Clean and Jerk – Technique and Muscles Worked

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.

In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about the clean and jerk, including:

  • Clean and Jerk Form and Technique
  • Benefits of the Clean and Jerk
  • Muscles Worked by the Clean and Jerk
  • Who Should Do the Clean and Jerk
  • Clean and Jerk Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
  • Clean and Jerk Variations and Alternatives

How to Perform the Clean and Jerk: Step-By-Step Guide

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the clean and jerk with the barbell.

Step 1. The Set Up

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.

Set the feet about hip width, with the feet slightly turned out, as this will allow the lifter to keep the knees/thighs out on the setup. 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.

Coach’s Tip: 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.

Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide - Set Up
Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide – Set Up

Step 2. The 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

To do this, stand up making sure to keep the shoulders over the bar, lifting with the legs and back. The back angle (spine) should stay relatively constant during this phase.

Coach’s Tip: 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.

Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide - First Pull
Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide – First Pull

Step 3. The 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). The explosion phase should occur mid thigh to the hip region based on the arm length and body measurements of the lifter.

Continue to pull the barbell up the body, making sure to stay balanced in the full foot with the shoulders above the bar.

Coach’s Tip: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.

Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide - Second Pull
Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide – Second Pull

Step 4. The Third Pull/Turnover

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

As you finish the second pull, stay active on the barbell after the second pull by using the traps to elevate the bar higher and pull oneself under the bar. Simultaneously move the feet and reset them firmly in place underneath your to the front squat/squat position. (so you can squat under it).

Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide - Third Pull
Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide – Third Pull

Step 5. The 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).

Assume a front squatted position with the hips low, chest high, and elbows up. Upon standing, assume a strong front rack position as you prepare to go into the jerk.

Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide - Receiving in Squat
Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide – Receiving in Squat

Step 6. The Jerk 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 a rigid upright torso and elbows in the dip.

Bend the knees and hips slightly to load the legs. Be sure to keep your torso upright and balance in the whole foot.

Coach’s Tip: 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.

Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide - Jerk Dip
Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide – Jerk Dip

Step 7: The Jerk Drive

The key here is to not use your upper body to press the weight (shoulders, chest, triceps) off the body, but rather use those muscles to stabilize the torso to allow the lower body to drive the weight off the body.

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.

Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide - Jerk Drive
Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide – Jerk Drive

8. Receive and Recover the Jerk Overhead

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).

Depending on the jerk style preferred (split, power, push, or squat jerk), you will move your feet into the proper receiving position to finish the lift.

Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide - Jerk Recovery
Clean and Jerk Exercise Guide – Jerk Recovery

3 Benefits of the Clean and Jerk

The clean and jerk offers immense benefits of the clean and jerk to lifters and athletes alike. Below are just three of these benefits.

1. Total Body Strength and Power

Increased strength and power of the legs, upper body, and core can all be expected when performing this total body ballistic movement that involves a heavy deadlift, squat, and press; all in one beautiful movement.

2. Improved Athletic Power

Increased posterior chain performance via clean and jerk training (as well as other power movements) has been linked with greater athletic skill sets like jumping, sprinting, and explosive hip extension.

3. Metabolic Movement

This exercise stresses nearly every system of the body due to the speed, loading, and complexity of the movement. The clean and jerk is a versatile movement that can be integrated into nearly any training program to build power strength, and fitness.

Muscles Worked – Clean and Jerk

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

Who Should Perform Clean and Jerks?

Below are a few groups of athletes that can benefit from the inclusion of clean and jerks within training programs.

Strength and Power Athletes

Strength and power athletes can both benefit from clean and jerks.

  • Powerlifting and Strongman Athletes: Pure strength athletes can integrate the clean and jerk into their training to improve power output and overall athleticism.
  • Olympic Weightlifting: The clean and jerk is a necessary exercise for all Olympic weightlifters to train as it is one of the two movements performed in competition.

Competitive CrossFit and Fitness Athletes

The clean and jerk is a movement that is often found in most CrossFit programs, competitions, and workouts (in some form). CrossFit and fitness athletes should use clean and jerks to improve overall strength, power, and train it for competition and workout needs.

