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March 24, 2020 10 min read

Eyes glued to the TV, a lion stalking a gazelle peer’s back at you. Before pouncing out of the undergrowth, you notice it’s rippling muscles activate and spring into action with explosive energy. Flipping the channels, you settle on a soccer or basketball game. Elite athletes who’ve reached the upper echelons of their sport through insane amounts of athleticism—and much like a cat stalking its prey, have the ability to erupt with energy. There’s a beauty around this ability to really push your body to extreme lengths with speed and agility. To really sculpt a conditioning and an athleticism that hones these fast-twitch muscles into powerful machines.

And while you’ve been hitting the iron temple regularly for a few months now and seeing massive gains, that might not be directly translating into your pick-up basketball games on the weekend. Lifting iron is now part of who you are as a person, and you find yourself regularly on fitness forums and websites, dabbling in new trends. But you don’t just want to be strong in the gym—the idea of functional strength is also important to you. You’re looking for something that can train some explosiveness into your muscles. While fitness fads and trends come and go, there are exercises that will be with us forever, and it’s these that will give you some of the greatest results.

Combining two of these classics, the front squat, and the power clean, gives you the squat clean. When it comes to Olympic weightlifting, it’s a foundational exercise that’s without equal in many respects. And even if you’re not an Olympic weightlifter, the list of benefits that the squat clean will bestow on you is a mile long. From that explosive energy that you crave to a functional athleticism that’ll bring your pick-up game to a whole new level.

What Exactly is the Squat Clean?

The squat clean is essentially the first half of the clean and jerk movement. The clean and jerk is a lift that’s performed in Olympic contests, which has the contestant heave the barbell up from the floor, onto their shoulders. This is known as the rack position. Without pausing, the contestant then lowers into a full front squat and stands back up. The jerk part of the motion happens when the weightlifter dips their knees and lifts the barbell up over them and locks out. Training for this lift often splits it into the two separate parts—the clean and the jerk.

The power clean itself has many variations. The classic power clean finds you catching the bar on your shoulders after the initial heave, and then lightly bending your knees to absorb the weight. This lift is often compounded with some other lift in order to add in a dynamic component—which is heavily utilized by CrossFit regimes. For example, the CrossFit thruster is a variation that begins with the power clean, followed by a squat, and then a push press. However, there is a subtle difference between the power clean and the classic squat clean.

With the squat clean, you’re meant to pull your body underneath the bar while it’s approaching your shoulders. The difference this makes is that there is a reduction in the range of motion which allows more weight to be used. This exercise focuses on the transition between a regular power clean and the front squat, and the ability to control the barbell as you heave it up towards your shoulders. This is the complex part of the exercise since you have to make your body and the barbell work in sync out of the potential chaos. To make this work, you need timing, speed, and accuracy, to successfully transfer energy from your legs, hips, feet, core, and back. While the idea behind the squat clean might sound simple enough, the movements are deceptively complex. However, mastering the correct technique will provide a laundry list of benefits when working toward your fitness goals. 

How the Squat Clean Will Benefit You

Because the squat clean is a classic functional lift, you’ll see the benefits of adding it into your weekly routine, everywhere. Although we’ll outline some of these benefits, the fact of the matter is that you will gain a well-rounded range of strength and explosiveness that you didn’t have before.

As we mentioned above, the technique of the squat clean is tuned to help you lift heavier weight. Since you won’t be lifting the bar too high off the ground, as in the case of the power clean, you’ll be able to use more weight. This, in turn, will mean greater payoffs in strength and muscle gain, especially in your lower body. Ultimately, your other workouts will improve since there’s such a wide range of motion (ROM) with the squat clean. Not only will your strength benefit, but also your mobility.

Furthermore, you’ll be activating a ton of muscle groups with the squat clean. While the front squat activates the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles, the squat clean also ends up using the abdominal chain, hip flexors, erector spinae, deltoids, and lats. With building explosive power and strength that’s useful in the real world, the squat clean is also very efficient. With this one compound lift, you’ll be hitting a number of muscle groups. And not only hitting them but also activating them to a very intense degree.

Your ROM will also see a high degree of improvement. With a greater range of motion, you’ll be able to get under the bar quicker, at a lower height, and therefore be able to lift more weight. Your strength gains will be effectively balanced over longer muscle chains and with added agility. This is due to the exaggerated range of the squat clean. With enough training, expect to see gains in stamina, complexity of motion, range of motion, and balance.

While the squat clean may seem like it belongs solely in the realms of pro weightlifting and CrossFit, it will help you crush any potential plateaus you might be on. It’s the Cadillac of lifts, in many ways, and a proper form and technique will help to ensure that you do it safely, and you squeeze out all of the benefits. Once again, this is a complex move, so proper form is essential in preventing injuries.

A girl working out in a gym.

Muscle Activation with the Squat Clean

The amount of muscles that the squat clean works is truly impressive. Much like the squat, this includes the glutes, the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. These muscles are the powerhouses when it comes to triple extension—the extension of your hips, knees, and ankles. This action brings the bar up into the rack position, with the lower body muscles also playing a key role in the squat.

During the lift, your spine is stabilized by your core muscles. A lot of stress will be placed on your lower back with this lift, so it’s imperative that you brace your abdominals properly. Meanwhile, your traps and delts will stabilize the bar during the squat and aid in getting it up to shoulder level. Lastly, the biceps are activated in finishing the clean portion of the exercise.

