A lot more attention tends to be paid to the third pull or turnover of the snatch
than the clean
, likely because the consequences of poor execution tend to be more dramatic and obvious, but the turnover of the clean deserves its own share of attention. The timing and precision of the turnover in the clean can be the difference between a make and a miss, or can prevent the recovery from being so taxing that a subsequent jerk fails.
An idea I commonly talk about with my lifters is attempting to make the clean resemble the front squat
as much as possible. Even the most technically proficient and athletic lifters can front squat more than they can clean. The primary reasons are simple: it’s easier to establish and maintain balance and stability, barbell positioning is ideal, and there is a longer eccentric segment.
So to make cleans more successful, we’re trying to optimize balance and stability, position the barbell as well as possible in the rack, and ensure enough of an eccentric movement to create tension and a stretch reflex to aid in the recovery.
Balance and stability are affected by every part of the lift from the moment the bar leaves the platform, and arguably even before that. If the lifter’s balance is off during any phase of the lift, it’s very likely to remain off for the rest of the lift. If the lifter is balanced and stable early the lift, it’s very likely that he or she will remain that way. With regard to the turnover specifically, the maintenance of balance requires that the lifter and barbell remain in immediate proximity to each other and extraneous movement is minimized or eliminated; this is one part of the precision element of the turnover. Consistency among lifts is also critical because it makes the movement predictable and reliable, which minimizes the need for adjustments during the very limited time during a lift.
The position of the barbell in the rack is another element of balance and stability. When taking a bar from a rack
for front squats, a lifter can take his or her time establishing a perfectly secure and balanced position of the bar on the shoulders, allowing optimal posture and movement in the squat and minimal effort to maintain the bar’s position. There is little or no fight to keep the bar in place during the squat and effort can be focused on actually standing up. There is also no drop of the barbell onto the lifter at any point in the squat, barring the occasional abrupt start that some lifters do that creates a small amount of separation; but even the worst offenders can’t match the drop of the bar in a poorly executed clean.
Finally, the longer eccentric portion of a front squat in comparison to the clean allows for an easier recovery from the bottom due to the development of more tension and a potentially better stretch reflex. (Interestingly, one reason some lifters appear to do better with cleans than front squats is that their cleans are quick into the bottom, generating a stretch reflex, while they control the downward speed of the front squats to a greater degree, limiting the stretch reflex.)
In order to take advantage of these elements of the front squat during the clean, the turnover needs to keep the bar and body in immediate proximity to each other, bring the bar and shoulders together smoothly and precisely, and occur in as high of a squat position as possible.
Proximity of the bar and body during the turnover is maintained by moving the arms properly. This not only keeps the bar moving in the desired path, but also keeps the body close to the bar. The elbows should have been turned out from the start of the lift and kept in that orientation so that when the pull under the bar is performed, the bending elbows move out and up rather than back. The elbows moving back prematurely encourages the bar to move forward away from the body.
This movement of the arms in the initial stage of the pull under is also critical for the precision and timing of the delivery of the bar into the rack position. The actual turnover of the elbows is not a strong movement, much like in the snatch; if the body has not been accelerated downward adequately, the turning over of the elbows will not be sufficient to bring the bar and body together properly or allow the elbows to complete their spin around the bar quickly enough (or at all). This is a violent, aggressive pull against the bar to set up the turnover of the elbows, which is really just a follow-through.
This movement can be thought of as positioning the barbell near the shoulders (and the shoulders near the barbell) to establish it as an axis around which the elbows can pivot quickly. This spin of the elbows around the bar is difficult, slow and occasionally impossible if the bar and body are still in the middle of the process of moving into this position.
As a part of the movement of the elbows around the bar as the bar and shoulders come together, the shoulder blades should be retracted as the elbows come back and around, in effect rowing the bar in toward the body. This will further ensure that the bar is delivered securely into the rack position rather than winding up too far forward, or similarly problematic, forcing the lifter to lean the chest forward to reach for the bar.
Generally lifters should end up in the rack position without a full grip around the bar; that is, the bar will be resting securely on the shoulders and the hands will be at least partially open with the fingers under the bar. Lifters with adequate flexibility and convenient proportions will be able to rack the bar well with a closed grip; this is fine as long as it creates no problems such as slow completion of the turnover. In any case, the grip should be maintained until the elbows are beginning to come up from under the bar. By this point, the bar should be starting to contact the shoulders, which means it won’t be able to spin freely, and the remaining turnover of the elbows will need to come with some movement of the hands on the bar (this can occur with the hand open or closed—the grip simply needs to be loosened enough to keep the elbows moving).
As a final part of the turnover, the shoulders should be pushed up into the bar to ensure the connection is made smoothly and that the bar is not allowed to simply drop onto the shoulders. Any crashing of the bar onto the body creates excessive downward force for the lifter to resist, as well as increases the likelihood of instability due to unexpected and uncontrollably sudden shifts in position. This reach of the shoulders up into the bar will also encourage the athlete to tighten up sooner and be ready to resist the weight.
