Catching Cleans
Matt Foreman

A couple of weeks ago, I posted an article about how you can improve your snatch technique by concentrating on keeping the bar close to your face when you’re transitioning into the turnover.

Want to know a secret about that article? I wrote it over a year ago. I considered posting it several times since then, but I thought it was too simplistic. Basically, I’ve been saying to myself, “People won’t like this one because it’s too basic, nothing special about it.” So the article just sat in a file on my computer for a long time.

Finally, I decided to put it out there, convinced that it would go over like a turd in a punchbowl. And guess what? Lots of people loved it. It got a better response than some of the articles I’ve written that I thought were five times better. I sent Greg a text and told him this, and he replied with a real Yoda thought…“Sometimes, simple is better.” It was a huge moment. Then he sent me another text, promising to buy me a new Hummer because of how wicked my articles are. So now I’ll just wait patiently for it to be delivered…got a spot all reserved in my driveway and everything.

So, why am I telling you this? Because it made me ask myself, “How many other good pieces of input have I NOT written about because they seem too simple and ordinary?”

Thoughts started hitting my brain like moths on a bug zapper.

Okay, since we talked about the turnover phase of the snatch in the last article, why don’t we take a look at the clean? Actually, now that I think about it, many of the lifters I coach tend to have more difficulty catching cleans on their shoulders than catching snatches over their heads. Ever thought about that?

Much of it is flexibility-related, which we all know. If an athlete is tight in the wrists, shoulders, elbows, and upper back, receiving cleans on the shoulders can be a real bugger. You start to see two big problems:
  1. They have to open their hands and let the bar roll back on their fingers when they catch it on their shoulders, often letting their pinky fingers (and maybe even their ring fingers) pop off the bar. Men usually have more trouble with this than women.
  2. They don’t catch the bar at the top of the shoulders, tucked into that “notch” we all see when expert lifters turn over their cleans. Instead, the bar lands on a forward area of their deltoid, possibly even down on the sternum.
I’ll bet I just described about half of you.

These two problems lead to…more problems. One or both hands popping completely off the bar during the catch phase. Dangerous misses where the bar lurches forward and jams the wrists or, even worse, dumps off the shoulders into the lifter’s lap. Timing issues, long-term pain increases, etc. One way or another, you simply have to fix these glitches.

First, the flexibility problems (or as everybody loves to say these days, “mobility”) have to be chipped away at. Flexibility doesn’t improve right away. It’s something an athlete has to put a lot of sustained, persistent effort into over a long period of time. I’m not going to start listing flexibility drills in this article because this website (and the internet in general) is crawling with them. You can do your own research.

Second, there are technical issues you can look at that will improve your clean turnover/catch. As with my last article on snatching, I’m not going to make this a comprehensive analysis of the clean. We’re not reviewing every single aspect of the lift here, so I’m deliberately leaving several things out. Instead, let’s just hit a couple of technical cues and ideas that might help a lot of you:
  • “Catch the bar at the base of your throat”- This is a cue I’ve used a lot in coaching. Many beginning lifters are scared to catch the bar in the right spot because they think it’s gonna crush their clavicles or something like that. So they receive the bar in some awkward position on their deltoids, trying to avoid the clavicle destruction thing, and it results in the bar being too far forward…which results in a crappy clean. Other people aren’t worried about their clavicles, but they still catch the bar in the wrong spot simply because they don’t know how to do it correctly. Thinking about tucking that bar right against the base of the throat, with the elbows up in the proper position, can help a lot. (NOTE: When I say “throat,” many of you think about the windpipe situation, where the bar can cut off the lifter’s airway and potentially cause a blackout. I haven’t found this to be a significant problem. It rarely happens, and any athlete with some basic ability will be able to find a way to keep it from happening regularly. It’s like hitting your chin in the jerk. [Editor's note: blackouts are caused more often by compression of the carotid arteries and/or vagal stimulation from the combination of holding the breath and exertion—releasing some air during the recovery of the clean and elevating the shoulders slightly in the rack position will prevent this.])
  • It’s definitely possible for an athlete to do all the mobility work in the world and still not be able to catch cleans with a closed fist on the bar. Many people just don’t have the flexibility for this, and they never will. In that case, the goal is twofold:
    • Get the flexibility as far along as you can. If the athlete absolutely has to open the hand up and let the bar roll back on the fingers a little to catch the clean, so be it. Just try to minimize it as much as possible and do everything you can to avoid any pinkies or ring fingers popping off the bar.
    • If this is the case, you’ll have to master the “pop and adjust” technique after you’ve stood up with the clean and you’re preparing to jerk. I use the term “pop and adjust” simply for lack of a better description. You all know what I’m talking about because you’ve seen many lifters do it. It’s the thing that happens when athletes finish standing up with the clean and then drive the bar off their shoulders just a little bit, simultaneously adjusting their hands to a position that they can jerk effectively from. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, put in some YouTube time and you’ll find plenty of examples. Lots of lifters have to do this. I do it personally. It takes some work to get it consistent, but it’s actually not as hard as it looks.
Hey, it would be lovely if we all had that amazing flexibility you occasionally see, where a lifter can turn over a clean and tuck that bar right into the notch at the top of the shoulders with a completely closed fist on the bar. The people who can do this don’t know how lucky they are. They have an immediate advantage over everybody.

