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3 Reasons Why You Should Do More Cleans

By Michael Olzinski

The Clean. You might have seen those really hardcore people at the gym doing them and thought, “No way is that for me.” Not true!

I am of the belief that every athlete would benefit from learning to “clean,” and clean well. A clean is in my opinion the single greatest movement that every single athlete should have as a part of their yearly plan, regardless of the system or specificity in the sport or activity. A good clean involves great mobility, balance, synchronization, posterior-chain strength, power and speed. It trains and conditions your body to be ready to control and harness power in a coordinated fashion, and the muscular adaptations of it are needed across the athletic board.

But let me say this: in adapting to a really great movement like a clean, you must first be adapted to handling some type of strength and conditioning program. It is important to have a “first things first” perspective and understand how your hips, trunk and shoulders need to work together. It’d be like trying to learn a piked-backflip before you have ever jumped off a diving board – not a good idea.

So before we talk about why cleans are so awesome, let’s lay out a few PREREQUISITE movements that everyone should have a thorough understanding of before jumping in. Talk to your trainer or physical therapist about mastering these 3 movements, and then you will be ready to start learning the clean:

1. Deadlift (from the ground)
2. Front Squat (in a fully racked position at the shoulder)
3. PVC Bar propulsion (check out a video on that here: Mid-Shin Propulsion)

If you want to see a great Intro to the Clean, check out this video from Matt Chan, owner of CrossFit Verve, Runner-Up CF Games athlete in 2012 and Olympic Lift mastermind.

Alright, back to it. Here are three main reasons why you should learn and perform good cleans:

1- Could I BE any more posterior? (inside joke to anyone who is a fan of Joey Tribbiani from FRIENDS!)
Calves, hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, obliques, latissimus dorsi, upper/middle/lower trapezius, rhomboids, deltoids… you get it? These are all muscles that in some way or another connect into our posterior chain, from the floor to the bottom of our skull. Every single muscle must function properly and have a similar nervous stimulation from our central and then peripheral nervous systems. As a result, each one of those muscles must develop, strengthen, adapt and learn to work together in order to perform a proper hang clean or power clean.

Chances are that you have also heard of these muscles in conversation with your local strength coach or athletic trainer because those muscles are some of the most important in the specific skills to nearly any athletic position. A clean targets all of these muscles in one rep, and as you get better, they synchronize more. So long story short, if you get a very rapid and synchronized firing of your posterior chain, you will be able to move with more power and with more efficient posture.

2- Mobility and power: a wonderful blend.
It can be tough to find, but when you find an exercise that blends both in an effective manner then you’ve struck gold. Cleans require your body to be in “rigid fluidity” or “loose tension” (to further contradict myself). Stability or tension in your trunk and lower back are required throughout most of this motion, while just above and below are your hips and your shoulders which require a high range of motion.

A characteristic of a good clean is freedom in the anterior hip to allow for complete glute activation and thus maximal power. If you don’t have the range of motion in the hip, your power will decrease, so GET MOBILE.

Secondary is power and mobility of the shoulders. While many great exercises will require hip mobility, it is great to see a motion where equal (if not more) shoulder mobility and strength is also required. In order to get the full “pulling” action above the waist, we can’t be hindered by tight muscles in the anterior shoulder capsule, again, deactivating the bigger and more powerful muscles in between our scapular bones.

3- Learning to fight gravity.
At two big instances in a clean we must learn to control our bodies and resist the ever destructive power of gravity. When it comes to having efficient strength, endurance and maintaining posture throughout an athletic event, gravity becomes our worst enemy.

Two different examples: a 10K runner keeping a tall and stable posture to the finish line needs to have strength in his posterior chain to resist that small but abundance of forces that can slowly drag him or her down and leave the athlete hunched-over and struggling to finish. At a more powerful level, an NHL hockey player (Insert RANGERS plug… LGR!) needs to move at very high speeds and velocities going one direction on the ice, but then with the drop of a dime need to come to a complete STOP, and accelerate in the opposite direction. The forces of their mass, speed, and gravity could potentially buckle that athlete to the deck, but with eccentric strength and power, that athlete is able to stay fairly upright and change direction without losing a PRECIOUS second on the clock.

When you catch a barbell that wants to hit the floor, you are learning to fight gravity in a sense… so again, why clean? Because you want to succeed.

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One last question that might come up is, “Well I’ve heard of Power Cleans and Hang Cleans, so what’s the difference and what should I do?” Here are my thoughts:

Power Clean: The main difference here is that this clean will come all the way from the floor, and will either be a little heavier, or done for more SPEED. It will also take a little more toll on you coming down, thus may require a bit deeper of a squat to “catch” the bar completely.

The part that is up to you is how specific your training is. Why are you doing cleans? Do you play a powerful sport that requires lots of bursts of maximal efforts (i.e. basketball, hockey, etc)? Then it might be a good idea to practice the power clean.

Hang Clean: The reps here are all generally performed with the bar “hanging” from your hands at around hip level. The big difference here is that you don’t get as much of an opportunity to rest and reach a “max” effort here, but more of an endurance set for your body and posture.

Clearly you shouldn’t lift as much or as rapidly with a hang clean, but you can do more reps and sets and thus add a different type of load onto your body. Are you more of an endurance athlete? Swimmer, biker, runner, skier. This would likely be a bit more appropriate for those athletes.

I have been working very smartly on bringing together all the physical aspects that make a good clean with Jason at Finish Line PT. I am now feeling like I have a much stronger and effective DRIVE at my hips, my glutes are functioning better and have the freedom to work through the entire motion. My cleans are feeling better, and thus I am feeling like a stronger and more powerful athlete!

Michael Olzinski is a trainer, coach and triathlete who works as an assistant coach with the elite team Purplepatch Fitness. This blog post first appeared on Michael’s personal blog, The Endurance Journey.