1, 2, 3 Clean
The clean is a popular exercise in many strength and conditioning programs, and for good reason. When performed properly, the clean and its variations can have a tremendous effect on athletic power development. Unfortunately, cleans have a propensity for getting butchered due to poor coaching.
Yikes. Seeing stuff like this makes me cringe.
Cleans, much like their weightlifting relative the snatch, can definitely require more time to learn proficient technique compared to more traditional strength exercises. It may not be fun or flashy to drill technique over and over with an empty bar or light weight, but it will ensure that you are getting the desired physiological adaptations of the exercise. It may also save you a trip to the emergency room.
In an effort to simplify a complex lift, here's an easy 3-step guide for learning how to perform the clean. Keep in mind that this is not meant to be an exhaustive breakdown of the exercise. If that's what you're looking for, check out Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes and Coaches.
This guide also assumes that you have foundational strength and mobility with basic exercises like deadlifts and squats. If you don't, you shouldn't be trying to learn how to clean. You must be proficient with the basics first.
With that out of the way, let's move on.
The Top-Down Approach
There are two main approaches for learning how to perform the clean: bottom-up and top-down.
The bottom-up method involves learning technique off the floor, then knee level, then thigh/hip level. The top-down method is the opposite, so it starts with the athlete learning how to clean at the thigh/hip level.
I prefer the top-down approach because it teaches athletes to sweep, or "scoop," the bar into the hips from the start. Not sweeping the bar into the proper position is a common mistake that athletes make when first learning how to clean. This teaches the athlete how to use their hips to lift the weight instead of pulling with their arms. This sweep/scoop action is also known as the power position.
This is the position that you want the bar to be in before you "catapult" it up to your shoulders for the catch position. If you aren't sweeping the bar into the hips like this, you most likely won't be able to display your full strength and power potential. That means less weight lifted.
Step 1: The Power Position
Like I mentioned above, we will utilize the top-down approach that starts with learning the power position.
To execute a clean from the power position, begin by holding the bar with your clean grip. The width of this grip can vary from athlete to athlete, but it generally will be similar to your deadlift grip.
Dip straight down into a quarter squat position like the photo above. The bar should be somewhere between mid-thigh and the crease of your hips.
Initiate a slight counter-movement by lowering the bar and immediately sweep the bar back into the power position to explosively catapult the bar up to your shoulders. Practice this movement until you become proficient with it.
Step 2: Knee Level
Once the power position is learned, it's time to start the clean a little bit lower.
You will set up for this the same way you did for the power position clean. However, once you dip down into the quarter squat position, you will lower the bar to knee level and sweep it back into the power position to perform the clean.
NOTE: See how my elbows are slightly bent in this picture? This is referred to as "early arm bend" or "bent arm pull" in the weightlifting community and there is a lot of debate about it. There are many coaches who think this should never happen, yet there are numerous elite level lifters who do this. It's important to know that early arm bend IS NOT the athlete pulling the bar up to the shoulders with their arms. Rather, it is the athlete working within their own lever system (limb to torso lengths) to get the bar in a certain position that allows them to create maximum mechanical advantage. I would recommend not trying to learn to clean this way. Keep the elbows straight at first and, if necessary, experiment with early arm bend once you become proficient with the lift.
When lowering the bar to knee level, be sure to push your knees back to allow you to stay over the bar (think of an RDL motion).
Step 3: The Floor
The last step is learning how to put it all together by pulling from the floor.
Again, your stance and bar grip will be the same as the prior steps. The bar should be over the middle of your foot to start.
From here, pull the bar to knee level by pushing the knees back (think RDL) and transition to the movement you did in step 2. Boom. There's your clean.
It can be helpful to practice the movement by slightly pausing at the knee and power position (with lighter weight) to really focus on your positioning.
Of course, there will probably be little parts of your technique to refine (there will always be things to work on), but you will now have a pretty good understanding of how to execute the lift.
Keep in mind that there may be slight individual differences between athletes when it comes to technique. Things like how wide your foot stance and bar grip are, and where the bar makes contact with the upper thighs can vary. I recommend following general technique guidelines first, then experimenting with differences once you become comfortable with the lift. Find what works best for YOU.
Also, it may take a while to get comfortable with each phase, but don't let that discourage you. It took me weeks to learn how to properly transition from the knees to the power position. I got frustrated, but I never stopped. The Olympic lifts require determination and practice just like any other skill. Keep with it and you will eventually reap the benefits of some of the best exercises for athletic development.