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Power Clean Corrective Teaching Techniques

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Article Written By:
Mike Bewley, MA, CSCS, C-SPN, USAW-I
President & Founder, ONS Performance
Head Strength & Conditioning Coach For Baksetball
Certified Sports Nutritionist for Basketball
University of Dayton

PREFACE
I wrote this article nearly 6 years ago as an assistant coaching at Georgia Southern University. While it may be a little dated, the content and teaching techniques described remain a constant for me as a coach even today. Enjoy!

This final week draws to a close two weeks of football camp here at Georgia Southern. Aside from teaching the intricacies of triple option play to high school athletes all campers participated in a two-hour weightlifting workshop. The workshop consisted of power clean, squat and bench---pretty basic stuff due to time constraints. My workshop responsibility was teaching the power clean. This is not an easy task considering your sharing a two-hour block of time with two other workshops (squat & bench). Nonetheless, we were able to make some huge improvements in form and technique. Fortunately, many of the kids had done some form of Olympic lifting prior to the lesson. In the mists of teaching these high schoolers I thought it might be a good idea to write on the experiences and obstacles I face when teaching a young population and share them with you in hopes that they spark a candle of thought in teaching your athletes. As coaches and/or athletes, it is important that we recognize poor form and technique with the power clean or any exercise for that matter, in an effort to optimize its sport-specific application while maximizing safety.

Before I start any exercise with an athlete I make certain they understand what it means to set the arch in the back. It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching bench press, lat pulldown or power clean, I want the athlete to understand, as demonstrated in Figure 1, that keeping the back arched through the entire range of motion during an exercise is a “bullet-proof” position from injury.

Figure 1. Setting the Arch

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I begin by having the athlete start with their back rounded, hands on their knees like they would if they were playing basketball and resting on the lane line waiting for a free-throw. Next I have the athlete pull the shoulders back and bring the head and eyes up so they are looking straight ahead. This should naturally pull the back into a flat arched position. From here I have the athlete stand up---tracing the thighs with the hands---maintaining the arched back with head and eyes looking straight ahead. Once at the top, I have the athlete return to the bottom position, stressing that the athlete

  1. keep the back arched by bending at the hips
  2. reach back with the hips
  3. trace the thighs with the hands and
  4. head and eyes looking forward.

The athlete continues to rehearse this motion until I’m confident they have learned the movement. The athlete then graduates to the use of an empty bar and then added weight. This teaching progression is the same used when teaching the RDL (Romanian Dead-Lift) or sometimes called stiff-legged dead lift.

Sound monotonous? It is somewhat but it is imperative the athlete master the movement technique in an effort to safeguard the back from injury, while maximizing the pertinent application of the power clean. For instance look at the pictures illustrated in Figure 2. Notice the similarities in posture between the two athletes. The athlete on the far left is in the bottom position of an RDL while the picture on the far right shows an athlete performing what is the beginning phase of the second pull in power clean. Both athletes have legs slightly bent, hips are pushed back, shoulders are over the front of the bar with head and eyes looking straight ahead. This body posture allows the athlete to maximize hip flexion prior to full hip extension. What is more, this positioning isolates glute/ham insertion muscles, which are specific to running and jumping.

Figure 2. Comparison of Movement

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Full hip extension or better referred as “triple extension,” is the “bread-n-butter” of the power clean (Figure 3). The reason for its name is the three (triple) points of flexion; ankle, knee and hip. As I explained to the campers, triple extension is the most powerful and sport-specific movement an athlete can do in the weight room. Why? Every sport skill I can think of involves multiple joint actions at the ankle, hip and knee. This sequential activation of muscle and its joint actions must be performed in a timed motor-unit recruitment pattern with maximum force so movements can be done with coordination, power and balance. Take for instance a player who does a lot of leg extensions and leg curls. They may improve strength in these movements, but little force is developed when performing such single-joint exercises. This results in little transfer of training specific to the motor unit recruitment patterns such as sprinting and jumping performance. Whenever possible, strength exercises should closely match the biomechanical motor patterns of sport if athletic performance is to be improved.

