I have found that most athletes can learn to clean rather easily.
If they can do front squats and power cleans, I can teach them how to do full cleans in fifteen minutes, even less if the athlete is gifted.
But mastering the technique with heavy weights is a different kettle of fish. It's extremely difficult to maintain perfect form when the weight on the bar is one you have never handled before. And it takes a large dose of courage to go under this new weight, even if it has been pulled high enough. Very few are capable of maintaining correct form with personal records, but that is exactly what has to be done if the lift is going to improve.
Generally, the faults are minor, but small breaks in form are sufficient for the lift to be missed. That's one of the things that always intrigued me about this lift -- the heavier the weight on the bar, the more concentration is required. But this is also true in many other sports as well, such as the pole vault and high jump.
When the bar is raised, technique has to be refined.
I want to discuss some of the most common form errors lifters make on the clean, but since I'm often guilty of assuming too much, I'll start with the basics.
If a person really wants to clean some heavy weights, he must use the hook grip. It is not a luxury, but a necessity.
For a time, Ernie Pickett and I trained together at the York Gym. One afternoon, I mentioned to him that he should use the hook grip on his cleans and snatches. He contended that he didn't have any trouble holding onto the bar with his regular grip and could do a 700-pound deadlift in that manner, so why hook? "Besides," he added, "it hurts like hell." Ernie was a big, strong example of manhood, but he had a low threshold of pain tolerance.
"Well, you're lucky to have a strong grip. I have the grip of a Girl Scout. If I didn't hook, I wouldn't be able to pull 200 pounds. But one of the reasons you're not snapping the bar at the finish is because your grip is slipping a bit," I replied.
Tommy Suggs was training with us and said, "I watched your last set and when you finished your little finger wasn't around the bar. And if your grip isn't tight when you go to rack the bar, you can't fix it right. Same idea applies to snatching."
With two of us badgering him, Ernie relented, and the hook grip did help him to clean and snatch some huge weights.
I'll explain exactly what I mean by the hook grip . . .
Wrap your thumb around the bar, pushing down hard, then place your middle finger (if you can) and index finger over the thumb, and finally wrap the remaining fingers round the bar. Now you're locked to it as solidly as if you were strapped to the bar. It's helpful to tape your thumbs because this will ease some of the pressure and make it hurt less. Just make two revolutions around the segment of your thumbs closest to your palms -- no more tape than this, however, because more tends to bunch up and make matters worse.
Always start out with light weights when learning to use the hook grip. Some wait until the weights get heavy before using it and this is a mistake. The pain will distract you from paying close attention to your form. If you use the hook grip from the very first warmup set, by the time you reach your heaviest set, you will not even notice that you are hooking. In time, it will become a natural habit. I still find myself hooking my steering wheel.
The best starting position for most people is as follows: feet at shoulder width with toes pointed forward. Your frontal deltoids should be slightly ahead of the bar. You can set your hips high if you like, as high as parallel to the floor. This will give you a longer pulling lever, but this high starting position is only effective if you are able to maintain it through the start and middle. If your hips come up, you will be out of position at the top and this will adversely affect your finish.
The bar must be tights against your shins. If the bar moves away from your body, it will stay away throughout the movement and be out of position at the finish.
Lock all the muscles in your back. The best way to do this is to pull your shoulder blades together. If you only think of tightening your lumbars, there is a tendency for your middle and upper back to round.
Get every muscle in your body tight, from your feet to your traps on down to your hands. Look straight ahead and now you're ready to start the clean.
I'll pause here to mention a mistake I see nearly every beginner, as well as quite a few veteran lifters make. They stay in that set position for too long, either psyching themselves up or thinking on the form points. Staying in that crouched position drains energy, and on a max attempt every little bit of energy matters. Do all your psyching and reviewing form keys while standing over the bar. When you are ready, lock onto the bar, tuck it tightly to your shins, set your feet, get your muscles taut, look ahead and go. I'm not a proponent of the dive technique, but I do believe in moving expeditiously at the start.
