How to Properly Clean

by StackHealthy | Last Updated: May 8, 2015

crossfit power cleanThe Clean may be the single most important exercises of all free weightlifting exercises as it is the foundation from which all other Olympic lifts and movements are performed.  More specifically, the Power Clean is perhaps the most frequently utilized form of clean and without a doubt the most essential in terms of the overall benefit it provides to building functional strength.

There are various forms of the clean, each providing its own unique benefits to building functional strength and endurance.  Some of these forms are single, simple movements; others are complex composite exercises that sequence into Powerlifting movements like the Squat Clean and Split Clean, and in a more traditional sense the C&J.  Regardless of the complexity of the movements involved, technique and form are paramount to successfully performing this subset of Olympic lifts, or any lifting exercise for that matter.

The movements and leverage points induced by Cleans activate a wide range of core muscles groups, including the calf (gastrocnemius & soleus), the entire quadriceps femoris, the hamstrings (all 4 tendons and their 3 posterior thigh muscles), the psoas major (hip flexor), the glutes,  back (latissimus dorsi), shoulders (trapezius & deltoid) and to a lesser extent the forearms (all anterior & posterior muscles), triceps and biceps.

Technique & Benefits

There are two major reason for adhering to proper form and technique when performing Cleans and their iterations and Crossfit adaptation.  First, as we stressed in Olympic Lifting, proper technique reduces the risk of injury.  Cleans pose very difficult technical requirements that are executed in brief, synchronized, explosive manners.  The velocity with which these dynamic progressions are performed require acute balance and coordination in order to distribute power evenly through the
center of the athlete’s body to achieve the desired maneuver.

Any slight imbalance caused by improper technique can derail the entire sequence, compromising the athlete’s stabilization of various joints, muscles and tendons (the knee and shoulder especially) which can result in joint inflammation, muscle pulls, joint dislocation and in rare cases, muscle tears.

The second rationale for maintaining proper form and technique is for the purpose of effectively targeting all the muscles
groups involved in these exercises.  Sloppy and/or improper technique leads to bad form which leads to body imbalance.  In
turn, these imbalances directly affect the athlete’s ability to generate sufficient force because certain muscle groups are out of position and not contributing proportionately to the power generating sequence of movements.

Other muscle groups may overcompensate for this loss of force by applying even more power which can obviously place undue stress on the muscles leading to injury, but also allows completion of the exercise in a manner where not all muscle groups are activated proportionately.  Achieving the exercise with poor form can reinforce the use bad technique and cheat the athlete of the strength gains he or she would otherwise be realize with proper form and technique.

To this end, we suggest first practicing these moves with an empty barbell (or even lighter stick) in front of the mirror; even better though would be learning the exercises with the instruction of professional trainer or coach.  We cannot stress enough the importance in learning the technical nuances of these movements for optimal strength and conditioning benefits as well as reduced risk of injury!  Not to mention, you won’t be conquering Elizabeth’ or Fran’  on your WOD list anytime soon without mastering these movements first.

Forms & Crossfit Power Clean Adaptations

As we already stated, the Power Clean is the preferred method of building functional strength and core power due to it’s highly explosive movements, even when compared to all other forms of Cleans.  Also previously mentioned is Cleans are broken down by subcategories that involve multiple iterations and strength training benefits.  Furthermore, this group of Olympic lifts also includes compound exercises that traditional strength training programs generally don’t focus on as much.

Where Crossfit differs from most Olympic weightlifting programs is in its common, recurrent use of various composite cleans in it’s cirriculum.  Some of these exercises are actually Crossfit adaptations to Olympic lifts, incorporated into the program’s colloquial ‘Benchmark Weightlifing Exercises’ and in many of a Crossfit WOD list.  The exercise are a similar composite of cleans and powerlifting elements that augment Crossfit’s multi-movement functional strength training program through its own brand of flare.

Power Clean Progression

Crushing the Technique

The Crossfit Thruster is an example of this type of Crossfit adaptation to Olympic and Powerlifting.  A Crossfit Thruster is similar to the Clean & Jerk(page) with one minor addition, the athlete dips down into a full squat(glos) before powering back up vertically and jerking (pushing) the barbell overhead.  We as Stack Healthy colloquially refer to the Thruster and many other compound forms power cleans simply as Crossfit Power Cleans.

Below we address and discuss the various forms of cleans and their compound iterations.  Furthermore, we categorize those commonly found Crossfit composite lifts under the group titled ‘Crossfit Power Clean.’  Please click on each exercise below for a more detailed analysis and thorough step-by-step instructions on how to properly perform each.


Hang Cleans


What the Clean is to the foundation of Olympic lifting, the Hang Clean is to the foundation of Power Cleans.  The Hang Clean can be thought of as the first phase of the power clean, a series of quick movements that build momentum the athlete will eventually use to perform the power clean, the C&J(glossary), the snatch and all other composite forms of the Crossfit Power Clean.

Hang Cleans are achieved through 3 basic phases:

  1. The Hang
  2. The Hip Extension
  3. The Catch

Additional Hang Cleans


Power Cleans


As previously mentioned, the Power Clean is a series of short, synchronized, explosive bursts that begin in the lower body and generate momentum and force to dynamically lift heavy weight from the floor to your shoulders.  Power Cleans focus, maybe better than any other free weight lift, on creating explosive strength targeted at the body’s core – the quadriceps, hips and abdominals.

Trainers and coaches all teach the power clean in their unique manner, instructing through the different phases of the lift with their own step-by-step program.  In general however, the Power Clean can be broken down into the following 4 phases:

  1. First Pull
  2. Transition
  3. Second Pull
  4. Catch

There’s much technique to discuss within these 4 phases, and you will find certain coaches referring to 3 pulls (counting the transition) but as a general rule of thumb, this is the classic order of operations for performing a power clean.  We go the extra mile in our analysis for a more thorough, deep understanding.


 Crossfit Power Cleans & Other Composite Cleans


CrossFit Power Clean

There is also a Crossfit adaptation to the traditional power clean, which we Stack Healthy colloquially dub the ‘Crossfit power clean,’ as it is a frequently found exercise in many a Crossfit WOD.  The Crossfit power clean is a compound lift combining a normal power clean with a front squat. It’s performed using the same mechanics as the power clean, only difference is the athlete slightly shifts her feat inward to reposition directly under her hips immediately after racking the bar.

She then squats down using sheer leg power in the front squat form before exploding vertically back up using the same front squat form.  (see video)

Because Olympic lifts are so technical it’s not advised to rush into performing these before you have mastered the technique(s) of each.  We suggest practicing the movements using a barbell with no weight and breaking the exercise down into the 3 phase described and in the Crossfit power clean section as well as the complimentary jerk and snatch movements as progressions to your mastery of the cleans. 

Crossfit Thruster

Crossfit remains true to classic forms of Olympic and Power weightlifting, however the fitness program has puts its own twist on the strength building exercises by with a few modifications designed to test the limits of strength in range of motion.   One example of this is the Crossfit thruster(vidbabe).

Crossfit thrusters are the Crossfit adaptation to the clean & jerk with one minor addition , the athlete dips down into a full squat before powering back up vertically, jerking the barbell overhead.

The Phases

  1. Begin in Racked Position
  2. Full Squat
  3. Drive
  4. Thrust
  5. End in Racked Position

More Crossfit Composite Power Cleans