Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and long-time player in the fitness industry. He has been featured as an expert in the Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Runner's World and Self. He holds a master's degree in exercise science and health promotion, and several advanced certifications and specializations with NSCA and NASM.
ACE Technique Series: Barbell Clean and Jerk
There’s no question that the clean and jerk can be an intimidating-looking exercise, but it offers numerous benefits that could help your clients reach their fitness goals. Often used by athletes to enhance performance, the clean and jerk is a technically challenging lift that is extremely effective for coordinating the timing of muscle contractions and joint motion between the legs, trunk and shoulders.
The clean and jerk is also considered a foundational exercise for many strength and conditioning exercise programs used to help athletes of all skill levels develop total-body explosive power. As such, it can be classified in the Performance phase of the ACE Integrated Fitness Training® (ACE IFT®) Model.
Strength training in the Load phase of the ACE IFT Model addresses the production of muscular force, while power training allows individuals to generate the greatest amount of force in the shortest period of time (Hoffman et al., 2004; Baker 2001). One way to enhance the speed of muscle contraction is to stimulate activity in the type II (fast twitch) motor units by increasing movement velocity during training. High-speed movements require a faster discharge frequency of the type II muscle motor units, and the goal of the clean and jerk is to execute the movement at the highest velocity possible.
The clean and jerk is best suited for advanced clients with at least one of year strength training experience and optimal levels of joint mobility. Clients with goals related to enhancing muscle power output for a specific sport, improving overall levels of total-body strength or simply adding lean muscle mass can use the clean and jerk to meet those needs.
“The clean and jerk stimulates the central nervous system to activate the fast-twitch muscle fibers, creating greater metabolic demands and movement coordination, both of which will unlock greater training performance and outcomes,” explains Mike Dewar, M.S. a cofounder and head strength and conditioning director at J2Fit Human Performance in New York City. Dewar, who is also a competitive weightlifter, uses the clean and jerk with many of his training clients to help them increase fast-twitch muscle fiber activation, which is essential for either adding muscle or moving past a stubborn performance plateau. “I use the clean and jerk with many of my clients who are looking to improve running performance, add muscle or simply burn fat,” says Dewar.
Primary Movement Pattern
A challenging component of teaching the barbell clean and jerk is helping clients learn the sequencing, timing and coordination to explosively transition from triple flexion in the initial starting position to full triple extension during the second pull and drive phases, back to triple flexion to properly receive the barbell during the catch phase (see box for an explanation of triple extension). The easier part of teaching the lift is the final step of exploding into triple extension at the start of the drive phase to finish the move with the overhead jerk portion of the lift. If a client is having trouble learning the complete lift, this portion can be practiced separately to help him or her develop explosive hip extension with the overhead arm movement.
Triple extension refers to the sequence that occurs when the ankles are in plantar flexion while the knees and hips are simultaneously extending. This occurs bilaterally in both legs during the takeoff phase of a squat jump or unilaterally in the trail leg that drives into the ground to create forward momentum during the acceleration phase of a sprint.
The clean and jerk requires the mobility to be able to quickly change position as the hips transition from flexion to extension, back to flexion and finish in extension. The shoulders require dynamic mobility and strength as the joints transition from glenohumeral extension at the start phase, to elevation of the sternoclavicular, acromioclavicular and scapulothoracic joints during the second pull phase, to partial flexion of the glenohumeral joints during the catch and drive phase, to finally finishing in full shoulder flexion at the end of the jerk. The wrists need the mobility to be able to catch the barbell at the top of the shoulders, while allowing the elbows to point straight ahead.
It can take years of practice to perfect the timing and coordination of the muscle contractions involved in creating the forces to accelerate, catch and reaccelerate the barbell during the various phases of the clean and jerk. Before teaching this lift to clients, it’s important to make sure they have sufficient range of motion and tissue extensibility at the ankles, hips, intervertebral segments of the thoracic spine, shoulders and wrists. A complete dynamic warm-up targeting the joints and muscle tissue involved with the clean and lift can help clients properly prepare for successful execution of this challenging exercise.
