Power Cleans – The Exercise That Builds Explosiveness And Strength

As the name of this exercise implies, the power clean develops whole body power; power being your ability to produce large amounts of force very quickly. In essence, the power clean is actually a weighted jumping exercise so it develops tremendous explosive lower limbs but also works the upper body too. This greater power can help you jump higher or further, run faster or kick harder.

Often considered an exercise for athletes, the power clean has become increasingly popular lately as it often features in many Cross Fit workouts. The guys at Cross Fit perform this exercise for low repetitions using heavy weights and also, controversially, for high reps using light to moderate weights.

If pure power is your aim, low repetition/heavy load power cleans are the way to go and some experts even argue that high rep power cleans are all but pointless and do nothing for power development. On the other hand, high rep power cleans are one of the most metabolically demanding exercises around although many dyed-in-the-wool lifting coaches think that high rep power cleans boarder on being sacrilegious!

The low rep-high weight versus high rep-low weight argument will rage on and on but whichever camp you find yourself in, it’s essential that you perform this exercise with perfect form if you are going to minimize your risk of injury.

Power clean anatomy

For all intents and purposes, the power clean is a full body exercise. The only muscles that do not receive direct stimulation are the pectoralis major muscles of the chest or pecs for short. The rest of your muscles work had and in synergy to help you lift the (potentially heavy) barbell from the floor to shoulder height.

Good power cleans depend on and develop a strong posterior chain. The posterior chain is basically all the muscles which run from your heels to the base of your skull. Any weakness on the posterior chain will reduce your ability to perform the power clean.

The posterior chain is also known as the “power zone” as these muscles are involved in generating the force necessary to run fast and jump. In fact, very few athletic endeavours do not involve a significant contribution from these muscles. This helps explain why the power clean and its variations are so popular in the world of sport.

Power clean equipment

The power clean requires little more than a barbell and weight plates. Ideally, the bar should be raised to the same height as it would be if you were using full sized 20kg/45lb plates. Unless you have access to lightweight practice plates, this may mean you need to raise your bar using stacked up plates or sturdy boxes. Either way, it is important you don’t attempt to power clean a bar that is too close to the floor as this merely increases your chances of lifting with a rounded back.

It is customary when performing power cleans to drop that bar rather than lower it gently to the floor. This movement requires access to a shock absorbing lifting platform and bumper plates which are designed to be dropped. If you don’t have access to a platform and bumper plates, you will have to exercise control when putting your weights back down.

I suggest carefully rolling the bar down your front and then performing a reverse deadlift. There is no need to perform this movement super-slow – just control the descent of the bar enough to avoid dropping your weights on the floor and angering your normally friendly gym manager!

Clothing wise, like any lower body exercise, firm soled shoes and unrestrictive clothing is a must. Your grip is vital for success in this exercise so chalk, lifting gloves or at the very least a hand towel are essential so you don’t suffer from sweaty, slippery palms.

Power clean technique

There are two main ways to teach the power clean; from the ground up and from the top down. The top down is arguably the simplest method as it uses the least number of stages although the ground up method may seem more logical. I prefer the top down method simply because of it’s, err, simplicity!

A note on grip

Many weightlifters use something called a hook grip. This involves wrapping your thumb around the bar and then closing your fingers over your thumb. This provides a very secure if somewhat painful grip on the bar. For most of us, a normal “thumbs around grip” is adequate but feel free to experiment with the hook grip if you are lifting heavy weights and feel your grip is a limiting factor.

Phase 1 – quarter-depth front squat

With a barbell in a squat rack at mid-chest height, grasp the bar with an overhand shoulder-width grip. Push your elbows under the bar and rest it across your anterior (front) deltoids.

Make sure your elbows are high so your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Try to point your elbows directly to your front. You don’t need to grip the bar in this position; the position of your arms should mean the bar is secure. Those of you with less than optimal wrist flexibility may find that the bar rests across the middle joints of your fingers. This is called the rack position.

With the barbell racked across your anterior deltoids, take a step back and place your feet in the same position you would use if you were about to perform a vertical jump. This is usually around shoulder width apart with your toes turned slightly outward.

From here, bend your knees, push your hips back and descend into a quarter-depth squat. This is the receiving position in which you will catch the barbell. For more information on the front squat, click here.

Phase 2 – jump and shrug from hang position

Using the same foot position and grip described above, hold the barbell across your hips. Bend your knees slightly, push your hips back and lower the bar to mid thigh height. This is called the hang position and should resemble a Romanian deadlift.


From this stance, rapidly extend your knees and hips and jump straight up and off the ground. Jump only as high as necessary for your knees and hips to fully extend. As you jump, shrug your shoulders up towards your ears so that the bar travels as high as possible without bending your arms. Land on bent legs to absorb the impact.

During this phase, you should feel as though the bar “wants” to come higher up your body. You may even feel as though you have to hold it down. This is the key to the power clean. Many people mistakenly try to use their arms to pull the bar up when, in reality, the legs provide the majority of the force. There is an arm pull but the arms generate very little power compared to your much larger leg muscles.

