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Background: I am changing my current barbell routine from StrongLifts to Starting Strength.

Problem: One of the five lifts in Starting Strength is the Power Clean, and my form is absolutely abysmal with it. The three largest problems with my form are as follows:

  1. I have a hard time doing the explosive pull (the third step when you are effectively doing an upright row). Do I jump? Do I use hip thrust from end of last step? Neither?
  2. How do I catch the weight at end? Should it literally be landing on my shoulders with just my fingertips holding it in place? When I try this I always end up catching it with my hands (likely afraid of it injuring shoulder on landing).
  3. My movements are not at all fluid (granted this issue will largely resolve itself over time as I adjust to it).

How can I address these issues? Are there any cues that I should keep in mind while doing this? Are there any exercises I can practice that will help improve my form (aside from just doing tons of power cleans)?

  • Starting Strength DVD has some pretty good tips on the power clean, you could have a look at it. – Cleber Goncalves Nov 23 '14 at 8:35
  • The part of your question about the third pulling being "effectively an upright row" makes me incapable of not mentioning the sidebar on page 195 of the second edition of the Starting Strength book, which specifically emphasizes how the power clean is not an upright row. – Dave Liepmann Nov 23 '14 at 21:21
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General Advice

When I was learning the lifts, my first step was always to read the entire Starting Strength chapter on that lift, then re-skim it the next day I was doing the lift. The book is quite dense, and multiple reads enhance its utility greatly. I strongly recommend reading and rereading that chapter of the book. Make time for it.

As to the power clean specifically, I approach the lift as a rather light, extremely tight deadlift until just above the knee, at which time I jump in the air as hard as I can by squeezing my glutes and forcefully standing upright. The bar lands on my shoulders with my hands present for emergency assistance but really only there for moral support.

Specific Fixes

I have a hard time doing the explosive pull (the third step when you are effectively doing an upright row). Do I jump? Do I use hip thrust from end of last step? Neither?

Jump in the air with a hip thrust. You should be doing the third pull when the bar is at mid-thigh, not after your hip thrust from the second pull has extended your hip fully.

How do I catch the weight at end? Should it literally be landing on my shoulders with just my fingertips holding it in place? When I try this I always end up catching it with my hands (likely afraid of it injuring shoulder on landing).

Yes, the bar should land on the meaty part of your shoulders with the fingertips of your open hands literally just helping balance. Catching it with your hands prevents the use of heavy weights and increases the chance of injury (by elbowing your own thigh, by stressing the elbow or shoulder, or by off-balancing you forward causing stress on the back or a drop).

The two biggest fixes that sound appropriate for you are

  1. Practice the front rack position without using a power clean to get there. Do a few front squats, not for strength, but just to feel how the bar sits there.

and

  1. Think "ELBOWS UP" as hard as you can the instant you hit that explosive third pull.

(1) will help you feel comfortable in the receiving position, giving you a feeling to aim for. (2) will help you get your hands out of the way during that explosive butt-squeezing jumping third pull, so that you can catch it.

But really, the only way to get serious internet help on your power clean is a

Form Check Video

Take a video of yourself (following these guidelines) and post it on Catalyst Athletics, here, or on the Starting Strength forums. Video is so, so, so much easier to give suggestions on than self-reported weird feelings in a lift.

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I'm no expert, but I trained oly lifts for a while. My best power clean was 265lbs at 6'1", 190lbs. I can give you anecdotes and tips, for what they're worth.

It takes quite a while to start getting comfortable with the clean. It took at least some months for me, possibly 3 or 4 before I started trying to progressively overload. I didn't want to go over 135lbs for the longest time. Be patient, it's a really complex movement. Once you get it, it will make sense, but it really does take a while.

Every beginner I've seen likes to try to catch the weight in their hands with their wrists hyperextended, so you aren't alone there. To get a feeling for what the weight should truly feel like in the front rack position, do zombie squats:

zombie squat

The catch is an upwards thrust with your front rack. You are catching the weight on your front rack. Your hands really don't need to be there at all for the catch -- indeed, some people with poor wrist flexibility or injuries leave their hands out of the catch altogether. For example, see Kelly Starrett here:

wrist omitted from catch

It takes quite a while to get the wrist flexibility for a proper catch. Stretch your wrists. Do oly-style front squats instead of crossovers, even if it's uncomfortable. Use elastic bands. Personally, the catch has always been the point of the movement that I fail most often (out of fear, because a miss can hurt).

