THE MOST DYNAMIC LIFT IN THE GYM: THE CLEAN AND JERK

Ready to go all out aggressive with a barbell?!

If you want to see the greatest demonstration of human strength and balance whilst pulling and pushing a hefty weight around, just look at the weightlifter in the corner of the gym and notice their total control over the not insignificant amount of weight they are throwing around. Impressive, isn’t it?! This display of dominance in the gym must have you asking how you can learn the olympic clean and jerk, and what other benefits will it have on your strength programme? 

This article will answer all of those questions and I hope inspire you to relish in the power of throwing some weight around – when else do really get to go all out aggressive with a barbell?!

WHAT IS AN OLYMPIC clean & jerk?

The clean and jerk is the second of two olympic lifts, the first being the snatch, and together they form the recognised sport of Olympic Weightlifting which performed at the Commonwealth and Olympic Games. The clean and jerk is a two-part movement: the barbell is lifted from the floor to your shoulders (the clean), and then driven straight upwards from your shoulders overhead with some nifty footwork added in (the jerk).  The movement supports development of power, stability and explosiveness even more so than the snatch because the loads are being moved shorter distances between each movement, meaning you can lift more weight. The clean and jerk also has a slightly easier learning curve; it requires a little less speed and is more easily compared to more traditional movements such as the front squat and push press.

 

But don’t let that fool you, the clean and jerk requires an astonishing amount of core strength and balance to move the weight to the front rack position then hurl it overhead. So, if your strength goal is to rival Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) or Jason Momoa, it’s time to work on your clean and jerk!

Preparing for the clean & jerk

Before i break down the movement there are a number of preparatory items that you need to be comfortable with:

 

Base strength – before you attempt your first snatch you’ll need proficiency in the squat, particularly the front squat, clean grip deadlift with or without a deficit, push press and jerk. By mastering these movements you’ll build up muscle memory and necessary strength that will be transferred to your clean and jerk to reduce the learning curve. It will also be beneficial if you incorporate some jump training into your routine to get your body used to expressing explosive power

 

Mobility of your ankles, thoracic spine and shoulders –Being mobile is crucial because enables you to maintain an upright posture at the bottom of the clean. The focus should be on mobility in your thoracic spine, shoulders and ankles. It goes without saying that the warmup is an important part of priming your body for effective mobility and it shouldn’t be ignored; in olympic weightlifting a good front rack mobility warmup is essential for the clean and jerk, so don’t ever skip your mobility drills!

 

Stability throughout your entire body – this may appear at odds with what I’ve just said on mobility, however stability is also required to execute even a semi-decent clean and jerk otherwise you won’t be able to produce the explosiveness that is demanded by the clean and jerk. Prior to performing your session, I recommend doing 10 minutes of pure core work to target your abs, obliques and erector spinae muscles. You don’t need to do crunches –  there are many more movements that work your core effectively such as the dead bug.

WARMING UP FOR THE clean & jerk

A good warmup for beginner weightlifters prior to a full snatch looks something like this:

3-5 muscle clean
3-5 front squats
3-5 split jerk strict press
2 sets of 3-5 high drop jerks

 

If you’re a more advanced lifter, your warmup may look something like this prior to starting your working sets:

3-5 muscle clean and press
3-5 tall clean and push press
2 sets of 3-5 hang clean and jerk at 60% of your 1RM
2 sets of 3-5 clean and jerk at 70% of your 1RM

Correct body positioning for the clean & jerk

Before I break down the movement it’s important that your body is correctly set up to give you the best chance of successfully executing your first clean and jerk:

 

Hand placement – Hold the bar roughly a fist-width outside of your shoulders, which is the basic starting point for hand placement. You can wrap some tape around the bar at these hand position points so that you can find your grip easily every time. 

 

Hook Grip – This is never pleasant, but you will get used to it. The hook grip is the strongest and safest grip when lifting heavy weights. First, wrap your thumb round the bar and then wrap your fingers over your thumb. Make sure to grip the bar with your thumb, not just push it into the bar with your fingers. If you have small hands, push the bar as far as possible into the web between your thumb and fingers and reach with your thumb towards your little finger, then grasp your thumb along the length, avoiding your thumb nail.

 

Feet – place your feet hip width apart with your toes pointing slightly outwards to begin as you would in a front squat, with your weight in the middle of your foot for the clean phase. To find your split jerk stance, slide your strongest leg back with a bend in the knee, aiming to keep your weight evenly distributed down both legs for the jerk.

 

Core – you need to fill your trunk with pressure to effectively move through the pull and push phases of the movement, so brace that core and then breath in through your stomach (belly breathing into your braced core) before every lift.

