Would you like to train almost every muscle in your body all at once, building power, and shifting serious weight?
So do we!
The power clean is one of the most interesting, high-velocity barbell movements and getting good at it can bring a whole range of benefits.
Today we’re going to discuss power cleans in detail – what they’re for, how you should perform them, and frequently asked questions. Stick with us if you want to build big power, lower body strength, and familiarity with one of the coolest things you can do with a barbell!
- What Muscles do Power Cleans Work?
- 6 Key Power Clean Benefits
- How to Perform the Power Clean
- Common Mistakes with the Power Clean
- How to Get Better at Power Cleans
- FAQs About Power Cleans
- Our Final Thoughts on Power Cleans
What Muscles do Power Cleans Work?
The power clean works the quads and glutes, primarily, but also works the spinal erectors, abdominal muscles, and postural muscles in the upper back. These include the lats, traps, and rhomboids.
The power clean and its variations are going to develop strength in these muscles, but also develop power. This makes them a great choice for developing general athleticism, as well as their specific carryover to Weightlifting and CrossFit.
6 Key Power Clean Benefits
You know what the power clean works, but why should you bother with it? We’re going to take you through the key benefits of power cleans.
1. Developing Power
It’s in the name!
Power cleans are a great way of training power. This is the ability to produce force rapidly and it works best with around 60-80% of maximum possible weight. This is the range power cleans generally exist in, which makes them a perfect tool for building speed-strength.
Power cleans are a rare example of a barbell movement that is specifically designed to develop/demonstrate power. Getting better with power cleans often means serious improvements to producing huge force, rapidly.
2. Improving Postural Strength
Aside from the quads, most of the muscles that are used in the power clean are postural muscles.
The glutes, core, spinal erectors, and muscles of the scapula all contribute to your everyday positioning. Power cleans will both demand good posture and reinforce it when performed correctly.
The focus on a tight back, strong core and hips, and the ability to absorb force in this upright position all contribute to better posture. Strengthening these positions can improve long term health in the spine and hips, crucial for quality of life as you age.
3. Improving your Jumps and Sprints
The power clean is a movement that trains triple extension. This means the extension of the knees, hips, and ankles all at once.
This is an important benefit since it carries over to movements like sprinting and jumping where triple extension is applied. There are significant differences (for example, the loading used and the fact that sprinting has some slightly different positions) but power cleans are great for carryover.
This is clear from how popular this movement is in the training of sprinters, throwers, and jumpers. Developing maximal triple-extension power with the power clean is a great choice, when combined with other, specific training.
4. Becoming a Better Athlete in Other Sports
There are other sports that benefit from the power clean, aside from running and jumping.
The ability to absorb force in the top of a power clean is a great benefit for American football, rugby, and other sports where big hits are common. Being able to absorb force on flexed knees/hips is crucial to these sports and the power clean is a good tool for training this skill.
Many athletes train force production but ignore force absorption. This is a big problem because things like landing mechanics and familiarity with absorbing force (even in the core muscles) actually affects the rate of injuries in the knees and hips.
If you want to be healthier, stronger, and more resilient in sports then power cleans can be very useful.
5. Improving Full Body Movement
The use of full body movements is always good.
Compound exercises are always important since they develop muscular co-ordination. After all, your body doesn’t move one muscle at a time, but as a whole system. For this reason, training movements rather than muscles is a good way to maximize benefits.
The full body movement is a reason why the power clean trains so many muscles, but it is also a great movement for training the whole body with limited time. It’s not a huge muscle-building exercise but it builds universal strength and power.
If you’re trying to get bang for your buck, the power clean is a great choice.
6. Adding Athleticism to Weight Training
Using Olympic weightlifting movements is one of the best ways to diversify weight training if you’re willing to invest the time and effort into learning technique.
There’s not much athleticism in regular weight training or aesthetic development. You might build a better physique, but what can you do with it? Power cleans and other Olympic weightlifting movements are interesting ways of using a barbell to demonstrate strength, power, and movement quality.
It introduces a whole new level of athleticism and technique to weight training that can really keep training interesting!
How to Perform the Power Clean
Setting Up to Perform a Power Clean
Setting up for the power clean has a few key pieces.
First, the feet should be between hip and shoulder width, and turned out slightly. The bar should rest so that when you get into position, it’s near the shin but not pulled back into them (this will need playing with and you can move the bar later if it’s too close/far).
From this position, take a grip on the barbell that is roughly ½ -- 1 hand’s width into the knurling (the sharp, grippy part of the bar). This is going to adjust based on mobility/preference, but it’s a good place to start.