Lastly, the turnover should always be completed as soon as possible; that is, the lifter should attempt to secure the bar in the rack position in as high of a squat position as possible. This is the final element of making the clean resemble the front squat: the higher the bar is racked, the sooner the lifter can establish tension in the squat, and the more of an eccentric movement can occur before the recovery. The heavier the clean, the less the lifter will be able to elevate the bar, and the lower he or she will be forced to receive it. But the principle of the effort doesn’t change. Often lifters want to jump into the bottom of the squat to receive a clean despite the fact that the bar is much higher and subsequently crashes down onto the shoulders and crushes them, making the recovery far more difficult or even impossible. Commonly this problem is addressed by reducing the elevation of the bar rather than increasing the elevation of the body to meet it; that is, a lifter will start cutting his or her pull short or reducing the pull effort so the bar stops crashing. This is successful (at least in the basic sense that the lifter makes the clean) with lighter weights, but typically the lifter then fails to adjust as weights increase and simply can’t elevate the bar adequately to get under it either at all or soon enough for a successful recovery from the bottom.
There are some extremely strong squatters who put up big numbers in the clean with turnovers that don’t conform to the above recommendations. This can be seen as a reason to not bother with technical improvements, or it can be seen as being an unnecessary limiter of the athlete’s potential. If that lifter is able to clean so much with a bar crashing down onto their shoulders in the bottom of a squat, how much more would he or she be capable of with a smooth delivery and a bit more of an eccentric component to the squat?
The specifics of how a lifter can improve the clean turnover will depend on what exactly that lifter is or isn’t presently doing in the clean, but following are some exercises for technical improvements.
This is a simple drill I usually use as part of my clean teaching progression, but also use it sometimes to correct problems down the line. The lifter starts standing tall holding a barbell in the scarecrow position—bar against the chest and elbows elevated and out to the sides (the bar should hang down below the elbows rather than letting the elbows drop to lift the bar higher). From this position, the lifter will turn the bar over into the clean rack position, focusing on bringing the bar back into the body and delivering it smoothly. This can be done fairly slowly initially if necessary, but eventually should be as quick as possible without sacrificing accuracy. Generally sticking to 3-5 reps at a time is a good idea to give the shoulders a break and prevent fatigue from allowing the quality of movement to degrade. An empty bar or light technique bar will usually be as much weight as anyone can manage (note that some weight is necessary for this to work—no PVC pipes or wooden dowels).
The muscle clean
is a simple way to teach and practice the upper body movement of the clean turnover. Watch that you or your athletes don’t overload it; excessive weight will just encourage a return to existing bad habits. Focus should be on keeping the elbows turned out to the sides and elevating them maximally and to the sides before turning the arms over; retracting the shoulder blades and bringing the bar back in to the shoulders as the elbows move around the bar; keeping the chest up rather than reaching for the bar by leaning forward; properly timing the release of the grip to maintain connection to the bar and secure placement on the shoulders; smooth connection of the bar to the shoulders with no crashing. Work with 3-5 reps per set at a weight that allows perfect movement for all reps. This can also be done from the hang or blocks.
The tall clean
can be helpful to allow focus on only the pull under the bar, encourage better turnover speed, and bolster confidence. I prefer to start the tall clean on flat feet rather than on the toes because the position and balance are more similar to what they should be in the clean. The goal should be to rack the barbell as high and as smoothly as possible, and to establish tightness in the squat position immediately for a strong receipt and recovery. This can also be done with power cleans
or as a tall power clean + tall clean complex.
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.
Block / Hang Clean
Cleans from blocks or from the hang
are similar to power cleans in the sense that they encourage a faster and more aggressive turnover. They will also help develop better explosiveness at the top of the pull for better bar acceleration and height in the clean.
Muscle Clean + Clean
The muscle clean can be combined with the clean (or power clean or tall clean) to help incorporate the improved turnover movement with the lift. The muscle clean first allows the athlete to focus on the upper body movement and precise placement of the bar in the rack position; the subsequent clean puts this into practice. Numbers can be pushed in either direction for emphasis; for example, if the muscle clean is relatively new or inconsistent, something like 3 muscle cleans + 1 clean may work well; in other cases, a single muscle clean before one or more cleans might be all that’s necessary.
Power Clean + Clean
One of my favorite complexes for encouraging lifters to meet the bar better in their cleans is the power clean + clean. The power clean first gets the lifter pulling completely and meeting the bar tightly in a high position. The key is that the athlete should be attempting to rack the bar at the same height in the subsequent clean, then riding it down into the squat rather than locking off the receiving position at that height. Same thing goes here for reps as was described for the muscle clean + clean.
These exercises can be done as standalone technical work in other training sessions not involving cleans, or they can be used at the beginning of clean training sessions to help improve the subsequent clean work.
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