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A Guide to Teaching the Power Clean
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By: Matt McManus

The power clean is one of the most widely used exercises around. Nobody argues its effectiveness at increasing power and rate of force development in athletes. Many coaches, however, believe the complexity of the movement and time spent teaching it outweigh any potential benefits to be had from including it in a program. However, by understanding the important positions in the movement and implementing a sensible progression, the power clean can be taught safely, effectively, and relatively quickly.

There are four key positions a coach must be able to identify and reinforce to effectively teach the lift. These include the set up, position at the knee, power position, and the catch. In addition, a coach must be able to recognize and fix problems in the different phases of the lift: the first pull, transition, and second pull.

Set Up
Oftentimes a faulty setup can lead to problems later on in the lift. By teaching athletes the proper way to set up off the floor, you can avoid problems later on in the pull. For example, setting up with the bar too far away from the athlete will result in them being pulled forward onto the balls of the feet on the way up.

                              Key points of the set up:
                              • Feet approximately hip width, inside knurling of bar
                              • Back flat, shoulders pulled back
                              • Athlete’s weight is midfoot
                              • Shoulders directly over bar or slightly out front
                              • Arms straight
                              • Head up, eyes forward
                              • Hands outside legs, approximately 1-2 thumb lengths 
​                              from edge of knurling



Position at the knee
This is essentially an RDL position. There should be tension on the hamstrings and the angle of the back should be similar to the set up.

                                Key points of the position at the knee:
                                • Bar close to the body
                                • Back flat, shoulders pulled back
                                • Athlete’s weight is on heels
                                • Shoulders over the bar or slightly out front
                                • Arm straight
                                • Head up, eyes forward





Power position
Power position is the position of the body immediately prior to the athlete’s jump, or second pull. If executed correctly, when the athlete starts standing tall and dips to power position, the bar should stay in the same spot on the thighs. If the bar moves down the thigh at all either the chest is dipping or the shoulders are not staying pulled back.

This position is essential to ensure an optimal, vertical bar path. This is the first thing I teach athletes when I begin working with them on power cleans. The reasoning is simple. As you get closer to the ground, there’s more stuff to worry about. When teaching an athlete with limited prior experience I want them to focus on as few things as possible to start, and then move on once they’ve mastered those things.

                                      Key points of power position:
                                      • Bar high on the thighs
                                      • Slight knee bend
                                      • Vertical torso
                                      • Athletes’ weight is on heels, not balls of feet
                                      • Shoulders pulled back
                                      • Arms straight
                                      • Head up, eyes forward




The Catch
The catch is often perceived as the hardest part of the lift to master. While some athletes may be inhibited by poor upper body flexibility, the vast majority should be able to catch the bar in a quality rack position.

It’s important that the athlete meets the bar at the highest point, rather than letting it crash down on them. As the weight gets heavier, the athlete must drop under the bar by bending the knees and lowering the hips, rather than trying to catch it with straight legs or kicking the feet out extra wide.

The biggest problem I see kids have with the catch is not understanding the concept of relaxing their hands and driving their elbows through. If you continue to squeeze the bar, you won’t have the flexibility through your wrists to be able to get the elbows high. This is a major coaching point with the catch, and most kids will eventually get it if you continue to harp on it.

                                    Key points of the rack position:
                                    • Bar supported on shoulders, not the hands  
                                    • Feet hip or shoulder width
                                    • Weight on heels
                                    • Slight knee bend
                                    • Elbows up, triceps parallel to the floor
                                    • Hands open and relaxed
                                    • Back tight and chest up




First pull
The athlete should initiate the pull with a smooth push from the legs. Jerking the bar off the floor will throw the athlete out of position by causing the hips to rise too quickly or the back to round. This phase of the lift does not have to be fast. It’s about getting to the knee in a good position. Speed will pick up more as you get closer to the top.

As the bar leaves the floor the athlete’s knees should move back slightly so the bar can stay close to the body. Failing to push the knees back results in an increase in the distance between the bar and the athlete’s center of mass and a corresponding decrease in the mechanical advantage of the lift. A weight is always harder to lift the farther away it is from your body. Going along with the last point, the athlete’s weight should shift from mid foot to heel as the bar is lifted from the floor to the knee. This should happen naturally if the knees and bar are moving back together off the floor.

















The athlete’s hip and shoulder should rise together. The angle of the back does not change significantly in the first pull. Also notice how the knees shift back slightly and the bar stays close to the body.

Transition
The transition phase takes the athlete from the knee to power position. The athlete should transition to power position by raising the chest, not pushing the knees forward. Pushing the knees under the bar will cause the athlete’s weight to shift forward to the balls of the feet and put them in a less advantageous position to push from. As the bar travels up the thigh the weight should stay on the athlete’s heels, shoulders should stay pulled back, and eyes should remain focused straight ahead. It’s important for the athlete to be patient and wait to push with the legs until he reaches power position. Initiating the jump before the chest is all the way up will result in the bar swinging away from the athlete, rather than traveling straight up.

















The knee angle does not change much during the transition phase. The arms stay straight and feet stay flat as the athlete raises his chest. Also notice the blurriness of the pictures as the speed of movement begins to pick up.

