When to Omit the Power Clean

by Mark Rippetoe | March 31, 2021

lifter racking a power clean

As we have said many times, not everybody needs to do the power clean. This has been repeatedly interpreted to mean, “I don't need to do the power clean.” Even more unfortunately, it has come to mean, “I don't need to learn how to coach the power clean” to many people who charge for their coaching expertise. As a consumer of barbell training education, don't let the latter convince you of the former. There are in fact reasons not to use the power clean in your training, but hiring an incompetent coach is not one of them.

The power clean is an incrementally-loadable barbell exercise that is used to display and practice force production in an explosive manner. The bar is pulled off the floor and accelerated through the range of motion accessible to the extending knees and hips, and at the top of the pull – the position of full knee, hip, and ankle extension with straight arms – the bar is “racked” on the front of the shoulders with slightly bent knees to cushion the landing. During the rack, the feet shift from the pulling stance (for force application efficiency between the floor and the grip on the bar) to the squat stance (for stability as the bar is racked on the frontal delts).

From the top of the pull until the bar is racked, no force is being applied to the bar; it continues upward under the momentum produced by the velocity of the acceleration, and the distance it travels upward is a direct function of that acceleration. If the acceleration is insufficient, the bar doesn't travel high enough to rack. A completed clean is therefore a precise indicator of the ability to get the bar moving fast enough that it travels high enough after the pull stops to allow the lifter to shift from pulling the bar to catching it on the shoulders.

The power clean cannot be done slowly, since acceleration is necessary to produce the momentum necessary to continue the bar upward after the top of the pull, giving the lifter time to drop under the bar to catch it. A slow power clean is a fast deadlift, not a clean. And while the clean cannot develop the ability to explode very effectively, it is an excellent way to keep the display of explosion concurrent with developing strength – as strength increases, your clean will increase along with it, since acceleration is strictly a function of force production.

The ability to display strength quickly is power – the ability to recruit as much muscle mass into contraction in as short a time as possible. But you cannot display strength that you don't have, and strength is built under heavy weights that are limited by the ability to recruit muscle mass into contraction irrespective of the time it takes. This is because the only way to achieve enough intensity to cause maximum recruitment of muscle mass is to use 1RM-level weights, which cannot be cleaned. In other words, a maximum-intensity pull is a 1RM deadlift, and a clean is a sub-maximal pull.

This is always true: a man with a 500-pound deadlift can power clean more than a man with a 200-pound deadlift, irrespective of his ability to explode.

The Standing Vertical Jump (SVJ) is the most accurate measure of the ability to explode, since the force of muscle contraction that carries you up in the air must be generated in about ¼ second. The higher you jumped, the more force you generated in ¼ second. Of two men with a 500 deadlift, the one with the bigger SVJ will normally clean more (assuming their skill is the same). Quite unfortunately, the ability to explode/SVJ is constrained by genetics, and is not very trainable.

To Clean or Not to Clean

So we use the power clean as a way to keep the ability to display explosion commensurate with increasing strength. Since athletics depends on quickness and power, athletes need to clean. But not everyone is an athlete. Right?

Depends on how you define the term. An athlete, in my estimation, is one who both practices and trains for competition in a sport. He practices his sport for skill of execution, and he trains to prepare his physiology for the competition. In this “two-factor” model, power cleans are also a way to practice explosion with increasingly heavy weights, which is a skill in addition to a genetically-determined attribute.

Football (both kinds), baseball, basketball, tennis, gymnastics, fencing, downhill skiing, and pretty much everything in the Olympics are sports, even if the competitors don't actually train effectively, assuming that practice is enough because their coaches don't understand this either. Games are competitions that customarily use no training for preparation, like billiards, chess, cards, and usually golf. Sports like marathon and the other distance events have no power component in their performance, even though they benefit from strength training programmed properly. These people are athletes, but at a very specialized end of the performance spectrum. They probably don't benefit from power cleans, and if time is tight I wouldn't program them.

