This is one of those debates that will rage on throughout the end of time.
Coaches are notorious for setting up camp with certain ideologies never to be heard from again. I get it though. We are creatures of habit. We like things done a certain way and at a certain time. Change can be very difficult for such structured humans.
However I challenge all of you to maintain an open mind because you owe it to your athletes. A close-minded coach might very well cause an athlete to come up short on reaching their goals.
Pros and Cons
With that being said, I am not going to sit here and tell you that you should or shouldn’t use the clean. I am simply going to list the pros and cons of the movement, and then I will leave implementation up to you. I will definitely give my reasoning for using it, but surprisingly I am going to also give you some clear times when the clean should not be used in a strength and conditioning program.
The main reason I love the clean for strength and conditioning is the bang for your buck – meaning you accrue several benefits with one exercise. When time is of concern, that’s a big advantage. So let’s start with a look at all the benefits:
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Power Production – This is the element of the clean that has strength coaches licking their lips. They know that massive amounts of power are required for big hits in football, bombs in baseball, knockouts in MMA, exploding out of the blocks during sprinting, and leaping above one’s opponents on the basketball court.
If you take a look at most sports, you will see that fans are most excited when athletes demonstrate incredible amounts of wattage on the playing field. Base hits are awesome in baseball, but if you want the fans on their feet, blast a ball over the center field wall. A defensive boxer like Floyd Mayweather is fun to watch. However, if you want to gain the attention of the whole world, find another Mike Tyson to put in the ring to drop power bombs on the domes of his opponent. When I was growing up, there was nothing more exciting than watching Ronnie Lott run through his opponents on the football field.
Usain Bolt produced a peak power output of 2691.5 watts in the start phase of his 9.58-second record-setting 100m sprint performance. According to a research article from Everett A. Harman, Michael T. Rosenstein, Peter N. Frykman, Richard M. Rosenstein, and William J. Kraemer in 1988, the average power output performed during a vertical leap is 1325w and the peak is 3767w. Oleksiy Torokhtiy, Ukranian Gold Medalist in Olympic weightlifting, generated 2200w during the first pull and an enormous 3700w during the second pull. Is it making sense now as to why the clean might help specifically?
Obviously the clean is great for demonstrations of power – or as I like to say, “the clean is great for the realization of power.” Squats are great for increasing an athlete’s ability to produce force, which also relates to increases in power. Remember, power equals force x velocity, so increasing one’s ability to produce force is definitely a component to producing more power. However, the clean allows the athlete to take that ability to produce more force and turn it into power production by moving heavy weights at a high velocity. The two movements (clean and squat) go together for the perfect system.
Force Absorption and Production – One of the benefits that isn’t talked about nearly enough is force absorption. Every time an athlete receives the bar, they are forced to absorb a barbell traveling at a velocity of 9.81 m/s (roughly the speed of the earth’s gravitational pull). When you take a barbell weighing 140kg/308lb traveling at 9.81 m/s/s, you get a force of 1,373.4 N. That packs a pretty big wallop, and that is exactly what athletes need to prepare them for the impacts of their individual sports.
During the pull phase, they’re also learning to produce massive amounts of force. This is the essence of sport. Whether we are talking about football, rugby, or MMA, men and women have to produce force when they are exploding into someone or punching someone. On the other hand, they have to absorb force, when they are getting hit.
Kinesthetic Awareness – This refers to an athlete’s ability to navigate space and the awareness of the way they move. There are times in weightlifting where an athlete is pulling under the bar – with their feet and barbell floating through space. If at anytime the athlete loses connection with where they are in space, they can be in a lot of trouble. I have never met a weightlifter who didn’t naturally have amazing kinesthetic awareness.
This will manifest in his or her ability to time movements perfectly. A great weightlifter knows exactly how high a barbell needs to be for them to rip under it and meet it precisely in the bottom of a front squat. It’s poetry in motion if you get to see such things on a daily basis.
Kinesthetic awareness comes in handy for receivers crossing the middle of the field and leaping for a high football. What about when a pitcher flings a 100 mph fastball – only to have it knocked straight back at them? With great awareness, the pitcher snags it barehanded like nothing. If an athlete performs enough of the Olympic lifts they will be better at kinesthetic awareness for that time. I can promise this from two decades of experience.