Set your back tight from the start, relaxing the arms and rotating the shoulders back/tucking the shoulder blades down. Keep the knees out, with a tight butt, and lower the hips to bring the chest upright.
The result should be hips above your knees, your shoulders above the bar, and a tight back with loose arms. This is the start position for the power clean and it should look something like this:
The First Phase: Below the knee
The first phase of the lift is from the floor to the knee. This is an important part of the lift since, if it’s performed incorrectly, everything else will suffer. We say that if you get the first part wrong, all you can do is compensate.
This first movement is a push against the floor, during which the barbell and the knees both ease backwards. You’re pushing the floor down, while keeping the chest and back in the same position as the setup.
The only things that should happen during the first phase of the lift is that everything should move up and backward slightly. The knees should ease back until the bar reaches the knee, where they will be positioned directly above the heels, leaving the shin roughly vertical.
The Second Phase: Above the knee
Once the bar reaches the knees, it’s time to get aggressive. Keeping the weight balanced through the rear 1/3 of the foot, the bar comes back and the hips stay close to the bar. The effort here is about 50/50 between “bar comes back” and “hips close to the bar”.
This hinge has to come from the hips, however. A common mistake we’ll look at later is throwing the shoulders back to get in contact with the bar. Rather, the correct movement comes from relaxing the arms and keeping the lats tight.
This is often described as “bending the bar”, but it makes more sense to think about keeping your shoulders behind your chest, the chest puffed up, and the upper back tight. You could also think about squeezing your armpits down, but anything involving the hands is a bad cue for weightlifting.
Performing a Powerful Extension
Once you’ve reached the final position of the pull, with the feet flat on the floor and the barbell high into the thigh with a tight back and the arms relaxed, it’s time to extend.
This aggressive, powerful finish to the lift comes from the thighs and glutes. It’s all about giving the bar maximal upward force. This comes from extending as hard as possible in the hips and knees, driving to the top of your toes, and thinking about getting tall from the lower body.
This will inevitably put you slightly behind the bar – you can’t drive straight up – but you should focus on it. The natural inclination will be to slam your hips forward and “hump” the bar, but the point is to keep everything back and drive tall.
You can usually tell how you’re doing based on what your fully extended position looks like. You can look at elite weightlifters for a good idea of what this position looks like.
- The knees and hips are fully extended, driving to the tiptoes
- The back is tight, and the chest is up
- The arms are relaxed, and the extension comes from the lower body
- The bar is close to the body and the direction of the extension is up and slightly backwards
These are the key principles. If you’re doing all of these, the extension is probably okay, though there’s always some variation.
Getting Under: Transition and Catch
Once you’ve completed the extension, the work isn’t done. You still need to stay close to the barbell and catch it in a stable, assertive rack position.
This means allowing the bar to rise at the end of the extension, keeping it close to the chest with the elbows high and backwards. You should be moving downwards into a front squat stance width, with the chest up and back tight.
Once you’ve finished the extension, the priority is getting under the bar with the weight planted in the heels. You also need to keep the chest tall and get the elbows up, with relaxed hands simply guiding the bar to the correct rack position (which is resting on the shoulders).
Think about catching the weight as hard as possible. As you lift heavier and heavier weights, this is going to become more important since the postural/core demands will get larger and a lazy approach to catching can increase injury risk or simply cause you to miss lifts you pulled high enough!
Common Mistakes with the Power Clean
Hinging Too Early in the Lift
One of the most common beginner’s problems with the power clean is treating it like a deadlift. This means starting the movement with the hamstrings and hips, rather than driving the quads against the floor.
This often produces a very “through” movement rather than an upward drive, pushing the barbell away and ultimately wasting spare kilos. This is a common problem because the power clean is just different from the things you’re likely to be familiar with.
You can tell you’re hinging the lift if you’re bringing your chest up before the bar passes the knees. The goal is to keep the back angle constant until you’ve passed the knee, so if you’re opening the hips during the first phase, you’re trying to hinge instead of pushing.
This is a mistake you can fix with proper technical practice. Think about keeping the hips/back in the same place and just pushing the floor down/easing the knees back during the first phase. This will take lots of practice, but it’s a crucial habit to build up.
“Squatting” the Pull
While the power clean isn’t just a hinge, it’s also not just a squat. While some people try to hinge too early, others attempt to never hinge at all, producing a strange position behind the bar for the whole lift.
This is often a result of attempting to exaggerate the chest-up cue, or just not practicing the movement effectively.
You need to set up with the shoulders/armpits over the bar and keep them above the bar as long into the lift as possible. This keeps you in the correct positions with the rest of the body, as well as ensuring that both the legs and hips are involved in the extension, which is key to better force and more weight.