Phase 3 – high pull from hang

Adopt the hang position with the bar resting across your thighs, your knees slightly bent and your hips pushed back. As before, jump and shrug but, as the bar already “wants” to travel up your body, use your arms and pull it up to around chest height. This should resemble a kind of “cheated” upright row.

Keep your elbows above your hands and make sure the bar stays close to your body. If the bar is more than an inch/2.8 cms in front of you, the weight will be forward of your base of support and you are likely to lose your balance. Ideally the bar should skim your training top but this takes some practice. Try and keep your arm pull until the bar has reached waist height. A good pull is a late pull!

Phase 4– power clean from hang position

Using the same starting position as above, descend in to a good hang position (hips back, chest up, lower back tightly arched). Explode upwards into a jump, shrug your shoulders and pull the bar upwards. As you land, dip your knees slightly, drive your elbows forwards and catch the bar on your anterior deltoids as described in phase one. Extend your knees and stand up straight to complete the rep.

Phase Five – power clean from floor

Set the bar on the floor and, with your feet in the same position you have used thus far, adopt the deadlift position. Keeping your arms straight perform a deadlift using great technique. As the bar reaches and lightly mid-thighs, transition from the deadlift into a jump and accelerate the bar upwards.

Shrug your shoulders, pull with your arms and dip your knees. Catch the bar in the rack position across your anterior deltoids. Stand up straight to complete the lift. Don’t rush the deadlift/jump transition. Initially, you might even pause for a split second between stages. With practice though, these two distinct moves will begin to merge into one.

Common power clean problems and how to fix them

The power clean is often considered a complex exercise but, in reality, it’s simply the combination of a deadlift, a jump, an upright row and a shallow front squat. Providing that you never sacrifice technique for weight or reps, the power clean is a safe and effective exercise which, once learnt, can provide some great benefits.

That being said, there are some common faults to look out for when performing the power clean to ensure you get the most from this exercise and minimize your injury risk.

Rounded lower back during initial lift from floor

This could be caused by a number of things…using too much weight, weak lumbar erector muscles, letting the hips rise faster than the shoulders, a poor basic deadlift technique or failing to establishing a good first pull (deadlift) before transitioning to the second pull (the jump).

Whatever the cause, a rounded lower back is prone to serious injury so do all you can to fix this problem before trying to progress your power clean.

Being pulled forwards and off balance

Make sure you start the lift with your toes under the bar. Some coaches suggest the bar is actually touching your shins at the beginning of each lift. While doing this does indeed keep the weight close to your base of support it can also result in bloody, battered and scraped shins.

Making sure the weight is over your foot should be sufficient. During the second pull, make sure you aren’t being “bar shy” and the barbell is as close to your chest as possible. This does take a degree of bravery but letting the bar get away from you is a sure fire way to get pulled off balance.

Using the arms too much

If you feel your arms more than your legs after a power clean, you are probably using your arms too much! Revisit the jump/shrug phase and practice using your arms merely as cables which attach the weight to your shoulders. Also, when performing power cleans or high pulls, make a conscious effort to keep your arms as straight as you can as long as you can. Have someone watch you and tell you if you are pulling early. Think legs and THEN arms. Use the mental cue “legs first, arms last”.

Heavy/painful  impact of bar hitting upper chest/clavicles

Once you become proficient at this exercise, you may well find yourself catching some quite substantial weights in the rack position. This is only possible (and safe) if you give the bar something soft to land on. If the bar lands on your clavicles you can end up with some nasty bruises.

Firstly, make sure you bend your knees slightly to absorb some of the impact. This only need be a slight dip of the knees but should be enough to lessen some of the force. Secondly, make sure your elbows are high as you receive the bar. By thrusting your elbows upwards, your anterior deltoids will stand proud of your clavicles and so the bar will land on muscle and not bone.

Power Clean Variations

The barbell power clean is a classic exercise and is really close to unbeatable. If you are serious about developing power, this is the exercise for you. The power clean can also be performed using some alternative lifting tools for variety but for convenience and ease of loading, the barbell is generally best.

Dumbbell power cleans


Using single or double dumbbells, this variation requires more balance and coordination which may detract from the aim of the exercise; maximum power generation. The rack position is slightly different compared to the barbell but the movement is comparable to “regular” power cleans. The unilateral (one sided) version also develops/requires good core strength.

Sandbag/Power bag power cleans

As you know, on the completion of a power clean, it is customary to drop your bar to the floor with little effort made to decelerate it. This is fine if you have access to a proper lifting platform and bumper plates but may prove disastrous if you are lifting on a regular floor using plain iron plates.

Sandbags and Power Bags can be dropped with impunity and also eliminate the sometimes painful impact experienced as the bar crashes into the rack position.

Kettlebell power cleans

Kettlebells, like dumbbells, can be used singularly or in pairs. The kettlebell power clean is slightly different to a barbell or dumbbell clean as the weight rotates around your hand so the ‘bell racks more in the crook of your arm and less on your anterior deltoids.

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