Athletic training for average Joes: the barbell clean
Welcome to the third instalment of the ‘Athletic training for average Joes’ series. Today we’re talking about the barbell clean. The goal of this article is to learn the barbell clean and a few of its variations. As mentioned previously, I will be limited in including video and visual aids to support this article, due to the restrictions of the coronavirus lock-down. I hope, by the conclusion of this series, I will be able to add a summary article where I can share videos for all the required elements.
The clean is a mechanical movement and, as such, should initially be practised under the supervision of an experienced exercise professional, proficient in weightlifting. At Life Force Fitness, we accept no liability for any injury or damage caused by your undertaking activity without proper instruction or supervision.
History and records
The barbell clean, aptly named because the technique requires clean execution, was first introduced in weightlifting back in the Olympic games of 1896. The sport of weightlifting compromises two movements: the snatch and the clean and jerk. The clean and jerk is a combination of two techniques linked together. The clean is the technique used to get the barbell from the floor to your shoulders; then, the jerk is the process of getting the bar overhead with your arms locked out.
In weightlifting, you are allowed three attempts at increased weights to get the bar from the floor to overhead within an allotted time frame. The techniques used are more technical than standard gym exercises. That said, although technical mastery can take a lot of practice, there are ‘stages’ to learning the movement and variations used in general training.
In terms of weight that can be lifted, these movements allow for some high numbers. As an example, the clean and jerk records in the 71kg weight limit are 152kg for females and 198kg for the males. That is taking over double bodyweight from the floor to overhead using no assistance. Outside of the sport of weightlifting, the clean is a standard inclusion in most athletic development programmes due to its carryover, which I will discuss later.
Previously, the only place where weightlifting received ‘mainstream’ exposure was in the Olympic games. Although this is a global platform for millions of people to view the sport, it is limited in the fact it is held every four years. Unless you were active in the weightlifting community, or training in specific weightlifting gyms, you might not have seen a snatch or clean and jerk outside of the Olympic games.
In the last decade, we have seen several popular training systems include the use of the clean. Most notably, CrossFit has placed a lot of its strength-based development on the inclusion of weightlifting techniques and their variants (which I will discuss later in the article). CrossFit as a sport aims to ‘cover all bases’ and rather than programme training in specific blocks, it tries to include all areas of fitness in one programme. Because of this, it is selective in exercise choice. Therefore, the use of weightlifting techniques becomes much more valuable over the use of, for example, bodybuilding techniques and programmes.
On the flip side, we see the likes of Les Mills include the use of the clean in its classes. Within their ‘BodyPump’ and ‘GRIT’ series, they use clean variations in an interval-based setting. Because the exercise requires multiple muscle groups working at once, you get a higher demand on the body; thus, a greater calorie burn in comparison to, say, squats alone.
Due to the new rise in popularity of weightlifting, it is now common to find weightlifting platforms as well as bumper plates in commercial gyms. Bumper plates allow for weights to be dropped without damaging the floor or the weight used.
Desert island exercise, with a caveat
Previously in blogs and social posts, we have mentioned that the deadlift is our ‘desert island exercise‘. If we could only do one movement, it would be the deadlift, due to the number of muscles activated to perform the deadlift, simplicity to master and functional carryover.
However, if I were to take the technical learning element out of the equation, then I would argue that the clean would be my desert island exercise. The clean already starts with the deadlift technique; however, rather than stopping at hips locked out, you accelerate through this stage to perform the catch in the squat position. The clean starts with a deadlift, includes an explosive rotation and ends with a front squat.
The clean allows you to train more for power rather than just strength. You can use different tools to perform the clean, such as barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells. As a technique, it is very functional; hence it’s inclusion in most athletic development programmes.
The clean and athletic development
It is a commonplace to see the clean utilised in the training programmes of many athletes outside of weightlifting. Athletes in such sports as rugby, martial arts, American football and sprinting will use clean variations. It is more common to see the inclusion of power cleans and hang cleans over the full clean variations, outside of weightlifting. They are technically easier versions of a full clean that still deliver most of the benefits. So, what are the athletic benefits of performing clean variants, and why should you consider them?
Bang for buck
As mentioned previously in this article, the barbell clean will recruit the vast majority of muscles in the body throughout the technique from start to finish. Imagine mixing a deadlift, an upright row, a front squat and a plank all in one. If you take time to master the technique, you can substantially reduce the number of exercises used during your sessions. You can shorten your training time considerably while increasing your output, which should be the priority for most recreational lifters.
Once you become proficient at the barbell clean variants, it is not unthinkable to be cleaning above bodyweight for reps. Because you are using more muscles, there is more support to lift the weight. However, you will require the ability to hold the bar throughout. When performing barbell cleans for athletic development, it is common to do moderate to heavy weights, for multiple sets of low reps. For example, you might do six sets of 2 reps at 80% of 1-rep max (1RM).
