The Power Clean Tutorial for Fitness, Strength & Power
The power clean is not the latest micro-particle washing powder, rather, it is a useful tool for the fitness enthusiast/gym-goer to achieve exceptional strength and power. A gym lift involving the pulling of a loaded barbell from the floor up to one’s shoulders, the power clean is a spin-off lift from the Olympic lifts and requires less technique and practising in order to reap its benefits of increased strength and power.
The power clean emulates one of the segments of the Clean & Jerk (C&J), the latter being one of the two competition lifts performed in the sport of Olympic weightlifting (the competition lifts are the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk). Specifically, the power clean mimicks the “clean” part of the C&J; for those not familiarized with Olympic weightlifting, the cleaning motion in the C&J is the segment of the lift that occurs when the loaded barbell is taken from the floor up to be caught on one’s shoulders, all in a single motion; no stopping the barbell midway. The main difference between the “clean” in the C&J and the “power clean” is that the clean is caught on one’s shoulders in a fully squatted position while the the power clean is caught in a partially squatted position (i.e. a quarter squat). In any case, the power clean is a lift that is practised by many sportsmen and gym-goers as it develops great power, strength and muscle mass.
It must be said that what you are about to read is meant to be an in-depth tutorial of the power clean. It will give you the guidelines to performing the lift correctly, so I recommend you to bookmark this page as it will be very useful for you as a future reference, and you will be reading it a few times as you practice the lift more and more. Lastly, once you are done reading this tutorial, make sure to also read my article on the basics of Olympic weightlifting to further understand where the power clean comes from.
American lifter Kendrick Farris illustrates how a clean is caught (full squat position)
Compared to the previous caption, the lifter here holds the barbell in a partial squat (same catching positioning as the power clean)
The power clean as a lift didn’t come to light until the ’70s when it was popularized by coach Bill Starr in his book “The Strongest Shall Survive” (a great book which I recommend any serious strength athlete to own). Bill Starr, himself a former Olympic weightlifter turned football coach, would have his team players perform the power clean (plus squats) to achieve enormous power and strength applicable to the playing field. From there onwards, the lift took off and every football coach, and their uncle, were having everyone doing the power clean, a training philosophy which still persists to this day since the power clean is that good an exercise to develop great athletic skills applicable to many sports.
Unfortunately, the power clean became too popular in the ’70s as a training exercise, which led to the lift being bastardised by people who hadn’t a clue about the lift and who contributed to the silly folklore that surrounds the power clean and that still persists to this day; all you need to do is go on Youtube and search for “power clean” “football” and see the creative manners in which the power clean is disgraced. Every time that a bro “jumps and shrugs” or deadlifts the barbell and then reverse curls it, a dolphin is run over by a Jet Ski; help the ocean be a better place and learn the power clean correctly with this tutorial, bro.
These days, you would count yourself lucky to find a football coach (or any other sports coach, for that matter) who has the slightest idea of how to perform a power clean, and even at the professional level not many coaches know what they are doing. The issue with the power clean is that it needs to be taught by someone who knows the lift and its dynamics, preferably an Olympic weightlifter, because it is easy to pick up faulty technique without proper supervision. Without someone constantly providing feedback on the execution of the lift, the best way to learn the power clean is by reading and watching as much as possible since the lift requires more technique and coordination than other strength lifts such as the squat or the deadlift.
Bill Starr demonstrates the correct pulling technique for the power clean in his book “The Strongest Shall Survive”
In my case, I have been exposed to the power clean as an Olympic weightlifter. This lift is hardly performed in Olympic weightlifting training and out of 5 days/week training schedule, I would typically do the power clean in two of those days as part of emphasizing the throwing up of the barbell, which is a very important aspect of the lift as you will learn in this turorial.
By now, you are probably thinking what is my best power clean since I like to talk so much about it; well, I have power cleaned 290lbs (132.5 kilos) at just about 180lbs (80 kilos) body weight, done during a session in which I had first cleaned 303lbs (137.5 kilos) for 4 sets of 3 reps and had also snatched 220 (100kgs) for another 4 sets of 2 and power snatched 220lbs (100kgs) for 5 sets of 1 rep. Not a bad power clean weight considering that it was done atfter those 3 lifts, wasn’t done as a max as our coach never had us maxing out in the power clean, and it was all done at 180lbs body weight and sporting a six pack. Needless to say, I have been very fortunate to be coached by some excellent coaches, and it is, thus, that I would like to pass on my knowledge onto you and help you in mastering the lift.
All right, enough with the digressing; let’s talk power clean business.
The Power Clean Tutorial – Power Clean Technique
My way of approaching the teaching of the power clean is by dividing the lift in 4 stages, detailing each of the stages and connecting them so as to ingrain the fluid motion that the power clean requires from the first stage to the last. Please note that despite the fact that I will teach you the lift in 4 separate stages, the power clean is a FLUID and NON-STOPPING movement in which the rested barbell is lifted from the floor up into your shoulders, all done in less than a second. You will be transferring all your power to the barbell so as to be able to accelerate the barbell and have it going against gravity; do bear this in mind when thinking of the transitions between stages. The 4 stages are: pull from the floor, second pull, triple extension and catching. I will use myself in most pictures to illustrate each stage in the power clean so expect no beautiful and graceful captions.
