The Clean and Jerk makes up the majority of every weightlifting performance, being considerably heavier than the snatch.
With two components – the clean and the jerk – it also comes with an additional set of things to worry about.
We’re going to demystify this impressive overhead lift and provide a sense of what you should be looking for. We’ll cover what it does, why and how to do it, and some of the variations you’re likely to run into!
- A Little More on the Clean and Jerk
- What Muscles does the Clean and Jerk Work?
- Benefits of Clean and Jerk
- How To Do Clean & Jerk Correctly (Form & Technique in 9 Steps)
- Clean & Jerk Workout & Variation
- How Can I Improve My Clean and Jerk?
- Clean and Jerk Vs Clean and Press
- Final Thoughts
A Little More on the Clean and Jerk
The clean and jerk comprises two distinct movements where the bar moves from the floor to the shoulders, and then from the shoulders overhead.
You need to get these two parts of the movement down individually before putting them all together. Obviously, this is going to be valuable for weightlifters but is also contested in CrossFit competitions and has value to strength and power athletes.
The power you can develop with the clean and jerk can be seriously beneficial in other areas – such as the squat and deadlift – but it’s certainly not the only way. This is an exercise for people who want to challenge themselves with a technically-demanding movement and put heavy stuff overhead.
What Muscles does the Clean and Jerk Work?
Getting good at the clean and jerk is a way to demonstrate effective technique and strength, as the latter is much more important with this lift than the snatch. The brute reality is that you need to be incredibly strong to clean and jerk big weights.
The shorter pulling distance and increased weights mean that leg and back strength are a significant factor in better performance. The most obvious muscles you’re going to work are in the legs and hips. These provide the vast majority of the force to the bar and are required to hold the right positions on the way up.
The legs and hips continue to be essential in the jerk where the legs produce all the force and the hips establish/maintain good posture.
Strength in the core and upper back are both key here too. The core is essential to use leg-strength effectively, while the back must be strong enough to support the position over the bar and keep the bar close to the body without the use of the arms.
Obviously, the jerk portion of the exercise requires serious strength in the scapula and shoulders to support big weights overhead. This means that you’re going to need to train your core and shoulders to support the overhead position if you’re new to weightlifting or heavy overhead exercise.
While these exercises clearly test the strength of a wide variety of muscles, they don’t actually build strength as much as they require it. The short duration of the lift reduces the amount of strength being built, while the rapid contraction of the muscles makes it susceptible to fatigue.
In many ways, the Olympic lifts demonstrate strength, while building power. They’re not going to build significant muscle mass when compared with alternatives, but they’re ridiculously cool and great for developing power from the legs and hips.
Benefits of Clean and Jerk
Does the Clean and Jerk Build Strength?
While it’s not primarily a strength exercise, the Clean and Jerk contributes to overall leg and back strength. Adding combinations of movements, such as adding pulls or squats to your clean and jerk, can improve the strength benefits.
The variations of cleans and overhead movements are a great way to develop strength in the legs, back, core, upper back, and shoulders. These apply less to the faster, heavier movements of the classic clean and jerk, however.
This is a good reason to combine the clean and jerk with traditional strength training. This offers a way of developing the strength for better Olympic lifts while improving technique and keeping power output high.
Building Power with the Olympic Lifts
This is the main benefit that you’ll see cleans being used for outside of the world of competitive weightlifting.
Movements like power cleans, push presses, and power jerks are all useful for developing power in athletes. American football players and sprinters are both big proponents of power clean, for example, which help with the production and absorption of force.
Getting better at moving big weights faster preferentially trains explosive power. This is awesome for sport purposes and also keeps you safer as you age, when power-loss is a real risk for falls and fractures.
The simpler movements like hang power cleans and behind the neck power jerks are a great way to train these movements in newer or less weightlifting-focused athletes.
There’s a time-efficiency aspect here you need to consider. If you’re not training for weightlifting, you can get some of the big benefits without adding too much time learning technique by switching to simpler variations.
Overhead Stability for Muscle and Strength
This is the area of the clean and jerk where most static strength will be required. The core and upper back have to support the weight of the bar overhead without allowing for too much movement, which easily produces a missed lift.
Stability overhead is a crucial aspect of strength that is important for weightlifters, CrossFit athletes, and many other sports. The way that you handle weight in the jerk is a great way of building upper back strength in key isometric positions – both the front rack and the overhead position.
These add a significant strength stimulus that you’re probably not getting elsewhere. Holding 100s of kilograms over your head is a good way to get stronger, unsurprisingly!
