by Charles Staley T-Nation
This article is an encapsulation of a teaching progression that I developed over the course of 3 years while teaching the “Olympic lifts” to over 65 Crossfit facilities in the US and Canada.
It’s designed for people who are new to the Olympic lifts, and/or for those who do have some experience but still find themselves struggling.
Note: Before we go further, let me state that this is designed to be a “learn by doing” article – it won’t have much real value unless you watch the videos and actually try the drills I’ve provided in them.
With that out of the way, the goal of the following sequence of drills is rapid competence. Not mastery, not perfection, but competence.
How rapid? One session. Honestly, I’m not very patient, and I assume you aren’t either. So my goal here is to get you up and running, doing decent power cleans in the very first session, so that you have a chance to taste the fun and unique satisfaction of this lift.
And trust me, it really is fun. Once you get that initial taste, my bet is that you’ll then do the hard work it takes to go from competence to mastery, which, admittedly, takes a lot longer.
Since my approach is all about expedience, please excuse my choice to omit specific recommendations about breathing, grip, stance, and the “double knee bend” (whatever that is). You can worry about those details later, and/or we can hash them out in the LiveSpill.
Remember, we’re after rapid competence here – like speed-reading, my job here is to help you get the gist of the story very quickly. After that, should you so choose, you can go back with an eye for more detail.
Let’s Get Started
The following series of 8 drills is designed to be learned in the order presented. But before we get to the first drill, a quick word about the weights you should be using for each drill.
I obviously can’t recommend specific weights, since all of you will have different strength levels. The key for each drill is that you want to select a weight heavy enough to get the proprioceptive feedback you need to facilitate learning, but not so heavy that you’re forced to do “whatever it takes” to complete the drill. If you’re not sure, err on the side of going too light, at least at the beginning.
Most people can successfully work their way through all 8 drills in a single session, while others may require a few sessions to digest the skills. Further, the earlier drills can usually be ditched very quickly – within a few weeks in most cases.
Wherever you happen to fall on the skill continuum, what’s most important is that you learn these drills in the order they appear below, and don’t be afraid to drop back a level or two if necessary.
The 8 Progressions
Drill #1: Learning The Shelf Position
The “shelf” refers to the position the bar ends up in on your shoulders at the completion of a power clean. If you’re not familiar and comfortable with this position, your pull will be inhibited. So in this series of progressions, we start at “Point A” and only later will we tackle “Point B.” I want you to be very comfortable with the destination before you go any further.
As you watch this video of me, you might notice some asymmetry – I have restricted flexion in my left elbow, which puts my elbows in different positions on the catch. That’s okay. The main thing is that you have a pain-free, comfortable, stable position for the bar on your deltoids – not your collarbones.
Typically, most lifters will need to catch the bar with high elbows to achieve this position. Go ahead and test it for yourself: first shelve the bar with high elbows, noticing where the bar sits. Then, slowly lower your elbows – at some point, you’ll feel the bar contact your collarbones, and at the same time, you’ll notice (especially if you’re using significant weight) the bar starting to slip off of its perch. When this happens, obviously your elbows are too low.
Be forewarned that many people will experience a significant stretch on their wrists as they practice the shelf position. Usually this fades over time, but sometimes it never does. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, taping your wrists and/or modifying the width of your grip can help a lot. Another very helpful trick is to protract your shoulders (push your elbows forward) as you receive the bar. Doing so creates a “shelf” for the bar to rest on.
Finally, keep in mind, during an actual clean, the bar only needs to be there for a moment. After that, you can drop it.
One last point on this drill: at this stage anyway, don’t be concerned about having a full handgrip around the bar as it lands on your shoulders, In truth, you’re better off allowing your hands to open up at this point (like mine are in the video). In the power clean, the hands become dormant once the pull has been completed (more on this later).
Okay, on to the next drill…
Drill #2: Clean Pull From Above The Knees
(By the way, even if you had trouble with the shelf, you can still move on to this next drill, since learning it doesn’t depend on your ability to properly rack the bar on your shoulders.)
This drill is perhaps the most pivotal of the bunch. If you can shelve the bar properly, and if you can do this drill, you’re capable of doing a great clean. It’s as simple as that. Watch this video first – I’ll meet you on the backside:
As you just saw, this drill very much resembles what some people call a “Romanian Deadlift,” or a stiff-leg deadlift. Keeping the bar against your thighs at all times, simply sit back, allowing the bar to slide down your legs, and then, once the bar approaches your kneecaps, reverse the motion, acceleratively “jump-shrugging” the bar.
