The power clean is a mainstay of the strength workouts of many sports programs. A survey of 137 Division I football coaches found that 85 percent used the power clean to train their athletes, and a survey of NFL coaches found that 88 percent used the lift with their athletes. It’s a good decision.
In 2004 researchers at the Department of Health and Exercise Science at the College of New Jersey set up a 15-week strength training study of 20 Division III college players. The athletes were divided into two groups, one focusing on Olympic lifting (OL) exercises and the other focusing on powerlifting (PL) exercises. Both groups improved their results in the vertical jump, but the OL group improved more.
So now that we know that strength coaches believe in the power clean and there is research to support its effectiveness in developing power, the question is “What is the best method to perform the power clean?”
First we have to eliminate power cleans performed with dumbbells and kettlebells. One functional training guru recently said that you could achieve equal benefits with power movements such as a power clean with a dumbbell or kettlebell. He followed that by saying that power cleans with dumbbells and kettlebells are easier on the wrists and have a faster learning curve, and so they are better versions of the lift. Not quite.
Due to the technique involved, an individual who can power clean 300 pounds with a barbell is going to struggle using much more than 100 pounds safely in this exercise. Even if this same individual had exceptional technique and could use as much as 150 pounds, that would still represent only 50 percent of their 1-rep maximum; in that case, the muscles used in the power clean won’t get much of a strength training effect from this exercise. Further, when using a dumbbell, the diameter of the dumbbell plates puts the weight forward of the axis of rotation of the shoulder, placing high levels of stress on the muscles involved in external rotation (such as the teres minor and the infraspinatus) that help stabilize the shoulders.
With dumbbell and kettlebell variations out of the way, now we’ll look at the hang position versus the floor. When we say “hang,” this means starting with the bar on the mid-thigh. In performing this lift, the athlete places the bar on the mid-thigh, bends the legs slightly, and then pulls the bar to the shoulders. This is in contrast to lifting a weight from the blocks set at mid-thigh, as this variation would not involve the countermovement.
Regarding the matter of intensity, often an athlete can lift more weight from the hang than they can from the floor. One reason is that the bar is already positioned at a favorable leverage position, whereas pulling from the floor to hit that same position requires considerable skill. Another reason is that many athletes who use the hang style place the bar in the crease between the upper leg and hips. This enables the athlete to add a kick from the legs to help increase the force applied to the bar.
With that background, which is the better lift: hang or from the floor? For the following four reasons, we say the power clean from the floor is superior.
First, any exercise that is performed through a partial range of motion will compromise soft-tissue integrity. For example, we’ve found that athletes who perform box squats are often tight in the piriformis muscle, which is a muscle involved in the external rotation of the upper leg. For athletes involved in sports in which they need to change direction quickly, such as basketball or soccer, having tightness in the piriformis will adversely affect their performance.
Second, the power clean from the mid-thigh works the legs through a shorter range of motion. This translates into less development of the hamstrings, glutes and quads. One reason weightlifters usually have better total leg development than powerlifters is that they work the legs through a greater range of motion. Further, with the hyper-wide squat stances often used in powerlifting competitions, the quads are not as important to performance of the lift as they were in the past, and this is reflected in powerlifters’ leg development.
Third, cleaning from the mid-thigh often causes hyperextension of the spine. In an attempt to use more weight, athletes using the hang technique often hyperextend their spine, placing adverse stress on the disks. In fact, one reason the Olympic press was disliked by many weightlifters was that the layback they used often caused lower back pain. The result was that in 1972 the Olympic press was eliminated from weightlifting competition, leaving only the snatch and the clean and jerk.
Fourth, when lifting from the hang, athletes tend to use their arms too much, and that means they are primarily using the upper body to perform the movement. If an athlete does both the hang power clean and the power clean from the floor, the excessive arm pull will adversely affect technique in the power clean from the floor.
Often athletes avoid power cleans from the floor because they do not have the flexibility to perform the exercise properly. Instead of giving up by continuing to use the mid-thigh variation, they should perform the appropriate stretching and structural balance training to correct the problem so they can do power cleans from the floor correctly and comfortably.
As proven by sport science research and the popularity of the power clean among strength coaches, it is a superior exercise for developing total body power. But to get the most benefits from the lift and with the least amount of stress on the back, it should be performed from the floor, not the mid-thigh.