Clean and Jerk – Technique and Muscles Worked

In this comprehensive guide we will break down the clean and jerk exercise seen in competitive Olympic weightlifting, competitive fitness, and sports performance training.

In the below sections we break down the clean and jerk into its individual segments and offer technique breakdowns and video tutorials.

The Clean and Jerk

The clean and jerk is one of the two lifts done in Olympic weightlifting. It is comprised of the (1) clean movement, which entails lifting a barbell from the floor into the front racked squatted position to standing, and the (2) jerk, which is done by powerfully moving the barbell from the front rack to the overhead, elbows locked out position in one, smooth and powerful motion. The below video is of the full clean and jerk lift done in an Olympic weightlifting competition.

Muscles Worked

The clean and jerk is a total body movement that stresses nearly every muscle in the body. Below are the main muscle groups that are worked when performing the clean and jerk exercise.

  • Hamstrings
  • Lower back and spinal erectors
  • Quadriceps
  • Trapezius
  • Abdominals, obliques, and transverse abdominals
  • Shoulders and scapular stabilizers
  • Triceps, biceps, forearms

Clean Technique

The below section covers all aspects of the clean technique. In each section, we will discuss the key concepts of the clean, provided video tutorials, and offer a few clean variations to increase technique and performance in the clean.

Setup

The setup of the clean is critical to clean technique. Many faults in later phases of the clean are influenced by a poor or inconsistent setup; which when addressed can in fact help to minimize some common faults.

  1. Set the feet about hip width. Width may vary based on body size, mobility, and personal preference.
  2. Set the feet so that the toes are slightly turned out, as this will allow the lifter to keep the knees/thighs out on the setup. In the event a lifter keeps the toes and knees forward, this could end in the barbell having to go out around the knees in the first pull (rather than the bar coming into the body by pulling the knees back).
  3. The shoulders should cover the barbell, with the hips lower than shoulder level yet higher than the knees. Note, these are general setup concepts, and specific setups may vary based on coach/athlete preferences.
  4. The barbell should be in light contact with the shins at the setup. This will ensure the barbell starts close to the body in the pull, which is a key technical consideration.

First Pull

The first pull of the clean occurs when the barbell initially breaks from the floor. The first pull ends when the barbell passes the knee, which is the start of the second pull. Some key notes to be aware of during the first pull is:

  1. The barbell should come into the body, or at least not go outwards off the floor. This will ensure balance in the pull and increase the ability to keep the bar close as you approach the second pull.
  2. The back angle (spine) should stay relatively constant during this phase. The first pull is to gain momentum of the barbell off the floor and to set the barbell and lifter in the best position necessary for a strong, powerful, second pull.

Second Pull

The second pull refers to the segment of the clean where the barbell passes the knee and approaches the explosion phase (middle thigh/hips).

  1. The explosion phase should occur mid thigh to the hip region based on the arm length and body measurements of the lifter.
  2. Generally speaking, the lifter’s arms should be straight with minimal elbow bend during this phase. Early arm bend can result in weaker, less lower fills and/or impact the lifter’s ability to be smooth and efficient in the third pull/turnover phase.
  3. The key here is to push through the entire foot for as long as possible, finishing as upright with the torso and elbows as possible. The goal is to increase the height at which the barbell can be turned over.

Third Pull/Turnover Phase

During this phase, the lifter acts upon the barbell to forcefully rotate their elbows underneath and into the front rack position.

  1. This can be accomplished by staying active on the barbell after the second pull by using the traps to elevate the bar higher and pull oneself under the bar.
  2. Simultaneously move the feet and reset them firmly in place underneath your to the front squat m/squat position. (so you can squat under it)

Receiving Position

The receiving position of the clean (often called the “catch phase”) requires a lifter to fix themselves in a squatted position with the barbell racked on the front of the shoulders (like in the front squat). Important technique notes for this position are:

  1. The elbows should be push upwards under the barbell, often parallel to the floor.
  2. The chest should be set upwards so that the lifter’s back (thoracic) is extended. This will ensure that the barbell doesn’t crash down and fall off the lifter in the clean.
  3. The feet should be roughly hip width with the pointed out. This will allow the lifter to keep the knees and thighs out and the back should be as vartie  as possible
  4. The lifter must work to keep all muscles and positions strong in the catch position.

Clean Variations

The below clean exercises are common variations used in training of both elite and beginner level athletes.

Power Clean

The power clean can be used to teach the clean (minimizes the need to do a full squat in the receiving position). It is primarily used to force a lifter to pull the barbell higher by increasing force output and pulling strength.