But that’s not common. Most of you have birth defects that are gonna make this more challenging. Now you have another reason to resent your parents! Awesome!

You may also like Improving the Clean through a Better Turnover

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Matt Foreman is the football and track & field coach at Mountain View High School in Phoenix, AZ. A competitive weightliter for twenty years, Foreman is a four-time National Championship bronze medalist, two-time American Open silver medalist, three-time American Open bronze medalist, two-time National Collegiate Champion, 2004 US Olympic Trials competitor, 2000 World University Championship Team USA competitor, and Arizona and Washington state record-holder. He was also First Team All-Region high school football player, lettered in high school wrestling and track, a high school national powerlifting champion, and a Scottish Highland Games competitor. Foreman has coached multiple regional, state, and national champions in track & field, powerlifting, and weightlifting, and was an assistant coach on 5A Arizona state runner-up football and track teams. He is the author of the books Olympic Weightlifting for Masters: Training at 30, 40, 50 & Beyond and Bones of Iron: Collected Articles on the Life of the Strength Athlete.

Read more by Matt Foreman

Jeremy 2014-05-06
It would be great to know what mobility exercises you recommend doing to achieve this. I have a nagging injury that has prevented me from lifting and I can't figure out how to stretch the arm chain effectively to get back into it. I struggle with this, the books aren't for athletes, the sports therapists aren't sports specific, and there is very little I can find online beyond tennis/golf elbow which just doesn't apply. I'd love any recommendations or direction you can provide.
Brutus 2014-05-06
Really loving the recent articles Matt, outstanding
Greg Everett 2014-05-06
Jeremy -

What exactly is the problem? What position/movement is causing you trouble, and is it just pain, or actually restricted ROM?
Luis 2014-05-06
Great stuff.It's been really helpful.Any "simple" advice on getting under the bar quickly on the clean and the snatch.
Blair Lowe 2014-05-06
When I pulled something in my shoulder, muscle snatches and muscle cleans helped me get back that flexibility as it was all tight.

I also like them because I believe they teach where to get the bar to. Accuracy. I like them more than Powers.
Joe Auerbach 2014-05-07
Any thoughts on how to mobilize this grip? I feel like I'm flexible, yet when I go for this grip my wrists want to rotate, leaving my thumbs pointing toward the ground (not ideal for catching a bar with both hands. Something about geometry).
Jeremy 2014-05-07
Hi Greg,

Essentially its radiating elbow pain that I am positive has something to do with mobility chain issues I just can't for the life of me figure out where the issue is or how to resolve it. Its not golf/tennis elbow, but sharp shooting pain when in the clean so much so that even without the bar it causes me discomfort. I'd love any suggestions or theories you might have, I've desperately tried to figure it out but internet diagnostics only leads to ruin (so far).
Ryan 2014-05-07
Could it be possible that bar placement on the shoulders could affect the trajectory of the jerk subsequently...i am having huge problems with the latter ( snatch 100kg but jerk 110kg (Clean 125ish ) ). when i am at the bottom of the dip, my knees drift forward resulting in a forward bar motion ( immagine my hips from the side moving in a U shape ).Could it be im holding the bar too far forward (never thought of that before this article as the bar seems pretty comfortable where i hold it in the rack position) Ive been trying all sorts of cues its killing me i cant fix it. Thanks in advance
Greg Everett 2014-05-08
Jeremy -

I'm still not clear - WHERE is the pain radiating FROM? If it's that bad, I would suggest you find a good manual therapist to check it out and fix it. Otherwise you're going to be wasting a lot of training time trying to figure out what's going on. It could be a lot of different things, from tight triceps, to a problem closer to your wrist, to something in your shoulder, and I really don't have a way to figure it out unless it happens to be something obvious that I've come across before, and this isn't one of those cases.
Greg Everett 2014-05-08
Ryan -

Yes, but it would need to be forward on the shoulders to the point that it was sliding as you dipped or transitioned in the bottom. Having the bar forward won't cause your legs to do the wrong thing. You may be doing something as simple as dipping too deep. Before you jerk, unlock your knees and get tension on your quads, and bend ONLY at the knees. The hips have to travel straight down, not back at all. Practice the dip with a loaded bar by squatting into the dip position slowly and standing again slowly - force yourself to maintain that vertical posture and the pressure on your heels. Once you've figured out how to do that, make it happen in your jerks.
Greg Everett 2014-05-08
Joe -

