Most lifters are notably better at either the clean or the jerk. If those two lifts are perfectly balanced for you, you’re the weird one. For those of you who are good jerkers, there seems to be nothing more frustrating than not even being able to stand up with your clean to show off that jerk. Let’s fix that for you.
There are a number of reasons you could be getting pinned in your cleans, so I’ll run through each one and give you some ideas on how to fix each problem.
Squat Strength & Posture
A lack of squat strength is the most obvious but probably the least common. And if it’s the problem, you probably already know it. Somewhat less obvious but related is postural weakness in the squat—that is, you’re not able to recover from a heavy squat with your trunk upright and consequently dump your tough cleans forward as you tip over and collapse.
Get your squat up! What works for each of you will vary, so find what drives your squat. But for all of you, make sure you’re pushing that squat strength with the proper upright posture. Don’t get so focused on weight that you start moving differently and develop new posture problems or reinforce existing ones. Pause front and back squats are particularly helpful for both strength and posture.
If you’re out of balance on a front squat, it’s hard to stand up. That effect is magnified in a clean, in which everything happening much faster and you have less time to react to the problem and adjust. If you’re out of balance in your pull, you’re going to be out of balance in the squat. Think of the clean like loading a coil spring—if you push straight down and evenly across it, it’ll rebound straight up. If the put one edge of the spring on the ground and push on only one side, it’s going to bend over and bounce that direction (or simply fall over).
Focus on feeling pressure across your whole foot with only a slight preference for the heel in your pull. Exercises like segment deadlifts or pulls, slow-pull cleans, or clean pull + clean can help you develop a better feel for this proper balance.
If you don’t turn that bar over and get it racked quickly enough, you’re going to find yourself sitting in the bottom of a squat still fiddling around with getting the bar into position. Now you’ve lost the advantage of elasticity to help you rebound and recover. The more quickly you rack the bar, the more that clean will feel like a front squat—the more of a loaded eccentric movement there will be, the more likely you’ll be properly balanced, and the easier it’ll be to ready to catch the bounce and drive up out of the bottom.
Tall cleans, power cleans and cleans from high hang or high blocks will all help you speed up your turnover. Mentally, aim to get the bar racked at the same time your feet reconnect with the platform.
If you’re trying to front squat as much as possible, will it work better to walk the bar out of a squat rack, or to have someone drop it onto your shoulders while you’re squatting down? The latter is what you’re doing to yourself when you let the bar crash on your shoulders in the clean turnover. This will usually result in a poor rack position, collapsing trunk, forward imbalance, and also pile-drive you into the bottom of the squat, all of which make recovering unnecessarily difficult.
Muscle cleans and tall cleans to work on proper turnover mechanics. Try keeping your grip as long as possible through the turnover—don’t start opening your hand or releasing your hook grip until the bar is touching your shoulders and your elbows are starting to rise up in front of the bar. As part of the turnover action, think of reaching your shoulders and chest up to meet the bar.
Poor Rack Position
Like the above, if the bar isn’t in a solid, secure position when you hit the bottom of the squat, you’re either going to drop it, collapse forward, or get stuck in the bottom while you try to adjust.
Work on improving mobility and positioning for the securest rack
you can achieve, or if you have a good rack position, figure out why you’re failing to get it when you clean. See the previous two problems. Also always continue driving your elbows, shoulders and head up as aggressively as possible through the entire recovery—any sagging of those elbows and shoulders, and you may lose that bar position, collapse forward and fail.
Inadequate Trunk Pressurization
Your spine is just a stack of little bone rings and jelly donuts around a big banana slug—you can’t expect it to keep you rigid and upright without some help. A big part of that help is air pressure to stabilize your trunk. Without it, your trunk will compress and likely collapse forward at least slightly, absorbing some of the downward force of the bar, reducing the collection of elastic energy to help bounce you back up, and also absorbing some of your leg force as you try to stand and the trunk continues collapsing—some of that force goes into reshaping your trunk rather than pushing up on the bar.
The Fix: Get a big breath of air and lock it in
before you cinch down all the trunk musculature before you start the lift! Don’t try to get air and get tight as you’re pulling under the bar. If your inhalation isn’t visible to a nearby observer, it’s not a full breath.
Weak or Inactive Trunk
Pretty much see the previous. Even if you get a big breath before the lift, if you’re not actively maintaining as much tension as possible throughout your trunk, you’re going to look like a barbell falling into a beanbag chair.
Tighten all your trunk muscles! If you’re struggling to do so, try throwing in a few quick sets of back extensions with a hold in extension on the last rep, and crunches or planks as part of your warm-up, and have your coach or training partner remind you before a lift to get tight.
Lack of Aggression & Confidence
Heavy cleans demand big nads (i.e. gonads, i.e. testicles OR ovaries—got you covered, ladies). You can’t just expect the magical forces of a kind universe to get you up out of the bottom. If you don’t approach a heavy clean with the confidence that you’re going to make it and the fight to attack it all the way through… good luck.
Positive self-talk, angry music, a slap in the face… whatever works to get you fired up. You don’t need to be foaming at the mouth like a rabid weasel with two ammonia capsules hanging out of your bleeding nose, but let’s see some enthusiasm. If you shuffle over to the bar with your bangs in your eyes silently composing your next cloudy poem in your mind, don’t be surprised when that bar smashes you into the earth. Be ready to get up before you even get under the bar—know that the moment you hit the bottom of the squat, you’re going to blast out of there like you have rockets strapped to your ass. Try to accelerate up the whole way—don’t let up until you’re standing all the way again. Any reduction in effort and you risk losing whatever momentum you generated with the bounce and grinding to a halt in your sticking point.