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The Power Clean: The Athlete’s Exercise

ironmanmagazine.comThe very first exercise that I teach anyone starting out on a strength program is the power clean. Once athletes learn how to do that high-skill exercise correctly, they can move on to other movements that will help them build a stronger back much more readily—such as full cleans, power and full snatches, clean and snatch-grip high pulls, shrugs and deadlifts.

The primary reason that I want aspiring athletes to learn how to power clean correctly is that it greatly enhances a number of athletic attributes: quickness, coordination, foot speed, balance and timing—all of which are most useful to all athletes, regardless of what sport they play. Of course, the power clean also will enable them to get considerably stronger at the same time.

The power clean strengthens a great many more muscles than nearly any other exercise. When you pull the bar from the floor to your waist, you work your legs, hips and lower back very directly. Then the middle and upper back and shoulders and arms come into play as you finish the movement. That’s a lot of muscles and attachments getting attention in just one exercise. In addition, because the power clean is a dynamic movement, you activate the muscles, tendons and ligaments in an entirely different manner from when you do a slower, more deliberate exercise.

It’s call the “athlete’s exercise” for two reasons. It will make anyone a better athlete, and those athletes who possess a high degree of the attributes mentioned above excel at the lift right away. The Vesper Boat Club of Philadelphia, the highest ranked rowing club in the country at the time, used the power clean as a test for anyone wanting to joint the team. If the prospect couldn’t learn the lift in a certain amount of time, he never got on the water.

When I was with the Baltimore Colts, I put all the rookies through my program, The Big Three, which included power cleans. After I ran them through a workout, I would tell the coaches who the best athletes were. I used the power clean as my gauge. The coaches would be surprised that I had ranked the players in the exact order in which they had been drafted even though I had not seen that list before I trained them.

I stated that I start all my athletes on this exercise, and that includes my female athletes because power cleans are just as beneficial to the fairer sex as they are for males. And they learn correct form faster than males—mostly because they haven’t picked up any bad habits along the way.

For females and youngsters I recommend using five-pound training plates. Everyone can handle 55 pounds, even if he or she is puny.

While the power clean is considered a high-skill movement, I can teach athletes how to do the lift correctly faster than I can teach them how to do a back squat or bench press properly. I learned how to do the lift on a standard bar and without any instruction, as did a great many others who began lifting in the ’50s and ’60s. If we were able to learn how to do power cleans on our own, so can you.

Step in close to the bar with your feet shoulder width apart and your toes pointed straight ahead. To find your ideal foot placement, shut your eyes and pretend that you’re about to do a standing broad jump. Flatten your back, lower your hips, and grip the bar. The grip will vary from individual to individual, but for most extend your thumbs on an Olympic bar so that they just touch the smooth center.

Grip the bar firmly and look straight ahead. Make sure the bar is tucked snuggly against your shins and your front deltoids are slightly out in front of it. With straight arms, push your feet down into the floor and bring the bar upward in a smooth, controlled manner. Most beginners try to jerk the bar off the floor, but that causes it to run forward out of the proper line—and the action also makes you round your back. Those are both form mistakes, so learn how to start the bar off the floor smoothly from the very beginning.

Once the bar passes your knees, drive your hips forward aggressively and in that same instant, contract your traps. That combination will elevate the bar to your navel. At that point climb high on your toes and bend your arms. The thrust provided by your biceps, brachioradialis and calves will give you that final burst of power that will bring the bar up to your shoulders.

The key points for the pull are these: Keep the bar close to your body from start to finish; when you bend your arms, your elbows should go up and out, not up and back. The bar should resemble a whip, moving slowly at first and then picking up speed until it’s no more than a blur at the top.

As soon as you give the bar that final punch, swing your elbows under it and rack it across your front delts. Those with tight shoulders will need to spend time making them more flexible if they want to be able to handle heavy weights.

While you’re racking the weight, bend your knees. That should be only a slight dip, not an exaggerated one, as the purpose of doing power cleans is to develop the pulling muscles. The longer the pull, the more the muscles are worked.

When you’re racking the weight, never lean back. Your torso should be perfectly erect or a bit forward. Leaning back can be stressful to the lower back when done repeatedly—so just don’t do it.

Lower the bar in two stages. First, flip the bar over and lower it to that place where your body bends at your waist, bending your knees to cushion the shock. Pause long enough to make sure your back is flat, and, keeping the bar close to your body, lower it to the floor. Keep in mind that you can injure yourself when lowering a weight just as you can when lifting it if your form is sloppy.

Reset. Make sure the bar is tight against your shins, your front delts are out in front of the bar and your back is flat. Then do your next rep. Breathe just before you start the pull and after you rack the weight at your shoulders. Hold your breath during the pull itself.

The most common form mistakes on the power clean include allowing the bar to travel away from the body, rounding the back, bending the arms too soon, letting the elbows turn backward instead of outward and racking the bar improperly. All can be rectified with practice.

Power clean three times a week until you have the form down pat. Do five sets of five and try to improve your technique at every session. When you do everything exactly right, the bar will seem to climb up to your shoulders on its own volition. That’s when you know you’re on your way to becoming an excellent power cleaner. Then it’s time to start adding more weight so that you get considerably stronger and are playing your chosen sport much better.

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—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit

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