I’ve seen a few people doing cleans at the gym which makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I happen to love doing Olympic lifts and would sacrifice every machine in exchange for a rack and a set of bumper plates. However the warm fuzzy turns to cold and gelatinous when I see some of the form on those cleans. Many of the performers appear to be high school aged athletes which points towards coaches emphasizing weight moved in the short term rather than technique and long term gains. Here are a few of the worst offenders in terms of technique.
1. Don’t jump.
Seriously, why go through the extra effort of lifting yourself completely off the ground while holding a heavy weight? What is happening here is that the upward explosiveness of the pull is becoming an uncontrolled spasm to get the weight to a certain height. You want to be a rocket engine, not a nuke. The pull is a constant acceleration from floor to the top. During this time, your FEET will go from flat on the floor to heels raised and then back to flat on the floor as the pull is converted into the catch. Keeping contact with the ground is important because it gives you stability in the fraction of a second between you initiating and reaching the top of the pull. It also keeps you from planting a foot wrong and or damaging your knees from compression or torsion upon landing. When you first start, you may not raise your heels much. As you get better with the pull, you’ll be able to have your body fully extended while on your toes. There may be times when your feet lose complete contact with the ground just slightly, especially if you shift to a wider stance when catching the weight. However that is more of a minimum clearance shuffle than the jump that is used way too often. This article by Dan Bell goes into greater detail on body position during the pull.
2. Snapping isn’t bad.
Your elbows need to snap around very fast in the catch. If you’re slow, you will either end up leaning forward to catch the weight or missing it completely. Some people are not flexible enough to get the elbows up when they first start (it took me a couple months to get mine up) as it takes shoulder and wrist mobility. Keeping your grip light will help too since grabbing the bar like Robert DeNiro holding onto the skid of the helicopter in The Deer Hunter will make it nearly impossible to let your wrists flex to the proper position. Using a light hook grip, perform a pull. At the top of the pull where your elbows are pointed in the general “up” direction, drop into a partial or full squat (depends what type of clean you’re doing) and snap the elbows around to point forward. Pointing up to pointing forward. This is a very fast motion…being slow and deliberate does not work. Experiment with different hand spacings as this will help you get your elbows up. Too close and it will be impossible. Too far and it will be impossible. See a trend? Watch how fast the elbows come up on this video from California Strength.
3. Lean back. Lean back.
As in DON’T DO IT. There are a lot of videos online showing people leaning back when they start a clean from the floor. This starting position takes you out of the plane you want to be in. Your chest has to be over the bar, not behind it. A clean is not the same as a pure deadlift. Assuming the two are the same will severely limit what you are able to accomplish. Remember the pull? You can’t get much out of it if you’re fully extended at the waist way too early, which will happen if you sit back too far at the start. Think of the body like a coiled spring that is about to bounce the weight into the air. If the coils are too loose, it won’t have much of an effect.
4. Stop using your arms.
I’ve heard over and over from coaches and national level lifters that your arms should be like ropes. Ropes are loose until they are held in tension by a weight or force. Your arms have to do the same thing. The speed you are able to generate while flexed is far less than the speed you can generate while relaxed. The clean IS NOT a reverse curl. You may get away with it for light lifts but once you get to a certain weight this method will fail, often spectacularly. Best case scenario, you look like an idiot. Worst case, you tear a bicep out of the insertion. Just because the elbows snap around and it looks like the arms are doing something, they really aren’t. They’re just moving to a new position. A proper pull has done all the lifting for you. Any further lifting is accomplished with the legs by simply standing up out of the front squat you’re in.
Using cleans is a great way to build power, speed and flexibility. One does not need to use full Olympic style in order to get these benefits. However using poor technique will limit your gains and put you at risk to injuries that will severely curtail your progress. Cleans, jerks and the snatch are not lifts to be rushed into, despite the speed with which they are actually performed. Spend several seconds getting mentally prepared to lift, step up to the bar and do what needs to be done. For people doing Crossfit, learn the proper techniques before trying to set a PR. Good coaches may have you practice with the bar for several weeks in order to get used to the form. Don’t let your ego tell you to put more weight on the bar just because you’re good at curls or bench press. The difference between a clean and a bench press are multitudinous! Be patient and realize that even after years of practice every lift is nothing more than a chance to further refine your form.