Top 5 Assistance Exercises for the Clean
People seemed to enjoy my Top 5 Assistance Exercises for the Jerk article a few weeks ago, so I’m going to ride that wave as long as I can with another top 5 article, and yes, there will be one for the snatch in the unspecified near future. I’m going to do the clean before the snatch because the snatch gets all the attention on the internet; let’s change the paradigm.
Assistance exercises for the clean and snatch are on average more common and recognizable than those for the jerk, so forgive me if some of these seem obvious; I’ll do my best to add information about the exercises that may be new for you. I should clarify here as well that the squat (front and back) and clean itself should be considered the most important lifts for the clean, but their listing and explanation here seems unnecessary.
Like any of the Olympic lifts (all two or three of them, depending on how you want to count), assistance exercises can improve the clean in one or more of a few different ways, such as specific strength increases, technique improvements, timing improvements, power increase or even mobility improvement. The following are five of my favorites, in no particular order.
If you read all of my articles (as you should), you may remember that in my opinion, the power snatch is not a good choice for some lifters in some situations. The power clean, on the other hand, I think is helpful for nearly every weightlifter and is present very frequently in my training programs.
One of the most common problems in the clean is the bar crashing down onto the lifter in the turnover or third pull. While the lifter most likely makes the same root mistake in the snatch, the result is often not as noticeable because the grip in the snatch remains more constant than it does in the clean. That is, the release of the grip in the turnover of the clean magnifies separation of the lifter and the bar during this phase of the lift and results in the barbell falling down a significant distance onto the athlete’s shoulders. Any of you who have done or seen this know how much more difficult this makes the recovery from a clean, not to mention the fact that it’s added unnecessary wear and tear to your back and knees and ankles.
The power clean can help the lifter train the ability to elevate the barbell better, to change directions at the top of the pull immediately and more quickly, and to pull under and complete the turnover more quickly. This ability to change directions and rack the bar securely in a high position carries over into the same ability in the clean, where “high” becomes relative, and instead of absolute height, we’re concerned with appropriate height—that is, meeting the bar tightly at whatever height to which it’s been elevated.
For all of these reasons, the power clean + clean is a very helpful complex.
Halting Clean Deadlift
Proper positioning throughout the clean is critical for optimal performance, but knowing the proper positions, achieving the proper positions when it matters, and being physically capable of reaching them are three distinct and independent issues.
In basic terms, what we want is for the lifter’s shoulders to remain in front of the bar until the bar has reached mid- to upper-thigh. This will place the lifter into the optimal position to initiate the final upward explosion and achieve maximal acceleration and elevation, maintain maximal proximity of the bar to the body, and change directions with maximal speed.
In order to reach this position, the lifter needs to possess adequate strength in this position, which is uncommon naturally and must be trained. This is why, even in a lifter who demonstrates technical proficiency with regard to this point in lighter lifts, the shoulders often begin moving back behind the bar and the knees forward of the bar too soon during the pull as weights increases—the lifter simply doesn’t have the specific position strength required to maintain the posture we’re looking for.
The halting clean deadlift trains this position directly and effectively. By stopping the lift in exactly the position from which the lifter would initiate the second pull—that is, shins approximately vertical, bar at mid- to upper-thigh, and shoulders at least slightly in front of the bar—the lifter is not only learning to feel the proper position, but is strengthening the body to be capable of reaching it. Holding this top position for three seconds increases the postural strength needed as well as adds more time to feel the position.
The clean pull is a very basic but very helpful exercise, and can be used in a number of different ways to elicit different specific effects. The most common of course is as a standalone exercise that trains general improvement in the strength, speed, position and timing of the first and second pulls of the clean. This usually means weights of around 90-105% of the lifter’s best clean.
Many variations exist, which are listed and discussed in the link below—what variation is used will depend on the lifter’s need at any given time. As an example, the pull can be performed with a very slow speed from the floor to mid-thigh, at which point the lifter would accelerate maximally like normal. This can be used, much like the halting clean deadlift, to improve postural strength, the timing of the initiation of the second pull, and simply positional awareness.
Clean Pull on Riser
This variation of the clean pull deserves its own mention in this article because of its great effectiveness. The movement is no different than the clean pull with the exception that the lifter is standing on a raised platform, which has the effect of the bar starting lower relative to the lifter. This lower starting position forces the lifter to rely on the legs more than the hips for the initial pull off the floor and as a consequence, strengthens the legs more to do just that in the clean itself.
Riser heights may need to be altered for the athlete depending on height, proportions and flexibility. The athlete needs to still be able to set a solid starting position on the riser, i.e. a properly arched back.
Press in Clean (Sots Press)
The Sots press, named for Viktor Sots, is a great exercise for the segment of the weightlifting population who is capable of performing it. It does require a decent level of starting mobility to perform correctly, but from that starting point, it will improve ankle, hip and thoracic spine mobility over time. Equally importantly, it will strengthen thoracic spine extension to improve the receiving position of the clean and the lifter’s trunk stability during the receipt and recovery of the lift.
The press in clean is a good exercise to use at the beginning of a workout to mobilize the ankles, hips and upper back, and activate the upper back extensors. Heavy weights are not necessary—the quality of the position and movement is of primary importance, and weight can be increased incrementally as mobility and comfort in the position improves.
It should go without saying that what assistance exercises are best for the clean will depend on the athlete in question, but the previous are reliably good choices for all lifters. You can browse through our collection of clean exercise demos and read about each exercise’s purpose and implementation to get ideas on what will be best for you or your athletes.
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