Once you learn to really open your hips, the triple extension of the second pull will feel natural. Practice throwing a heavy medicine ball backwards over the head. I haven't found anything more helpful for feeling what completely open hips and triple extension feels like:

backwards medicine ball throw

I strongly recommend this movement to feel how the second pull should feel. I didn't really "get it" until I started doing this. My hips never really completely opened.

The best cue I heard when I started was to think of my arms as cables. This really helped me get the notion of catching the weight with my hands out of my mind. The arms really should not be involved in the lift at all, they are only there to bear the load of the weight. Rotating your arms so that your elbows open completely forward can help you keep this in mind.

Hope that helps. Take your time.

  • Fully agreed that it can take months to really get it. I've heard rumors of people nailing the clean within a few minutes but all my experience has been the long hard road. And also getting mentally stuck at 135 and the fear of a missed catch (teeth/chin/throat/ouch) is somewhat present. Although funny enough when the weight gets heavier the ability to nail yourself in the face gets lower. – Eric Nov 24 '14 at 21:22
  • @EricKaufman Haha, yes. Though somehow nailing yourself in the face still tends to happen on occasion (thinking of teeth: ouch, never happened to me but... ouch). – Daniel Nov 24 '14 at 21:40
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I had a tough time learning cleans, but they're really awesome to master and unlocking the olympic lifts feels like getting accepted into a barbell fraternity. As a frame of reference, watch this youtube on a slow motion of clean and jerk.

I have a hard time doing the explosive pull (the third step when you are effectively doing an upright row). Do I jump? Do I use hip thrust from end of last step? Neither?

So you really don't want think about an upright row. The pointers for me that I try to use are:

  • I warmup doing vertical box jumps. It helps to have jumps fresh in your muscle memory rather than big slow strength work.
  • Bar in physical contact above my knees, touching my quads.
  • I need to wear tight boxer briefs because the bar will always graze, literally touching, my "pelvic area".
  • Jump and straighten your back/hips. If your arms are straight, this will propel the the bar up. Once it's moving with your jump, then your arms can bend to hold onto it as it travels north.
  • Do not think about rowing it up, this will screw you up every time.
  • You need enough weight to cause the ballistic nature of the movement to happen. An empty bar really isn't enough for most people and a broomstick certainly isn't. Especially if you're rowing it up right now, you want to use something that you physically can't row. It's good to learn some parts with an empty bar, but ultimately you can't practice jumping with big weights until you have big weights. Even ~100lbs might be enough to cause the ballistic nature to happen.
  • Check out the amount of air underneath a ~500lb clean: you can literally see the light under his right shoe from the jump. Most folks will land a bit wider as well.

enter image description here

How do I catch the weight at end? Should it literally be landing on my shoulders with just my fingertips holding it in place? When I try this I always end up catching it with my hands (likely afraid of it injuring shoulder on landing).

  • You get your body underneath the bar. The bar is going to go wherever it is you sent it flying, and you aren't going to be able to exert much influence on it horizontally. So you need to get yourself under the bar.
  • Practice a lot of front squats, and don't do cleans until you are comfortable with the barbell in the rack position. If I haven't done cleans in a week, I'll do some light front squats just to remind myself where I want the bar to be and how it's going to feel.
  • Personally I find it much easier to do full squat cleans (not power cleans). At heavier weights, power cleans become full cleans because you will always be able to get lighter weights up higher (power clean position) than heavier weights (squat clean position). I know all the arguments in favor of power cleans, but for my time I find the normal squat clean to be easier, safer, includes a bonus front squat, and preps you better for Olympic lifting.
  • Again though, think of bum-rushing a barbell mid air and getting it into rack position. Heavier weights and full squat clean form lets you drop lower, and use your muscles as bouncy-cushion of sorts to absorb the now-gravity-driven-weight. Your hands are on the bar (mid jump), as telegraphers of the bar's position. They won't be able to do anything of use. It's the front squat (rack) position you're shooting for.

My movements are not at all fluid (granted this issue will largely resolve itself over time as I adjust to it).

Yup. The hardest thing about olympic lifting is that there's no time to adjust. Once you start, you're committed, that's it. It's more akin to throwing a baseball where you have two dozen things to keep track of but you can't consciously think of all of them mid-pitch. You need to have a lot of the movement locked into muscle memory so that you can free up your mind to focus on individual aspects and not have to keep the whole thing in your head.

This question reminded me of a youtube video I posted a few years ago when I was learning the clean, and a good lifting friend of mine was able to give me some advice and tell me where I was screwing up. I'd really recommend getting some video of you, from an angle like mine there, so people can see your profile as it relates to the bar. You'll be able to get some good suggestions that way. I think fitness.stackexchange.com would be a great place for critiques.

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