 

Head – you’re likely to end up on the floor if you look at it, so keep your head facing forwards throughout the whole lift

six steps to execute the perfect clean

  • The bar will sit at mid-shin level (the height of the bar with bumper plates set on the floor). Feet about hip width apart with your mid-foot under the bar
  • Knees are bent with your hips about the same height as your knees
  • Lift your chest and ensure the crease of your armpit is above the bar
  • Brace you core and keep your head up!
  • Arms are straight but relaxed – the pull will come from your legs
  • Bring the bar off the floor by pushing hard with your legs like you would in a leg press. Your shins should be vertical at this point. Remember, this is not a deadlift!
  • Maintain your chest and back positions, keeping your shoulders over the bar
  • Hips and shoulders move upward at the same time, maintaining the same angle with the crease of your armpit above the bar
  • Keep your arms straight and the bar close to your legs – don’t let it drift out
  • Bring the bar off the floor by pushing hard with your legs like you would in a leg press. Your shins should be vertical at this point. Remember, this is not a deadlift!
  • Maintain your chest and back positions, keeping your shoulders over the bar
  • Hips and shoulders move upward at the same time, maintaining the same angle with the crease of your armpit above the bar
  • Keep your arms straight and the bar close to your legs – don’t let it drift out
  • Continue to push the bar upwards using your legs and keep your weight over the middle of your foot
  • Start to bring your torso upright so that the centre of your shoulder is over the bar
  • The bar accelerates up your thigh, still keeping close to your body with your arms straight. 
  • Time the ‘catch’ of the bar by receiving the weight of the bar on straight arms overhead at the same time your feet hit the ground in an overhead squat position.
  • Resist the bar by making sure you have a solid core and an upright torso
  • Descend into a full overhead squat position with the weight over your mid-foot
  • Push with your legs to bring the bar up and in. Your legs will straighten out as you come onto the balls of your feet in preparation for a small ‘jump’ when you turn the bar over
  • The centre of your shoulder will now be behind the bar, which will continue to move upward due to the force of your explosion – do not pull the bar up with the arms!

three steps to execute the perfect jerk

  • With the barbell at your shoulders following your completed clean, forcefully push with your legs and squeeze your shoulder blades together whilst pushing upwards with your arms
  • Your torso should be relatively vertical
  • At the same time as pushing the bar upwards, your feet need to move into a lunge position.
  • The shin on your front leg should be as vertical a possible with your weight distributed through the middle of your foot. The whole foot should be flat on the ground.
  • Your back leg should be slightly bent with a soft knee to absorb force. The heel should be elevated with the weight on your back toes.
  •  To finish, bring your back leg forward into a standing position with legs about hip width apart and your arms locked out overhead
  • To get into your finish position, take a small step backwards with your front leg first and then move your back leg forward. This will help you maintain control of the bar overhead.
  • Well done – you’ve just correctly performed an olympic clean and jerk!

WHAT MUSCLES DOES THE CLEAN & JERK WORK?

Your whole body benefits every time you perform a clean and jerk:

 

Your lower body – quads and hamstrings – work throughout the pull phase of the clean and then throughout the jerk phase to get you your explosive thrust. In particular, strong quads will help you push up out of your squat to get you ready for the jerk.

 

Your upper body – shoulders, biceps triceps – are relied on to stabilise the bar in the clean and then move the bar overhead in the jerk.  

 

Your core – back, abs, lats and traps – provides rigidity and mobility to allow your upper and lower body to move around the bar in the clean and then force upwards in the jerk.

WHO SHOULD LEARN THE CLEAN & JERK?

Everyone can benefit from the clean and jerk because the movement gives you total body strength that can’t be matched by many, if any, other movement including compound lifts. Whilst weightlifters have to learn the clean and jerk as one of the two competitive movements, powerlifters will also benefit from this overall conditioning movement which provides gains for other lifts.

 

It’s not only strength that the clean and jerk develops; it improves your speed, motor skills and coordination, too. You only have a second or so to pull yourself under the bar into the receive position before it falls downwards; nothing makes you learn a skill faster than risking dropping a heavy weight onto your body or potentially falling on the floor whilst holding on to a barbell! Thus, when your motor skills and coordination is improved, your whole body benefits. The complex nature of the clean and jerk teaches various muscle groups to work together, meaning you move as one unit, which carries over to other sports and day-to-day activities.

 

Finally, your jumping ability will vastly improve after you’ve incorporated the clean and jerk into your routine. This is because the movement requires a ‘jump’ under a large load in the clean and jerk phases. Mastering this difficult range of motion will enable you to reach a much higher peak of explosiveness in your training, as well as increasing your cardiovascular health, bone density, strength, muscle tone, balance and coordination.

And that’s how you clean and jerk successfuly! I hope you can see that there are a lot of benefits in the clean and jerk which you’ll benefit from when you add it to your training programme – I look forward to seeing your progress! Before you jump right in, I urge you to place emphasis on the prerequisite movements, mobility and stability which will provide you with a good starting point to work through the technicality of this lift and improve your confidence during execution of the olympic clean and jerk.

ready to clean and jerk?

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