November 07, 2021 9 min read

There are not many training techniques that work as many musclesas the barbell clean (also sometimes referred to as the clean and jerk when the movement requires you to do an overhead press). The movement is not easy to master. It actually involves three moves in one (a deadlift, an actual clean, and an overhead press), so learning it is tough.

Even some Olympic weightlifters spend their entire strength training career mastering just two movements, which are barbell cleans and barbell snatches. In this article, we’ll go over the ways to perform proper barbell cleans, as well as some benefits, variations, and alternative exercises. 

How to Do Barbell Cleans 

Barbell cleans can feel awkward when you are just getting started. But if you end up doing these barbell cleans often enough, the movement should help you experience less overall body pain on a daily basis. Barbell cleans are technical and multifaceted exercisesthat have sometimes been considered part of the  Marine workout routine.

They are used to train athletes to become big and powerful, especially when it comes to overall body strength. Below is a step by step guide on how to perform cleans efficiently with a barbell. All of these are general instructions, so specific starting positions may vary based on your preferences.

 

1. Get Ready, Get Set 

Stand in front of a loaded barbell with your feet set at hip width and turned slightly out. Your shoulders should cover the barbell, with your hips lower than shoulder level but higher than your knees. The barbell should be in contact with your shins at the beginning. This will keep the barbell close to your body during the first pull, which will create a smooth bar path. 

2. Start the First Pull

The first pull of the clean is when the barbell initially breaks from the floor. The first pull ends when the barbell passes your knee, which is the start of the second pull. The initial pull is pretty much a deadlift. Maintain a neutral spine and keep your core braced. The goal of this first pull is to gain the momentum necessary for an explosive second pull. 

3. Start the Second Pull

For this pull, the barbell passes your knee and ends up at about hip level. Drive your hips and pull the barbell up the length of your body. Stay balanced in the full foot with your shoulders above the bar. Then, use it to force your elbows underneath and into the front rack position.

4. Turn the Bar Over 

As you finish the second pull, use your traps to elevate the bar higher so that you can pull yourself underneath it. Try to move your feet simultaneously and reset them firmly under your hips so that you can take a strong front rack position.

5. Catch the Barbell 

As the bar is moving up, quickly squat down and catch it across your shoulders in a front rack position. Your elbows should be pointing forward. Be aware of your knees. A lot is happening during this step, so be sure to keep your knees actively pressed out for an efficient squat.

Clean and Jerk Adaptation

These next steps are not exactly part of barbell cleans, but many weightlifters progress naturally to these movements, which are then referred to as clean and jerk exercises. 

1. Jerk the Bar Overhead

There are two types of jerk, which are a split jerk and a squat jerk. This step describes the squat jerk. The jerk is not just an overhead press. It is more like a push press that you drop under to reduce the distance it has to travel overhead. So, the idea is to dip down, then drive the bar over your head, and finally drop into a half squat position with your grip at about shoulder-width. Initiate the drive with the legs, and try to push everything you have through the bar. 

2. Dip Down 

From the front rack position, dip your knees down a little. This creates an effect like a coiled spring to help you push the weight overhead for the jerk phase of the lift. This phase of the lift is essentially a push press. The dip speed should be smooth and allow for a stretch reflex to take place. Be sure to dip down in a straight line, and never let your torso sway back or fall forward. 

3. Receive and Recover the Jerk Overhead 

Lock your arms out and pause at the bottom of the jerk to stabilize the weight. Hold this position while you get set. Do not stand up until the weight feels balanced. Once you have stabilized, stand up. If you feel like you might drop the weight, keep your arms locked out and let them fall forward so that the bar crashes to the floor. Never lean forward, because this could cause the bar to bounce back and hit your head. 

Benefits of Barbell Cleans 

Like all exercises in the gym, barbell cleans can offer so many benefits to consider when you do them regularly and with the proper form. Here are three of the main ones.

  • Total Body Strength and Power:You have to be strong and explosive during every phase of the lift, from the pull off the ground to the hip drive to the jerk. Each muscle will be used, which is why these exercises are considered some of the best full-body moves you can do for more strength and power.
  • Better Motor Skill Development:Barbell cleans are technically complicated and require many movements at once. Generally, your central nervous system sends signals to your muscles to direct them. This connection between your brain and your muscles can be referred to as a motor skill. Like muscles, you can train your brain to be more responsive and efficient. The more you practice the movement, the better you will become.
  • Improved Athletic Performance:Many athletic teams outside of weightlifting perform barbell cleans (and their many variations). The strength that it develops in the glutes and legs allows athletes to sprint faster and jump higher. One  study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine has shown thatOlympic weightlifting movements result in an improved vertical jump

Muscles Worked by Barbell Cleans

You can most certainly also do cleans with some dumbbells or a pair of kettlebells. Below are the major muscle groups that are worked when performing barbell cleans with any of this equipment. Be aware that your leg strength is not greatly influenced by doing more barbell cleans.

In addition to increasing the volume of front squats you do, treat the front squat portion of the clean as a separate lift. This means you should take a few seconds to get set, lower yourself slowly, and then drive up while using proper form.