Sitting behind the bar will produce a less powerful extension, increase the likelihood of pushing the bar out in front of yourself, and a tough time making lifts consistently. This is a matter of time and practice, but building a stronger posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, lower back) will all help.
Whipping the Shoulders Backwards
This is one of the most common and frustrating problems that affects lifters at all levels. When weights feel heavy or technique is imperfect, it’s easy to start swinging the shoulders back during the second phase because you think it’s going to make up for the poor positioning or because the weight feels heavy.
The weight is always going to feel heavy. If it doesn’t, you need more weight. Your job is to deal with that.
This usually requires directed practice and technical effort. It also benefits from effective above-knee strengthening exercises focusing on staying over the barbell. This could be a halting snatch/clean deadlift, block pulls, or hang variations.
The point is to focus on three key technical points:
- Direct the extension of the movement upwards, rather than backward, driving against the floor throughout
- Ensure that the hinge in the second phase comes from the hips, not the shoulders
- Keep the weight through the heels and bring the bar to the hips, rather than reaching through with the hips
These are simple enough to understand, but harder to practice consistently. This Is why it’s so important to take time and practice the movement rather than loading more weight on before you know how to move properly.
Too Much Upper Body
Excessive activity in the upper body is also very common in beginners.
While you’re going to need to move the upper body to make the most of your leg and hip drive, it’s a fundamental error to perform the lift with the upper body. The muscles of the arms and upper back have a supportive, not active, role for a power clean.
The point is that they’re not supposed to be doing the majority of the work. This is what we call the “reverse curl clean” – a movement that looks like a deadlift with an upright row and reverse curl.
The muscles of the lower body are the intended target of a power clean and they produce much greater amounts of force. No matter how strong your upper body, it’s not going to be as strong as your lower body, if you train in a balanced way.
You’ll be able to tell you’re doing this if your arms bend before your legs and hips are totally extended. It’s usually just fixed with lots of technical practice in power cleans and clean deadlifts/pulls, focusing on relaxing the arms and letting the bar hang from a tight back.
The arms don’t need to do the work – rely on the tight lats/back – and let the legs/hips do the work. This is one of the most important cues, and everything in weightlifting is best if you let the big muscles of the legs and hips do most of the work.
A Flaccid Back
Any movement that involves lifting a barbell needs to be performed with a stable, tight, secure back. The spine is very sensitive to loading, and a round backed power clean is one of the most ridiculously unhealthy things to put your spine through.
There’s not only loading of the bar during the pulling phase – which is bad enough – but the absorption of impact during the catch. Simply put, it’s better to not power clean than to power clean with a rounded, soft back.
This is either the result of mobility or strength problems. Both of these are a significant problem and how you respond to them depends on your goals with power cleans.
For example, if you’re just using the power clean for athletic development and power training, you can just use a block or hang power clean. These remove the mobility demands of the setup position, allowing you to set the back tight and keep it there throughout.
If you’re just weak and have poor posture, there’s a longer route to the power clean from the floor involving proper mobility and strengthening work. This should involve lots of progressively-longer range clean deadlifts with a tight, stable back position.
Progress from smaller movements to longer ones with the proper back positioning, and never lift beyond what you can control with a healthy back position. This is a simple principle of staying healthy and lifting well that you need to adhere to for best results and health.
How to Get Better at Power Cleans
The Olympic lifts and their power variations are interesting because they require a whole bunch of different skills and adaptations. It’s not like getting better at a bicep curl, where it’s 100% muscular and responds to work volume directly.
There are a few key areas where you need to focus: general strength, positional strength, technique, mobility, power output, and core strength.
Build Stronger Legs/Hips
This is obvious: you can’t power clean a weight you can’t clean deadlift. You need to be strong enough to over the weight and produce enough force to get it to your shoulders. If you can’t pull it high enough to power clean it, you can’t power clean it.
This is why general strength is important for weightlifting. You can be the most technically-proficient weightlifter ever, but if you can’t squat 100kg, you’re never going to lift any weights worth talking about. The same applies to the power clean, whether you’re training for sports or just recreationally.
Being strong is important, as it determines how much force you can apply in perfect conditions. Your goals will determine how important this is and how strong you need to be, but you can get better at power cleans by strengthening the legs, hips, back, and core.
General strength is important because it is the basis for specific strength, which is key…
Use Specific Strengthening Exercises
We can call specific strength for the power clean, positional strength. Adaptations for strength are very specific to the movements used to train them, so general strength can only take you so far. This is why powerlifters aren’t immediately kicking ass in weightlifting without proper specific, positional training.
This is why movements like the snatch and clean deadlift are very important for developing weightlifting movements. Even if you just want to power clean a lot, you should be working this type of movement.