One other small point always helped me:
At the start, don't think about pulling the bar upward, think about pushing your feet down through the platform. This will help keep you tight and maintain a solid position. If the start is sloppy, so will be the rest of the pull.
The bar starts close to your body and stays close through the middle range. When it passes your knees, drive your hips forward and this will accelerate the bar upward. At the same instant that you're snapping your pelvis into the bar, climb high on your toes and shrug the weight. Again, I stress the importance of keeping the bar close to your body. If it's away, the finish is weakened.
I realize that some coaches teach their lifters not to bend their arms at all at the finish, using only the momentum provided by the powerful traps to complete the pull. I, however, believe the arms should bend immediately after the traps have been contracted. The prime movers of the upper arms, brachialis, brachioradialis, and their respective attachments, are powerful groups. True, they are not as strong as the traps, but they can provide thrust for that critical final pull. If all the groups are coordinated perfectly -- traps, calves, and arms -- the bar will jump at the top.
I've had some lifters contend that bending the arms isn't really necessary for a solid finish on the clean. Instead of arguing, I ask them to do an experiment in the power rack. I set the bar on pins below the knees, and have them strap on and pull the bar as high as they can, using their regular straight-arms method. I mark the height they achieve and put a second set of pins in the rack at that spot. Then I have them pull again, but this time I tell them to finish by bending their arms. Some hit those top pins so hard they rattle their teeth.
I remove the top pins and have them do more reps, concentrating on trying to get the bar higher and higher. In every instance, they pulled the bar at least four inches higher when they involved their arms. It just doesn't make any logical sense to eliminate this available power source from the equation, but it does have to be a coordinated effort in order to be effective. A slow bending of the arms is rather useless and, in many cases, detrimental.
I learned to clean by watching other lifters at contests in Dallas. I would stand on the side and study their technique before it was my turn to go on the platform. I quickly observed that the good lifters, like
Sid Henry (training program):
Louis Reicke (training):
and Gerald Travis, all made the bar jump at the finish, while the not-so-proficient ones would drag it at the top. Sometimes it almost came to a complete halt. The importance of a powerful finish was ingrained in me from then on.
Over the years, I watched many strong lifters pull their cleans much higher than they needed in order to rack them, often to mid-chest, and still fail. The reason was that their top pulls resembled upright rows. There has to be a pop at the top, and this is best achieved by utilizing the arms right in behind the shrug. The bar absolutely must be moving with great velocity as you make your move to the bottom to rack the weight. If it isn't accelerating, it will drop like a guillotine, and you can kiss that attempt goodbye.
At the conclusion of the clean pull, you should be high on your toes and your body should be extended vertically. If you cut your pull and end up leaning forward before you make your move to go to the bottom and rack the bar, chances are you will be unable to rack the weight correctly if you are leaning.
Timing is critical in knowing exactly when to make that move to the bottom. THIS CAN ONLY BE ACCOMPLISHED WITH LOTS OF PRACTICE; THERE ARE NO SHORT CUTS.
I teach my lifters to use the final shrug and arm pull as the key. Once the traps contract and the arms do their job, move -- with no hesitation. Often, a lifter will hesitate simple because he is fearful of going under a heavy poundage.
At York, we called this not having the balls for the curves.
For beginners, there is the tendency to cut the pull and move early, especially with max weights. I realize that it's extremely difficult to make yourself wait and wait for the bar to climb high enough, but this is exactly what you have to discipline yourself to do.
One of the very best ways to learn the timing at the top of the clean pull is to do hang cleans, or what we came to call Barski cleans.
I've mentioned these in previous articles and noted that Barski didn't do them. He didn't need to since his timing was nearly perfect. He got me and several others to do them to help us improve out timing at the top, so it was only fitting that I named them for him. And Barski cleans sound so much better than hang cleans anyway.
Do them in triples and keep in mind that the line on the Barski cleans has to be identical to the line used when you pull from the floor. If you pull with a different line, they will not benefit you at all; in fact, they'll probably work against you.
