Being in and around weight rooms and serving as a consultant to countless athletic teams, there are some themes that I find are unfortunately recurring and common:
1. The football team is usually the only team that has an organized (somewhat) lifting program
2. That program is usually Bench Press, Squat and Power Clean with a bunch of other random exercises piled on
3. This approach is prevalent from the high school to college to pro ranks
4. All other sports follow a carbon copy of the football team, even though most times it doesn’t have application or carryover in any way, shape or form. Seriously, I have had Division I Girls Lacrosse and Field Hockey players who were handed the actual football program and they just scratched out “Football” and wrote in “Field Hockey” or “Lacrosse”. Are you kidding me? Someone is getting paid for this???
Today I want to take on just one element of this dilemma and discuss the Power Clean. It is often implemented to improve athletic power (I’ve been told it is a “football” exercise. Huh?).
The problem is that the Clean is a very highly technical skill. If you get real good at it you can win a gold medal. This technical skill is rarely taught correctly in a room full of over thirty 14-17 year old boys with little to no weight room experience. The amount of times I have walked into a weight room and seen anyone doing anything close to good form I can count on one hand.
Other than just the lack of coaching and experience, there are several other issues that detract from deriving any benefit from doing Power Cleans in your program:
1. If you can’t rack the bar correctly, YOU CAN’T CLEAN
I can always tell the athlete who can’t rack a bar correctly on their shoulders when they come in with their wrist taped or bandaged up after a bout of Cleans. They lack the flexibility to get under the bar so they beat the hell out of their wrists, or even worse, their spines. I have been told about a local high school football team that had over a dozen kids with reported stress fractures in their lumbar spines. This is not coincidence. This is what happens when a Power Clean turns into an ugly jump and curl and you catch the bar by leaning back and slamming into your low back every time.
2. If you can’t Front Squat, YOU CAN’T CLEAN
For many of the same reasons as listed above about being able to get under the bar well and rack it, the Front Squat forces you to be able to keep your chest tall and spine long or you will dump the bar forward. If you can’t do this while sitting back into your hips, you will never be able to catch the bar to complete the clean.
3. If you can’t High Pull, YOU CAN’T CLEAN
If you have even the simplest understanding of leverage, you know that the further an object you are lifting is away from your body, the heavier it becomes. If you are going to efficiently produce power into the bar, you need to be able to create a pathway up the front of your body once it leaves your thighs.
4. If you can’t Deadlift, YOU CAN’T CLEAN
There is an old expression that “you can’t start with chicken sh** and end up with chicken salad.” The Deadlift is the foundation and starting point for all Olympic lifts. If you can’t work solidly off of this base, everything after that is going downhill.
What about starting from stands or from a “Hang” position? Same deal, from a movement perspective it is still just hip hinging, but you’re just limiting your range of motion.
So are you saying Cleans are Bad???
No I’m saying most people are really bad at Cleans. So because of that most people shouldn’t do them.
But what if I really want to do them???
OK. Fair enough. Follow the 4 elements I listed above separately and build the “pieces” or “chunks” of the Clean each individually. Get really good at Deadlifts, Front Squats, High Pulls and racking the bar first. Once you can master these, then get good coaching on the technical elements of the Clean and you will get much better returns, while severely minimizing the risk of injury.
Do I really NEED to do them?
In my humble opinion, NO. You can get all of the power benefits from doing Front Squats and Deadlifts and compliment that with Kettlebell Swings, Jumps and less risky unilateral dumbbell Olympic lifts.
Don’t believe me? Join the club.
When I tell most football coaches to drop the Clean out their program they look at me like I just asked them to stop wearing helmets on the field. I just always knew instinctively that for all of the reasons listed above that they were doing more harm than good with Cleans. Then I got proof.
I recently implemented a 4-Day Off-Season Program with a local high school team. When I went through the program with the coach, he was extremely hesitant and nervous that I had no Cleans anywhere in the program. After talking him off of the ledge, I got him to trust me and said give it 2 months and let’s see what happens. He tested all of the players in their Bench, Squat and Clean before implementing the program. He then re-tested them 8 weeks later. Here is what happened:
Bench Press – Average Increase – 12.38lbs / 8.5%
Squat – Average Increase – 26.07lbs / 12.3%
Clean – Average Increase – 14.61lbs / 11.4% – Without ever doing a single Clean!!!
I heard a coach once say that he could predict his season based on how many kids on his team could Power Clean 255 pounds. For every one that could do 225, it equalled one win. I can’t dispute or confirm this statistically, but I do know one thing:
You can get much better at Cleans, by NOT doing Cleans. The net result can be the same, and you can save valuable time, while minimizing injury risk significantly, by going this alternate route.