Your 300kg deadlift only has limited application if you can’t hold the positions of a good power clean with 100kg. Getting strong in the specific positions is key to better force production, is a great way to practice technique, and build familiarity with the power clean.
If you’re really struggling, you can add pauses to clean deadlifts/pulls to reinforce positional strength. As we mentioned above, technique is built on this positional strength, and is key all by itself…
Improve your Technique
The technique in Olympic lifts is absolutely crucial. The unusual movements and complicated demands make it a very variable sport: the strongest lifter doesn’t always lift the most.
Some of the most remarkable lifters ever were not the strongest, but the most well-developed technically. This is because properly applying the strength you have makes a huge difference to your performance.
Technical practice and running through the positions described above until they’re consistent, efficient, and reliable is one of the best ways to improve your power clean. You can add 10s of kilos to your power clean with good technique, even without getting stronger.
Practice the movement, run through the positions until they’re second nature, and consider working with a real weightlifting coach if you really want to get good at cleans. Otherwise, just pay attention to your own movement, record it for review, and be willing to put in the work with light weights.
Improve Mobility and Core Strength
Once you’ve got a good pull technique, the importance of mobility and core strength will become more significant. These areas are key to the finish and catch of the power clean, where stability and a strong front rack position are a make-or-break consideration.
The stability of your catch position will make sure you’re not catching too low, and that you’re receiving the bar in the correct position. This position is a key factor in making or missing a lift when you’re catching heavy weights and have to worry about catch height/balance.
One of the realities of any type of movement is that practice is an essential part of good lifting.
There’s no replacement for time and familiarity. Even with proper technique, spending more time doing a movement will improve your familiarity and power output through the movement.
Practicing power cleans regularly for, months and years is the most reliable way of improving your power clean. Strength is specific, and practice is what makes performance. Commit to learning it, drilling the movement, and it will improve.
FAQs About Power Cleans
How many sets and reps for power cleans?
Power cleans are a high-intensity movement that should always be performed with proper technique and, obviously, power.
This means that you won’t gain significant benefits by doing them for high reps. There’s not much value to that unless you’re competing in high-rep power cleans. Even then, this is poor practice for technique since fatigue will make you sloppy.
The best approach for power cleans is to perform sets of 1-5 repetitions, focusing on proper technique, speed, and loading. The exact amount of reps and sets depends on your goals, the weight you’re using, and where in your training plan you are.
The usual approach to power cleans for power and technique is 5-7 sets of 3-5 repetitions. There’s nothing magical about this, but it’s the convention we see all the time, and it works well.
Are power cleans bad for your knees?
No, not if you do them properly.
If you do them wrong, they can be, but that’s what you get for ego-lifting.
Focus on proper movement, technical improvements, and slowly loading weight as you get more comfortable with the technique.
How often should I power clean?
It depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
As a power movement with a relatively small eccentric component, power cleans can be performed regularly. If you’re training for sports, you’ll need to consider the power and recovery demands with your coach.
However, if you’re a recreational gym-goer that wants to add power or get better at power cleans, 2-3 times a week is a decent choice. You can practice more often as a beginner with very light weights, but as the weight increases, you’ll need time to rest and recover.
What can I do instead of a power clean?
Once again, it depends on what you are doing them for.
There are some really interesting options for producing speed-strength, such as combining strength movements with speed movements.
We’ve discussed this in an article of its own where we offer comprehensive alternatives for power cleans. This addresses individual uses/goals and provides alternatives for each situation!
If you’re not able/ready to power clean, check out our alternatives to power cleans article.
Can you do a power clean with dumbbells?
There are some significant differences between a dumbbell power clean and a barbell power clean. For most purposes, the dumbbell variation is less effective: you can use less weight, the contribution of the upper body is greater, it doesn’t transfer as well to weightlifting/CrossFit, and the front rack position is totally different.
However, the dumbbell power clean is a movement that exists and, while we don’t like it as much, it is a good way of working strength and power if you don’t have a barbell.
As with anything, it depends on your goals, and movements like the dumbbell power clean and push press can be a great choice, but you’ll not be handling the weight and speed-strength associated with the barbell variation as effectively.
Our Final Thoughts on Power Cleans
The power clean is an interesting movement that offers some of the key benefits of Olympic weightlifting to the recreational gym-goer. While it’s a technically-demanding exercise, if you’re willing to commit the time to learn/perfect the movement, it’s a great choice.
Follow the tips and training methods we’ve discussed – working from light weights and focusing on technique and specific strength – and don’t rush the process. It’s always better to hold yourself back a little when dealing with this kind of movement!