This is where the hook grip comes in handy. Never use straps on these. Straps can be dangerous, trust me. Kenny Moore can attest to that statement. He was doing Barski cleans in the York Gym using straps and missed his third rep. Since he couldn't release the bar, it crashed down on him, and his hand took the brunt of the weight, which was 350 pounds. His hand split open between his thumb and index finger. It took three dozen stitches to repair it, and he went through a lengthy and painful rehab period. It's simply not worth the risk.
If your grip starts to fail after the second rep, set the bar back on the platform and secure your grip. That's far better than being locked onto the bar.
The two best exercises to do to build a stronger top pull are high pulls and dynamic shrugs in the power rack.
Both need to be worked hard and heavy to be worthwhile. The most common errors I see lifters make in their cleans are: bending their arms too soon, letting their hips rise up too rapidly, and not completing their pulls. The third fault is usually related to the first two form breaks.
Many beginners get in the habit of bending their arms too soon, and it is not corrected, it can be be most difficult to break later on. They bend their arms early, thinking they can accelerate the bar better that way. But if really works against them since it kills the final snap provided by the traps. When I see a lifter bending his arms too soon, I have him stop and tell him, "Try to contract your traps with your arms bent." He does and then I say, "Now contract them with your arms straight." They quickly notice the difference. If you're pulling on a personal record, that extra punch is critical at the top.
Also, if the arms bend through the middle, they can't bend at the very end when they are the most useful. It's like using up a valuable resource too early. Doing high pulls is a good way to correct the error of bending the arms too soon.
Use light to moderate weights until the form improves, then load up the bar. I seldom recommend that a lifter train in front of a mirror, but I make an exception when he is having trouble keeping his arms straight. It helps him to see his mistake. Once he breaks the habit, I move him away from the mirror. I want him to feel the movement, not see it, because he cannot watch himself on the platform in a contest.
Allowing your hips to com up too fast can be a result of not being strong enough to hold that position, or it can simply be a habit you've slipped into unknowingly. In the same manner that beginners bend their arms too early in their attempt to make the bar move faster, they also rush the bar off the platform and forget about maintaining a solid hip and back position. The bar doesn't have to leap off the platform in order for the lift to be successful. It does, however, have to move upward in a tight line and start picking up speed as it gains height. I compare it to a whip. At the very top, the bar should be no more than a blur.
If I see a lifter having trouble keeping his hips down at the start and middle of the pull, I put him on a diet of halting deadlifts.
He pulls the bar from the floor to mid-thigh, pauses, then sets it back to the floor, always keeping a flat back and locking his hips so that they do not move at all. I try to move these halting deadlifts to 50 pounds more than he is planning on cleaning, for 5 deliberate reps. They usually get the job done.
In many cases, the lifter has simply neglected to think about locking his hips in place when he begins his pull, and doing the slow deadlifts reminds him of its importance. Sometimes the problem is directly related to weak lower back. Then I load him up with lots of good mornings, stiff legged deadlifts and back hyperextensions.
Now for racking the weight, another high-skill movement, it does come naturally to some, while others have to do tons of sets to get the feel down correctly. One of the things I teach my lifters is never to let the bar float freely at the conclusion of the pull. In other words, don't just high pull the bar, then jump to the bottom and wait for it to crash on you wherever it pleases. Not many can get away with this technique. The only two I ever saw were Barski and Frank Capsouras, but when they hit the bottom, they were so rock solid that they could deal with the descending bar. Most can't do this.
When you feel the bar is high enough and make your move to the hole, pull the bar with you. This action keeps it under your control and helps you position it exactly where you want it, firmly across your frontal deltoids. In addition, keeping a constant pressure on the bar helps you stay tight, especially in your upper body, and this is critical when racking a heavy weight.
Cleaning heavy weights was one of the most satisfying things I ever did in any sport. When everything clicks just right and the bar jumps at the top, for a wonderful moment it is weightless and you are in complete control of the monster. It is a heady feeling.
Hopefully, some of these tips will enable you to achieve that intoxicating sensation.
Enjoy Your Lifting!
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