This exposure will see high development in grip strength. Increased grip strength has a high carry over to everyday life, let alone any other exercises that require gripping or holding weights. As an example, let’s look at pulling exercises. Let’s say you can do one pull up. A common issue is the ability to grip the bar as you pull yourself up. You will find with regular exposure to grip training you will be able to perform more pull-ups. The increased work completed will also increase results.
Developing hip drive is essential for allowing you to throw further or accelerate off starting blocks at the start of a sprint. It will enable you to jump higher, increase reaction times for changes of direction or lift more weight in general. Although you can now find specific hip drive machines, the barbell clean is a functional exercise that requires no specific equipment and has more carry over as it’s performed explosively.
In the same way that grip strength has a high carryover, so does explosive hip drive. Regular use of cleans will see more significant improvements in your squat and deadlift numbers. If you perform plyometrics, you will see increases in your jump height and distances. Once again, this leads to more significant development as a snowball effect.
Metabolic conditioning (fat burning)
The barbell clean variations require multiple muscle groups working on completing a movement. You can burn more calories in a short space of time compared to an exercise using a single muscle group. Not only that, but you will experience a substantial oxygen debt that will make you pant hard, and considerable muscular and nervous system fatigue. This is going to heat you up. The resulting hormonal cascade, repair and recovery process is going to keep your metabolism elevated for a good few hours afterwards. That’s going to help you burn fat. High-intensity interval training creates this same effect. Think of cleans, performed as above, as being a short period of intervals.
The reason I placed fat burning in brackets is that you will only achieve appreciable fat loss if you are in a calorie deficit. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression that you can regularly perform them, and you will get lean while still eating at will.
Build stronger bones
Performing heavy barbell cleans can help increase your bone strength. To have this benefit, you must implement them under correct guidelines of effort and intensity. When your bones get subjected to heavy loads, it causes a process called ‘epiphysis loading’, which is the creation of small fractures within the bone itself. The nature of these fractures triggers a secondary process called calcification, where the bones will then thicken and become stronger. Think of it as the scarring process in the bones.
Strengthening bones can become beneficial, especially in later years, to help prevent bone loss. Stronger bones can also help guard you against future, more severe fractures as well as help you fight against diseases such as osteoporosis.
As mentioned above, performing barbell cleans not only allows you to activate most muscle groups, but also creates a more significant calorie burn. Combine this with the correct nutritional protocol, and you can develop a very lean, muscular, athletic physique. If you search for ‘Chinese weightlifting team’ and look at the images, or even ‘CrossFit athletes’ in general, with the exclusion of the super heavyweights, you will notice that they are all very muscular with visibly low body fat. The reason I highlighted the Chinese lifters is that they are very deceptive: looking at their photos you could easily be mistaken that you were looking at 85-90kg lifters, when in fact most are in the 55-75kg range.
If you were looking to become leaner and more muscular, you might find including cleans as a regular staple in your programme, at the right intensity, combined with the proper diet, will see you get quicker results.
How to perform the clean variations
Within this section, I will explain three key variations of the barbell clean. These are the hang-power clean, hang clean and a full clean. All will require a rather technical movement – the triple extension. Without the use of this technique, the clean, no matter the variation, becomes challenging to perform and has an increased injury risk.
The triple extension is a vital part of the technique required to transfer force through the bar movement path. Without the triple extension, you are likely to use either the wrong sequence of movement or the wrong muscles to generate movement. This can cause injury to muscles or more significant harm through poor technique. Perform the triple extension at the point where the bar is at your hips. You will be at the point where you reach maximum acceleration during the clean, and the triple extension allows you to transfer energy from your movement into the bar to help drive it up into the air.
The triple extension is a difficult technique as it requires you to perform three actions at once:
- As your hips reach lockout, you drive up on to your toes, performing a small ‘jump-hop’.
- You aggressively lock out your hips, which will usually look as if you are smashing them into the bar.
- Keeping the arms locked with a slight bend in the elbow, perform an explosive shrug with your traps and upper back muscles.
The combination of these three moves together allow you to fire the bar up, rather than trying to pull or ‘muscle’ it up. This movement pattern will require you to perform lots of reps to get efficient at it. You will want to achieve high rep sets at moderate weight to help you ‘feel’ the movement.
All three clean variations will require the use of a triple extension. Between the three clean variations, there will be two key differences:
- The hangs start from the knees, whereas the full clean starts from the floor.
- The full clean and hang clean will include a front squat movement mid technique, as you catch the bar after the triple extension. The power variation doesn’t have a squat in the movement. Instead, it has a small ‘knee dip’ to cushion the catch of the bar in the rack position.
Sometimes also referred to as a Muscle Clean, this variation is most common in commercial gyms. Hang-Power cleans are the least technical variation of the clean. Start by grabbing a bar as if you were performing a deadlift. If you’re not sure how wide that should be, stand with your feet 2-3 inches apart. Place your hands by your side, sticking your thumbs out. Touch your thumbs to the outside of your thighs; this will give you the correct width of hand placement on a bar.
