The Evolution of Strength Coaching, by Kim Goss:
THE CASE FOR THE POWER CLEAN
Kim Goss (1996)
As bodybuilders and strength athletes, we're obsessed with finding new and exotic exercises, and the manufacturers of exercise equipment have been happy to indulge us. In the '60s, they gave us the Universal jungle gyms. Then came Nautilus, Hammer, and a virtual tidal wave of computerized circuit training machines which have bright, blinking lights and calculate our calories burned per hour, bio-rhythms, and stock market dividends.
Although all this high-tech glitz and glitter has distracted even the wisest of the iron gurus, serious athletes have always come back to the basic free-weight exercises that have proven track records, exercises like the squat and bench press -- lifts that separate the men from the boys, so to speak. The one lift, however, that nobody has quite figured out what to do with is the power clean.
In the pioneering days of bodybuilding, many of the best physique stars also doubled as Olympic lifters -- they were, literally, as strong as they looked. Exercises like the power clean were a mainstay of workouts, building backs of such legends as Bill Pearl, Sergio Oliva, Jack Delinger, and John Grimek. The typical training session would begin with 8 sets of power cleans and 5 sets of squats, followed by about an hour devoted to benches, bentover rows, and a few 'curls for the girls.' The emphasis on such heavy training was evident by the tremendous development of the trapezius and erector spinae, muscles that would fare well even by today's steroid-infested standards. But as bodybuilding evolved, something happened that made us forget our roots: we got lazy.
Heavy lifting with free weights is hard work -- and it's tempting to imagine there's an easier way. Yes, it's much easier to slap a ton of 45's on the leg press machine and pretend you're Tom Platz, but it's not the same as squatting. Just ask Tom. And when the few, the proud, and the brave do squat, they rely on wraps, belts, and other wet-dream supportive gear. As for the squats that are actually performed, they're usually this quarter-squat nonsense that does as much to build your legs as power aerobics. Such pathetic exhibitions lead me to believe that if we can't get the Arnold wannabes to perform something as basic as a squat, how can we ever get them to power clean?
Facts, Fallacies, and Fanatics
Much of the reason valuable lifts like the power clean have fallen from our grace is due to the marketing efforts of equipment manufacturers. The power clean's foremost enemy is, unquestionably, Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones. Jones was a man on a mission, and that mission was to replace our precious free weights with his so-called 'time machines.' His efforts nearly succeeded in killing off the sport of Olympic lifting, which survives by the thinnest of threads today. In fact, our Olympic Team of '72 could hold its own against today's best. In retrospect, it appears that many of Jones' ideas about strength curves, sports specificity, and training in general did more to set back resistance training than to push it ahead.
One of the ways machine companies brainwashed us against the power clean was by talking about the subjectivity of research -- except, of course, when it came to their own research and testimonials. As a strength coach for the Air Force Academy from 1987-1994, my job depended on finding out what was effective. The power clean works, and there's a preponderance of evidence to support my conclusion.
For example, in 1989, the Air Force Academy conducted a study to determine the most effective exercises for football. Our purpose was to find a mathematical relationship between performance on the field and our weight training and field tests. What we found was that the best way for predicting talent for linemen was the power clean. The reason is simple: linemen need to be able to quickly express a high level of strength. Because the power clean allows you to accelerate your limbs over a greater range of motion, it's one of the best exercises for improving this 'rate of force development'. In contrast, with conventional heavy lifts, much time is spent decelerating the weight -- the only time maximum force can be exerted is at the beginning of the exercise.
Another testimonial for the power clean was our success against the Army football team. There's probably no better test for examining the success of a conditioning program which includes the power clean than comparing the Army and Air Force. Both are military academies, recruit similar athletes, are drug-free (as far as I know), and the students live in similar high-stress environments. What's more, both football teams fun the same type of wishbone offense. Despite these similarities, Air Force beat Army in 1987, barely lost to them in 1988, then only allowed them to score one touchdown in the next six games -- in fact, last year the Army only passed the 50-yard line once!
The big difference was conditioning. The Army trained extensively with machines and performed no power cleans -- the Air Force used primarily free weights and performed power cleans regularly. Our emphasis on this lift was so intense that last year I gave 15 of our players motivational T-shirts for hoisting 325 pounds or more in the lift. Was it a coincidence that we dominated the Army team? I don't think so.
As for injuries, Jones and his sidekick Ellington Darden frequently claim -- without the facts to back it up -- how dangerous the power clean is. From a scientific perspective, the safety was examined in an excellent position paper by he NSCA. Also, the trainers at the Academy showed me that from 1988 to 1993, the total number of injuries during that five year period dropped by 60%! If these lifts were as inherently dangerous as Jones and Darden claim, why did our number of injuries go down?