Physique competitors are not athletes in any sense of the term, as their judging standards in competition are merely aesthetic. This isn't say that their contest prep isn't physically difficult, but the competition is not a sport since the judging criteria are completely subjective. It's been at least 50 years since a bodybuilding program was based on exercises that required athletic ability, so it doesn't matter if bodybuilders clean. If they want to, I'll coach them, but I have yet to be asked.

Since the clean is dependent on the ability to explode under a load, there are several demographic groups that have no need to take the time to learn them, or that can obtain no benefit from doing so. Injuries can prevent the safe and productive execution of power cleans, and since training is adversely affected by getting even further injured, your medical history must be considered. For example, my left medial gastrocnemus shows nerve damage subsequent to an Achilles tendon rupture in 2010, and is atrophied badly. Every time I clean, the compromised plantar flexion component of the “triple extension” causes a hamstring pull. So I stopped doing cleans. Wrist, elbow, and shoulder injuries can force the same decision on you.

And since older people are far more likely than younger people to have accumulated a bunch of injuries, older people are more likely to find cleans unproductive. Bony arthritis in a shoulder or elbow, wrists that have been repeatedly injured, prostheses in knees or hips, or any condition that makes an explosive jumping movement dangerous is a contraindication for power cleans in a program for older people.

Older people have another consideration: the quality of the muscle changes as we age, such that the fast-twitch motor units that are responsible for explosive contraction under heavy loads tend to go away as the years progress. It's another gift we receive for having not died. And having personally received this gift, I can tell you that your clean won't improve nearly as much at 50 as it would have at 20. If you're easily disappointed, cleans may frustrate you, even if you're healthy enough to do them.

But this leaves a whole lot of people who can productively clean, if they can learn how. I think we've done a good job in the blue book with detailing a teaching method most people can use to learn the power clean. It's simple, straightforward, and very effective at turning a correct deadlift into a correct clean in about 10 minutes. We've taught it this way in seminars for 15 years, and the vast majority of our seminar attendees are performing an acceptable power clean Sunday morning after the session.

Some of you have decided that the power clean is outside your ability to learn by yourself, or if you are sufficiently unfortunate to have hired a trainer that is content to never learn to coach it, your inadequacy gets reinforced and you never learn to clean. Happens all the time. People who could benefit from the best light-day pulling exercise in existence are relegated to the barbell row under the impression that it's a good substitution movement.

I'll promise you this: if you can't do cleans correctly, you can't row correctly either. Both are timing and position-dependent movements, both require practice, both are usually done wrong, and both are frequently coached incorrectly. Rows are not only less useful to novice and intermediate lifters because of their shorter range of motion, they can beat the shit out of your low back if you use enough weight to make them productive. Doing them with even a little lumbar flexion is a bad idea. People are afraid of cleans, but for some reason they treat barbell rows like big friendly Golden Retrievers, completely benign additions to the week's pulling, and that is just not true.

Power cleans, on the other hand, add almost no recovery stress to the training week. This is because 1.) there is no eccentric component to the lift, and 2.) the weights used are nowhere near 1RM concentric limits. They're just not that heavy compared to the other lifts in your training, because the ability to explode is being tested, not the ability to just lift the weight. Deadlifts, squats, and presses are trained at near 5RM intensities, and have a significant eccentric component that produces soreness – an inflammatory process – that must be recovered from. Deadlifts and presses can be managed in a way that minimizes the eccentric component of the stress, and squats cannot; squats always make you a little sore. Cleans are dropped back down to the platform after they are racked, they produce almost no soreness when properly performed, and even an efficient lifter only uses 60% of his deadlift when he cleans. This is why Olympic lifters can do them several times a week, and why they are the perfect light-day pulling exercise.

Look, just break down and learn how to clean, okay? Don't hire barbell coaches that can't coach them, and don't assume you can't learn without help. Make up your mind that this terribly useful movement is a skill you can and will learn, unless you're in one of the unfortunate groups that don't have any business doing so. Far more people should be doing power cleans than should not be doing them.

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