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Written on January 14, 2013 at 7:53 am, by Eric Cressey
Almost a year ago, Olympic lifting expert Wil Fleming wrote a guest blog, The 7 Most Common Power Clean Mistakes, here at EricCressey.com. It was one of our most popular posts of the year – and several folks commented on how they’d love to see something along the same lines with respect to the clean and jerk. Wil agreed to author up a sequel, and the timing is fitting, as he just released his brand new DVD, Complete Olympic Lifting. I got an advanced copy of the DVD and it’s outstanding – not to mention extremely affordable.
6 Clean and Jerk Technique Fixes
The power clean gets a lot of love. If you are like me, it was one of the “Big 3” you learned the first time you were in the weight room: squat, bench, and power clean. Of course, it was the “Big 6” if you included curls, preacher curls, and more bench.
The power clean’s older and cooler sister, the clean and jerk, doesn’t get as much love, but I am here to begin the love fest, by sharing with you six ways to improve your clean and jerk.
1. Use combos to learn the full movement.
When talking about the full clean and jerk, it is important to remember that we are talking about a movement in which athletes compete in the Olympic games. This is a movement that individuals spend years and years trying to perfect, yet we often prescribe it for use with athletes who have been training with us for months, or even weeks.
As coaches, we do not similarly prescribe that athletes do an Olympic style long jump, shot put throw, or hammer throw. Each of these movements are explosive and would certainly have benefits for improved performance (to some degree), but we are aware of the fact that the technical difficulty of these events would far outweigh the performance benefits.
Technically challenging movements should be entirely removed from programming at this stage. The clean and jerk is definitely challenging, but one can argue that the performance benefits may outweigh the time spent teaching it. If they are to be prescribed, they must be done so with a specific task list to ensure proper completion. One foot must go before the other, as we walk our way to the movement we would like to see completed.
In the case of the clean and jerk there are individual tasks that need to be learned first: the hang clean, power jerk, power clean, and split jerk. Once these requisite skills are all done to a comfortable level of proficiency, we can begin to teach athletes to move towards the full competition-style clean and jerk.
To do this, my number one tool is the “combo,” a 1+1 lift to get athletes to move athletes to completion.
Start with a 1+1+1. I use a Power clean + front squat+ power jerk. In this movement, athletes will receive the bar in the high catch position (re-position the feet if necessary) and move into a front squat. They’ll finish the movement with a power jerk, as in the video below.
Next, we move onto a Power clean to front squat + split jerk. In this movement we eliminate the re-set of the feet, and receive the bar, pause in that position, and then move into a front squat for the rest of the way down. Finish this movement with a split jerk, or a power jerk if the athlete is not comfortable in the split.
Finally we can move onto a full clean and jerk. We will get into some tips on how to make this more than just a power clean to front squat later, but the basic premise is we must encourage athletes to get better at moving under the bar to make this a distinct movement. In the meantime, just eliminate the pause and immediately front squat the weight at the time of the catch.
Here’s the entire progression in one video:
Each of these “combos” falls into a distinct phase of training, likely spending 3-4 weeks in combo 1 and combo 2 before attempting to complete the full clean and jerk movement. I typically program the movements as 1+1+1 x2 x3-4, or 1 rep of each movement two times for 3-4 sets.
2. Jerk with either foot forward.
There are three primary ways that athletes can jerk the bar overhead: power jerk, split jerk, squat jerk. I like to think of them on a scale of simple to ridiculously complex, or if we are thinking in terms of things to which everyone can relate we can put them on my Vin Diesel scale of movies.
Simple= power jerk = Fast and Furious (all of them): it gets the job done, and is a classic in many people’s books.
Better= split jerk= XXX: vastly under appreciated, coming back for an encore, which is very good news, and a must-include in your training and DVD library.
Ridiculously complex= squat jerk= Chronicles of Riddick/Pitch Black: hard to get down with, and popular in China.
The split jerk is the most common technique used for a really simple reason: the primary issue that folks have to deal with in the jerk is forward and back (sagittal) stabilizing factors. In short the bar doesn’t want to stay above you and you have to have a really stable or really strong (although both are preferred) base of support to keep it there.
With the issue of stability at hand, it brings us to why it is so important to learn to jerk with either foot forward.
A quick disclaimer: if you are an Olympic lifter, get really good with one foot forward and quit reading this point right now. If you are an athlete, though, read on.