Performance for CrossFit and Sport
This is a simple one. If you’re doing CrossFit or Weightlifting or even Strongman, being comfortable with the clean and jerk movements is KEY.
There are many athletes who swear by these movements and they’re often used in the training of multi-sport athletes where explosive strength is the most important kind. This includes additional sports like bobsled, martial arts, and throwing.
The versatility of the clean and jerk, along with its components and variations, makes it a great tool for strength and conditioning.
How To Do Clean & Jerk Correctly (Form & Technique in 9 Steps)
1. Knees back
The first movement of the barbell is initiated by the legs, which push the floor down and ease the knees and barbell backwards. This is met with the chest staying high and the hips low.
Any pitching forward is going to result in significant technical problems later on!
2. Hips in
As the bar passes the knees from pushing against the floor, there’s a 50/50 contribution from the bar being swept back (with the lats) while the hips stay close to the bar.
This requires you to stay over the bar as long as possible, with the weight through the rear 1/3 of the foot. Drifting forward will, again, lead to kicking the bar out and making the whole process more difficult.
3. Head through the ceiling
This is the final portion of the pull. The weight remains through the heels as you push, keeping the arms relaxed and driving as tall as possible by forcefully extending the knees and hips simultaneously.
If anything has gone wrong earlier in the lift, it’s likely to pop up now when the dynamic elements are at their greatest. Keeping the arms loose and relaxed until after this point is key to a good finish.
4. Elbows up, bum down
Once you’ve reached extension, you need to sit down into your heels, keeping the bar close, and catch low with a tall chest and elbows high.
This position is where you’re going to receive the bar, so you need to ensure the maximum stability and comfort. Balance is key here – getting the bar onto your shoulders with the wrong position makes everything difficult.
5. Chest up, knees out
As you stand up with the bar from the catch position, keep the chest and elbows up, while the knees remain “out”.
This just means you’re not letting your knees collapse inwards, and you’re supporting the healthiest position for the hips and knees throughout the lift.
6. Get your air, let the bar rest, relax your hands
This is the position at the top of the clean, where the barbell is resting on the shoulders and the lifter prepares for the jerk.
The arms remain relaxed while the back, core, and hips all stay active and stable. This can take a few seconds as you regain composure but try not to wait too long or you’ll exhaust yourself.
7. Dip and drive: THROW
This is the first step in the jerk. It requires you to sit to the heels, keep the chest tall, and dip and drive through the legs.
This begins with a smooth dip downwards by bending the knees, where keeping the chest and elbows tall is paired with relaxed arms.
At the end of the dip, you need to drive forcefully against the platform using the legs, with a focus on driving your head through the ceiling with a tall chest. This is the “throw” portion of the movement.
8. Split/Feet: CATCH
Once you’ve finished the extension, you need to rapidly change direction and put yourself under the bar.
In a power jerk, this comes from moving the feet sideways into a squat-stance position. In the split jerk, the feet move forwards and backwards.
In both instances, the focus is on keeping the chest up while the hips remain “in” and under the bar. The bar needs to be caught on locked arms, so your focus should be on “catching” rather than pressing.
This is a position you want to practice and become comfortable with as soon as possible to ensure you ‘know where you’re going’ during the full clean and jerk!
9. Recover and stand
Once you’ve secured the bar overhead, you just need to keep the core tight and return to a standing position with the feet in line.
Once you’re stable under the bar, you’ve done it! This is the easy part, but it does require some focus since a competition lift requires you to be stable under the bar or its still a miss – even if you’ve done all the hard work!
Clean & Jerk Workout & Variation
The pull variations of the clean and jerk are designed to build strength in the legs and back while improving familiarity with technical positions on the way up.
These are versatile exercises that provide a variety of choices – all of which are designed to build strength. They may include an extension at the top (a clean pull) or just be a clean deadlift, which has no extension but allows for more weight.
The Clean deadlift can also be performed from the “hang” positions, where the bar is picked up and then lowered without touching the floor. This can be at the mid-thigh, the knee, or just above the floor position.
These all allow you to load the back and hips more effectively and develop strength at a specific position. This is another way of introducing extra loading and specificity to your training. This means more options and better back strength.
The hang positions used in the pull can be used in the full lifts, where they focus on keeping the shoulders above the bar and prevent “leaning back” against the weight.
These exercises are commonly used to take out the complexity of the pull, starting at the mid-thigh or just below the knee. They offer a way of improving positions and focusing on smaller segments of the movement one at a time.