Pull from the floor - The Power Clean Tutorial
Here you approach the barbell on the floor and set yourself up to initiate the pull. Your goal is to take the barbell from its rested position up into your shoulders by lifting it as close to your body as possible (in order to maximize leverages). The way to go about it is to pull it up explosively from the floor, sending the barbell flying up against gravity and then going under it to catch it.
To set up into the initial position, approach the barbell, stand up in front of it with shins grasping the barbell, make sure you are at the center of the barbell and position your feet with the barbell on top of its mid-length (mid-foot). Once you have the correct foot positioning, squat down to grab the barbell by bending down first at the waist and then at the knees. Grip the barbell with both hands at about shoulder width, and now raise your hips at above what would be a parallel line from the floor. Then actively straighten your back while tensing it and pull your shoulders slightly over and in front of the barbell. If you do this correctly you will feel a nice stretch in your hamstrings (back of thighs). In essence, just before initiating the pull, you want your set up to be similar to this:
Notice how the hips are just above the parallel line, the back is straight and the shoulders over the barbell
From the initial set up you then lift the barbell, in a controlled manner, with your legs and not your back! The back remains at the same angle during the first pull hence the barbell is being lifted by your thighs and glutes. Moreover, your arms should have their elbow tips flared out (pointing to the sides) and your arms should be loose yet strongly gripping the barbell. The best way to get this cue is to think of your arms as ropes, with the only force applied through your hands as you firmly grip the barbell. Continue lifting with your legs until the first pull transitions to the second pull, the height at which the transition occurs being when you have lifted the barbell up to knee height. As you are lifting the barbell up to knee height, your positioning should look like this:
Notice how I keep the same angle in the back as the picture above. My arms are loose and the shoulders are over the barbell as I lift it off the floor
Second pull – The Power Clean Tutorial
As you lift the barbell past knee height, you then open the angle of the back with the hips (remember, from the floor up till now the angle remained the same) in order to try and stand erected and vertical from the floor. You do this by forcefully pushing your hips to the front while keeping your arms loose at all times (don’t engage your arms to actively pull the barbell up!) and with the barbell being pulled very close to the body, a fraction of an inch as it goes up during the second pull. The goal is to use the strength and power of your glutes, hamstrings, pelvic girdle and back to explode the barbell up in the air.
To illustrate the above, try the following in an open environment such as your garden yard: load a gym bag or any bag with clothes so it is full, put it on the floor and now grab it to throw it up in the air as high as you can. Notice how you threw the bag into the air; you very likely used the spring effect of your hips to transfer as much force into the bag as possible so it could fly up the highest. Now grab the same full bag with your arms but stand erected and throw the bag in the air as high a spossible WITHOUT using any other muscles except your arms. Can you see the difference in the height achieved between using the power of your hips and back as opposed to only your arms? Well, this very much hip motion is what you should try to get in your mind when in the second pull stage: you should think of driving the barbell UP into the air as high as possible. Don’t take no prisoners, now is the time to show how much power you have, so drive your hips forward and force the barbell to fly up.
The barbell has now being lifted past knee height and I have begun to break the angle of the back so as to push my hips forward, initiating the second pull
As I pull the barbell higher, notice how my thighs keep going to the front as I strive to stand vertically while keeping the barbell extremely close to my thighs
Triple extension - The Power Clean Tutorial
The triple extension is not an active stage per se but, rather, it is the consequence of exploding the barbell up into the air. Triple extension equates you being perpendicular to the floor with the hips having travelled all the way forward. All your points of flexion (ankles, knees and hips) are straightened thus the barbell has had all the power you could possibly transfer to it so as to now travel up in the air to its final destination: your shoulders. This stage is the finishing of the second pull and it is here where you should have your upper trapezium muscles shrugged up to your ears as this strong muscle group helps the barbell continue to move up. The barbell is now levitating up in the air BUT still under your control as your hands are firmly gripping the barbell and you are now ready to catch the barbell on your shoulders. By default, you will be going up on your toes as the power you have transferred to the barbell makes you go up with the very same barbell. However, do NOT stress rising on your toes as this is a simple consequence of pulling up and explosively, you will do it naturally.
Notice how I am now perpendicular to the floor, erected with arms straight, traps shrugged and on my toes, this is the triple extension
Catching the barbell - The Power Clean Tutorial
Since all these stages are occurring in less than a second, you have to be fast to catch the barbell. Effectively, you will be dropping under the barbell to catch it in a squat position which means being very fast to go from triple extension (elevated on your toes) to anywhere from several inches to two feet below the triple extension position. This is where the magic occurs, as being fast and reactive is a key element of the power clean and the Olympic lifts (hence why Olympic weightlifters are considered the best specimens of athleticism). The barbell will stop at any given height and it is your duty to be making a conscious effort to time the catching of the barbell; you will drop down while coordinating how the barbell is ascending/descending. Remember, your hands are firmly gripping the barbell throughout its trajectory thus you are controlling where it goes. What this means is: be fast to catch the barbell and catch it like you mean it. You must remain solid throughout the lift and especially when catching the barbell because a heavy enough weight may crush you if you don’t have a solid posture to catch the weight. It is advisable to split your feet wider apart as you go from the triple extension to squatting down to catch the barbell but this is left to the preference of the lifter (I myself split my feet a bit wider).