I am not going to tell you that jerking and putting one foot forward of the other does anything to create “single leg strength;” there is a slight difference in force production, but not enough to matter. What I am going to tell you is that changing positions rapidly is what makes it difficult on most athletes. Keep people static and they are as solid as their base of strength. Start switching stances, and positions rapidly, and you will see people separate. Switching stances in equal numbers will show you if you have any weak links in your chain.
There is a difference in the amount of force absorbed on the lead leg and the rear leg on the jerk, and this is an important point to consider. Deceleration rarely happens bilaterally and absorption is the name of the game.
As an athletic movement, the jerk needs to be done with either foot forward – not just the same one all the time.
3. Learn great overhead position.
The clean and jerk has become so simplified that at some point people started just calling it “ground to overhead,” as if there is no goal other than to get the bar over your head in any way possible. It’s the same as just calling The Godfather “just acting;” there is a little more to it.
This problem is likely magnified by taking a look at the elite lifters of the world, watch ten videos of ten different lifters and you will likely find yourself looking at ten different jerks. So if they all do it differently, is there any truly correct position overhead?
Yes, there is; you have to appreciate that taking a snippet of video from a near maximum attempt is a bad time to look at the technique of an individual lifter. It would be much more appropriate to watch them jerk from the blocks in training or at sub-maximal clean and jerk weights.
The ideal position in the jerk should center the bar over your spine, and importantly keep the front shin vertical for the most stable position possible. It should truly be a 90/90 split squat position, only slightly extended.
The go-to move to practice this position is the split stance press + overhead split squat. Maintaining a neutral spine and pelvis will likely be the limiting factor for most individuals, but doing this drill in training is going to be the best way to learn and maintain great position overhead.
4. Pull your way under the bar.
Now it’s time for a total game changer. The clean is all about the pull UP right? Wrong, – at least if you are paying attention to the greatest athletes in the sport.
Let’s start with some concepts. There are really four variables that go into a clean and its success. The first two aren’t that variable – and we will get to the second two in a minute.
1) The height of the bar at the completion of the second pull. This is primarily a function of how tall an athlete is. So, if you are 6’4” you are likely going to pull it higher I am at 5’11”.
2) The height of the bar at the receiving position. This can definitely change based on bar speed, but we are talking about Olympic lifting, and deep squat catches, so in truth this height is only based on how tall an athlete is. I will likely catch lower than you if you are a towering giant.
3) The speed of the bar at the completion of the second pull. This seems like it is a variable, but in truth it is pretty consistent at differing heights. That is, if the bar gets to your chest then it was going speed X, and if it only gets to your waist height it was likely going speed Y – and that goes for almost everyone. We’re talking about the Olympic style clean, so this is actually almost a constant for most people.
4) The speed of the lifter as they move to receive the bar. Now here is the variable of all variables. Elite lifters know this, and if you watch enough video you will see it too; the ability to get under the bar quickly is the separation point between good, great, and elite.
Now you can’t change your height so those are out in terms of improving your lifts. You can certainly change your strength levels, allowing you to pull the bar faster, and I am a big advocate for making this happen, At some point, though, even as the total weight lifted moves up, it will only go so fast. So what you can change is your own speed to the bar.
To move faster to the bar I like to think of pulling myself under the bar, but not with the hands. I have to pull hard with my hips to get enough hip flexion to receive the bar low.
5. Elevate the start position.
I always say that the number 1 mistake I see for athletes in the Olympic lifts is starting from the ground when they have no ability to get in a good starting position.
Continuing to start from the floor position when you aren’t able to get there and maintain a neutral spine is the absolute definition of Olympic weightlifting insanity.
There is no machismo necessary in the Olympic lifts. Can we go ahead and get that out of the way? There is too much to be gained by doing them well, and too much to be lost by doing them poorly to have an ego.
Rather than trying to start every rep from the ground, feel free to elevate the start position. Try using a 3” block or even another bumper plate. This slight elevation will still force you to make a good first pull from the start, but will save your lower back until you gain enough hip mobility to do it right.
Here is a video from when I was dealing with some hip mobility issues that required me to lift from an elevated position. It got the job done, all the while I was improving hip mobility to spare my back.
6. Translate the torso from the ground to knees.
With the Olympic lifts, there are lots of variables that account for individual athletes’ differences in size, strength, and personal preferences, but there is one constant that is true among nearly all lifters:
From the point of lift off to the point where the bar passes the knees (the end of the first pull), the torso angle remains constant. There is no change from when the bar breaks the ground and when the bar passes the knees.
