to jerk the weight you’ve cleaned. I’ll cover that subject in the future.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM

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