As soon as the barbell makes contact with your shoulders, lift your elbows up so that your upper arms (humerus bone) are about parallel to the floor. Your hands now open up and you catch the barbell on your palm at about where your fingers anatomically start. Upon catching the barbell, rise from the squat position until you are completely erected. Now lower the barbell under control or, if you have bumper plates, drop it from the erect position.
Be aware that you will catch the barbell at different heights as you load the barbell with more weight. The heavier the barbell, the lower you will catch it in the squat position.
The power cleaned barbell is now flying up and I am going down to catch it
Barbell is caught. Notice the solid posture, catching the barbell high with parallel upper arms and resting on my fingers
Fairly easy, huh? Remember, all of this is happening in less than a second, there is no stopping in between stages. It is key that you catch the barbell with elbows up as outlined as otherwise you will damage your elbows and wrists in no time. Moreover, start with light weights and only add more when the barbell is lifted in a fluid motion and you feel confident in your capabilities. A good weight to shoot for eventually is power cleaning a weight equivalent to your body weight, while a weight equating 1.25x of your bodyweight should have you acquiring transferable strength and power to your chosen sport (e.g football) or daily life. A power clean with 1.5x of your body weight (and beyond) would be classified as “strong” in any strength circle or anywhere you go.
The Power Clean Tutorial – Important stuff to know
With regards to learning, the above guidelines are a good starting point. I strongly recommend you to watch as many videos as possible of Olympic weightlifters and read other literature geared towards Olympic weightlifters. Now, I am mentioning “Olympic weightlifters” on purpose: Youtube and the internet is full of guys teaching the power clean without having a clue and of special merit is Crossfit. This relatively new exercise fad (Crossfit) pretends to teach the Olympic lifts when in reality 99% of Crossfit coaches don’t have a clue what they are doing nor have they ever done any kind of Olympic weightlifting outside the bastardized versions of Crossfit. While I do appreciate the benefit of Crossfit to people who just want to get in OK shape and find a social place to take their shirt off while lifting weights that any 12 year old Chinese weightlifting girl warms up with, I strongly encourage you to avoid reading or learning from anything that has the Crossfit label. Unfortunately, Crossfit has piggybacked on the US weightlifting organization so now they are joined in some mysterous hybrid and, thus, it is quite difficult in the US for a beginner to tell what is real Olympic weightlifting and what is Crossfit.
Fortunately, in the rest of the world Olympic weightlifting remains as the noble sport that it is and Crossfit is viewed as a fad with very weak trainers so, if you are in the US, I would suggest reading and learning from coaches such as: Bill Starr, Jim Schmitz, Glenn Pendlay, Mike Burgener, Tommy Kono and the late and dearly missed John Victor Askem (click here for his website, it is a bit disorganized but full of learning jewels). A few of these coaches have endorsed Crossfit in one way or another for sole monetary reasons, but their advice is generally spot on despite letting down the Olympic weightlifting community with their affiliations to exercising fads. There are many more good coaches in the US but learning from these guys will help you a lot, whether it is on the power clean, Olympic weightlifting or general strength training.
Finding videos of a properly executed power clean is tricky. Since the power clean is not a frequently executed element in Olympic weightlifting training, it is very hard to find an actual Olympic weightlifter performing a power clean. Most Youtube videos are from guys who have been taught the power clean incorrectly or, what is even worse, from guys who have the guts to teach the power clean despite not knowing what they are talking about and relying on their overly pumped arms to exude broscience knowledge and con gullible people (yeah, I’m looking at all of you personal trainers who’ve made flashy Youtube videos pretending to teach the power clean with a bicep-curl barbell and those Lego-like weight plates).
Fortunately, amidst all the rubbish that abounds on Youtube, there are still videos on our beloved YT that will be of use to you, especially with regards to illustrating how fast and fluid the power clean should be. Always remember that just because I have divided the lift in 4 stages, that doesn’t mean that the power clean is not a fluid and fast lift. When in doubt whether you are doing good or bad, always refer back to the videos below as they depict correctly executed power cleans.
Power Clean Videos
Yours truly power cleaning 275lbs for sets after training for only 6 months
The perfect power clean by Pyrros Dymas
440lbs power clean by US weightlifter Pat Mendes
Lastly, the power clean is a great adjunct to any training program, regardless of the sport. I have taught the power clean to a diverse range of athletes: from powerlifting to bodybuilding to soccer and even swimming. All my athletes found a noticeable improvement in performance both on the field and off the field, especially once they graduated to 1.25x body weight power cleans and more. I am a firm believer of its use and application in training programs for non-strength orientated sports but only when taught under correct supervision.
Let me know how it goes.
All the best,