Clean Progression: Beginner to Advanced
A few key factors in teaching the clean properly involves keeping it simple as possible, make it as repetitive as possible, keep it really, really mundane–it is going to be boring because they have to do the same thing over and over and over again to train the nervous system on the positions the body needs to be in–and, finally, throw the kids, athletes, or newbies right into the fire having them do full reps that first day, whether that is with a PVC pipe, a dowel rod, or an empty barbell. Don’t hesitate to get them to clean the first day.
1. Establish Stance
Right off the bat, we want a simple cue for the foot width when teaching the clean technique. The simple cue we like to utilize is having the athletes put their foot on the in-step of their other foot and they can establish exactly where their feet need to go.
This isn’t perfect by any means, but it sure is useful. Sometimes with taller or shorter athletes, the stance may need to be tweaked a bit. Still, almost always it will be the easiest way to establish the foot position.
2. Establish The Grip
The second thing we like to do when establishing the starting position of the clean is establishing the grip. One unique thing that can be done here is telling the athlete to grab the bar when the crook of their elbow is right outside their knee.
Try to get them to have that tight back. Just point out that when they pick up the bar the grip is just right outside the knee.
Establish the stance and grip and make sure to keep it simple. Don’t be knit-picky, but make it as simple as possible. Being too knit-picky early on will frustrate athletes and make them turn off and tune out in frustration.
3. Top-Down Progression: Front Squat
With the established grip and stance, have athletes put the bar in a front rack position to perform a front squat. Have athletes squat with the knees and hips going at the same time. We want it to seem as if there is a rope pulling the knees forward and the hips backward at the exact same moment. Let athletes know about keeping their back super upright and the elbows at about ninety degrees.
Now when this is being done with athletes who struggle with the front rack position–athletes who spent too much time bench pressing, too much time doing bize and trize without focusing on mobility–go and check out our blog or video on front rack mobility to try and open up the athlete’s thoracic spine to get into that front rack position. With younger athletes, they should be fine and able to get right into the front rack position.
The whole focus is to make sure the receiving position is fine. That the athletes can actually front squat properly. This is why we teach the top-down perspective because if they are able to front squat well they are going to be able to clean well.
4. Muscle Clean From Hip
With the bar hanging at the hip, athletes will stay plantarflexed, extend their hips, and wrap their elbows around the bar. We want to note that in an ideal world, the whole hand will stay on the floor when wrapping the elbows. Champions keep all their fingers on the bar. Athletes with limited mobility will struggle with this at first. Over time they will be able to improve this champion-making necessity.
After completing a handful of muscle cleans from the hips, we will add in a front squat. We need to remember to get the feet into the catch position when we do the front squat.
5. Power Clean From Hip
The next progression is a hip power clean. The power clean takes the muscle clean and ignites the lifter on how to change direction. The muscle clean is just an extension. The power clean has the lifter finish and move under. We need to notice that the back isn’t going backward as if limboing, but that the hips are coming through into extension as they pull the bar back with the elbows getting back behind the torso and then around the bar.
The hip power clean will teach athletes how to coordinate their hips with their elbows. We want to see the hips trigger the shrug into the elbows wrapping around the bar.
From catching the hip power clean, we can then have the athletes perform a front squat after the slight pause in the power catch position, basically a quarter squat position.
6. Full Clean From Hip
From there we go right into a hip clean. Remind the athlete to slide the feet out as they drop right into the hole. Three reps of the movement work here. However, as mentioned earlier, we need to keep it moving, keep it simple, make it repetitive, and continue to work from the top-down perspective.
7. Pause Below The Knee/Pause Above The Knee Power Clean
Now that the athletes understand how to use their hips and wrap those elbows rapidly, coordinate the finish into the catch, and ride that catch into the hole, we will start to play around with their knee movement without ever telling them because they don’t understand yet. That is where the pause comes into play.
We want the athlete to pause below the knee with the shins vertical. We will start from the hip and have them perform a hang with an eccentric to get to the position we want the first pause to take place at: below the knee. As a coach, we can slowly move their knees around if they’re in a bad position during the pause below the knee. From that pause, we will have them pull the bar to above the knee and pause again. Again, as the coach, we can move their knees into the proper position. They will then finish with the upper body to perform the power clean. Two to three reps is a great rep range to start with.
8. Pause Below The Knee/Pause Above The Knee Full Clean
From the power clean with the pauses, we will then move into the full clean with the pauses. Doing the full, we want to keep things moving quickly, especially if the athlete is executing well with a good front rack position. We don’t need to be overly knit-picky because we can frustrate athletes if we do. Heck, if athletes are hitting decent positions, keep things moving. It is their first time doing the movement, they should look like amateurs.
Just go through the movement of the full clean while keeping it simple. Remind athletes to keep the bar nice and tight, rapid elbows in the catch, and slide the feet right into that front squat position.
Teaching the clean progressions we need to make sure that it is being done from a top-down perspective. Locate mobility issues to help address issues for better execution. Start from the hip with the pull, progressing from the muscle, to power, to full. Then from there go into the hang positions with the pauses. The isometrics of the pauses are great tools to teach the movement as best as possible.
In addition, use people as models. Showcase athletes with solid technical movement to young athletes. Find these models online, in the gym, or just come to Garage Strength to train!
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.