The clean is one of the most discussed lifts in the strength and conditioning world. I have written countless articles about the clean, and I have an entire book dedicated to everything about the movement.
One of the statements you might hear floating around in several strength and conditioning circles is that hang cleans are easier to teach and just as effective as a full range of motion clean from the floor. Is that true? Well, I have to give everyone’s favorite answer: “it depends.” While we’re discussing this, I will also tackle the topic of clean pulls in relation to full cleans.
My goal is to arm you with the scientific facts, so you can better make a decision for your athletes. A coach must be armed with the basics of biomechanics, physics, anatomy, and physiology. This knowledge will help them discern the information they are going to receive from mentors and peers. I don’t want any of you to assume that just because one of your go-to coaches says something that the information is automatically true. If that’s the case, the industry will never get better. I don’t want any of the coaches I mentor to take everything I say as gold – just like Louie Simmons or Coach Joe Kenn don’t want their coaching followers to take everything they say as law. It’s simply the information we have extracted from our own experience and studies. Of course based on the results of our athletes, we are mainly doing things correctly. However, I believe strength and conditioning still has a way to go.
Let’s get into it. First, we need to go over why strength and conditioning coaches choose to use the clean in their arsenal of exercises. Let’s take a look at the benefits of a clean:
- Power= Force x Velocity – moving moderate loads at a high velocity through space
- Rate of Force Development (RFD) – this comes with improved motor unit recruitment and improved rate coding (the speed of which the neuromuscular system recruits maximal motor units. We will dig deeper, so don’t worry.)
- SAID Principle – Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands
- Develop proprioception – movement through space
These are just a few, but I feel I have made a solid point. The clean is a lot of bang for your buck. We will look at each benefit and compare a few of the favorite versions of the clean with the full movement clean. The goal is to arm you with the knowledge necessary for choosing the proper tool for the job. That’s the main point really. All movements are simply tools in our tool boxes. Like any good builder or carpenter, we have to know which tool is good for the job.
THE POWER OF THE CLEAN
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Power = Force x Velocity
Let me make this as simple as possible. Force equals mass x acceleration. Louie Simmons has made it his life’s work to make sure we all know that. Let’s look at the relationship between force and velocity. First, the mass component of force is inversely proportional to velocity. That means when the mass goes up, the velocity goes down and vice versa. Acceleration is equally proportional to velocity, since acceleration is a measure in the change of velocity.
On the field of play, athletes are normally only charged with the duty of moving their own bodyweight as quickly as possible (unless they’re throwers or strength athletes). Velocity is superior in almost all athletics except for powerlifting and aerobic sports. Therefore, the velocity at which an athlete is moving a certain weight is crucial. This is where the clean from the floor is superior, and I will explain why.
Impulse is an equation in biomechanics that looks at the duration of time a force is applied. Bear with me as I explain because I promise to bring this back to a simple analogy. Here goes:
- Impulse = Momentum
- Impulse = Average Net Force x Unit of Time Applied or Impulse = Σ Δt
- Momentum = Mass x Velocity
- Therefore: Average Net Force x Unit of Time Applied = Mass x Velocity
Now I will bring it back to layman’s terms. The longer you apply a force, the increased duration of time will create more and more velocity. Once again, mass has an inverse relationship with velocity – meaning velocity decreases as mass increases. What’s the point to all of this?
Obviously with a hang clean or clean from the blocks you won’t be able to create as much velocity as with a clean from the floor. The athlete has more time to apply force to the initial pull from the floor, creating more velocity and momentum on the bar. If velocity is the main goal of your program or the specific block of programming, you might want to consider performing at least some cleans from the floor.
If power equals force x velocity, each athlete will create more power from the floor. I believe this to be important, but not necessarily the end-all. The clean is an expression of power, but doesn’t necessarily mean the expression of power gives an athlete the ability to produce more power on the field. Dr. Bryan Mann performed some pretty significant studies showing the squat to be more proportional to increases in power where the 40-yard dash and vertical leap are concerned. I have found in my own tracking of data that increases in strength with the back squat if kept steady with increases of power in the clean together equal maximal gains on the field of play.
Some might think that just doing clean pulls will be an alternative to get the same velocities as the clean from the floor. Not so fast! In my friend Coach Wil Fleming’s new book Velocity Based Training for Weightlifting, he explains some research that he performed with his athletes. He found that the clean pull was 15% slower in velocity than a full clean at the same weight (usually 88-90% of an athlete’s 1RM for the clean). He also found that the clean high pull was 10% slower. One consideration might be the hand release clean pull, which was only 3% slower.