In fact, a 2012 study by Ikeda et al. compared female lifters in all classes at the 2008 Asian championships. This study was conducted on the snatch, but showed that torso angles above the horizontal were nearly constant for all athletes, at both the break point from the ground and when the bar passes the knees.
The joint angles themselves might not be exactly the same as the clean, but the mechanism for the first pull should be similar, and an active drive through the heels along with knee extension should drive the bar from the floor to knee level.
Changes in torso angle can lead to the bar being too far in front of the athlete and inefficiency in the second pull.
Want to see this in action? Take a look at the video below to see what I mean.
There are obviously a lot of pieces to work on if you want to be proficient on the clean and jerk. Just a month ago, I revamped what I was doing, and have seen big changes to my lifts in a very positive direction. The journey towards better movement is always continuing. These six strategies are a great start to getting you or your athletes to moving bigger weights more safely.
To learn more about Wil’s approach to teaching the Olympic lifts, check out his new DVD, Complete Olympic Lifting, which is on sale for 40% off this week only.
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Written on March 22, 2012 at 8:20 am, by Eric Cressey
In response to my article, The 7 Habits of Highly Defective Benchers, I had a few reader requests for a similar article on power clean technique. Fortunately, I knew just the guy to write it for us: my buddy Wil Fleming. Wil did a tremendous job writing up the International Youth Conditioning Association Olympic Lifting Course, and he shares some of his knowledge along these lines with us below.
I had the unbelievable good fortune of learning to Olympic lift under the guidance of a former Olympian and a couple of national team coaches. Unfortunately, many athletes learn how to do the Olympic lifts from a coach who hasn’t had that type of training.
As a result, the power clean may be the single worst looking lift in most weight rooms. Seriously, I know you can picture it.
Walking into many high school weight rooms, and you’ll invariably see some kid who has WAAAY too much weight on the bar getting ready to show off what he thinks is pristine power clean technique. He’ll roll it around for a minute on the floor, then muscle it up and catch it in a position that makes you wonder how he has so much flexibility in his adductors (history in gymnastics?).
I am by no means the most explosive athlete; in fact, I definitely wasn’t at one point, but I learned from the best. And, just as importantly, I learned to not make some of the mistakes that plague athletes trying to do the power clean. Let’s look at some of the most common ones.
Power Clean Technique Mistake #1: Missing too many lifts
I actually had a coach recently tell me about his plan for having athletes max out. It went like this.
“Well we put about 15-20 lbs more on the bar than the athlete can do and then have him try it. He usually misses it, then we do that same thing again. Once they miss it a second time, we drop about 5-10 lbs and try it a 3rd time. Sometimes they get it.”
The sad part is that I think this is the mode that a lot of athletes get into when training. They think that just a basic overload in the lift is a good thing.
In truth, the power clean is a really complex pattern and overload isn’t always rewarded; technique is rewarded. If you train knowing you are going to miss lifts, you are…drumroll here…going to miss lifts.
Something I learned – and something I instill with my athletes – is that missed lifts are a part of training, but they are not a consistent part of training. You’ll learn far more by completing lifts than by missing lifts.
Power Clean Technique Mistake #2: Starting from the floor when you can’t make it there in good position.
Is a power clean a power clean if you don’t start from the floor?
This is a mistake that I see all too often and with serious consequences. Athletes are told and made to start from the floor with the power clean when in truth they have no ability to get down to the start position and maintain any semblance of structural integrity.
The true start position for the clean is uncomfortable, to say the least. It requires hip mobility, ankle mobility, thoracic spine mobility, and tremendous trunk stability. Most athletes are lacking in at least one of these areas.
Lacking the mobility and stability to actually achieve these positions means that an athlete will default to easier patterns to get to a bar resting on the ground. Typically, this will mean that they will achieve the movement from lumbar flexion, and then the cycle of back injuries occur.
As you can see in the photos below, this isn’t a position that you often see in the local high school weight room. (Photo Credit: http://nielpatel.blogspot.com)
Fortunately – especially in young athletes – working to improve mobility in each of these areas can help tremendously in getting lifters in the right position.
In the meantime, just beginning the lifts from a slightly elevated (but static) position (A low block or another bumper plate) can help athletes get into a start position that does not include lumbar flexion.