Grip the bar with the above width and stand tall, maintaining the 2-3-inch gap between your feet. Keeping your chest up, push your hips back until the bar sits about 1 inch above your kneecaps. You are now in the ‘hang’ position.
Ensure not to sit down or to keep your legs locked straight. As you push your hips back, allow for a small bend in your knee, but your leg from the knee down should stay static. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings and glutes. These will be the prime drivers of the movement.
From this position, accelerate your hip drive straight into the triple extension technique. As you complete the triple extension, you want to simultaneously push your hips back slightly as you ‘dip’ your knees while you catch the bar up to the front rack position.
Front rack position
The front rack position requires you to hold the bar across your shoulders, in front of your body. You should create a shelf with your shoulders for the bar to sit across by pointing your elbows straight forward. If your elbows are pointing down, you won’t have the bar resting across your shoulders, and this will require more stress in your core muscles to try and hold the weight. You will also need to let the bar sit in the crook of your fingers, rather than gripped in a closed fist. The bar should be sat on the shoulders, and the fingers used to keep it steady. Check the first photo in the article to see hand, arm and bar position in the rack position.
If you have mastered the hang-power clean, you are now ready to progress to a hang clean. The setup and performance of the movement is the same, up to the triple extension. Where the exercise differs, rather than catching the bar in a high position with a knee dip, you will drop under the bar and catch it in the rack position, in the bottom of a front squat.
Ensure to rapidly drop under the bar to catch it, rather than pull it up to the rack position, then sit into the squat. Once you have landed and caught the bar in the bottom squat position, ensure to have a slight pause for a second to ensure you have caught and balanced the weight, before standing tall.
Executing this will require confidence to drop under the bar and catch it. Ideally, once you have performed the triple extension and gravity finds the bar, the bar will sit still enough in mid-air while you drop under it and catch it. If you search YouTube for slow-motion clean technique, there are plenty of examples available that display this. Here is an excellent demonstration by Chinese lifter Lu Xiaojun who cleans 201kg at 77kg, which is 2.6 x his bodyweight. In the slow-motion, you can see where the bar pauses on the spot as he drops under it.
Once you can perform a hang clean, you can progress to a full clean. The addition to the technique is taking the bar from the floor to the hang position. The common mistake is to start the full clean with a deadlift. Although it may appear like a regular deadlift, there is a slight technical variation. When you perform a deadlift, you drive the whole foot through the floor, keeping the chest high and essentially pushing the floor away from the bar.
For the clean, we want to generate the tension for the hang in the glutes and hamstrings. So, rather than thinking ‘stand up’, you need to think ‘push hips back’ as you push the floor away from the bar. This part of the movement will also start slow. When I teach the technique, I liken it to a car trying to accelerate from a traffic light. You slowly work your way through the gears and speeds, until you reach the speed limit. So, as you perform the clean, you want to hit full acceleration once you reach the hang position.
If you try and go full speed from the floor, it is common to mistime your technique, which can lead to either failing the rep or causing injury.
Seek the guidance of an experienced weightlifting coach to get the correct technique in your learning stages of the movement. They will be able to give you technical advice and help you safely increase the weight on the bar to find your working limit. A note of caution: not all personal trainers will be versed in weightlifting technique as this is a skill which is not part of the personal trainer course. Qualified trainers, like the staff at Life Force Fitness, will have had to attend specialised courses to allow them to teach weightlifting. Ensure when searching for professional assistance to look for the relevant qualifications.
I have touched upon this already a few times within this article. First, you will need to practise the technique. Unlike some other exercises, with the barbell clean, you need some resistance to give you ‘feedback’ to your technique. If you use too light a weight, it can be easy to manipulate the bar, rather than use the technical form to complete a rep. Use an Olympic barbell. It can be empty but, ideally, with training plates added. These will be full-sized weight plates, but may only weigh 1-2kg each.
Once you have a good grasp of the technique, you can slowly begin to increase the weight.
Once you have been able to establish your training max weight, programming will usually look like this:
Work up in sets of 3 reps until you reach 70% of your training max. Perform five sets of 2, followed by four sets of 1, all at this weight. Between every set, take 3-5 minutes rest.
Perform this workout twice per week.
In every session, try to add 2.5kg to the bar total. If you miss reps during a session, remain at that weight until you complete all reps before adding more weight. Follow this protocol for six weeks. At this point, take a week off to recover. In the next session, work up in singles to test your training max. Your lift should be significantly higher from the start point.
The barbell clean, and its variations, are valuable to learn and apply to your training. Mixing the clean with a few other selected exercises can give you a complete workout. Correct application of the barbell clean can make you leaner, more muscular, fitter and stronger. The caveat to the clean is it will require some time and practice to master. Once you do this, you will realise this was time well spent.
Ensure to seek professional, experienced guidance, such as the team here at Life Force Fitness. Use the barbell clean with heavy weight, over multiple sets of low reps.