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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
May 17, 2022
The Clean and Jerk is one of the two Olympic lifts. It’s a full-body movement that involves cleaning the barbell from the floor and then jerking it overhead. It relies on power production in both the lower and upper body. Further, it’s arguably more straightforward to learn than the snatch, the other Olympic lift. The only problem is learning chess is “more simple” than learning the snatch. Therefore, you will still need significant guidance to learn this movement.
This clean and jerk guide is going to attempt to do just that. You’re going to learn:
Before we go any further, we want to be clear that the clean and jerk can take quite a long time to learn and perfect. We strongly suggest that you continue to refer to this guide, and if you can, grab a specialty coach, at least for a couple of sessions. That being said, you can learn it on your own and we are going to try to teach you how.
The clean and jerk is one of the two Olympic lifts and is the “heavier” of the pair. In reality, the clean and jerk is actually composed of two movements, the clean and the jerk (obviously), which are performed back-to-back. Both of these movements must be completed to count as a good lift. This fact requires you to concentrate on your upper body power just as much as your lower body power.
In a very tiny nutshell, the clean and jerk consists of you walking up to a loaded barbell, cleaning the bar up to your shoulders, and then after you catch the barbell and are steady, jerking the bar overhead. Your arms must be fully extended to complete the lift, and you must bring your feet together.
That was a very basic explanation, but we will go over this movement in depth below.
Clean = Bringing the bar from the floor to a front rack position (aka clean position) in one swift, explosive movement.
Jerk = An explosive overhead pressing movement that involves both the upper and lower body to get the bar fully extended up overhead.
At its core, the clean and jerk is a true power exercise. The word “power” can be misunderstood and is often interchanged with “strength .”While they are related, when talking about performance variables, strength and power are quite different. The simplest way to distinguish these two is that strength is slow strength (like a heavy squat) while power is fast strength (like a squat jump). Power is the relationship between a load and time or space.
The Strength and Conditioning Journal provides three formulas to calculate power1:
As you can see, with either formula, power is concerned with how fast an object can move. Everything about the clean and jerk screams power as it relies on you to generate enough force, in a concise time, to propel a heavy load vertically the length of your body. You must then use power again to drive the load overhead.
The clean and jerk is going to be a total body workout, so every muscle in the body will be involved more or less, either as a prime mover or a stabilizer. However, here are the major muscle groups trained and their function.
The lower body will be the primary muscle group responsible for producing power. Literally, every muscle below the waist will be involved.
Back And Traps:
Every back muscle will be responsible for maintaining a flat back during the initial pull. If you curl over, you’re going to fail this lift, so you need a powerful back to withstand the forces. After the lower body gets the bar moving upward at high velocity, the upper back and traps perform a powerful shrug to continue this movement upwards.
A powerful shrug can make or break your lift. Also, have you ever wondered why Olympic lifters have massive traps? This is why.
Shoulder And Tricep:
The shoulder and triceps will then finish out the movement, for the most part. Ideally, the shoulder and triceps will only have to provide minimal force to fully extend the arms. This will be due to the jerking motion created by the rest of your body, which you will learn. However, even if you get the bar above your head with very little effort from the shoulders and triceps, they are still going to need to be able to hold a heavyweight above your head as you stand up.
The clean and jerk is primarily going to be used to enhance power in the upper and lower body. In fact, the clean and jerk is often the preferred power movement of many strength & conditioning coaches. Here are some of the reasons why:
1) Increase Power Production In The Upper And Lower Body:
The primary reason to include the clean and jerk is to increase power production in the upper and lower body. It will place stress on every muscle in the body and require each one to produce power. If you want to increase the power in both your upper and lower body, the clean and jerk is hard to beat.
2) Improve Your Athletic Performance:
Unless you are training to compete in Crossfit or the Olympics, one of the main reasons people will perform the clean and jerk is to improve their athletic performance. As mentioned above, it is the most complete exercise to improve power production in both the upper and lower body. This is important for athletes as power is one of the most essential fitness variables. For example, increased power can improve:
Studies have repeatedly shown that clean and jerk can improve athletic performance as well as overall weightlifting performance2.
3) Improve Your Motor Skills Through Enhanced Neuromuscular Efficiency:
It’s clear that the clean and jerk is a very efficient power movement, but how does that occur? Increased power production is the result of your neuromuscular system working better together. This means that your brain can communicate better with your muscles to tell them to produce more force. At the same time, the movement is actually highly complicated. This not only improves your neuromuscular system as well, but it will make you much more coordinated.
4) Improve Your Other Lifts:
A higher neuromuscular system combined with greater coordination and greater power production will improve just about every other movement that you perform. Everything from running and jumping to squatting and deadlifting. It would be hard to find a movement that the clean and jerk won’t improve. It’s an actual total body workout that has a ton of benefits. It’s not just for the Olympic weightlifting community.
Let’s break down the clean and jerk into some more detailed steps. Here, you’re going to learn the setup, hand position, and all of the other specifics of the clean and jerk. Still, be sure to read the next section as well, as we’ll teach you methods to learn this movement more effectively.
The clean and jerk can be broken down into several sections:
We’ll go through each of these to make it as simple as possible.
The initial setup is getting into position to perform the movement. However, this is a vital part of the movement as it will dictate how well you can perform the movement.
Note: Try using the hook grip if you're trying to take your lifts to new levels.
The 1st pull occurs when bringing the barbell from the ground to your knees.
The 2nd pull occurs once the bar pasts the knees and ends after triple extension.
