When Olympic lifting coaches work with beginners on lifts such as the power clean, they use a progressive series of exercises that build upon each other. But because there aren’t enough competent coaches to go around, trainees are likely to develop technical errors in the power clean that not only limit how much they can lift but also increase their risk of injury.
Further, the longer an individual performs power cleans incorrectly, the more difficult it is to correct those errors. One example is US weightlifter Mario Martinez, a silver medalist in the super heavyweight division in the 1984 Olympics. As a young weightlifter Martinez had developed the habit of pulling with bent arms and was never able to correct this error even after working with an elite weightlifting coach. Martinez lost the gold medal by only five pounds, and weightlifting historians speculate that his technical flaw may have cost him the most prestigious victory in the sport and the title “World’s Strongest Man.”
Whether your goal is to win Olympic gold or simply to enjoy the benefits of power cleans with minimal risk of injury, it’s wise to continue to develop optimal technique. To this end, here are tips to help correct four of the most common flaws in the power clean:
1. Trouble securing the barbell on the shoulders. When athletes are not able to secure the barbell on their shoulders, they compensate by holding the bar on their upper chest with their elbows down. This places a considerable amount of stress on the wrists and elbows that could eventually result in an injury.
A common misconception is that lack of flexibility in the wrist is the major cause of not being able to rack the barbell properly, when in fact the problem often is tightness in the upper back muscles. If upper back inflexibility is indeed the culprit, one way to improve it is to perform squats with lifting straps. The straps place less stress on the wrists because the upper arms do not have to be bent back as far as they bend in a regular front squat.
Here’s how to use straps in the front squat: Hook the straps around the bar at shoulder width or in the position normally used for a front squat. Place your shoulders under the bar and grasp the straps, with your palms facing each other. How high up you grasp the straps depends upon your flexibility. From this position, lift the weight off the squat racks and perform the front squat. You’ll find you can keep your elbows high during this exercise with minimal stress on the wrists or elbows. With practice and over time, you will be able to move your hands closer to the bar and eventually transition into regular front squats. At this point you will be able to perform the power clean in the conventional manner.
While this flexibility training is going on, perform the power clean by catching the bar on your fingertips. You may have to use relatively light weights for your first few workouts to get used to this technique. As your flexibility improves from performing the front squat with lifting straps, eventually you will be able to close your hands.
2. Starting with the hips too high. Many individuals cannot get their hips down into the proper starting position. This is usually a result of having tight calves. To fix the problem, stretch the calves, both the gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles, every day. Also invest in a pair of weightlifting shoes. These shoes have elevated heels that enable the shins to be more inclined. If you can’t afford a pair of these shoes, you can achieve the same effect by placing a rubber heel lift inside your training shoes. Shoe repair shops often sell these lifts for a few dollars.
3. Jumping too far back or forward. To correct the error of jumping forward or back excessively during a power clean, try adjusting your starting position. If you are jumping forward, you are probably standing too close to the bar; if you are jumping too far back, you are probably standing too far away from the bar.
4. Pulling with bent arms or bending the arms too soon. The fault of pulling with bent arms, or bending your arms too early in the pull, often can be corrected by simply thinking about keeping your arms long and loose. Do not lock your arms, as this may cause you to swing the weight out in front of you. Also, try rolling your shoulders forward at the start of the pull.
Another method is to practice the lift from the top down. Start with the weight resting on your mid-thighs, as if you had just finished a deadlift. Lower the bar to the floor and then, when the bar touches the floor, immediately perform the lift in the regular manner. This technique enables you to get the feel of having your arms straight at the midpoint of the lift, and because you are performing a full lift immediately after this “reverse clean deadlift,” the motor pattern is fresh in your mind. Soon you will be able to perform the lift properly without the deadlift.
In a perfect world everyone would have a great weightlifting coach to work with them on technique from day one. If you don’t live in that world and have developed poor technique in the power clean, try using these tips so you can continue to lift heavier weights in this great exercise.