Article written by Jace Derwin for LiftBigEatBig.com
The power clean is the utility Olympic lift for just about every sport under the sun. It is often taught as the very first variation of the clean, and regarded as an easier alternative to the full lift since the athlete only needs to receive the bar above 90o of knee flexion. Power cleans deliver on everything they are promised to do, but with poor application, they can reinforce bad habits that can get you little to no gain in the full movement. Experienced lifters probably have no trouble with this movement, but newer lifters will benefit from identifying bad habits before the form and how to avoid them while learning this awesome expression of strength. I will highlight a few issues that are common and why they should be deconditioned from an athlete’s movement pattern.
One by-product of practicing low quality power cleans often manifests itself in the form of a poor transition from the first pull to the second pull. Due to the need to emphasize the second pull to catch the bar higher than a standard clean, athletes may rush through the first pull with the false feeling that it helps to bring more power past the knees. For the bar to reach its peak velocity at the end of the second pull, it needs to accelerate slowly from the first pull, and peak right at the point of extension. Accelerating the bar too fast off the ground inhibits reaching a maximal pull velocity in the second pull. The first pull should be absolutely picture perfect past the knees, and build into a blisteringly fast second pull that smoothly is pulled into the front rack position. A poor transition into the second pull doesn’t maximize the power of the hip extension, often leaving the bar out front and reinforcing a habit of cutting the pull short. This happens in athletes who are relying highly on the arms to nearly up-right row the bar up into the front rack, and are cutting off the extent of the posterior chain to develop force. Learning to actively sweep the bar into the pull is a skill that takes time but is needed for making power cleans a more effective skill transfer movement.
Often times, novice lifters will demonstrate great mechanics in the power clean up until near maximal attempts. Suddenly, they begin widening their stance on the catch because the weight isn’t getting pulled high enough to catch it in a comfortable position. This habit interferes with the transfer of the power clean to the clean, and can cause the habit of the legs jumping too wide to start manifesting itself during attempts at max cleans. If this starts happening during your attempts, drop weight so that you can maintain a good foot position, keeping them similar to the same width you’d use on a clean and keep the power clean a transferable movement. Similarly, novices performing power cleans can also over emphasize the extent to which the feet need to leave the floor. It’s quite common to see a novice performing power cleans where they leave their feet, flex their knees mid-air, and then extend to crash the heels into the platform. This action (commonly called the donkey kick) is an illusion to feel more explosive. In reality, it is a waste of useful force and the athlete can’t continue to put force into the second pull if they are not actively driving into the ground. Avoiding leaving your feet too early gives you more time to apply force into the ground, which transfers into more force delivered to the bar to bring it to a good height for the rack position.
LBEB Athlete Igor is an awesome example of what the feet should do on a power clean. Igor plays with 210kg like a lion plays with its prey, and he also has an Ipod from the late 70’s judging by his music preferences. Now, we’re not all world caliber Russian demi-gods, but we can at least practice good pull mechanics on our power cleans and keep ourselves from donkey kicking.
Some athletes have discovered straps are helpful when they are perform multiple sets of power cleans and can save them from walking away with hands that look like they've been run through a cheese grater. Straps can help take the stress out of the hand on the pull, but will limit your front rack position by not allowing the hands to release and let the bar sit on the fingers. Compensations in the shoulder girdle to make up for lost mobility forces the shoulders to internally rotate and protract the scapula to keep the elbows high during the front rack. This is a much weaker and unstable position when receiving the bar, not translating to what an athlete should be trying to achieve when receiving the bar in the bottom of the clean. Straps will also inhibit calluses to form where strength athletes need them most. Conditioning the hands to the bar is important and shouldn't take long to achieve with consistent practice. Save straps for multiple sets on the snatch or your deadlift, when grip strength can be your limiting factor. The need for your hands to be active in the reception of the bar is too important and should be practiced with every clean.
Eliminating bad habits in the power clean is essential. Every step backward turns into two steps needed to be made forward for progress. If you have the ability to practice the full lift, you absolutely should. The full lift develops better timing of the hips on extension and has a greater mobility takeaway than a power clean, which can only make you a better physical specimen and all-around athlete. The full lift also limits how much you can effectively save a clean that’s too far out front, forcing the athlete to practice a much more efficient pull to be successful. Unfortunately, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to have the know-how to address specific mobility issues and pick up the form without a certified professional instructing the lift. Like before, I highly recommend picking up the hang power clean and starting from there. With little gym experience, the mechanics of pulling weight from the floor for a clean is untrained and should be slowly progressed. Power cleans are a fun movement to experiment with and should be practiced with the intent of keeping their mechanics as similar to the clean as possible. If practiced with purpose, the power clean can yield tremendous carry over into the realm of athletics and other strength sports.