Power cleans are a simplified version of one of the Olympic lifts – the clean and jerk. It’s a full-body exercise that works virtually every muscle in your body. Power cleans often feature in CrossFit workouts, and are also popular with athletes from a range of sports.
However, according to the American Council on Exercise, the power clean is also an advanced exercise (1), and that means you shouldn’t underestimate them or treat them lightly. A poorly performed power clean could lead to injury.
Power cleans can be tricky to master, but don’t let that put you off this great exercise. Whatever your fitness goal maybe, you’ll probably reach it sooner if power cleans are part of your workouts.
How to do power cleans
Like any new exercise, the best way to learn power cleans is with a lightweight. It’s such a complex exercise that there is a lot that can go wrong if you use too much weight too soon. Check your ego and focus on perfecting your technique before you start adding weight. Improper lifting techniques will limit the amount of weight you can ultimately use, making this excellent exercise less effective. Bad habits are hard to unlearn.
1. Place your barbell on the floor. Use lightweight training plates to raise the bar to the same height as it would be if the bar was loaded with full-size 45-pound Olympic weightlifting plates. Alternatively, place the bar on blocks at around mid-shin height. Raising the bar this way will help stop you from rounding your lower back, as you might do if the bar was resting on the floor.
2. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, toes under the bar. Squat down and grab the bar with a shoulder-width, overhand grip. With your arms straight, lift your chest and arch your lower back slightly. This is your starting position.
3. With your abs braced, drive your feet explosively into the ground and pull the bar straight up. Keep it close to your legs. Think of this as a fast deadlift.
4. Next, and as the bar moves past your knees, drive your hips forward, and pull the bar up the front of your body.
5. As the bar nears your chest, bend your knees and drop into a quarter-depth squat. Snap your elbows forward and under the bar. Catch the bar on the front of your shoulders. Your palms should be facing the ceiling, and the elbows pointed straight ahead.
6. Complete your repetition by straightening your legs and standing fully upright.
7. Lower the bar back to the floor or, if you are training on a proper lifting platform and are using bumper plates, allow the bar to drop to the floor.
Power Clean Benefits
Power cleans are fun! There are very few exercises that are as satisfying to perform. Pulling off a well-performed power clean looks and feels great. But power cleans don’t just look cool; they also offer a wide range of benefits. Here are seven of the most noteworthy.
1. Increased muscle power
Power is your ability to generate a lot of force very quickly. Jumping, sprinting, punching, and throwing are all power activities. Power cleans train your fast-twitch muscle fibers and your nervous system so that you become more powerful. Muscle power is vital in sports, and it can make many everyday activities easier, from climbing a flight of stairs to lifting a heavy object off the floor.
2. Increased coordination and proprioception
Power cleans are a complex exercise. You need to control your legs, core, and arms all at the same time and in a very precise manner. Mastering power cleans will test and develop your coordination and proprioception.
Coordination is your ability to move several limbs at the same time, while proprioception is your ability to judge the position of your limbs even if you can’t see them. Improving your coordination and proprioception will make you more athletic and agile.
3. Increased bone mass
Bones, like your muscles, get stronger with use. However, bone mass can deteriorate with age. This could lead to osteoporosis, also known as brittle bone disease. Power cleans work virtually every muscle and joint in your body, from your ankles to your spine to your wrists. Including power cleans in your workouts will help keep your skeleton healthy and increases bone mass.
4. Increased anaerobic fitness
A high rep set of power cleans will make your heart pound and leave you gasping for breath. This is no bad thing! High-intensity exercises like power cleans are great for building anaerobic fitness. In studies, power cleans have proven to be almost as effective as jumping rope and bodyweight exercises like burpees for anaerobic conditioning (2).
5. Time-efficient workout
If you are short on time, a few sets of power cleans will allow you to get a full-body workout in 20 minutes or less. Power cleans work virtually every major muscle in your body. Add an overhead press, and you really can train your entire body with just one exercise.
To add an overhead press to your power clean, once you’ve completed the clean to your shoulders, bend your knees slightly and then use your legs to help you press the bar up and overhead. Lower the bar back to your shoulders and then to the floor. That’s one rep – keep going!
6. Burn body fat
Because power cleans are intense and use a lot of muscles at the same time, they also use a lot of energy. This makes them very good for fat loss. Maximize this benefit by including power cleans in your fat-burning circuits or doing power clean intervals, i.e., work for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds, and repeat for ten sets.
7. Better posture
Power cleans emphasize the muscles that weaken when you spend a lot of time seated and hunched over a keyboard. These muscles are commonly referred to as the posterior chain and are responsible for holding your body upright against gravity. Strengthen your posterior chain with power cleans will help correct your slouching posture.
Power Clean Variations
Standard barbell power cleans are a fantastic exercise, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick with that variation forever. Here are five different power clean variations to spice up your workouts.
1. Hang cleans
Where power cleans start with the bar resting on the floor, hang cleans begin with the bar held close to your thighs at about knee-height. This might sound like an easier option but, because you won’t be able to rest the bar on the floor between reps, it’s actually more demanding. You’ll really feel this variation in your upper back and shoulders.
2. High pulls
High pulls are basically an explosive upright row. Where the power clean ends with the bar across the front of your shoulders, the high pull ends with the bar at mid-chest height with your elbows above your hands. This increases upper back recruitment and also allows for faster reps as there is no midpoint pause. High pulls are great for rapid-paced circuit training workouts.
3. Dumbbell/kettlebell power cleans
Once you have mastered barbell power cleans, try doing them with a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells. With two weights to contend with, you’ll really have to concentrate and focus on your coordination. You can do dumbbell and kettlebell power cleans from the floor or from the knee-high hang position.
4. Single-arm cleans
Single-arm power cleans can be done with a dumbbell or kettlebell. Using one arm at a time increases core activation as you’ll have to work extra hard to keep your spine correctly aligned. Alternate hands rep by rep or do all your reps on one side before switching arms.
5. Squat cleans
When performing power cleans, you catch the bar across your shoulders with just a small bend of your knees. If you are using light weights, you might even catch the bar with your legs completely straight. With squat cleans, you catch the bar in a full, deep, front squat. This is much more difficult but, because you don’t have to lift the weight as high off the ground, it may also allow you to use more weight. This is a very advanced variation and should only be attempted if you have mastered regular power cleans.
Very few exercises are as rewarding as power cleans. Whatever your fitness goals are, power cleans deserve to be a part of your workouts. Learning power cleans will take practice and perseverance, but almost all gym goers should be able to master this lift. Adding power cleans to your training will have a noticeable impact on how you look, feel, and perform.
1. American Council on Exercise: Power Cleans
2. PubMed: Cardiometabolic and Muscular Fatigue Responses to Different CrossFit® Workouts