6 Clean and Jerk Technique Fixes
By: Wil Fleming
The power clean gets a lot of love. If you are like me, it was one of the “Big 3” you learned the first time you were in the weight room: squat, bench, and power clean. Of course, it was the “Big 6” if you included curls, preacher curls, and more bench.
The power clean’s older and cooler sister, the clean and jerk, doesn’t get as much love, but I am here to begin the love fest, by sharing with you six ways to improve your clean and jerk.
1. Use combos to learn the full movement.
When talking about the full clean and jerk, it is important to remember that we are talking about a movement in which athletes compete in the Olympic games. This is a movement that individuals spend years and years trying to perfect, yet we often prescribe it for use with athletes who have been training with us for months, or even weeks.
As coaches, we do not similarly prescribe that athletes do an Olympic style long jump, shot put throw, or hammer throw. Each of these movements are explosive and would certainly have benefits for improved performance (to some degree), but we are aware of the fact that the technical difficulty of these events would far outweigh the performance benefits.
Technically challenging movements should be entirely removed from programming at this stage. The clean and jerk is definitely challenging, but one can argue that the performance benefits may outweigh the time spent teaching it. If they are to be prescribed, they must be done so with a specific task list to ensure proper completion. One foot must go before the other, as we walk our way to the movement we would like to see completed.
In the case of the clean and jerk there are individual tasks that need to be learned first: the hang clean, power jerk, power clean, and split jerk. Once these requisite skills are all done to a comfortable level of proficiency, we can begin to teach athletes to move towards the full competition-style clean and jerk.
To do this, my number one tool is the “combo,” a 1+1 lift to get athletes to move athletes to completion.
Start with a 1+1+1. I use a Power clean + front squat+ power jerk. In this movement, athletes will receive the bar in the high catch position (re-position the feet if necessary) and move into a front squat. They’ll finish the movement with a power jerk, as in the video below.
Next, we move onto a Power clean to front squat + split jerk. In this movement we eliminate the re-set of the feet, and receive the bar, pause in that position, and then move into a front squat for the rest of the way down. Finish this movement with a split jerk, or a power jerk if the athlete is not comfortable in the split.
Finally we can move onto a full clean and jerk. We will get into some tips on how to make this more than just a power clean to front squat later, but the basic premise is we must encourage athletes to get better at moving under the bar to make this a distinct movement. In the meantime, just eliminate the pause and immediately front squat the weight at the time of the catch.
Here’s the entire progression in one video:
Each of these “combos” falls into a distinct phase of training, likely spending 3-4 weeks in combo 1 and combo 2 before attempting to complete the full clean and jerk movement. I typically program the movements as 1+1+1 x2 x3-4, or 1 rep of each movement two times for 3-4 sets.
2. Jerk with either foot forward.
There are three primary ways that athletes can jerk the bar overhead: power jerk, split jerk, squat jerk. I like to think of them on a scale of simple to ridiculously complex, or if we are thinking in terms of things to which everyone can relate we can put them on my Vin Diesel scale of movies.
Simple= power jerk = Fast and Furious (all of them): it gets the job done, and is a classic in many people’s books.
Better= split jerk= XXX: vastly under appreciated, coming back for an encore, which is very good news, and a must-include in your training and DVD library.
Ridiculously complex= squat jerk= Chronicles of Riddick/Pitch Black: hard to get down with, and popular in China.
The split jerk is the most common technique used for a really simple reason: the primary issue that folks have to deal with in the jerk is forward and back (sagittal) stabilizing factors. In short the bar doesn’t want to stay above you and you have to have a really stable or really strong (although both are preferred) base of support to keep it there.
With the issue of stability at hand, it brings us to why it is so important to learn to jerk with either foot forward.
A quick disclaimer: if you are an Olympic lifter, get really good with one foot forward and quit reading this point right now. If you are an athlete, though, read on.
I am not going to tell you that jerking and putting one foot forward of the other does anything to create “single leg strength;” there is a slight difference in force production, but not enough to matter. What I am going to tell you is that changing positions rapidly is what makes it difficult on most athletes. Keep people static and they are as solid as their base of strength. Start switching stances, and positions rapidly, and you will see people separate. Switching stances in equal numbers will show you if you have any weak links in your chain.
There is a difference in the amount of force absorbed on the lead leg and the rear leg on the jerk, and this is an important point to consider. Deceleration rarely happens bilaterally and absorption is the name of the game.
As an athletic movement, the jerk needs to be done with either foot forward – not just the same one all the time.
3. Learn great overhead position.
The clean and jerk has become so simplified that at some point people started just calling it “ground to overhead,” as if there is no goal other than to get the bar over your head in any way possible. It’s the same as just calling The Godfather “just acting;” there is a little more to it.