Second pull
The second pull is the most violent and aggressive phase of the power clean. The athlete must push hard with their legs, or jump, enough to accelerate the bar so it reaches shoulder height. The focus should be on pushing through the heels, not the toes. After the jump, the athlete shrugs the shoulders. The arms must remain straight throughout this phase. Any bending of the elbows before the athlete has fully extended and finished the pull will take away from the force and speed imparted on the bar.

















The athlete achieves full extension of the hip, knee, and ankle at the top of the movement. The elbows have just started to bend following the shrug.

Putting it all together
The series of pictures below show me doing a power clean at full speed. Notice how I hit each of the aforementioned positions on the way up. This is where coaching comes in. I didn’t do it right the first time and you won’t either. Positions must constantly be coached up and hammered home.



















Below is a sample six week beginner program for teaching the power clean to an athlete with no prior experience with the lift. While some coaches may argue that six weeks is too long to spend teaching just one lift, we must keep in mind that in the college setting this is six weeks out of a four to five year career. This equates to less than 3% of the total time you will have with an athlete over their college career. Also, while the focus of this beginner program is on teaching technique, it’s not as if we’re wasting training time. We are still building strength and power with various other exercises I didn’t list below, such as squats, glute hams, single leg exercises, plyos, and upper body work.

The program uses the part-whole approach to coaching by breaking down the movement into several smaller components and slowing putting them together. This way the athlete is able to concentrate more on each movement without worrying about the bigger picture until they’re ready.

In teaching any complex, multi-joint lift, I believe in practicing that lift every day you are in the weight room. The more reps the athlete does each week, the more quickly and effectively the motor pattern will be ingrained. Early on, the weights used are going to be too light to accumulate any appreciable level of fatigue. This is what allows us to practice the movements so often.

Weeks 1-2

Monday
Power clean, power position- 5x5
Lift off- 3x5
RDL- 3x5

Wednesday
Power clean, power position- 5x5
Lift off- 3x5

Friday
Power clean, power position- 5x5
RDL- 3x5

The first two weeks will focus primarily on reinforcing power position. For athletes who have trouble understanding the concept of using their legs to accelerate the bar you may need to plug in a clean pull from power position for a workout or two. By doing RDLs the athlete is learning how to transition from the knee to power position. By doing lift offs they learn how to set up and start the movement. The focus on lift offs should be on getting to a good position at the knee.

Weeks 3-4

Monday
Power clean, from knee- 5x3
Lift off- 3x5
RDL- 3x5

Wednesday
Power clean, power position- 5x3
Deadlift (end in power position)- 3x5

Friday
Power clean, from knee- 5x3
RDL- 3x5

When doing power cleans from the knee the focus should be on the transition. The movement must start with a good RDL and the coach must make sure the athlete is being patient and reaching power position before they jump. Lift offs and RDLs remain in the program, while deadlifts are added. For purposes of teaching the power clean, a clean-style deadlift should be used, with a double overhand or hook grip, rather than a traditional powerlifting deadlift. Also, rather than ending the exercise with the hips locked out, the athlete finishes in power position. This is just another way to reinforce power position.

Weeks 5-6

Monday
Power clean, from floor, pause at knee- 5x3
RDL- 3x5

Wednesday
Power clean, from floor- 5x3
Deadlift (end in power position)- 3x5

Friday
Power clean, from power position- 2x3
Power clean, from floor- 3x3

In the last two weeks the athlete finally starts doing power cleans from the floor. First the exercise is done with a pause at the knee. This allows the athlete to put together two things they’ve been working on, the lift off and power clean from the knee. The pause helps ensure they don’t rush the transition phase and allows them to self correct by slowing the movement down a bit. On day two the athlete eliminates the pause and does a power clean from the floor. In day three the athlete starts with two sets from power position to ensure they maintain the feel for this position. RDLs and deadlifts remain in the program. Lift offs are taken out because they are unnecessary when the athlete is already doing so many other movements from the floor.  

This is a general progression and can be modified based on each athlete’s ability as well as the time you have with them. The most important thing is to coach. Position and set up must be harped on each and every rep. Remember, the athlete will be establishing motor patterns during this beginner program. They must not be allowed to establish the wrong motor patterns. This will only make the coach’s job more difficult down the road. Also, the athlete should be encouraged to increase the speed of movement as they get more comfortable. In order to derive any benefit from the power clean, it must be done at maximal velocity, and good technique at low speeds does not always mean good technique at high speeds; so get your athletes to practice at high speeds as soon as possible.

Remember, things aren’t going to look perfect all the time. Heavy weights will accentuate technical flaws and some athletes will be limited by flexibility early on. The bottom line, however, is the more technically proficient you get at a movement, the better position you will be in to apply maximal force, and the greater benefit you will derive from the exercise.

The power clean can and will make you faster and more explosive. Whether or not they are more effective than other means, such as plyometrics, medicine ball throws, or dynamic squats, is another topic entirely. The purpose of this article was not to convince you to use the power clean in your training. If you do choose to implement it in your programs, however, it’s important to use a sensible progression and understand how to teach and coach the lifts effectively.