There are three main points I need to make about this drill.
First, as you sit back, get your shoulders out in front of the bar as it approaches your knees, not directly over top of it. In other words, the main body action as you lower the bar to your knees is hip flexion, not knee flexion (although it’s natural and appropriate for the knees to “unlock.”)
Second, it’s not really a shrug. Yes, the shoulders elevate, but it’s a passive elevation, not active – they elevate because your straight arms are being pushed up by the bar’s upward momentum, which causes the shoulders to rise.
Third, the bar must become weightless for a split second at the top of your pull. This is one of the most significant differences between cleans and any other lift you’ve probably done before.
In fact, you’ll notice that in the video, I have metal 5-pound plates on the bar. The only reason they’re there is to provide me with auditory feedback – if you’ve done the pull properly, you’ll hear that distinctive “ka-chink” sound on each rep. If you don’t hear it, keep practicing until you do.
Before we go on to the next drill, watch this quick demonstration that I learned from coach Mike Burgener. It’s something that all beginners to the clean should be shown before they start practicing the lift. The first “rep” simulates the energetics of a deadlift, and the second “rep” simulates what happens during a clean (i.e., the bar becomes weightless).
Drill #3: Clean Pull / Power Clean Complex From Above The Knees
Once you’ve got a consistent, relaxed clean pull going for you, the next step is to integrate it with an actual power clean. Do two clean pulls from above the knee, and on each rep, notice how the bar “wants” to travel up to your shoulders, but for now at least, you’re not letting it.
On the third rep, do exactly the same thing, but this time simply allow the bar to coast up to your shoulders, and then shelve the bar once it’s arrived.
The idea here is that you use the two clean pulls as a rehearsal to “groove” your power clean technique. You should understand that the pull is the active phase of the clean, and everything after the pull is the passive phase.
Here’s me performing a clean with no arm contribution after the pull just to get the point across:
Drill #4: Clean Lift-Off From Floor
At this point it’s time to graduate to starting your drills from the floor, which is more difficult than the above the knees position because you’ve got to navigate around your knees with the bar.
The first step is to learn how to start the pull in a hip-dominant manner, which is demonstrated in the video below. While this movement will look similar to a partial deadlift, the thing to notice is that the angle of my back (relative to the floor) stays constant as the bar moves from the starting position to knee height.
Most novices, however, do something different: they raise the shoulders faster than the hips, which leaves the knees flexed, which in turn reduces the power you’d otherwise have in your posterior chain.
Here’s a drill to help you understand and master the idea of a hip dominant pull. Using an easy weight, do 6 reps, where the odd-numbered reps are “incorrect” (knee dominant) and the even-numbered reps are “correct” (hip dominant). Here’s what that looks like:
There are three main ways to tell if you’re doing this drill correctly. First, on the “correct” reps, you’ll feel a lot of tension accumulate in your hamstrings. Second, you’ll arrive at a position where your shoulders are in front of, not over top of the barbell as it reaches the bottom of your kneecaps. And finally, as the barbell reaches knee level, it’ll want to drift forward, away from your legs, requiring you to pull it back to yourself.
On the “incorrect” reps, you won’t feel much hamstring tension, and as the bar reaches your knees, your shoulders will be directly on top of the bar, not in front of it. Once this drill feels comfortable, move on to Drill #5.
Drill #5: Clean Lift-Off/Clean Pull Complex From Floor
Just like we did earlier, we’re now going to use the clean pull to groove your technique for the clean. The only difference is that now we’re starting from the floor as opposed to above the knees.
The only “new” technical element to absorb here is tempo – most novices will tend to quickly rip the bar right from the floor, which hurts your efficiency in a number of ways. The better approach is to pull the bar slowly until it reaches your kneecaps, and then increase the speed.
Think of it like a golf swing – club speed is important, but only at the point where it contacts the ball. Good golfers use the entire swing path to accumulate speed, and good lifters do the same thing with the bar.
Think of the tempo of a simple baseball throw: it starts slow, almost lazily slow, but then accelerates and finally snaps at the end. That’s a good representation of proper bar speed on the power clean.
If this drill is coming along well, it’s time to move on to the next step. If not, go back a step and brush up your technique before moving on.
Drill #6: Clean Lift-Off/Clean Pull / Power Clean Complex From Floor
This is a 3-rep drill, where each rep is a rehearsal for the next. Everything else should be self-explanatory at this point, but stay on top of the tempo issue – all 3 reps are slow from the floor to the knee. You’re not strong down there anyway, so wait until you reach the “power position” before you pull the trigger!
