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Teaching the Clean: From A to Z (Part II)

by: Zac Woodfine
Director of Sports Performance, University of Alabama at Birmingham
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In part I of teaching the clean lift, we discussed the concept of clean movement patterns and progressing your athletes with the proper technique. In this issue, we will focus on hip extension where real power is generated.

Once an athlete can hip hinge properly, we teach violent hip extension. The main ways we teach this are through a variety of medicine ball throws and kettlebell swings (Photos 1-4).

Once our athletes have demonstrated the ability to squat, hinge, and extend with precision, we move on to our actual teaching of the clean. We use a 3-step top down approach when starting with the clean. We have found that keeping it simple with as few cues as possible is beneficial when first teaching this exercise. Athletes can become paralyzed by too many cues, ultimately failing to master the basic steps needed to safely and efficiently complete a clean. Once proficient in the basics, we can get more technical in cues for athletes that have been in the program for a considerable amount of time. 
In the first part of our teaching, we use only the bar and maybe 10 kg bumpers on each side. Position 1 coaching cues are as follows:  knuckles down, shoulders back, slight knee bend. It is very important that during position 1 that the athlete only slightly bends the knees. There should be no hinge in the hips during this part of the teaching. The athlete’s trunk should be completely vertical. The cues for the knuckles and shoulders are to simply keep the bar as close to the body as possible (Photo 5).

After the athletes have mastered position 1, we have them “jump and catch” out of that position. On the catch we are looking for bar placement in the crease we talked about earlier and the elbows kept high. From that point we have our athletes front squat the weight down to full range of motion and return back up before dropping the bar onto the platform (Photo 6).

From there we move to teaching position 2. Position 2 builds off position 1. We teach a hip hinge after the slight knee bend in position one. The cues are as follows: knuckles down, shoulders back, slight knee bend, and hinge the hips until the bar is right below the knee cap. Position 2 is simply the addition of hinging at the hips. This position should look the same as an RDL (Photo 7).

From position 2, we have the athletes slowly return to position 1. We move them back and forth between the two positions to get them to feel the difference between both positions. We teach that position 1 is always our “launch zone.” We harp on having patience from position 2 to 1 and not rushing the second pull. 

When our athletes attempt to launch or extend from position 2, the bar gets too far out in front of their body leading to loss in power and efficiency. Once they feel the difference in the two positions we move from position 1, then position 2, then back to 1 and jump and catch with no pause at position 1. Again, we have them front squat the barbell all the way down to full range of motion. After mastering both position 1 and 2, we move to position 3, which is the bottom position or starting position of the clean. The only cue we add to the teaching here is another bend of the knees after the hip hinge. So the progression is as follows:  knuckles down, shoulders back, slight knee bend, hinge the hips, and bend the knees. 

This will put the athlete in good starting position for the clean. By this time, the athletes will know and also have a good feel for each position. All we do is reverse the order at this point and have them start from position 3 and move up to position 2, then patiently from 2 to 1 at which point they jump and catch out of position 1 and front squat it down (Photo 8).

Now that the full clean is taught, we can utilize the clean or hang clean which in our terminology is also called a position 2 clean. We teach our athletes to front squat after each clean so they get used to catching the bar in different positions. When the load is fairly light our guys can catch in a power position. However, as we move into higher load percentages, we want our athletes to be able to pull under the bar, drop their hips and catch properly in any position needed to complete the lift.

The beauty of the clean is that it is one of the most explosive lifts one can perform in a weight room. It is also is a movement that requires athletes to be mobile and technically sound. If an athlete is mobile enough to fully complete a clean properly, then the athlete most likely doesn’t have a lot of movement deficiencies. A proper clean would consist of a good setup from the floor, a stiff torso that can handle the load without any energy leaks, a proper loading of the hips, great hip extension, the ability to pull oneself under the bar quickly, a great front rack position to receive the bar, and finally, the ability to squat the weight out of the hole from the front rack position.

Cleaning properly takes great body control and proprioception. The athlete must be able to accelerate and decelerate a load within a matter of milliseconds, and understand where their body is in relation to the position they are supposed to be in. All these things together make for an extremely complicated movement that, when done right, is a thing of beauty.

About the Author: Zac Woodfin recently joined the strength and conditioning staff at the University of Southern Mississippi. He previously was the Director of Sports Performance at Alabama-Birmingham. Woodfin also worked as the assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Green Bay Packers. A former linebacker for UAB, Woodfin played parts of three years in the NFL. He was also a performance specialist for Athletes’ Performance in Los Angeles, working with many NFL and Olympic athletes.


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