The power clean is a key exercise in many strength programs for athletes, especially football players. A survey found that of 137 Division I college coaches, 85 percent used Olympic lifting movements to train their athletes; in the NFL 88 percent of coaches use Olympic lifting exercises. The next question to ask is why the power clean and not the power snatch?
First, consider that the basic difference between a power clean and a power snatch is that in the power snatch, rather than bringing the barbell to rest on the shoulders, the athlete pulls the bar overhead in one motion. The power snatch also takes a wider grip.
Both exercises involve the powerful muscles of the posterior chain, especially the hamstrings and glutes. Yes, squats and deadlifts also work these muscles, but because the power snatch and power clean work them so dynamically, these two exercises are better for improving performance in the actual performance of explosive tasks such as the vertical jump. This was proven in a peer-reviewed study published in 2004 at the Department of Health and Exercise Science at the College of New Jersey.
This study lasted 15 weeks and involved 20 Division III college athletes. One group emphasized powerlifting (PL) exercises such as the back squat, and the other group emphasized Olympic lifting (OL) exercises such as the power clean. Both groups improved their vertical jump, but the researchers reported, “OL can provide a significant advantage over PL in vertical jump performance changes.” I’m not suggesting that an athlete who is primarily interested in improving their vertical jump perform only Olympic lifts, but I do recommend that for maximal results in this basic test of athletic ability their workouts should include some form of Olympic lifting exercises.
Despite an ongoing argument that vertical jumping by itself can improve vertical jumping ability, that approach is not as effective as combining it with some form of weight training. In a six-week study published in the Journal of Applied Sports Science Research in 1992 (vol. 6, issue 1), athletes were divided into three groups: a weightlifting-only group, a plyometrics-only group and a group that performed both plyometrics and weight training. The weightlifting group increased their vertical jump by an average of 3.30 centimeters, the group that performed only plyometrics increased their vertical jump by 3.81 centimeters, but the combination group’s increase in their vertical jump was 10.67 centimeters!
More proof of the effectiveness of Olympic lifting movements on other physical skills comes from observing that Olympic weightlifters are often excellent sprinters and jumpers. David Rigert, a 1976 Olympic champion and one of the lightest men to clean and jerk 227 kilos (about 500 pounds), ran 100 meters in 10.4 seconds. His teammate and two-time Olympic champion Yuri Vardanian, who clean and jerked 224 kilos at a bodyweight of 82.5 kilos, could high jump over 2.15 meters with a three-step approach and had a standing long jump of over 3.65-meters. By the way, Yuri’s son Norik at 94 kilos bodyweight snatched 180 kilos and clean and jerked 220 kilos – in fact, there is a YouTube video of Norik performing a vertical jump over a 1.50-meter tall box!
The wider grip of the power snatch forces lifters to bend their knees more and thereby work their muscles through a greater range of motion. As such, in comparison to the power clean, the power snatch calls for more involvement of the hamstrings than the quadriceps. The hamstrings help produce a powerful hip extension, such as occurs in the vertical jump and in short sprints.
Because lighter weights are used in the power snatch compared to the power clean, the barbell will move faster, providing a better assessment of the velocity side of a force-velocity curve. Also, many athletes prefer the power snatch because the grip places less stress on their wrists and elbows. And athletes who have relatively long lower arms compared to their upper arms may find that racking the barbell during the power clean is extremely uncomfortable.
The power snatch also more strongly works the muscles that externally rotate the shoulders and pull the shoulders back. Weakness in the external rotators is a common fault in the athletes I assess for structural balance. This is especially true with swimmers and baseball players, as the nature of their sports causes them to overdevelop the muscles that internally rotate the shoulders. (More specifically, in these athletes the infraspinatus and teres minor and major are stretched, internally rotated and under continual tension.) Using power snatches in conjunction with isolation exercises for the external rotators of the shoulders would help avoid the shoulder impingement syndromes common among these athletes.
In looking at the training program of elite European weightlifters, often you’ll find that more reps are performed for snatches than for cleans and that the snatches are performed at generally higher intensities. The explanation is that the clean is considered much harder on the body, such that recovering from cleans using heavy weights is more difficult than recovering from heavy snatches.
On the flip side, many athletes find the power clean simpler to learn than the power snatch. Some athletes may be uncomfortable at first performing the power snatch as the bar is lifted overhead, and an athlete may be more motivated to practice the power clean because heavier weights can be used. I agree that the power snatch has a longer learning curve, but a competent strength coach should be able to teach the lift quickly to almost anyone.
As a rule of thumb, over the years I have used the optimal ratio between these two lifts to determine which one to prioritize. The power snatch needs to be 78 percent of the power clean for the force-velocity qualities to be at optimal levels. So if the weight an athlete could lift in a power snatch was only 60 percent of his power clean, it meant he was too slow for his strength. Conversely, if he power snatched 85 percent of his power clean, he was too weak for his speed. Hence, I would determine the optimal ratio of work between these two lifts to determine training orientation.
Bottom line: For these reasons you may find the power snatch has advantages over the power clean, depending upon your individual purposes. Just keep in mind that there is no such thing as a single best exercise. The power snatch and power clean are both fine exercises – with pros and cons for each – and each can have a place in a varied and intelligently designed program.