  • Hamstrings:The hamstrings are really only involved in the hip-drive, or second pull, phase of the clean and jerk. They are used explosively and for a short time, and so normal barbell cleans are not the best way to grow your hamstrings, although you will certainly feel some effect in that area after doing the adaptations we mentioned above. You might decide to also add a good morning exercise and the Romanian deadlift to your workout routine to promote optimal hamstring development.
  • Quadriceps:Much like the hamstrings, the quadriceps are mostly used in the squatting aspect of the clean and the dip and drive phase of the clean and jerk. Strong quads can really help increase your ability to get out of the clean.
  • Back and Traps:The back (lats) and traps are all used during the pulling, squatting, and jerk phase of the movement. A strong back and traps are necessary when you are trying to maintain an upright position in the front squat. They also offer stability in the jerk phase of the movement.
  • Shoulders, Triceps, Biceps:The shoulders, triceps, and biceps are most active during the jerk phase of the movement. Though the jerk motion comes mainly from the leg muscles, the shoulders need to work isometrically to stabilize the weight overhead. So, you might also want to add different shoulder exercises into your workout routine to develop them fully. 

Who Should Do Barbell Cleans? 

Of course, anybody can benefit from doing barbell cleans, but they are especially good for some types of lifters. These include strength and power athletes, Olympic weightlifters, and general fitness athletes.Strength and power athletes can benefit from this exercise, but it is not necessary for them.

There are plenty of other movements these specific athletes should rather focus on,for example, the  deadlift or general squat movement. However, because barbell cleans can really improve power output and mobility, they can sometimes be useful for these athletes. When it comes to Olympic weightlifters, the barbell clean is on the actual competition list, so it’s not just suggested to do these exercises. It is absolutely necessary for those who need to do Olympic lifts to master this movement. 

Fitness athletes in fields like Crossfit should learn barbell cleans since they are sometimes featured in competitions. For everyone else, barbell cleans should not be a high training priority. They are tough to learn and they require a lot of skill. If you want to get strong or build more muscle, you will be better off targeting specific muscles with particular movements. 

Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations 

Below are three sets, reps, and weight recommendations. Note that the below guidelines are loose training recommendations for programming. While barbell cleans can help spark muscle growth, they do not often lead to much hypertrophy of the muscles. 

  • To Improve Your Technique:The key here is movement quality, timing, and precision. This means that beginners should train with light to moderate loads to develop proper positional awareness, timing, and foundational movement patterning. Start by performing three to five sets of three to five repetitions with light to moderate loads or 50-65% of your one-rep max.
  • To Increase Your Power Output:Barbell cleans are often used when people are trying to improve their overall athletic power outputs. If this is one of your major goals, we recommend sticking with three to five sets of two to five reps using 60-80% of your 1RM. 
  • To Improve Olympic Weightlifting Performance:This is the training range that most Olympic weightlifters will spend most of their training career in, because it can easily be adapted to increase volume, add intensity, and develop explosive power. Most Olympic weightlifters tend to perform three to 10 sets of one to three reps with around 70-75% of their 1RM.

Variations of Barbell Cleans 

Below are three variations that can also build strength, address technique issues, and improve your performance.

    1. Block Clean

    The block clean can be done to increase force production or to address technical breakdowns in the pull. The block clean is done from blocks that are set at varying heights to help you improve your positional strength.

    2. Clean and Jerk Complex

    Weightlifting complexes are a combination of different phases of an Olympic lift done together.

     

    This increases training volume, adds variety to training, and reinforces proper technique and positional strength. Even a full clean with an additional front squat can offer an added challenge.

    3. Hang Clean

    The hang clean is similar to the block clean because it increases force production.

     

    This is also a good option for lifters who find it hard to transition underneath the bar. You can perform these from varying hang heights, such as below or above your knees.

    Barbell Clean Alternatives

    Below are three barbell clean alternatives that offer an easier learning curve to help improve your power outputs.

    • Clean/Snatch High Pull: This exercise may decrease injury risks of the wrists or minimize the technical coaching needed to help lifters. This can help non-weightlifting athletes looking to get the benefits of power training without running risks of injury due to lack of proper readiness. 
    • Clean and Press: The clean and press is similar to the barbell clean with a strict press to get the weight overhead. This is a good option for lifters who lack proper jerk timing and technique. This is also a good way to add overhead strength without needing as much concentric strength as it takes for strict pressing or push pressing loads overhead. 
    • Ball Clean: When doing the ball clean, you perform the movement with a medicine ball. This is a good way to teach the mechanics of the exercise to younger or older lifters who may lack the skills to complete full barbell cleans. 

    If you are trying to learn to do barbell cleans, look for a local qualified coach or personal trainer (who is USA Weightlifting Accredited) in your area. If you cannot find one, look for a good coach online who will break down the movements and show you some of the basics. 

    Most lifters who want to improve their weightlifting performance and technique should at least complete three training sessions per week that include barbell cleans or their variations. The more frequently you train, the more you will need to monitor your recovery, training intensity, and general performance.

    If you plan to do these exercises correctly on a consistent basis, you will usually experience muscular burn, so many of your muscles should start becoming a lot bigger, especially if you use our Pro Series Mass Stack in combination with your workouts.

    Always Warm Up Before Starting

    As with many heavy weight training exercises, barbell cleans present a risk of injury to your upper back or to your shoulders. Always warm up for a long time before you start doing these advanced exercises and learn the proper form for doing barbell cleans before you actually start attempting them. You might want to try our AMPED-AF pre-workout to get you started.

    This exercise is not recommended for people with back problems. If you have a healthy back, always practice the proper form and keep your back straight. Be conservative with the weight that you select at the beginning. Never hyperextend your lower back because this can put too much strain on your back and your upper body, which can sometimes lead to back pain and a range of other serious injuries.


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