The pull under and catch consists of you actively pulling yourself under a bar while dropping into a front squat.
The recovery is when you stand up from the deep front squat position.
The jerk consists of jerking the bar overhead.
The finish occurs by bringing your feet together.
Congratulations. You just performed the clean and jerk with proper technique!
If you’re like most individuals who attempt the clean and jerk for the first time, you’re probably thinking, “I definitely did not do that correctly”. The clean and jerk are very complex. Combining them is even more so. So, let us give you some important tips on training for it.
The most common way to learn the snatch is to perform “segment training". Segment training is when you take a complex movement with multiple parts and break it down into smaller segments. You then practice those smaller segments independently and then eventually put them all together.
Still, there are several ways to put the segments together.
It doesn’t really matter what one you choose as they are all effective. The point is not to train the clean and jerk as one movement right away.
There are quite a few variations that can help you practice specific segments of the clean and jerk. Some of the more common clean and jerk variations are listed below.
High Pull: The main focus of the clean high pull is to help exaggerate the 2nd pull and triple extension. To perform it, you will basically perform the clean and jerk but stop after the 2nd pull. Essentially, you’re not going to squat and catch the bar. Instead, this clean and jerk variation aims to get the bar as high as possible. Emphasize high elbows and a powerful shrug.
You can also try using a snatch grip to change it up. Instead of grabbing the bar outside your legs, use a snatch grip, placing your hands on the ring markers.
Power Clean & Jerk: The power clean and jerk is precisely the same as the clean and jerk, except your not going to perform a front squat or split jerk to catch it. You are going to do a power jerk. After the second pull, you will catch the bar on your shoulders with minimal knee bend (you won't go into a full squat). This requires you to pull the bar for a longer length. At the same time, you can give your knees a rest. In fact, this is the preferred method for many non-competing athletes as it’s technically easier to perform than the clean and jerk but still elicits similar increases in power.
(Power) Hang Clean & Jerk: The hang clean and jerk can also be performed as a hang power clean and jerk. The primary variable of this variation is that you will not pull from the ground. Instead, you will deadlift the barbell up and then perform a hip hinge to lower the barbell to somewhere on the thigh. This will be the starting location. Doing so will put most of the emphasis on the 2nd pull to produce a powerful triple extension.
You can also lower the bar to your lower thigh or upper thigh to alter the need. If you start higher, it forces you to produce more power with a smaller triple extension as your hips are extended more.
The jerk we described above in the 'How to Perform a Clean and Jerk' section is known as the split jerk and it is the most common method for Olympic weightlifting athletes. However, there are two other types of jerks that are also acceptable in Olympic weightlifting competitions for the clean and jerk exercise.
The three jerks are:
All three are acceptable forms in competitions, but the split jerk is the most popular since it generally allows for the greatest load potential. That said, practicing all three can be helpful for improving your overall strength in the jerk. A lot of pros use the split jerk in competition, but also use the power and squat jerk in practice.
As you learn the clean and jerk, feel free to implement different variations of the jerk itself to see how they feel for you.
Because the clean and jerk is a power exercise, you would do better by using lighter weight. As it is a power exercise, you can actually produce more power with a smaller load as you can move it faster. Therefore, studies show that lighter loads of 40-60% allows a lifter produce the most power as it provides an optimal blend of weight and speed3. Most lifters can spend the majority of their time in this zone. If you are able to continue using the good form at heavier weights, you could venture up to 70% or even 80% once in a while. However, the key is in the cleanliness of your reps.
If you want to build a higher 1RM, you could then spend more time in the higher ranges of 70-90%. Still, you should move back and forth in between each loading zones to manage any build-up of fatigue.
That being said, you never want to use high reps with the clean and jerk. Remember, the primary purpose is to increase power. This is best done by performing a rep as “crisp” as possible. When you start to pile on reps, you will get fatigued regardless of how light the load is. When this happens, your form will suffer, and you will actually be hurting your progress. Below are the rep schemes we would suggest for the different loads:
Rest 2:00-3:00 minutes between sets.
Also, you don’t have to always train the full clean and jerk as it can be a very taxing movement. Play around with different schemes. For example, for one training day, you could train:
Then another session that week train the whole movement. Don’t forget about the variations and alternatives (see below). They are great exercises to use to improve the clean and jerk and they also provide a lot of great benefits too.
When training the clean and jerk, the number one rule is to not be in a rush! Take your time and treat every single rep like you’re on the Olympic stage.
Related: The Best Beginner Olympic Weightlifting Program
For whatever reason, maybe you can’t perform the clean and jerk. No worries. Here is a quick list of 3 alternatives you can perform that will also increase your power production.
The squat jump is an easy way to produce lower body power without the technicalities. We prefer using either dumbbells or a trap bar when performing these, as they are much safer than jumping with a barbell on your back.
Put a vest on and do some box jumps. This is an awesome plyometric exercise for power production. Like the squat jump, it’s a very simple yet effective exercise to increase lower body power production.
This is similar to the high pull we spoke about above but consists of using a sumo deadlift stance. A little bit of a different stance to change things up. Perform the movement in the same manner by trying to pull the barbell as high as possible.
The biggest piece of advice we can offer is to take your time and be patient. If you can, grab a trainer or a skilled friend. Watch videos and also take videos of yourself. One of the best ways to improve your lifting is by video analysis in slo-mo. It allows you to actually see what’s going on and what you need to fix. That being said, have fun with it. Once you learn it, we can promise you will start seeing massive improvements in just about every other area of your fitness.
When you are ready, you can also learn The Snatch!
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June 01, 2023
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