Clean grip on bar, bar behind the neck like you're going to back squat, then reach the elbows forward and lift them as high as possible while pushing the shoulders forward as much as possible and up slightly. You should feel a stretch behind your shoulders.
Ryan 2014-05-08
Thanks i will start doing them from tomorrow hopefully it will work...i used to do them but tried to be fast. btw my hips move forward at the bottom of the dip not backwards though in relation to my shoulders they are still exactly under them. its like my knees go down and i go drifting forward at the bottom of the dip.
Jeremy 2014-05-08
Hi Greg,

Apologies for not being clear. The pain is in the left elbow itself it feels like the movement tears the joint or pulls it where it gets inflamed and agitated. Totally understand that its difficult to diagnose especially over email. Where would I find a good manual therapist that also is aware of OLing? I've often gotten puzzled looks from physical therapists and as yet haven't found much relief. Thanks in advance for anything you can suggest.
Jeremy 2014-05-08
Gah sorry, and it occurs when I clean, in the clean, holding the clean, catching the weight, stretching for the clean. It is difficult to hold the bar with my hands wrapped around it, that can be excruciating.
Martin 2014-05-08
Hi Matt,
Really good article with a bunch of great tips :)
I enjoy reading the other articles you've posted and reading the comments with great pleasure :)

I've recently started one of the traning cycles, 12 weeks basic, with a lot of cleans and snatches - so the quick tips for both snatching and cleaning is really useful..

Thank you!
Joe Auerbach 2014-05-08
Right you are! There's that stretch right by those tight muscles that I have from sitting at a keyboard! I think you just earned some magic K.Starr points. Thanks!
Matt Foreman 2014-05-10
Joe (and everybody else), Greg mentioned this stretch "Clean grip on bar, bar behind the neck like you're going to back squat, then reach the elbows forward and lift them as high as possible while pushing the shoulders forward as much as possible and up slightly." It's worth mentioning that this stretch is part of the barbell progression I have all of my lifters do before their workouts, and I do it myself every time I lift as well. It's basically a mandatory stretch for everybody.
Charlie 2014-05-11
Shifting my weight forward in my feet and exaggerating shoulders over the bar made the biggest difference to my cleans, in terms of a strong catch.
Matt Baumann 2014-07-04
Great tips. I'm still very new to Olympic Lifting but definitely have a lot of trouble with flexibility. That being said, IT HAS IMPROVED. Subsequently, my lifts are better and a lot more fun. For those that might have similar problems, my biggest issues are wrists and elbows. I've found that rolling my triceps out on a Barbell on a squat stand has improved my front rack position quite a bit. Recently, I've been catching the bar so much on my throat that the center knurling has scratched me up pretty good. If it's not one thing it's another. Thanks for the articles, I read them all with great interest.
Nina 2014-08-27
I'm fairly new to Olympic lifting (only 2months or so)and have been having trouble with the bar crashing down into the rack position. People have told me I get underneath the bar to quickly and to meet the bar but none of these "ques" have worked for me and I leave with bruises. Is there any particular exercises that will help me to avoid this?
Greg Everett 2014-08-27
Nina -

Search here for the article "Improving the Clean through a Better Turnover"
Nick 2015-03-04
Im not sure if this is worth mentioning but perhaps it would help newer lifters as its was a bad habit I had. ( I'm still quite new just to mention).
When training Clean&Jerk I would do the normal pop and adjust, etc. HOWEVER when I was training only cleans I would get lazy and my pinky and ring fingers would pop out, knowing that I wasnt going to jerk anyway. I got out of this habit and still do it now that when I am training only cleans I ALWAYS pop and adjust.
This only what I experienced but I thought of mentioning it anyway
Jon Doe 2015-03-09
The mobility drills would've been nice. Just a suggestion for a more complete article. Good info.
chris 2016-02-10
Great tips Matt. Thanks
"Turd in a punch bowl" made me howl!
José 2017-05-17
Sir, i am reading this just before a test at my gym. Applied it today. You have my biggest thanks for teaching hiw to stop my dizziness. Thans to this i am more confident to try 80/108kg this saturday. Again, thank you
Nick 2019-03-19
In terms of catching cleans, I used to catch them in the “notch” but the problem I’ve been having is that one of my clavicles is higher than the other. The bar lands on the higher one and makes it super bruised, should I switch to catching farther forward on my deltoids?
That shouldn't affect the proper position - make sure you're elevating the shoulders slightly. See this article for all the details.

Greg Everett
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