Sports Training and General Fitness

The clean and jerk, while beneficial, does not always need to be trained with sport athletes or general fitness goers who may not need to spend as much devoted time to refine clean and jerk technique. The can acquire many of the same physiological benefits with some of the below alternatives; such as high pulls, push presses, etc.

Clean and Jerk Squat Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations

Below are three sets, reps, and weight (intensity) recommendations for coaches and athletes to properly program the clean and jerk specific to the training goal. Note, that the below guidelines are simply here to offer coach and athletes loose recommendations for programming.

Additionally, it is important to note that the clean and jerk is not inherently a hypertrophy building movement, as the time under tension and eccentric contractions are limited. This movement is often trained either for maximal power outputs, technique, Olympic weightlifting strength and skill, or competition training.

Movement Integrity – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The clean and jerk should be trained with light to moderate loads to develop proper positional awareness, timing, and foundational movement patterning necessary for more advanced training progressions.

  • 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions with light to moderate loads or 50-65% of max
  • The key here is movement quality, timing, and precision. Focus on these prior to adding heavier loads.

Power Output – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

This phase is often used for athletes (non-Olympic weightlifter, see next section) who are looking to integrate the clean and jerk (and the movement variations) to improve athletic power outputs.

  • 3-5 sets of 2-5 repetitions with 60-80%

Olympic Weightlifting Technique and Strength – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

This is the training range that most Olympic weightlifters will spend the majority of their training career in, as it can be manipulated to increase volume, add intensity, and address maximal power outputs, technical training, and strength.

  • 3-10 sets of 1-3 repetitions  with 70-85% of maximum.
  • Note, that there is a wide array of weightlifting programming concepts and beliefs out there, and you should be sure to discuss without coach and/or understand the system goals and foundations; as this type of training is complex and often requires utmost commitment and understanding of how loading, training volume, and recovery are all intermingled.

Competition Training (Peaking) – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

For those individuals who have spent previous training cycles refining technique, improving base volume, and are ready to peak for a competition of testing phase, the below guidelines can be used. It is important to get help from a coach that also understands the balance between higher percentage training and recovery, as doing this for too long can result in acute and chronic injury and decreased neurological function in most individuals.

  • 6-12 sets of 1-2 repetitions with 85% of max, or more.

3 Clean and Jerk Variations

Below are three (3) common and effective clean and jerk variations to build strength, address technique issues, and improve Olympic weightlifting performance.

1. Block Clean

The block clean can be done to increase rate of force production in the clean or address technical breakdowns in the pull.

2. Clean + Jerk Complexes

Weightlifting complexes, such as the clean + front squat + jerk and/or the clean pull + clean + jerk can be a good way to combine other necessary movements of the clean and jerk to (1) increase training volume, (2) add variety to training, and (3) to add additional movements that will reinforce proper technique and positional strength.

3. Hang Clean

The hang clean is similar to the block clean in that it can be done to increase rate of force production in the clean or address technical breakdowns in the pull.

3 Clean and Jerk Alternatives

Below are three (3) clean and jerk alternatives that can be used to improve power outputs without needing to address higher level technical training (such as for non-weightlifting athletes, general fitness, etc)

1. Clean/Snatch High Pull

The clean/snatch high pull can be used to decrease injury risks of the wrists or to minimize the technical coaching needed to help lifters. This can be helpful for non-weightlifting athletes looking to get the benefits of power training without running risks of injury due to lack of proper readiness.

2. Clean and Press

The clean and press is similar to the clean and jerk however the athlete can move the load from the shoulder to the overhead position by strict pressing, push pressing, or jerking. This is a good option for some lifters looking for the total body benefit of the clean and press/jerk, however may not have a full understanding on the timing and technique necessary to take loads overhead. This is also good to help add overhead strength, as the jerk requires less concentric strength as strict pressing or push pressing loads overhead.

3. Ball Clean

The ball clean can be done to educate newer lifters, youth, or older individuals how to properly use the body in a systematic way to move the load from the floor to the shoulder. This exercise, while not improving power output, can be a foundation step to developing movement patterning and awareness needed for more advanced movements.

More Clean and Jerk Articles

Take a look at some of our top articles on clean and jerks!

Featured Image: Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.

Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.

Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.

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