Major Muscles Involved
Prime movers: Gluteus maximus, quadriceps, hamstrings, trapezius, forearm flexors, deltoids, latissimus dorsi, spinal erectors, calves and triceps
Stabilizers: Deep core muscles including the transverse abdominis, internal oblique, lumbar multifidi and diaphragm
Benefits of the Barbell Clean and Jerk
Coordinating and timing the contractions of type II muscle motor units is one of the most significant features of the barbell clean and jerk. Enhancing the activation of type II motor units can help an athlete develop the explosive power and running efficiency necessary for successful performance in his or her sport. It can also benefit the average person who is most interested in increasing lean muscle mass or improving definition. Dewar often uses the barbell clean and jerk to help his clients improve power output in the posterior chain muscles responsible for hip extension and controlling movement of the spine, which not only helps improve jumping ability or acceleration for sprinting, but also results in well-defined muscles that look great.
An improvement in muscular strength enhances concentric force production in a muscle; power training, however, increases the speed of the stretch-shorten cycle, which is the ability of a muscle to transition from a rapid stretch (eccentric lengthening) to an explosive contraction (concentric shortening) (Baker 2001). Enhancing the ability to eccentrically load a muscle with mechanical energy before rapidly converting it to potential energy through a concentric contraction can help clients improve their running speed and efficiency. The ability to apply more force from the leg to the ground is dependent on the coordination of the stretch-shorten cycle; specifically, the ability to rapidly produce force while making the transition from eccentric to concentric muscle actions in the hip and leg extensor muscles of the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quadriceps and plantar flexors. The faster that the glutes, quadriceps and plantar flexors can be pre-stretched (as the hips, knees and feet are flexed), the greater the force produced when the leg achieves triple extension (plantar flexion of the ankle/foot, extension of the knee, and extension of the hip) during ground contact (Baker 2001).
Ingrid Marcum, the owner of the BGB Fitness Studio outside of Chicago, is the 2009 national champion (75 kilogram class) in the clean and jerk and a former member of the US World Cup bobsledding team. Needless to say, she is a big proponent of the lift, noting that the eccentric forces are an important benefit of doing the clean and jerk. “In the catch phase, the lifter must stop the downward momentum of the barbell, which builds significant eccentric strength in the knee and hip extensors. This is crucial for successful agility and plyometric training.”
One of the most important components of athleticism isn’t just the ability of muscles to produce strength, it’s the ability of certain muscles to “turn off” and lengthen when their functional antagonists are contracting. For example, the hip flexors become functionally inhibited and lengthen as the result of the explosive contraction of the hip extensors (gluteus maximus, hamstrings and adductor magnus) during the second pull and drive phase of the power clean. The timing of contractions between the hip flexors and extensors plays a critical role during sprinting and fast-paced running. During sprinting, the faster the hip flexors can shut off, the more explosively the glutes can contract to create hip extension, which results in faster sprint times (Cronin and Hansen, 2005). Research comparing powerlifting, which is a form of strength training focusing on developing low-velocity/high-force strength production, to the high-velocity/high-force production lifts of the snatch and clean and jerk, found that the latter improved the explosive ability of the muscle, enhancing a specific skill necessary for many types of sports (Hoffman et al., 2004).
Marcum often uses the clean and jerk with her training clients to help improve overall strength. “It is a full-body movement that replicates many common movements found in both sports and life,” she explains. “The clean builds strength in the muscles, connective tissue and joint capsules, as well as reinforcing coordination throughout the entire body.”
The barbell clean and jerk has three distinct phases—the first and second pull and the catch. Here’s how to do the entire movement correctly:
- Starting position: Place a barbell on the floor. If you aren’t using standard 45-pound plates, use plates of the same size or place them on blocks to bring the bar up higher. Stand facing the bar with your feet hip-width apart, with the feet pointed either straight ahead or slightly turned out (externally rotated). Keep the spine long and extended, and the head up with the eyes focused forward. Position the hips higher than the knees and grip the bar with the hands shoulder-width apart while keeping the arms straight.