The problem is in the brain. The brain realizes that deceleration is inevitable when there is no commitment to go under a barbell. Anecdotally most athletes will tell you weights that normally feel light will feel much heavier during clean pulls. I can attest to the same thing. This doesn’t mean that clean pulls are worthless. They are still important for developing strength in the different positions required to perform a clean. A clean deadlift is important to athletes for developing strength at the hip and isometric strength in the spinal extensors required for massive collisions. Are you getting the theme? It’s all about understanding the application of different exercises (the tools in the tool box).
Rate of Force Development
Now before some of you break down in tears because you only program hang cleans or cleans from blocks, let’s discuss a principle that probably favors your style of programming. Force is important, but the rate at which someone can apply a maximal or a high rate of force is more important in most athletic events. Velocity is important, but there is something more important to consider. How quickly can an athlete get to top velocity? That’s a look at acceleration, and once again brings us back to force. Now that I have confused the heck out of you, I will bring this back to simple terms.
Rate of force development is the rate at which the contractile elements can produce force, and is affected by rate coding, maximal motor unit recruiting, muscle fiber type, and attachments. The entire pulling phase of a clean is typically about one second on average. Obviously, the entire pulling phase from a hang clean or clean from the blocks is a much shorter time. That allows the athlete to work within time zones more applicable to their sport. For example, I want you to think about the position an athlete is in before a tackle, the load phase of a vertical leap, or joint angles in the start position of a sprint.
It’s important to practice motor unit recruitment in the same time zone as will be needed in a particular sport. A motor unit is motor neuron (nerve) and all the muscle fibers that it synapses (connects) to. The intended adaptation of strength training is maximal motor unit recruitment. The more motor units that are recruited lead to more force. However, rate coding is the speed at which the neuromuscular system recruits maximal motor units, which translates into maximal RFD. Improvements in this area come with time as those neuromuscular junctions (synapses) become stronger and more efficient with the frequency of signaling. Muscle fiber type plays a role in this as well, but I need to discuss the next point before diving into that.
Specific Adaptations of Imposed Demands (SAID Principle)
Simply put, your body will adapt specifically to the demands that one applies to the body. If you train fast, muscle fibers will adapt, causing a certain group of muscle fibers to mimic or conform to fast twitch fibers. With that being said, you can make an argument for both the full clean and the hang clean. The full clean allows for a faster velocity, recruiting fast twitch fibers and over time causing an adaptation of other hybrid type fibers to mimic more of the fast twitch fibers. (Watch Andy Galpin’s 55 Minute Physiology on this topic.)
This is why overspeed training has validity for jumps and sprints. However, hang cleans and cleans from the blocks are better for improving rate of force development in the specific time zones and specific angular displacements of the joints in use (hips, knees, and ankles). Also the hang clean is more specific to the vertical leap due to the counter movement, and the clean from the blocks is more specific to the joint angles of a start in a sprint.
Proprioceptors are the nerves in the joints, muscles, and tendons that give feedback to the brain on joint, muscle, and tendon position and each of their rates of change. Basically this gives the brain feedback on where the body is in space at any given moment. The better the body gets at this process will allow the athlete to move through space more efficiently. That’s why most weightlifters are incredible athletes with the ability to do whatever they want with their bodies. If you’ve ever hung out with my athletes, you have watched them walk on their hands, perform backflips, and rep out muscle ups. You could make an argument that a clean involves more total movement, making the proprioceptors more efficient – but I believe both the hang clean and clean from the blocks are just fine for improving this neural pathway.
This quality isn’t talked about enough. In the bottom position of a clean or hang clean, the athlete will be required to reach maximal range of motion at the hips, knees, and ankles. This range of motion is important for joint health because synovial fluid is one of the only ways that joints receive nourishment. Synovial fluid is only released during end ranges of motion, so a health joint needs to be able to move through the entire range.
When it comes to sprinting, the recovery leg has to be able to completely flex at the knee to allow for a shorter moment of inertia to experience maximal angular velocity at the hip joint. If you watch any amazing sprinter, you will see their heel right on their glutes during the recovery phase. This is my argument for including full range of motion cleans and squats in an athlete’s training even though quarter squats and power cleans might be more specific.
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There it is. The answer to the debates that float around popular strength and conditioning circles most of the time is going to be: “it depends.” This is why I vehemently despise absolutes. Assessment and application are the two traits that separate the top coaches from the posers. I want you young guys to arm yourselves with a massive arsenal of tools. I want all of you to have assessment tools that will allow you to coach and program in a way that will specifically answer the challenges those athletes face. I hope this article provided some science to aid in that application.