Power Clean Technique Mistake #3: No consistency in the start position
In any movement – from a golf swing to a bench press – we preach consistency. The pattern that we create time and again is the one to which we will default when the going gets tough.
The power clean is no different, but if I walk into most weight rooms and training facilities, I see something entirely different.
Roll the bar around for a minute, hop up and down, roll the bar around some more and LIFT!!!
“But wait, I do three rolls every time, so my pattern is the same.”
The approach to the power clean should be the same every time you approach the bar. Early on in training, I sought to eliminate inconsistency by crouching by the bar before beginning the lift. Still, I found difficulty achieving a consistent position in my lift off from the floor.
My training really took off when I took a three-step process to get the bar in my hands.
1, Cover my laces with the bar, brace the core and lock in the lats.
The first step is really about verifying that I have the proper relation to the bar and that my body is prepared to maintain a stable position throughout the lift. Keeping the bar close to the body on the initial lift-off will allow for the most efficient bar path while maintaining the right position.
Making an RDL movement to the knees allows my hips to be behind the bar. Getting the hips away from the bar will allow the hips to remain loaded throughout the lift.
Squatting to the bar maintains a consistent torso angle down to the start position, meaning that on lift-off the shoulders will remain forward of the bar.
With this three-part pattern, I am able to guarantee that I, or any athletes I coach, make it to the start position consistently.
Power Clean Technique Mistake #4: Pulling the bar too fast off the ground.
Lots of weight on the bar? Only one way to pull it: HARD. Right?
Not really. The first pull off the ground is all about maintaining consistent position and gaining momentum into the second (more aggressive pull).
As a beginning lifter, I don’t think that there is any mistake more common than pulling too fast off the ground. Speed is king in the Olympic lifts and coaches preach it from day one.
There is only one issue. A bar that is moving too fast will inhibit an athlete’s ability to make an aggressive second pull.
Think of it this way: If a car were driving past you at 90 miles per hour and you were asked to push on the bumper to make it go faster, you would have very little time to improve upon the speed of the car and therefore have no effect on its acceleration.
Imagine the same car moving past you at 5 miles per hour. If you were to push on the bumper of this car, you could greatly improve its acceleration and velocity.
The same is true with the Olympic lifts. Pulling too fast before reaching the mid-thigh will make your second pull much less effective.
Power Clean Technique Mistake #5: Pulling around the knees
This is another really common problem among novice lifters.
The bar trajectory off the floor should be back. Struggling with this is pretty easy to do because the overall “feel” of the power clean is straight up.
The bar must always start in front of the center of gravity (on the floor away from the hips), and the first pull should be used to align the bar with the center of gravity. Aligning the bar even more to the front of the center of gravity is a common problem that leads to a lot of missed lifts and poor catch positions.
If the knees do not go back on the first pull, the athlete will be misaligned forward of the toes in the above the knee position and not be able to put the full power of hip extension into the lift.
Power Clean Technique Mistake #6: Not finishing the Second Pull
Pretty early on, some athlete that you train will realize that the lower they can go to catch the bar, the greater likelihood they will have in being successful in catching the lift.
Not finishing the second pull (the fast pull) from the mid-thigh upwards means that the athlete did not reach full hip extension and did not close the gap between their body and the bar.
Not reaching full extension with the hips is a big no-no because it is the primary reason that athletes do Olympic lifts in the first place. Explosively pulling on the bar to hip extension in the point right?
The Olympic lift happens fast, and as coaches we can miss things like this. Assuming you don’t have Superman vision, the easiest way to spot this problem is watch for an athlete jumping forward in the catch. A complete hip extension will result in the athlete catching the bar in the same position on the platform or slightly behind the starting position. Jumping forward is the red flag for an incomplete pull.
Power Clean Technique Mistake #7: Catching the bar like a starfish
The starfish is a magnificent creature, but it likes to spread its appendages all over the place, and that has no place in the power clean. And, we all know that we have seen a starfish in the weight room before.
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.
Try as we might, some of these things will always occur when you have people doing power cleans. Eliminate the majority of the problems and you will have people safely pulling a lot of weight, fast.
About the Author
Wil Fleming, CSCS, is a member of the International Youth Conditioning Association Board of Experts, and co-owner of Force Fitness and Performance in Bloomington, IN. To learn more about Wil’s teaching system for the Olympic lifts, be sure to check out the IYCA Olympic Lift Instructor Course. To follow him on Twitter, click here.
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