What do other elite athletic coaches think about the power clean?
I posed this question to Charles Poliquin.
When I asked him how many of the top world Olympic coaches used Jones' methods or machines, he couldn't think of one. For that matter, what top bodybuilders (who were not on Jones' payroll) endorse the Nautilus philosophy? So maybe Jones and Darden can brag about a high-school football team that made great gains on Nautilus and his Captain Kangaroo training protocols, but he has no frame of reference when talking about elite athletes.
From a bodybuilding standpoint, there are essentially two types of fast twitch muscle fibers. Type IIa and the more powerful Type IIb. The Type IIb fibers respond better to heavy weights and lifts like the power clean, whereas the Type IIa respond best to higher reps. Much of the heavy development of the traps, back, and hamstrings on Olympic lifters is due to Type IIb fibers -- can you imagine the physique possibilities if you were to combine both types of training?
Before You Begin
The first thing you need to perform the power clean is proper equipment. If the gym you train at doesn't have a sturdy platform and Olympic bars and has a stupid policy that you can't use chalk, you're probably better off forgetting about the power clean. As for the barbell itself, it should be straight, have spring, and rotated smoothly -- Eleiko is the industry standard. Sturdy footwear is a must, so consider investing in a weightlifting shoe or at least a good cross-training shoe.
The next thing you need is a conditioning base. To prepare for the intensity of Olympic-style lifting, a base of general conditioning will enable athletes to progress faster and will prevent injuries. In addition to squats, presses, and rows, special emphasis should be placed on the abdominal and lower back muscles.
My final suggestion is if you're serious about lifting heavy weights in the power clean, try to get a strength coach to teach you -- a single session may be all you need. Also, there are several excellent video tutorials on this lift available.
The Power Clean Made Simple
I can teach the average athlete how to perform a safe power clean in about ten minutes. The most remarkable teaching performance I ever experienced was with figure skater Veronica Chojnacki, whose extraordinary sense of body awareness enabled her to demonstrate virtually perfect technique after performing only one set!
The secret is to break down the power clean into its component parts and then piece it together. It's quite simple.
The best approach to learning the lift is to teach it from the top down, so as you master one phase of the lift, you go into the lower, more difficult positions.
The first step is to grasp the barbell with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip and place in on your mid-thighs. Your feet should be approximately shoulder-width apart, and your legs should be slightly bent. Arch your back, and slightly curl your wrists under (so your elbows flare out). Now position the barbell so the majority of your body weight is on the middle of your foot -- this is your power position. If you make a serious effort but find that you simply can't master the technique from the floor, you can still enjoy positive results by only performing it from the power position.
From the power position, straighten your legs, and follow through with an upright row so the bar touches the bottom of your ribcage. When you have that mastered, perform this motion again, but this time continue the movement by powering the weight up and over by turning your wrists over at the top and catching the weight on your shoulders. At the catch position, you need to thrust your elbows forward and keep your hands relaxed.
The last lesson in this phase is to start the lift from a fully erect position (but with knees slightly bent), raise the bar to the power position, then 'kick' the weight to the top position using your legs, almost as if you were doing a jumping jack. This counter movement will create a plyometric effect that will increase the velocity of the barbell.
Now you need to know how to get the bar from the ground to the power position. Place your toes a few inches in front of the bar, less if you're taller. Arch your back, bend your legs, and grasp the bar. Place your head in line with your spine, so you're looking at an object on the floor about six feet ahead of you. Your hips are in line with your knees and the bar is touching your shins (or about an inch away if you're taller).
From this starting position, straighten your legs until the bar reaches knee level or slightly above without extending your back significantly -- this is different from the conventional deadlift style where you straighten the back almost immediately. Only when the bar passes the knees will your back begin to fully straighten. Continue pulling back until you're at the power position. Repeat this several times. When you feel comfortable, perform the complete deadlift: when you reach the power position, kick the weight to the shoulders. Do this slowly, especially at the start of the lift. As you perfect the movement, you'll get less of a kick and more of a brush when you hit the power position. You'll also be able to perform the lift faster.
Practice all the components of this lift with just the bar until you master it. After you get the hang of it, you'll progress quickly.
The power clean is not the secret exercise that will transform mediocre athletes into Olympic champins and pencil necks into Dorian clones -- training's just not that simple. As Coach Poliquin says, "The power clean is a great tool for the athlete, just like the hammer is a great tool if you're going to build a house. But you can't expect to be able to saw with it."
With that thought, let's get back to the basics and train hard with lifts that really count.