The squat clean, or merely the clean in weightlifting circles, is one of the two movements that make up the Olympic weightlifting clean and jerk competition. The depth of the hips during the catch is what differentiates it from the power clean. Having the thighs at or below parallel is the determining factor, and an athlete who catches deep will move heavier weights. Even though weightlifters will refer to the movement as the clean, we will continue to call it the squat clean, since the depth of the hips is irrelevant in competition. Hence, if a clean is programmed and not identified as power or squat, it can be performed with either standard.
Cleans are an expression of power, strength combined with speed. Their explosive nature carries over well into other sports, and the squat clean is a full-body exercise that will leave you well spent after a workout.
Benefits of the Squat Clean
- Full-body exercise
- Builds explosive power and strength
- Transfers well to other sports
- Higher weights can be lifted compared to a Power Clean.
- Abdominal and Obliques
- hip flexors
- spinal erectors
Squat Clean Movement Standards
The squat clean, like all Olympic lifts, is a highly technical movement. It requires the athlete to move a loaded barbell from the ground to the shoulders while lowering into a full-depth front squat in a single and swift action. It is imperative to follow the proper technique and form when moving large loads to prevent injury, which could result in significant recovery time.
Addressing the Bar and Grip
The clean set-up is similar to a deadlift except for your feet and shoulder position, and your grip.
Even though the exact foot position will vary among athletes, there are standards that you need to follow to avoid injury and generate the optimal force during the initial pull.
First, place the bar over the ball of the foot and not in front of the toes. For a taller athlete, set the bar closer to the toe, while shorter athletes may find it more comfortable to have the bar further back without restricting shin placement. It would be best if you do not pull the bar into this position. Instead, think as the bar as being bolted to the floor and set yourself to the bar accordingly.
Next, point your toes at an outward angle of 10º to 30º from the centerline while having 10-14 inches of separation between the heels. Again, the optimum position will be dependent upon the comfort of the athlete, but we want to ensure the knees track over the toes when squatting to the bar. As well, the knees should end up over the bar or slightly in front. We do not want our knees to be behind the bar, and we also do not want a vertical shin angle.
Once we have our feet set, we want to squat down to the bar and take our grip. We should use a double over-handed hook grip, which will secure the bar deep in your hands and will not allow it to slide into your fingers throughout the pulling phases.
If you are unfamiliar with the hook grip, you achieve it by wrapping your fingers over your thumbs. Initially, there will be some discomfort, but you will quickly get used to the hold. Many athletes will wrap their thumbs in athletic-tape when using the hook grip to protect them during long training sessions.
With our hands placed on the bar and feet set, our hips should be slightly lower than when we deadlift, which will set our shoulder position.
Shoulders and Arms
Your shoulders should be directly over or slightly (less than 3.5 inches) in front of the bar. This position will help the bar clear the knees during the pull. Arms should be straight and brushing your knees with a slight external rotation at the elbows to form a rigid link with the bar. We do not want to jerk the bar off the ground, and a stable arm position will prevent this flaw. Also, engage your lats by pulling your shoulders back and down at the joint.
Now that we have our feet, shoulders, arms, and hands set, we are ready to perform the movement, which will consist of five parts.
The Five Aspects of a Squat Clean
If you want to move a lot of weight, you will need to be willing to give it your all, explosive, and technically proficient in each of these steps.
The first pull begins by lifting the bar from the floor and ends slightly above the knees. Think of it like a deadlift, and push through your feet to initiate the bar movement. Your hips and shoulders should rise together so that your torso remains parallel to its starting position. Perform this pull methodically and under control, and do not jerk the bar off the ground.
What to watch for
- Your hips rise faster than your shoulders, placing you into a weaker position that may compromise your back.
- Arms did not stay straight and locked, which will lead to a slower second and third pull.
- You initiate the lift by dipping your shoulders, unlocking the elbows, and jerking the bar from the ground with a violent motion. This flaw will sooner or later lead to an injury.
Accelerating the bar is critical during the second pull. You accomplish this explosion by pulling the bar back towards your thigh using your trapezius while retaining a locked arm position. For athletes with a positive wingspan to height ratio, the elbows may slightly bend while remaining rigid. Simultaneously, you prepare to jump, commonly referred to as triple extension, by sitting back while pulling into your thigh. At the point of bar contact, you extend at the knees, hips, and ankles, i.e., jump, while performing a shrug. This burst will propel the bar vertically, and you will enter into the third pull.
What to watch for
- Your shoulders being too far in front or behind the bar, which compromises the jumping position.
- Arms did not stay straight rigid during the jump, which results in loss of power and a reverse curl effect.
Third Pull or Catch
The third pull or the catch is the final step of the clean. You accomplish it by pulling your elbows slightly up and back, which results in your forearms being near parallel to the ground. At this point, you pull yourself under the bar and violently rotate your elbows forward to catch the bar on your deltoids. The height of the bar from the second pull will determine if the clean can be completed as power or as a squat. For a power clean, you will need to float the bar above the navel, while you can accomplish a squat clean with the bar at the navel if you are fast enough to get under it.
What to watch for
- Ensure you maintain a pulling motion throughout this phase. By pulling yourself to and under the bar, you will be capable of lifting heavier weights.
- Catch the bar on the deltoids (front of the shoulders) and not in the hands. Catching the bars in the hands will lead to sore wrists and potential injuries. Athletes with mobility issues may find it challenging to raise the elbows high enough to get the bar to the deltoids. In these cases, working on mobility for the front rack is more of a priority than performing a clean.
- When possible, catch the bar with a full handed grip (i.e., all eight fingers around the bar), which will lead to a smoother jerk.
Once you have pulled the bar to your shoulders, you will lower to full-depth front squat. Maintaining high elbows and a rigid, vertical spine is key to completing this portion of the lift. The bar should be in line with the balls of your feet, placing the center of gravity at your midpoint. Once you have the load stabilized, stand it up.
What to watch for
- Rounding or collapsing of the back, which places you at risk for injury. Attempting to lift too heavy or a lack of thoracic mobility may cause this position. Decrease the weight and increase your front squat strength to correct this flaw.
- You receive the bar on the shoulders in a full squat instead of lowering simultaneously while catching. We refer to this as getting pinned or crashing the bar. After the catch and during the squat, we are reducing the momentum of the bar.
The final movement is standing up the clean. In other words, finishing the front squat. Keep your elbows high, maintain your grip, a tight spine*, hips under the weight, and push through your feet until you are standing.
Congratulations! You have completed a squat clean.
Variations of the Squat Clean
- Dumbbell Squat Clean
- Med-Ball Squat Clean
- Hang Squat Clean
Progressions for the Squat Clean
Fast, high elbows and holding an erect torso in the front squat are what I have found to be the two most limiting factors of the squat clean. Each of the limitations may be a result of a lack of mobility. You may discover shortcomings within the pulls, such as moving the bar off the ground and during the shrug.
Progressions to Improve Elbow Speed and Wrist turnover
- Warm-up with the wrists and lats with a serious of stretches
- Use muscle cleans to improve elbow speed and wrist extension in the catch.
- Then continue improvements using hang cleans to high hang cleans
Increase pulling strength
- Clean grip deadlifts
- Pause deadlifts
Exercises to improve Front Squat Mobility and Strengths
- Stretches to focus on improving thoracic mobility
- Front squat with a focus on high elbow position.
- Hang Squat Cleans
- Zots Presses to improve thoracic strength
- Face pulls and bent-over barbell rows
- Supermans, swimmers, planks, and push-ups