Hangs are great for athletic development, too, since they focus on lengthening and then contracting the muscles. With the proper rhythm and
Power Cleans are a common exercise that takes a lot of the complexity out of the full clean. They’re caught above parallel position, meaning there’s a greater focus on the finish of the lift, and reduced complexity in the catch and stand portions.
They reduce the amount of weight you can use but allow for improved development of power and speed. They’re a significant part of training for power athletes, where they train for the production and absorption of force – covering two key areas of athleticism at once.
The jerk is the shorter, more power-intensive aspect of the clean and jerk. It’s a mixture of the technical demands of the snatch with the strength requirements of the clean – and thus the hardest part of the sport for many.
The push press is the most useful strength-power hybrid for non-specialists. It incorporates the leg drive of the jerk, but instead of dropping under the bar, you press through the finish.
This increases the actual strength-building component and introduces a larger upper back/tricep/shoulder development stimulus. This means all the benefits of a jerking movement without the difficulty or rhythm.
The behind the neck variation of the push press is by far the simplest and most time-efficient way to improve overhead strength and power in non-weightlifters. The push press from the front has some great benefits but is primarily useful for Weightlifting and CrossFit training.
The power jerk is a dip, drive, and catch but with the feet moving to a squat position rather than a split. This is a way of improving the dip and drive portions of the Jerk and has far more application to general power since it requires the bar to go higher.
You’ll also see significant benefits training the power jerk for CrossFit, too, where the shoulder to overhead portion is far faster using a power jerk. The movement can be chained really easily and has less of a recovery portion than the complicated split jerk position.
The behind the neck version is the most complicated variation of the jerk we’d recommend for most non-specialists. If you’re working on athletic development, there’s a premium on time and “recoverability”.
Adding this to your workouts can provide many of the key benefits of weightlifting with less of the risk, complexity, and learning-time. These all add up to one of the best possible uses for weightlifting outside of competitive Olympic lifting.
Behind the Neck Variations
These involve performing a jerk, power jerk, or push press from the back squat starting position – with the bar at the top of the traps. This takes out the difficulty and unpredictability of the front rack, and often allows for better power training without investing as much time into learning.
They also allow you to handle more weight and are often more specific to sports like American football or Powerlifting, where the front rack has limited value.
How Can I Improve My Clean and Jerk?
The exercises listed above are key ways of building strength through the clean and jerk. This is one of the key aspects since the ability to stay over the bar during the pull, produce force with the legs, and stand up with the bar are all key contributors to a better lift.
Technical improvements are also essential. Being strong isn’t enough – technique is necessary for good performance. No matter how good you get, you can get better. During the first few years, this is even more true since you’re likely to have significant flaws that need ironing out.
Improving technique means improving the adherence with the positions mentioned above, as well as adhering to a few principles of good technique:
- Relaxing the arms during the pull
- Increasing the reliance on the legs and hips
- Accelerating the bar primarily above the knees
- Improving balance and focusing on mostly-heel weight distribution
- Changing direction rapidly at the top of the lift
- Keeping the bar close throughout the lift
- Easing the bar back from the floor
These all add up and performance is a simple matter of attention multiplied by practice-time. The more you put into it, the better it will get.
Power training may also be useful in the Olympic lifts, where the ability to produce force rapidly is key to better overall performance. This can be improved with sprints, throws, and combinations of lifting with high-speed, low-weight movements.
Clean and Jerk Vs Clean and Press
These exercises have significant overlap when it comes to the clean, but the clean and press is almost entirely defunct. It was competed in for many years, but the press itself is never going to be as heavy as the clean when performed with strict form.
The power clean + press is a reasonable way of improving your ability to produce power and build overhead strength. However, combining the power clean with a movement like the push press is the best way to combine the two in a way that uses the correct weight, while reducing the injury risk and providing the same benefits.
The clean and press isn’t going to come back. It’s a movement that makes no sense: if you can press what you can clean then you’re either pressing incorrectly or cleaning incorrectly (or your legs are weaker than your shoulders, which means you have weak legs).
The clean and jerk is one of the most important movements in the history of strength sports. It comes with a serious technical component that can make it hard to access for most people, but It provides a way of building power and demonstrating strength at the same time.
It’s a popular exercise because of how interesting it is to watch, perform, and the versatility that fast barbell movements have for athletic development. If you’re chasing any of these in your own training then there’s a considerable reason to learn the basics and implement them slowly.
You’ll need to account for the learning time and the amount of weight you’re not going to be able to lift initially, but with time it can be a great investment. Especially if you’re in a sport where it plays a significant role, or just want to get better with a barbell.
With the right approach, the clean and jerk is one of the most important and effective movements you can perform. Not to mention one of the hardest!