This is the second installment in my Olympic lifting series for Girls Gone Strong and builds on some of the information from my first article on the snatch.
The clean, much like the snatch, is one of the best training options available for developing strength and power. It requires a little less speed but more strength than the snatch. The full-body movement teaches your body to work as a connected unit, improving your ability to perform complex movement patterns efficiently.
Performance benefits aside, how often do you really get to go all out and relish in the power of being aggressive and throwing some weight around?
Seventeen years ago, when I began weightlifting, the possibility of traveling around the world to share my knowledge and experiences in weightlifting just didn’t exist. Let’s be honest, finding anyone interested in learning the lifts was rare, especially outside of the athletic arena. Locating any instructional information was a challenge. Even YouTube wasn’t around until 2005 — six years after I started lifting! I owned a VHS tape from USA Weightlifting and that was about it.
Now, as interest in the Olympic lifts has skyrocketed, there’s no shortage of information available. Almost everyone has their own YouTube channel, and it can be overwhelming to know who to follow and learn from, especially for those who have little or no experience. The pursuit of Olympic lifting at any level is a continuous learning process and it’s best to start by creating a solid foundation. You may find it easiest to learn these positions and movements with a very light bar or even just a PVC dowel, but will probably find that you can work up to using the regular bar and even adding some weight relatively quickly.
Before diving into the key positions and movements of the lift itself, let’s review some foundational principles that will simplify your learning process and help prepare you for success.
The four foundations that I shared in the snatch article also apply to the clean, with one addition. Preparation in these areas will make learning the lifts much easier:
The mobility requirements for the clean are slightly different. Some people experience restrictions in the wrists or shoulders when the bar is sitting on the shoulders in the front rack position. Ankle mobility restrictions are also common when attempting to maintain an upright torso at the bottom of the clean.
When evaluating mobility, be sure you also have control and stability throughout your entire range of motion. Sometimes, this lack of control can cause you body to lock down in its attempt to create a more stable position, thereby decreasing your available range of motion. The result is a feeling of “tightness” often in the hamstrings or in the lats and shoulders when reaching overhead. When you feel “tight,” you may assume that the area needs to be stretched, when in fact, what you actually need is more specific strength to create stability so your body will trust you in that position. If you’ve been stretching a “tight” area regularly and feel like you’re not making any progress, it’s a good idea to try working on building control.
Maintaining alignment of the pelvis and ribcage is vital to supporting a heavy load on the shoulders without “giving” into an arched or rounded back position. This is especially true when moving and catching weight with the speed used in the lifts.
Deadlifts and squats develop a great base, and the addition of front squats helps you to get stronger and reinforce the same position you’ll use in the catch phase of the clean.
One of the most important things to learn when performing the clean (or any Olympic lift) is how to fail safely. Your safety is always more important than your lift! That said, I also often see people drop their bars carelessly. Learning to actually drop a weight can be a bit intimidating at first, but you definitely want to do this correctly to ensure your safety as well as to protect the equipment.
When you miss a clean, the bar will fall forward, even if it pushes you backward. Keep your hands on the bar as it falls - don’t try to slow the bar down, just guide its path, pushing it away from you. Release the bar when it is about two or three feet from the floor. As the bar is falling, also begin to quickly move your body clear out of the way of the bar. Once the bar hits the floor, it will bounce and roll. When you know you’re out of harm’s way—usually after one bounce—go back and prevent your bar from rolling too far.
In addition to learning how to miss a lift, learning to accept and learn from your failed attempts will help you come back stronger each time you miss a lift, always moving forward. A great principle for anything in life!
Generally the weights you’ll eventually lift in the clean will be heavier than in the snatch. Most people don’t struggle to stand up out of a snatch unless the bar is wildly out of position. However, with the clean, you’ll need to dig deep and keep pushing when you start to get stuck while trying to stand up. If you stick with it and keep pushing, you’ll often find unexpected success!
Practicing the following positions and movements for the clean will set you up for a successful lift. Drill them often, especially when you’re first learning.
Most people tend to grab the bar with their hands too close together. You can alter the width of your grip over time until you find what is most comfortable and effective, but at the start, place the tip of your thumb about a half inch to one inch past where the knurling (the rough part of the bar) starts, lay your thumb flat along the bar, and then grasp the bar. It may feel wide at first, but it should place the bar at just the right spot on the thigh in your power position.
The Hook Grip
The hook grip allows for a more secure grip on your bar and is best learned early on. It’s never fun, but I promise you, it truly helps! When you grab the bar, simply place your thumb around the bar first, then place your first two or three fingers (index, middle, and possibly your ring finger, depending on the size of your hands) on top of your thumb and around the bar. Ouch, I know, but with practice you’ll get used to it over time and it will strengthen your pull.
The first position I always teach in both the snatch and the clean is the power position. Although this is arguably the most important position to hit effectively and consistently, this is also the most often missed position in a lift.
You should feel as if you could jump from this position. The legs are loaded, you’re connected to the ground, and you’re ready to explode up into the finish of the pull to transfer all that force to the bar before getting yourself underneath it.
To find your power position:
It’s best to first learn the turnover slowly. Reinforce your movement pattern first, and then speed it up. This is easiest when using a very light bar or even a PVC dowel so you can focus entirely on the pattern.
The tempo of the clean should accelerate throughout the pull.
Begin with control and finish with power. For best results, create consistency hitting these key positions:
Begin by learning and drilling these basic positions, starting light—even with just a PVC dowel—and working your way up over time. While it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) replace the instruction of a qualified, experienced coach, it will start you on an amazing, frustrating, exhilarating journey, on which you’ll build significant strength and power, learn to go all-in and trust yourself and your abilities!
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