Everything feeling good? If so, time for the next step. If not, well I guess you know the story by now.
Drill #7: Clean Pull / Power Clean Complex From Floor
All we’re doing here is removing the first set of training wheels – the lift-off. If doing so doesn’t seem to hurt anything, move on to the eighth and final step. If not, back down a level for now.
Drill #8: Power Clean From Floor
Congratulations! You’ve arrived at the final step – a power clean from the floor. I have no new technical concerns to alert you to here, since we’re not really doing anything new at this point. The real trick at this stage is to spend the majority of your practice time on the level or levels that are appropriate for your current level of skill.
For most people this means clean pulls, either from above the knee (if you think you’re really struggling) or from the floor (if you feel pretty good but just want to clean things up a bit).
Now that we’ve gone through all 8 steps, let’s address a handful of common issues/problems and how to solve them.
The Scoop: Complete vs. Incomplete Hip Extension
You might’ve noticed in the last video that my thighs make significant contact with the bar. In fact, all competent weightlifters demonstrate this maneuver. Less skilled lifters, by comparison, do not.
Most coaches think it best to not teach this maneuver, as it should simply be the byproduct of good technique (i.e., complete hip extension). I’m on the fence on that issue, but I want you to do a little test to help convince yourself of how important complete hip extension is, and then I’ll share a few tips to help you fully extend your hips on the power clean.
Here’s the test: Perform a vertical jump (it doesn’t have to be maximum effort) without fully extending your hips. (Don’t do this while anyone is watching because you’re going to look completely incompetent.)
Feels like **** doesn’t it? I’m betting you found it difficult to pull off at all – that’s how important full hip extension is on a vertical jump.
It’s just as important on the power clean – not fully extending your hips hurts your clean just as much as it hurt your jump.
Now, a few tips if you’re struggling with this.
First, go sloooow until the bar passes your knees. If you go too fast here, it’ll be difficult to time the proper extension because by the time you push your hips forward, the bar will already be too high.
Second, get those shoulders out in front of the bar as it reaches your knees – you can’t extend your hips unless you first flex them right?
Finally, it’s okay if the bar isn’t touching your shins (although it should still be very close to them), but by the time the bar passes your kneecaps, keep it pinned to your thighs as you pull. This helps you feel where the bar is, which in turns helps you figure out your timing for the scoop.
Here’s a video I did on this maneuver a few years ago:
The Finish: The Clean Pull From Supports
Many novice lifters have trouble understanding how to “finish the pull.” The drill below works absolute miracles right from the first rep. I’m really not sure why, but I think it helps the lifter feel safe enough to fully commit, since he won’t be racking the bar on the shoulders, nor does he need to worry about getting it back down to the floor.
You’d think you could just do clean pulls from above the knees, but it doesn’t work nearly as well.
Incidentally, in no time at all you can go really heavy with this – I routinely used to do 405 for triples when I was competing in Master’s weightlifting.
The Catch: Learning How To Avoid Grinding And Crashing
Lots of new lifters struggle when it comes to racking the bar on their shoulders during power cleans. Often, they don’t trust their precision and fear slamming the bar into their throat, chin, or face. The result is that they use excessive hand contribution to “guide” the bar to its proper finish position. Only problem is, you can’t do this with real weight, and it also punishes your wrists and elbows.
Other lifters simply fail to properly estimate the amount of pull they need to get the bar to their shoulders – they’ll get the bar almost high enough, and then painfully grind it the rest of the way. Ouch. Don’t do this either.
Here’s me grinding 225 – you’ll notice that I didn’t pull the bar high enough to catch it with high elbows (I rotated the elbows up afterward, but by then, its too late):
The remaining issue is when lifters overestimate the amount of pull they need. The bar sails up past the face, and then crashes down onto the shoulders. That’s an owie, too – power cleans should never hurt, no matter how heavy they are.
It’s just a matter of putting your time in to correct these problems, should you experience them. Keep practicing.
Practice vs. Training: Appropriate Load Selection
One frustrating reality for power clean novices is the necessity to keep loads manageable until technique becomes stable. During this time of course, cleans can’t be used to develop strength or power because the loads will be, by necessity, too light.
When this is the case, simply use clean pulls (from above the knees or the floor, or even better, from the rack, depending on your skill level) for power development – they’re 95% as good as cleans for this purpose.
Another strategy is to use the various drills as part of your dynamic warm-up routine. Why use non-skill movements for this purpose when using these drills kills two birds with one stone?
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