The Need-to-Know Technique for the Squat Clean

As with trying any compound lifts, it’s important to do a few warm-ups beforehand. While the squat clean is technically classified as a clean, the exercise warrants a number of motions. You will first be deadlifting the barbell, which will be followed by a shrug of the weight on your shoulders. While this is happening, it’s necessary to do a front squat, and then push up from the ground into a standing position. All of this will take timing and good rhythm, so start off with a lighter weight than you’re used to. Make sure to follow the correct steps exactly, or risk injury.

Step 1: The first part of the lift will be properly positioning yourself. You want to stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with the barbell at the top of your shoes. Pushing out your rear and keeping your back in a neutral position, bend at the hips and knees to lower down. Then, grab the bar with an overhand grip that’s slightly wider than your shoulders, your thumbs hooking underneath. Your shoulders should be drawn down and back, with your head, spine, and pelvis forming a line.

Step 2: Taking a deep breath and bracing your core, you want to begin pushing through your heels to extend your hips and knees. The moment the bar passes the knees, you want to finish extending your hips and knees, explosively, pulling the bar straight up. This is the “shrug”. It’s important to keep the bar as close to your body as possible, while also making it go as high as possible. You will feel your shoulders shrug and your heels momentarily leave the floor.

Step 3: This is the moment you have to drop underneath the bar as quickly as possible, letting it rest on your front delts in the rack position. Your elbows should be up, so your upper arms are parallel with the floor. A good tip is to imagine trying to point your elbows up to the ceiling, which will help you in receiving the bar in the rack position. You should be dropping your body under the bar as soon you catch the barbell on your shoulders—and once it’s secure, then go into the squat. It’s important to not pause after the clean, and rather go straight into the squat once you’ve racked the bar. Lowering into the squat, keep your back in a neutral position and your core tight.

Step 4: You’ll want to go as low as you can without losing the proper form along the way. If you feel anything going awry, that’s your cue to come back up. At this point, you want to get into a standing position. Drive down into the floor through your feet, until your hips and knees are extended. When you finish, your elbows should be in a high position. Once you’re at the top of the movement, drop the bar with your arms in a controlled fashion.

A man doing a squat clean in the gym.

Squat Clean, Spotlessly

A common technical flaw in the squat clean is in the first pull phase of the exercise. It occurs when a lifter doesn’t bring the barbell close enough to their body on the way up to the rack position. This puts strain on the lower back since the weight isn’t properly stabilized against the body when being pulled and powered. Just as the squat clean works a wide range of muscle groups, it’s important to keep in mind that that also means the squat clean can cause any number of muscle strains, pulls, or injuries. In the end, the last thing you or anyone wants is to lose precious time in the gym because you need to recover from an injury.

There are also a few important tips you should keep in mind to make the motion go off without a hitch. The first time you do it, it’s recommended to either try with just a barbell, or even a PVC pipe, under the guidance of a trainer. Catching mistakes early will prevent any serious mistakes going forward. Improving your front rack position will also help in the overall execution of the lift. If you’re having trouble with this, the problem might be in your back muscles not being strong. In which case it’s recommended to focus some lifts on activating your back and bringing it up to speed.

This move is ultimately all about timing, and this is especially true if you’re just trying to squat clean for the first time. The goal is to move well and fluidly first before adding a heavier load. Making the motion from the beginning to the end as smooth as possible will help when it comes to lifting. Don’t make any abrupt stops or pauses. Further breaking down the lift and learning the exercise in stages, rather than all at once, will build muscle memory and have you lifting heavier loads much sooner.

An especially important aspect when it comes to the timing is the “bounce” at the bottom of the squat. This refers to the elastic rebound at the bottom of your squat which helps you move to an upright position much more easily and with greater speed. There are three elements in this bounce: the elastic whip of the barbell, the stretch-shortening reflex in your lower body muscles, and the bounce of your upper leg against your lower leg. A proper bounce will save you energy, allowing for a greater amount of weight to be used while also developing the ligaments and tendons are the knees.

Programming the Lift into Your Regime

Since the exercise is intense, training both strength and power, it’s recommended you do it at the beginning of a workout when your muscles are still fresh but warmed up. The intensity of the lift means that it should be used with a relatively low rep count and with large rest periods. This could be anywhere from 4 to 6 sets of 1 to 3 reps, with a 2 to 5 minute rest period in between. However, it also depends on what exactly your training goals are.

If you’re trying to increase body strength, then definitely keep the rep count low. On the other hand, if your workout of the day (WOD) is to develop functional strength, then you’ll have to differ the programming. For example, with a CrossFit type style routine, higher reps are necessary. This could take the form of an “every minute on the minute” (EMOM) practice, which will test your endurance and skill. If you’re comfortable doing the squat clean in a CrossFit setting, you could even go for an “as many reps as possible” (AMRAP) routine. You can also add in variations, such as the dumbbell clean, to add in something simpler when you’re just starting out.

Blow Your Expectations Out of the Water

Whether you’re watching big cats hunt their prey in a nature documentary, or seeing elite athletes performing at the top of their game in international competitions, it’s easy to get swept up into the idea of explosive power. It’s important to realize that this type of power has its own intricacies from regular gym-strength, and you’ll need to put in a lot of effort and training to tap into it. The squat clean is a doorway into this world of explosive strength, and although it might be complicated at first, the benefits will appear in all aspects of your life.

While the importance of working hard to reach your goals is paramount, it’s just as important (if not more important) to craft a foundation from which to reach your goals. Remember to rest well and eat well to provide a robust base for your gains, consider taking supplements to take your game to the next level, and allow your body to be sculpted by the intensity of the squat clean.