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Tips for CrossFitters on improving your power cleans

January 22, 2014

In CrossFit we often teach and use the power version of the Olympic movements, the power clean and power snatch, independently of the full version of the lifts, as if they are completely different exercises. I’ve seen from my own experience and from coaching others that if you allow bad habits or compensation patterns to form with the power versions of the lifts, this can sometimes interfere with learning proper technique of the full Olympic lifts.

It’s far more common in the fitness industry to teach and use power cleans instead of the full variant of the movement, because they are technically easier, and demand less flexibility and precision. It’s also easier to “save” a messy power clean than to save a messy full clean. While a failure of accuracy in the full clean or snatch (and even in the power snatch to an extent) generally results in a failed lift, with power cleans, people can get away with using technique that ranges from somewhat questionable to downright horrific, and still somehow manage to “save” the clean and complete the lift.

One of the main problems I have seen with all of this (apart from the fact that using shit technique risks getting injured) is that when it comes time to perform the full clean (or snatch), people are unable to commit to getting under the bar in the full squat and in turn they become limited by the amount of weight they are able to clean.

Tip # 1: Stop trying to power clean crazy-heavy weights that should be caught in a squat.

Unless you are in an actual competition involving heavy power cleans, I personally believe it is somewhat pointless to keep trying to go for a heavier and heavier power clean if you are using improper “cleaning” form. Let’s be honest, at a certain point, the weight (relative to the person lifting) is just too heavy for a power clean, and should technically be caught lower in a squat.

What happens when we don’t get under the bar and catch the bar low enough when the weight is heavy enough to warrant it, is that we end up compensating with bad pulls, hunched backs, low elbows and extremely wide catching stances (more about that below). Using bad form with power cleans in an attempt to lift heavier weight, will result in improper form when it comes time for full cleans as well.

Your time spent practicing power cleans should help out your full cleans and help you develop a stronger second pull (bringing the bar up higher with more power) because the weight is lighter. You shouldn’t pull differently just because it’s a power clean, nor should you receive the lift with a totally different foot placement than your full cleans. Which brings me to my next tip:

Tip # 2: The power clean should look identical to the full clean, apart from the height of the receiving position

When the power version of the lifts are performed correctly, they should look mechanically identical to the full versions, the only difference being the height in which the bar is received. This is something I feel a lot of CrossFitters could improve on. It’s easy to muscle that shit up, get your heart-rate up and get a good workout, but as soon as the program calls for full cleans or snatches, everyone starts to wiggle and get uneasy. Remember, the only to get better at the lifts is to get out of our comfort zones and practice the full, complete lifts, especially parts of them that we are weaker in.

By Greg Everett: There is definitely some disagreement about the use of the power clean by weightlifters, as well as disagreement about how exactly it should be performed. In short, my opinion is that the power clean should be no different than the clean other than the height at which the lifter stops squatting down after receiving the bar. The power clean can help encourage a more forceful upward extension and more aggressive turnover, as well as encouraging the lifter to meet the bar both in a high position as well as learning to immediately tighten the body to resist and support the bar.

If you are doing a proper power cleans, you should still be getting under the bar, just as you do in full cleans, but rather than catching it in a squat, you catch it above parallel with soft knees.

Tip # 3: As the bar gets heavier your power clean catch should get lower, rather than wider:

In a power clean, because the weight is lighter, you are pulling the bar higher. The lighter the weight is, the more it will be accelerated during the second pull, and the higher it will travel under the resulting momentum. The lighter the barbell relative to the lifter, the higher it will rise and the less the lifter will descend to catch it. However, for a power clean, it’s still necessary to catch it with soft knees and get under the bar.

Often when the weight starts getting heavier, and people continue to try to power clean it, they start using a wider receiving position with their feet, rather than getting lower under the bar. The main 2 problems with catching it in a wide stance is 1. It makes the receiving position inconsistent (we want to aim for consistency in all of our lifts. IMO this is very important) and 2. It makes it impossible for the lifter to transition lower into a power clean or even all the way into a full squat depth if necessary. You can’t really go any further lower if you are splitting your legs wide apart.

The other thing is that it is bad technique and can be dangerous. Here’s a quote from Will Flemming on it. He refers to it as “starfishing”.

By Will Flemming: We talk and talk about the force production that is such a valuable part of Olympic lifts, but equally valuable is the force absorption that must occur at the moment of the catch. When an athlete catches like a starfish they are putting themselves in a position that will lead to injury. If this pattern is the reaction to absorbing a stress on the body, then I really fear the moment when they come down from a maximal effort jump in competition. So, do yourself a favor and don’t allow any starfish appearances in the weight room.

Tip # 4: Aim to maintain consistency in your movement even during workouts involving higher reps

This next point applies to many people, especially during CrossFit workouts that involve higher reps of power cleans. If you take a look at the top CrossFitters during training and competitions, you will notice a consistency in their movements, regardless of whether they are in the middle of a high intensity WOD, or doing power cleans for strength work. Of course not everyone is at this level, but we can still learn something from them, and try to apply it in our own training.

A good way to implement this consistency into our lifts during training is to make sure the weight is not too heavy. We want to avoid losing form during our WODs as much as possible. Even if you can lift the weight when you are fresh, it’s very different lifting that weight multiple times when your heart-rate is up. Always prioritize form and technique over ego. This is easier said than done, as we all want to be able to do the weight as prescribed. But making sure your technique is spot-on during training should always be your goal. Eliminating any bad habits in the power clean during training is essential! Every step backward turns into two steps needed to be made forward for progress.

Tip # 5: Pull Slowly from The Floor.

This applies to both cleans and snatches, power and full versions but I thought I would include it here as it’s one of the most common technique errors I see. Jerking the weight off the floor results in an inefficient 2nd pull. Pull slower and more controlled from the floor. Then you accelerate once the bar is above the knees. The following quote explains it well.

By Jace Derwin: 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.

Tip # 6: A good clean complex for developing a better power clean

I’m finishing off this post with an easy, non-time consuming solution that should help you fix your power clean. It should help you build the habit of getting under the bar and eliminating the wide-foot catch. I borrowed this idea from Will Flemming. I’ll just add a quote from his post, as well as post his video. But below I've posted a link to his full article, which is really good.

By Will Flemming: No, you don’t have to spend months and months on the platform to learn to catch the bar low. You can make this change to your technique and for your athletes in only one day. All you need to do is start with the power clean (or hang power clean) and front squat combo. Athletes may fumble around with this movement for a minute and catch wide, and then bring their feet in to perform the front squat. Eventually those athletes will decide that it is less time consuming to just keep their feet where they are. Instantly you have a better catch position.


More quality reading on the subject:

The 7 most common power clean technique mistakes - Eric Cressey

Fix your power clean: Catch every rep low! - Will Flemming

Bad Habits of the Power Clean. - Jace Derwin



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