If you’ve spent any time in the gym, you’ve undoubtedly seen lifters pull a loaded barbell from the floor to their shoulders in one movement. This seemingly simple action represents the basic form of the “clean,” an exercise used extensively by competitive weightlifters and participants in power sports such as football. While there are several variations that may be used, the core components of the basic clean lift are to pull the barbell from the floor, simultaneously descend into a full squat while flipping the bar to your shoulders once it has reached mid-thigh, and then stand up fully, finishing in what looks like the start position for a front squat. A full description of how to perform the clean, along with an illustrative video can be seen at the ExRx.net web site.
While the clean is not a simple lift to master, it offers benefits for many trainees. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of this exercise, and then you can decide for yourself if it’s right for you.
Pros of the Clean
The clean is a complex, multi-joint movement that requires you to simultaneously engage the large muscles of your thighs, glutes, lower back, upper back, and shoulders. In addition, your biceps, forearms, calves, and chest receive somewhat less direct stimulation via the clean. With all of this muscle moving at once, you can work up to using some fairly massive weights on the clean, and it provides a quick, efficient workout for your whole body. Done for high reps, the clean will also have you huffing and puffing, meaning that it works your heart and lungs, as well.
Aside from providing solid full-body exercise, the clean can be useful for people who want to participate in Olympic weightlifting. The clean is essentially the first half of the clean and jerk, one of two competitive lifts used in Olympic lifting, meaning that the clean is a great choice for a lifter that’s having trouble with the first part of his lift. For other athletes, such as football players, the clean can be used as a strength builder and an overall conditioning tool.
Cons of the Clean
While the clean offers many benefits, it also has its drawbacks. Chief among them are that it is a technically challenging lift and requires a lot of practice before a lifter can safely start piling on the weight. In addition, the clean involves high-velocity muscular contractions and extreme body positions while the trainee is subjected to the forces of a heavy barbell. These attributes make the clean much more likely to cause injury than traditional bodybuilding or powerlifting exercises performed with controlled movements.
Aside from the difficulty and injury issues, the clean also fails to provide targeted work for any particular bodypart. So, while it can help you gain strength in general, it won’t do a whole lot to increase the size of your quadriceps, for example.
All in all, the clean is an exercise well-suited to those who want to move a lot of weight and hit a lot of muscles all at once, or for those whose sports goals would directly benefit from the movement (like Olympic weightlifters). Because of the difficulty in mastering the clean and the potential for injury, it is essential that you have a competent, experienced coach teach you how to do the exercise properly if you want to incorporate it into your routine. As with any other exercise changes, you should also check with your physician to make sure that you don’t have any special conditions which would make the clean especially dangerous for you.
“Olympic Weightlifting,” Queensland Weightlifting Association
Mehdi, “The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Power Cleans,” StrongLifts.com