Figure 3. Triple Extension

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For instance, Figure 4 shows the acceleration phase of the 40-yard dash. Notice the body is positioned in a straight line with the ankle, knee and hip fully extended. Now compare the sprinter’s body position to that of an athlete performing a power clean. See the similarities? Both athletes are fully extended in a straight line with full extension occurring at the ankle, hip and knee (triple extension). Both of these exercise movements are incredibly powerful because of the amount of force produced via triple extension and its sequential motor-unit recruitment pattern.

Firgure 4. Biomechanical Comparison

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I think its safe to assume that every young athletes dreams of dunking a basketball. So, how many athletes do you see jump and dunk a ball without fully extending the hips? None I’m certain! Likewise, when an athlete performs a vertical jump test, do they just extend the hips half way and expect the best possible jump score? No! Yet, more times than not, inexperienced athletes have a poor habit of pulling with the arms long before they have even reached triple extension as demonstrated in Figure 5. When this happens maximum velocity is diminished thus, minimizing power development in the hips---the relevant purpose of performing a power clean.

Figure 5. Pulling With The Arms

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One approach to working with athletes having trouble achieving triple extension is having them perform a clean pull. The clean pull is simply a power clean minus the catch and recovery phase. The exercise movement targets the first and second pull of the power clean while reinforcing the triple extension movement pattern. A descriptive illustration guide to performing the clean pull is located at the end of the article for you to review.

When periodizing clean pull in a strength program I perform both movements (power clean & clean pull) on the same day. However, I usually have an athlete perform clean pulls at 25+ pounds heavier than their final working set of power clean for a particular day. I do this for several reasons--- it stresses the hips greater than the general prescribed power clean working set, which I typically organize at a lower working percentage (50-80% of RM) to allow the athlete to effectively learn the dynamic motor patterns. Secondly, by prescribing heavier weight I am able to tax the athletes neuromuscular system to handle heavier working loads (>85% RM) later in the periodization cycle once skill has improved.

I’m certain of it now as you read this someone is saying, “Heck, I’m not training my athletes to be Olympic lifters---I’m training them to be football players or basketball players or whatever!” My answer to such a comment is this: You strength train to enhance athletic performance and prevent injury. However, if you perform or allow your athletes to perform an exercise movement with poor form and technique, how can you expect them to achieve optimum results with poor technique, much less remain injury-free? Still not convinced? Lets equate strength training with practice? Take for instance a drill or play a coach is trying to rehearse on the field or court. If an athlete is allowed to practice or perform a drill with poor form and technique, can you honestly expect it to be executed correctly in a game with optimal results? Certainly not and strength training should be regarded no different. When strength training, just as with practice, technique is the means that expresses strength---without it, strength is ineffective and performance diminished.

Time for me to retire from my “soap box” and start reviewing some coaching tips you can observe and use when working with young athletes of novice Olympic-lifting experience. Lets begin by looking at the starting position of the power clean, illustrated in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Power Clean Starting Position

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Observe how the athlete’s feet are placed hip width apart. When an athlete performs a vertical jump test, his feet aren’t set outside the shoulders, they’re under the hips where he is able to generate the most force---power clean is no different. Next, notice the athlete’s back---it’s set in a flat position with head and eyes looking straight ahead. This flat back position corresponds to my first mention of setting the back in the beginning. Next, notice the athlete’s shoulders---they are positioned over the front of the bar with the hips set slightly higher than the knees. This is important for several reasons:

  1. For one, by having the shoulders positioned over the front of the bar the athlete is able to minimize separation from the body and bar when pulling from the floor.
  2. Secondly, having the hips set higher than the knee allows the athlete to position the knees behind the toes and bring the shins in a position that is virtually perpendicular to the floor. This allows a straight vertical pull form the floor preventing the athlete from having to move the bar around the knees then up when pulling from the ground.