- The first pull (bringing the bar from the floor to knee height): Keep the shoulders over the bar as you hinge back into the hips while maintaining a neutral head; keep the elbows pointed away from the midline of the body. Brace the deep core muscles to stabilize the spine, and keep the chest lifted while contracting the lats to stabilize the shoulder blades. Begin the upward movement of the bar by pushing the feet into the floor and pressing the hips forward, at the point the weight should shift from the mid-foot to the heel. Note: The hips and shoulders should rise at the same time.
- The second pull or scoop (bringing the bar from knee to chest height): As the bar passes the knees, explosively push the hips forward while shrugging the shoulders to pull the bar straight up so it moves almost parallel to the front of the body. As the body moves into triple extension—this is the power position—the hips snap forward into full extension as the knees straighten and the body rolls up to the forefoot. Note: The bar should not travel in a completely straight line. When done properly, the bar will move slightly away from the body, creating an S-curve before being lowered into the catch phase.
- The catch: As the bar rises to chest height, snap the elbows down by the rib cage and drop into a squat to prepare to receive the bar across the front of the shoulders. During the transition from the second pull to the catch, so much force is applied that there is a brief jump when the feet return the floor. The feet should be a little wider apart than they were at the starting position to make it easier to sink into the hips. At the end of the catch, the body is in a deep squat, with the hands holding on to the bar as it rests on the shoulders and the elbows point forward. Once the barbell is resting on the shoulders, push the feet into the ground and drive the hips forward to move to standing. Note: This position should look like a typical front squat.
- The dip and drive: This is the jerk portion of the lift. The bar travels from the front of the shoulders to the overhead position. Begin with the feet parallel. Quickly drop the hips into a quarter squat to eccentrically load the hip extensors with mechanical energy before explosively driving both feet into the ground to create the upward momentum to push the bar overhead. Note: The force to create the upward trajectory of the bar comes from the explosive jump and hip extension—not from the arms or shoulders.
- The split and catch: During the jump, cycle the legs so that one moves forward and the other moves back behind the body. Sink into a lunge position as the bar comes to a rest directly overhead with the arms fully extended. Prepare to catch the bar overhead by extending both arms and depressing (pulling down) the scapula to create shoulder stability. While holding the bar overhead, press the front foot into the ground to pull the body forward as the rear leg moves from behind the body to a resting position parallel to the planted foot. It is safer to step forward to the front leg as opposed to stepping backward with the front foot. Note: If using proper rubber (bumper) plates and a reinforced lifting platform, it is acceptable to simply drop the weight from the overhead position. Trying to control the lowering of a heavy barbell could lead to an injury. DO NOT drop regular weights. If using standard iron plates is the only option, use a lighter weight to reduce the risk of injury from lowering the barbell.
Teaching the Lift
When teaching the clean and jerk, start with an unloaded bar or dowel rod to help your client learn how to synchronize and coordinate the movement. Break the lift into its individual components and teach each one as a separate movement before sequencing the components into a single fluid movement.
The following exercises are useful for helping your clients master the movements of the barbell clean and jerk:
- Deadlift to build the strength to start the first pull
- Romanian deadlift to train hip extensor strength while maintaining a neutral spine
- Jump shrug this movement requires the athlete to hold a barbell in front of the thighs while sinking into a partial squat before explosively extending the hips to jump up while elevating (shrugging) the shoulders to move the bar straight up the front of the body
- Front squat to create the strength to move from the catch to the standing position
- Push jerk set the barbell in a rack at shoulder height, unrack the weight and practice just the overhead jerk portion of the lift
- Push press this exercise is similar to the push jerk except that the feet remain parallel and do not move to a split position Squat jumps and box jumps practicing jumping on to a box or straight up in the air helps develop the explosive power needed to move the bar upward
Marcum coaches her clients to maintain muscle tension throughout the entire lift. The muscle tension creates the stiffness to lengthen the elastic connective tissue, which results in a more explosive movement. The clean and jerk requires an extremely high level of neural activity to maintain muscular tension throughout the body. In addition, the explosive movement depletes the immediate (ATP-PC) energy system. Therefore, when teaching the lift to a client, limit the number of sets he or she performs and allow for long rest periods to encourage full recovery. Dewar limits his clients to three sets of only three to five repetitions to ensure proper skill development and to minimize the risk of injury due to fatigue.