Hang Clean

The hang clean can be used to regress the full clean to minimize the complexity of the exercise for lifters who may have issues with the first pull and setup positioning. Additionally, this can be done to increase rate of force production in the clean and help lifters gain confidence, strength, and speed finishing the pull and assuming a stronger receiving position.

Block Clean

The block clean can be done to train/teach a specific phase of the clean pull/clean. It can then be used by intermediate to advanced lifters to increase the rate of force production and explosiveness at certain phases of the clean, which can be extremely beneficial for lifters who lack explosiveness. Lastly, block cleans can help to limit pulls off the floor yet still allow the clean to be trained (which could be helpful during deload weeks and/or limit pulling for injury reasons).

Jerk Technique

The below section covers all aspects of the jerk technique. In each section, we will discuss the key concepts of the jerk, provided video tutorials, and offer a few jerk variations to increase technique and performance in the jerk.

Setup

The setup in the jerk is similar to that of the front squat, and entails a lifter to stand firmly with the barbell resting in the front rack position.

  1. The feet should be about hip width, or slightly wider, with the toes out.
  2. The chest, chin, elbows, and diaphragm should be elevated upwards. The elbows, in some lifters, may not necessarily by upwards if they are able to maintain proper set up otherwise (and not allowing the barbell to slide forwards in the dip and drive or prematurely press the bar upwards.
  3. The lifter must place a great amount of weight into their heels so that they do not allow the weight to pull them forwards.
  4. The lifter must emphasize upper back tension and keeping an arch in the lower back.

The Dip

The dip refers to the downward loading movement of the jerk, in which the lifter descends into a quarter squat (dip depths may vary) without falling forward or losing balance. This can be done by keeping the weight back in the heels and maintaining s rigid upright torso and elbows in the dip. The dip speed should be smooth, and allow for a stretch reflex to take place. Failure to load the dip properly, dip too fast, too slow, leaning to far back, or leaning to far forward can result in throwing the barbell out front and missing lifts overhead.

The Drive

At the succession of the dip (typically 4-6 inches from the standing poison, the lifter forcefully uses their leg strength to stand upwards into the bar to increase vertical displacement of the barbell. The key here is to not use your upper body to press the weight (shoulders, chest, triceps) off the body, but rather use those muscle to stabilize the torso to allow the lower body to drive the weight off the body.

Receiving Position

The receiving position in the jerk is highly dependent on the style of jerk one is doing (specifically foot placement and depth of receiving the load overhead). Be sure to read about the variations below to learn four of the jerk variations most commonly used to place loads overhead.

Jerk Variations

The below jerk exercises are common variations used in training of both elite and beginner level athletes.

Note, in the below video, Mart Seim is performing a split jerk with a pause in the dip. This pause is intentional, as it forces a lifter to find better balance and technique in the dip and greater leg strength and aggression in the drive. That said, the lifter should not pause at the bottom of the jerk, but rather change directions quickly to maximize jerk performance (unless they are targeting the pause jerk variations for above reasons).

Push Jerk

The push jerk is a jerk variation that has a lifter place their feet already in the receiving position (feet are placed in the squat position during setup). This differs from the below jerk variations, which allow a lifter to move their feet into the squat/split position after the drive phase of the lift. By not moving the feet, you force a lifter to maximize leg drive in the jerk and to find better timing and balance after the drive phase to ensure proper par path and power..

Power Jerk

The power jerk is done identically to the push jerk, with the exception that the lifter jumps their feet outwards an inch or so and assumes a slightly squatted receiving position. By not splitting or performing a full squat jerk, the lifter needs to produce greater amounts of power to drive the barbell higher into the air to assume a higher receiving position. This can be useful for lifters who lack the ability to drive a barbell high enough upwards in the jerk.

Split Jerk

The split jerk is one of the more common methods used in competitive weightlifting to jerk heavy loads overhead. The setup, dip, and drive phases of this jerk variation are identical to that of the other jerk variations. The key difference is the sliding of the feet into the split patterning, which is described below.

Squat Jerk

The squat jerk is done with the identical setup, dip, and drive phases as the power and split jerk. Similar to the power jerk, the lifter jumps their feet open into the squat position after driving the barbell high of the body with the legs. The difference between the squat jerk vs the power jerk is that the lifter receives the barbell in a deep overhead squat position (with the hands placed in the clean/jerk grip width, not wide like the snatch or standard overhead squat position). This requires greater overhead strength, stability, and total body mobility than all other jerks above, but can also allow for high amounts of loading to be placed overhead. Note, the squat jerk and the split jerk are two of the most common jerks done when looking to maximize overhead jerking performance, though the split jerk is seen much, much more frequently.

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Featured Image: @martseim via @BarBend on Instagram

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