These key points (shoulder and hip alignment) allows the greatest mechanical advantage when pulling from the floor, thus translating into optimal triple extension and power clean performance.

The last point I would like to bring to attention when starting is elbow position. Notice in Figure 7 how the elbows are rotated outward. This positioning serves no immediate advantage in the initial pull from the floor however at the top end of triple extension it allows the elbows to be pulled high and vertical as the athlete quickly drops their center of gravity under the bar to receive the weight. Ultimately this helps to minimize “reverse curling” and/or separation between the bar and the athlete during the catch phase of the power clean.

Now that we’ve reviewed good starting position lets discuss the “first pull of the power clean. The initial pull from the floor is done controlled without jerking. Likewise, hips and shoulders rise together as the athlete pulls the weight from the floor. If the athlete leads with the hips as demonstrated in Figure 8, the hips are taken completely out of the movement with nearly all the stress being placed on the lower back. This is not a good idea if you’re trying to develop power and explosion in the hips, while preventing injury to the lower back.

Figure 8. Pulling With The Back

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A simple self-measure or coaching point to ensure correct starting position and pulling form is relatively simple. If the athlete hits the knees when pulling from the floor two things are most likely the culprit:

  1. the athlete’s hips are set too low on the start,
  2. the shoulders are set in-line or too far behind the bar,
  3. the athlete is resting most their weight on the heels causing the bar to be pulled into the body---preventing a vertical pull,
  4. and/ or the athlete is pulling with the arms too early.

The next problem I see young Olympic-weightlifters experience when performing the power clean is the catch phase.  Ideally, during this phase the athlete has reached triple extension and must dynamically reverse total body extension by rapidly flexing into a quarter-front squat position to receive the bar as demonstrated in Figure 9. At the same time continued shoulder and arm action pulls the athlete under the bar while the arms rapidly rotate under the bar---elbows pushed forward and up---grip and wrist relaxed and bar resting across the shoulders. Inexperience can make these tasks seem a bit overwhelming yet incorporating a few auxiliary technique exercises the athlete should be able to correct poor form and technique.

Figure 9. Dropping Center of Gravity (Dynamic Extension Into Reverse Flexion)

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Often times an inexperienced athlete will try to rest the weight in the hands rather than racking the bar across the shoulders when performing the catch. Not relaxing the grip at the top of the movement prevents the athlete from pushing the elbows forward and up and allowing the bar to rest across the shoulders. This places an excessive amount of stress on the wrists and often time results in the athlete sacrificing form and technique. As a consequence the athlete is forced to push the hips forward in front of the shoulders to overcompensate as demonstrated in Figure 10. This makes for a poor base (lower body) to support the weight while placing undue mechanical and sheering stress on the knees, hips and lower back.

Figure 10. Catching Bar With Hands

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One way to correct the above is have the athlete perform a front squat with each power clean repetition. Requiring the athlete to immediately execute a front squat reinforces several teaching factors. For one, it puts emphasis on dynamically reversing total body flexion at the knees and hip---re-enforcing for the athlete to “shoot the hips" back and drop their center of gravity as they rapidly pull themselves under the bar to receive the weight. The resulting action allows the athlete’s shoulders to be set in line with the hips making for a strong supportive base while prevent shearing forces off the knees and prevents hyper-flexion (pinching) of the lower back resulting in possible vertebral damage.

If you aren’t already it’s probably a good idea to incorporate front squat solely into your weightlifting program. This exercise offers the athlete a leg variation exercise while placing a greater part of squatting stress on the quads and hip flexors. When periodizing front squat repetition maximums (RM) are usually based on power clean maxes or 70-75% of back squat RM. In terms of incorporating the clean-front squat combo for the first time make certain weight percentages are reduced (50-65% RM---65% being the heaviest you would prescribe). Understand, clean/front squat combo is technique teaching oriented---heavy weight is not necessary.