Marcum emphasizes the role of proper cuing. “I like to encourage clients to push with the legs as if trying to push the floor away, as opposed to pulling the bar up with the muscles of the upper body,” she explains. “The movement should come mostly from the legs and hips. When the focus is on pulling the bar up, it limits the transfer of power to the bar, which limits the potential outcomes.”
Common Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)
Trying to use too much weight too quickly, or attempting to do too many repetitions are both common mistakes made by individuals trying to master the clean and jerk. The purpose of the clean and jerk is to develop strength speed, not hypertrophy or strength endurance, which means clients should practice moving the bar at the fastest speed possible for only a few repetitions at a time. Dewar warns that “a high volume of repetitions and sets focuses on quantity as opposed to quality—a recipe for disaster and injury.”
Another frequent mistake is trying to pull the bar up with the arms instead of using the explosive leg drive and hip extension to generate the necessary force to move the bar. “It is important that triple extension occurs before trying to pull the bar upward with the arms,” explains Dewar.
Marcum agrees. “I often see beginners try to do a reverse curl to bring the weight to the shoulders instead of using the proper explosive hip extension to move the bar upward. Spending more time learning proper technique can lead to faster progress than by simply adding more weight.”
Dewar uses the hang clean, where the bar rests just above the knees on the front of the thighs at the start of the lift, to help clients develop the necessary hip strength to execute a successful second pull.
Many beginners try to yank the weight up off the floor. Instead, encourage clients to focus on smoothly lifting the weight off the floor during the first pull. “Rushing to pull the bar off the floor can lead to bad form,” advises Marcum. “Be patient during the first pull. Once the bar moves past the knees, accelerate the action to explode the weight upward.”
Starting with a bent spine or trying to use the spinal erectors to create the force for the first pull are two more common errors. To counter this tendency, remind clients that the strength to move the bar off the floor should come from the hips and legs, not the low back. The deadlift and Romanian deadlift can help clients develop the hip strength and spinal stability to avoid using their lower back when moving the weight off the floor.
Tips for Beginners
- Instead of trying to lift the bar up to the front of the shoulders with the arms, advise your clients to think about dropping into a squat to move the body under the bar. This requires the hip mobility to maintain an extended spine when in the catch position.
- To avoid bouncing the barbell off of the hips to create the upward momentum during the start of the second pull, use the jump shrug to practice the triple extension power position.
- Help beginners master the lift by practicing the components separately. “The lift is a complex movement and good technique takes time and practice,” Marcum explains.
- Similarly, have clients practice the movement using lighter weights at first. “Take the time to master the technique before adding heavy weight,” urges Dewar. “Proper technique is absolutely crucial for maximizing the benefits while reducing the risk of injury.”
- One of the hardest parts of learning the lift is becoming comfortable dropping under the bar as it passes chest height. Dewar’s advice for teaching beginning clients: “During the dip and drive phase of the jerk, tell your client to think about lowering her body under the weight as she cycles her legs to place one in front of the other.”
- Have clients practice the front squat to develop the hip and thigh strength necessary to move into the standing position from the bottom of the catch phase.
- Although the force to move the barbell upward comes from the hips rather than the upper body, enhancing the strength and stability of the shoulders is necessary for holding the barbell overhead at the end of the jerk phase. Have clients perform standing barbell shoulder presses with the elbows facing forward to create extra stability in the shoulders. Advise clients to think about pulling the shoulder blades down toward the back pockets as both arms extend overhead.
The clean and jerk has long been a key component of strength and conditioning programs because it can help develop the total-body power needed to sprint and change directions quickly, two requirements of many sports. While your clients don’t need to be athletes to experience the many benefits of the clean and jerk, they do need to have an established foundation of adequate mobility and muscular strength for the best results.
Baker, D. (2001). A series of studies on the training of high-intensity muscle power in rugby league football players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 15, 2, 198-209.
Cronin, J. and Hansen, K. (2005). Strength and power predictors of sports speed. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19, 2, 349-357.
Hoffman, J. et al. (2004). Comparison of Olympic vs. traditional power lifting training programs in football players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 18, 1, 129-135.