Easy Tips to Build a Better Clean and Develop Explosive Power

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Easy Tips to Build a Better Clean and Develop Explosive Power

Rod Root

When performed correctly, the barbell clean variations are the best-looking movements in the gym.  A well-executed clean resembles many sport situations and is hands-down one of the best ways to improve overall athletic power, speed and explosive strength.  Snapping the hips into a nasty dunk in basketball, soaring above the net before a violent volleyball spike, or loading and exploding into a powerful football tackle are all events that clean variations resemble.

Unfortunately, I see so many young athletes performing lifts that just look un-athletic and sloppy. My goal is for everyone that I work with to move safely and efficiently, which will result in bigger lifts and healthier lifters over time. When an athlete “muscles-up” a heavy bar in a tight and stressful looking motion, he/she is risking injury and failing to develop any real explosive power.  Far too often the clean and its variations are over-prescribed and under-coached in the high school strength program. Fortunately, the clean can be easily corrected with some great coaching and practice.

The clean is all about timing, coordination, and applying then instantly receiving/decelerating force.  It can be one of the most difficult movements to perfect, but can easily be improved with just a few adjustments and some practice.

Remember, the clean variations should LOOK and FEEL athletic and graceful!  Developing a better eye for the clean variations will make you a better coach; developing a better feel for the lifts will make you a better athlete.  These are some things that I always look for while coaching athletes or lifting on my own.

1) Start position is crucial.

A clean that doesn’t begin in an athletic and balanced start position is doomed before the bar even moves.

Most of our athletes will either work from the above-knee or mid-thigh “hang” position. This position is universal in athletics and I know the athlete will see success from this position quickly.

The athlete should begin with a tight grip and then turn the knuckles down before lowering into the start position.  When the grip begins to slip the athlete no longer has full control of the bar; this makes for a sloppy lift.  There’s no shame in putting the bar down to reset!

Here’s a sloppy, loose grip

sloppy grip

Here’s a firm grip with knuckles wrapped under. Notice the difference in shoulder positions.

firm grip


This “turning down” of the knuckles ensures a solid grip and also places the shoulder in the correct position for an efficient clean.

The bar should never appear to be sliding down the fingers.  The athlete should feel connected to the bar (emotionally and physically), this is impossible when the grip is compromised.   The shoulder and scapula are heavily influenced by the grip, so tightening up will make for a much prettier clean.

Bonus Tip: USE CHALK! A lot of chalk.

Note:  I don’t always force our athletes to use a “hook grip” if they are not actually Olympic Lifters, but it is very good habit to get into if you or your athlete plan on hitting some heavy weights down the road.

It may be a bit uncomfortable for the thumbs at first, but the hands will adapt to it after just a few sessions.

Wrap the thumbs under the bar

thumbs grip

Wrap your fingers over the thumb

hook grip

Simply wrap the thumb UNDER the bar, then wrap your fingers AROUND the bar and thumb.

Once the grip is there, the athlete should begin with the knees “unlocked” or “soft” and hinge at the hips WITHOUT pushing the knees forward or squatting. The body should resemble a > symbol, not an inverted capital L.  In other words, push the butt WAY BACK.

poor start clean

Figure 1 Poor start, knees forward

 poor start L

Poor start, “Inverted Letter L”


good start clean

Good start, hips pushed back with weight balanced.

It is also important for the athlete to keep the bar in tight to body.  When the bar just dangles in the start position the athlete is again disconnected from the bar (I usually see this happen along with the slipping grip).


2) It’s all about the hip drive.

The “power” in the power clean comes from the “snapping” of the hip extending.

An error I often see is the athlete dipping the knees under the bar and attempting to scoop the weights up in a very quad/knee-dominant (thigh muscles working instead of backside muscles) motion.

poor hip drive

Poor hip drive, note the “knee scoop”

Athletes often defer to this pattern when a weight is just too heavy.  Sometimes the best correction an athlete or coach can make is lowering the load on the bar.  The muscles on the front of the thighs just don’t have the leverage or strength to move the bar like the back-side muscles in the clean.

good hip drive Good hip drive, end position

When an athlete is struggling with the hip-drive, I like to have them “jump through the heels” to get a feel for the motion.  The extension at the ankle should happen at the very last moment, after the hips and knees fully extend.  The feet should be like the last crack of a whip, snapping at the very end of the movement.

I will also cue the athlete to keep the toes “nailed to the floor” and not to stomp on the catch.  There is a difference between a solid, firm catch and intentionally “donkey stomping” the feet.  Keeping the toes “nailed to the floor” will not only make the hip drive much more efficient and powerful, but also put the athlete in a better spot to receive the bar in a smooth and athletic-looking fashion.  Although the toes will actually leave the ground, the clean is about a powerful triple-extension (hips, knees, ankles), not a jump. This cue is very helpful for the athlete that habitually receives the bar in a “knees forward” position (more on this coming up).

Coaching a powerful hip drive isn’t always an easy task.  Take some time and practice the clean pull and clean high-pull.  The athlete should be able to feel when the hips are “snapping” correctly, and the motor-learning process may take some time.  However, once an athlete “gets it”, the bar will begin to fly up into the catch position and appear effortless.

Always remember, if it LOOKS smooth and athletic, it probably is.  And vice versa.

3) The “catch”…isn’t really a catch all.

The term “catch” is misleading when it comes to the clean.  If I were to throw you a barbell, you would instinctively grab it with your hands, right?

With the clean catch, I want athletes to ignore that instinct.  Sometimes this can take some real practice and repetition!

If you are working on your clean at Force Fitness or have some Olympic lifting experience, you already know that “flipping” the bar up in a motion that resembles a reverse-curl is not correct.

This style of catch doesn’t look athletic or smooth! It also can be stressful (even painful) for the athlete’s wrist and shoulder joints.

poor catch

Poor “catch” position, catching the bar with the hands

Throughout the initial motion from the start to the high-pull, the elbows should be relaxed with the hands firmly gripping the bar. While the bar approaches the highest point of the high-pull (also the “lightest” point, as gravity has yet to pull the bar back to earth), the hands should relax and the elbows should quickly punch forward, wrapping under the bar in a fast and aggressive motion.

Instead of catching the bar with a “death-grip”, the athlete must learn relax the hands and “catch” the bar on the meat of the shoulders with the fingers supporting the bar only.

good catch

Good “catch” position, hands relaxed with elbows high

Again, “catch” is misleading here.  The athlete should gracefully meet the bar and wrap the elbows under it at the bar’s lightest and highest point.

The bar should never slam down on the shoulders. Your reflexes probably won’t let that happen, so just trust it!  And remember, it’s always ok to put the bar down and reset after a rep!

An athletic-looking clean is an explosive and efficient movement that demands coordination and balance.  The timing of contracting and relaxing is important in sport and reinforced through proper clean technique.

Use these tips the next time you chalk up and instantly improve your clean technique!


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