Balance and proprioception go along with kinesthetic awareness. If an athlete doesn’t have good balance, they’re going to fall on their butts performing heavy cleans. You will begin strengthening the feet of the athlete, increasing range of motion in the ankle, and creating stability in all the lower body joints when catching a heavy clean.
Proprioception is the body’s sensors in the peripheral nervous system that send feedback to the central nervous system to improve the body’s ability to produce coordinated movements. When you ask your athlete to perform complex movements like the clean, you are using the medulla oblongata to improve coordination. The Medulla uses sensors from the hands, arms, feel, and legs for information on how to get better at the movement. Improvements in that pathway will lead to an improvement in the body’s overall ability to perform coordinated movements, which is why weightlifters and gymnasts have amazing abilities to perform multiple athletic movements.
Triple Joint Specificity – Say what you want, but triple joint extension is where it’s at when it comes to producing power. An athlete will perform a triple joint extension when they throw a punch, swing a bat, jump to dunk a basketball, fire out of the blocks in sprinting, or leap through the air in the long jump.
Technique preferences aside, when an athlete performs a clean correctly, they are going to extend in their hips, knees, and ankles if performed correctly. A movement doesn’t have to look exactly like an athlete’s sport to be specific. It just needs to be close. Therefore maybe the power position of the clean doesn’t exactly mimic a vertical leap, but it still teaches the body to extend simultaneously at all three major joints of the lower body. Why do you think that the finish of a second pull produces more power than any other movement?
My favorite aspect of the clean is the ability to mimic the countermovement used during a vertical leap or the static start used in the start of a sprint. Hang cleans are perfect for a vertical leap – not to mention adding a slow eccentric will strengthen that position and give it more of an ability to produce power in the future. When a coach prescribes blocks of various heights or cleans from the floor, the athlete is forced to produce power from a static start. Both have their merits.
Core Stability – There it is. The most overused phrase in strength and conditioning. News flash: performing a hundred crunches every morning isn’t building a strong core. A strong core is a stable musculature that protects the entire spine and pelvis. When you catch a 300lb barbell in the front rack position accelerating at 9.81 m/s/s, your spinal extensors are getting rocked along with your transverse abdominis, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, and several other supporting muscles. Not only is your core stabilizing and getting strengthened while catching a clean, it’s doing so in a way that is specific to sport collisions.
Mobility – Let me tell you a story to make a point on the clean’s ability to improve an athlete’s mobility. I remember watching Morgan McCullough as a child around eleven years old. He was incredibly strong for his size and age. However, he wasn’t showing me that he could sit low into a bottom position found during the catch of a clean. He would catch the barbell with his hips at parallel or slightly below. There was a part of me that was afraid mobility was his kryptonite. Now six years later, he can almost sit his butt on the ground during the catch of a clean. It was the first time I realized the body’s ability to adapt to any movement with just a bit of frequency.
Now I have watched the hips of hundreds of young athletes with average or even subpar mobility adapt to acquire optimal mobility. The key is performing movements with ranges of motion that mimic the desired mobility, and then perform those movements on a frequent basis. For example, I recommend the clean two to five times per week because of the vast number of benefits that are directly related to athletic performance.
I have said it before, and I will say it again: You can perform all of the yoga, lacrosse ball exercises, banded stretching, and foam rolling you want, but the best way to get mobile is with weighted exercises on a frequent basis. I especially recommend movements like the clean while taking two to three deep breaths in the bottom catch position.
Coaches, let me be clear. You don’t have to teach the clean or any of the Olympic movements. However, you are going to have a heck of a time coming up with all the exercises required to produce all of these benefits. In a world where time is like gold, I think that it’s probably a good idea to learn this amazing movement.
One last piece of anecdotal evidence I want to mention: I have never seen an athlete great at the clean who wasn’t also a great athlete on almost any competitive field. Especially in football, the athlete who cleans the most will be the athlete dropping bombs on the football field.
However if you aren’t willing to put in the time to learn it properly, I would avoid it all together. All of the aforementioned benefits are only realized with optimal technique. This is the part most coaches forget, which is why they land on a meme page making fun of their coaching ability. Don’ t let that be you.
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