This problem is likely magnified by taking a look at the elite lifters of the world, watch ten videos of ten different lifters and you will likely find yourself looking at ten different jerks. So if they all do it differently, is there any truly correct position overhead?
Yes, there is; you have to appreciate that taking a snippet of video from a near maximum attempt is a bad time to look at the technique of an individual lifter. It would be much more appropriate to watch them jerk from the blocks in training or at sub-maximal clean and jerk weights.
The ideal position in the jerk should center the bar over your spine, and importantly keep the front shin vertical for the most stable position possible. It should truly be a 90/90 split squat position, only slightly extended.
The go-to move to practice this position is the split stance press + overhead split squat. Maintaining a neutral spine and pelvis will likely be the limiting factor for most individuals, but doing this drill in training is going to be the best way to learn and maintain great position overhead.
4. Pull your way under the bar.
Now it’s time for a total game changer. The clean is all about the pull UP right? Wrong, – at least if you are paying attention to the greatest athletes in the sport.
Let’s start with some concepts. There are really four variables that go into a clean and its success. The first two aren’t that variable – and we will get to the second two in a minute.
1) The height of the bar at the completion of the second pull. This is primarily a function of how tall an athlete is. So, if you are 6’4” you are likely going to pull it higher I am at 5’11”.
2) The height of the bar at the receiving position. This can definitely change based on bar speed, but we are talking about Olympic lifting, and deep squat catches, so in truth this height is only based on how tall an athlete is. I will likely catch lower than you if you are a towering giant.
3) The speed of the bar at the completion of the second pull. This seems like it is a variable, but in truth it is pretty consistent at differing heights. That is, if the bar gets to your chest then it was going speed X, and if it only gets to your waist height it was likely going speed Y – and that goes for almost everyone. We’re talking about the Olympic style clean, so this is actually almost a constant for most people.
4) The speed of the lifter as they move to receive the bar. Now here is the variable of all variables. Elite lifters know this, and if you watch enough video you will see it too; the ability to get under the bar quickly is the separation point between good, great, and elite.
Now you can’t change your height so those are out in terms of improving your lifts. You can certainly change your strength levels, allowing you to pull the bar faster, and I am a big advocate for making this happen, At some point, though, even as the total weight lifted moves up, it will only go so fast. So what you can change is your own speed to the bar.
To move faster to the bar I like to think of pulling myself under the bar, but not with the hands. I have to pull hard with my hips to get enough hip flexion to receive the bar low.
5. Elevate the start position.
I always say that the number 1 mistake I see for athletes in the Olympic lifts is starting from the ground when they have no ability to get in a good starting position.
Continuing to start from the floor position when you aren’t able to get there and maintain a neutral spine is the absolute definition of Olympic weightlifting insanity.
There is no machismo necessary in the Olympic lifts. Can we go ahead and get that out of the way? There is too much to be gained by doing them well, and too much to be lost by doing them poorly to have an ego.
Rather than trying to start every rep from the ground, feel free to elevate the start position. Try using a 3” block or even another bumper plate. This slight elevation will still force you to make a good first pull from the start, but will save your lower back until you gain enough hip mobility to do it right.
Here is a video from when I was dealing with some hip mobility issues that required me to lift from an elevated position. It got the job done, all the while I was improving hip mobility to spare my back.
6. Translate the torso from the ground to knees.
With the Olympic lifts, there are lots of variables that account for individual athletes’ differences in size, strength, and personal preferences, but there is one constant that is true among nearly all lifters:
From the point of lift off to the point where the bar passes the knees (the end of the first pull), the torso angle remains constant. There is no change from when the bar breaks the ground and when the bar passes the knees.
In fact, a 2012 study by Ikeda et al. compared female lifters in all classes at the 2008 Asian championships. This study was conducted on the snatch, but showed that torso angles above the horizontal were nearly constant for all athletes, at both the break point from the ground and when the bar passes the knees.
The joint angles themselves might not be exactly the same as the clean, but the mechanism for the first pull should be similar, and an active drive through the heels along with knee extension should drive the bar from the floor to knee level.
Changes in torso angle can lead to the bar being too far in front of the athlete and inefficiency in the second pull.
Want to see this in action? Take a look at the video below to see what I mean.
There are obviously a lot of pieces to work on if you want to be proficient on the clean and jerk. Just a month ago, I revamped what I was doing, and have seen big changes to my lifts in a very positive direction. The journey towards better movement is always continuing. These six strategies are a great start to getting you or your athletes to moving bigger weights more safely.