If you do incorporate front squat into you weekly routine then you are most likely familiar will the traditional racking/resting position of the bar across the shoulders. I suggest you try and get away from performing front squat this way and instead use a “clean grip” as demonstrated in Figure 11. This serves to reinforce good clean-front squat technique in addition to improved wrist strength and flexibility.

Figure 11. Front Squating: Tradtional vs. Clean Grip

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If poor wrist flexibility is responsible for bad form as opposed to lack of experience then flexibility should be addressed long before the introduction of clean-front squat combo. As I mentioned earlier, if the athlete is unable to relax the grip while the arms rapidly rotate under the bar form will be sacrificed. A way to combat poor wrist flexibility is to incorporate flexibility exercises into a pre-existing warm-up routine like those demonstrated in Figure 12. Encourage that these exercise not just be done during warm-up, but at home, while watching television, between sets or whenever possible!

Figure 12. Wrist Flexibility Exercises

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The last point I would like to address is foot placement during the catch phase of the power clean. Novice athletes often time have a bad tendency to keep their feet in the same position (hip-width) throughout the entire power clean movement. When the athlete drops the hips and rotates the elbows around the bar they must be concerned with re-establishing the feet on the platform. Re-establishing or “shifting of the feet” is done when the athlete is in the process of dropping the hips and rotating the elbows while rapidly driving the legs and feet back on the platform. The shifting of feet should be from the original hip-width starting position out to shoulder-width catch position as illustrated in Figure 13. This is done to further lower the hips by dropping the athlete’s center of gravity and provide a wider base of support when receiving the bar. When an athlete shifts the feet correctly a distinctive popping sound is produced. When this is heard it assures the athlete is driving his legs and feet with maximum speed.

Figure 13. Shifting The Feet

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More subtle foot shifting patterns are not as easy to notice and often times go unnoticed by the naked eye. However, with the introduction of the Murray Cross both coach and athlete can analyze foot-shifting patterns immediately. The Murray Cross---called after its inventor, former British Olympic and National Coach, Al Murray---is a simple device that can be drawn or painted on a platform and once understood can be used to give immediate feedback on foot and hip position in the clean, snatch and jerk. The basic drawing of the cross is displayed in the Diagram 1. Don’t be overly concerned with its exact dimensions but rather its configuration and interpretation of results are what really matter.

Diagram 1. Murray Cross

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Once set up, have the lifter place the feet within the cross so that the toes are in line with the front, top edge of the cross as illustrated in Examples A, B & C.

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A) As I mentioned earlier, this starting position can be used for all Olympic lifts (clean & jerk, snatch, clean pull, etc.). Make sure the lifter starts with the feet and barbell in the same plane. Once a prescribed lift is executed a coach and/or athlete can quickly see the foot position in the final executed position.

B) This shows the receiving position of the feet in either a snatch or a clean and shows the lifter has jumped back instead of extending the hips and body in a vertical movement.

C) This shows the foot position in a power clean illustrating the lifter has stepped back instead of shifting the feet to the side.  This makes the bar “come around” instead of traveling in a straight vertical line.

Well, I hope all the examples I’ve shared serve to help you as a coach or lifter. In technique coaching we have boundless sophisticated apparatus’ that can be used to analyze technique. Video is now available and even force platforms are not uncommon.

These instructional tools can be fed back to the lifter and much can be learned from observing one’s own lifts in training. However, if you’re limited by budget constraints like many of use are, these examples should serve to show how to get the most out yourself and your athletes. In closing I’ve included teaching progressions for power clean and clean pull to help with further coaching and/or training.

I leave you with this final question: What constitutes a sport-specific power clean? Is it the athlete who pulls the weight from the floor to the shoulder by any means necessary without achieving triple extension? Or is it when a lifter successfully achieves triple extension with maximum bar velocity and racks it across the shoulders in a balanced, squat/quarter-squat position. Hopefully after reading this article you can answer the question. Good luck in pursuit toward athletic excellence!


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Power Clean: Common Errors In The Start

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Power Clean: Common Errors In The Pull

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Power Clean: Common Errors In The Catch

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