5 Common Clean & Jerk Mistakes and How to Fix Them

Improve your clean & jerk with these 15 accessory movements and tips!

The clean & jerk is a glorious expression of raw strength, power, mobility, and confidence. The attributes needed to successfully hoist hundreds of kilos overhead doesn’t happen overnight. Many lifters will come to a point in training where lifts plateau and feel inconsistent, which lead some left scratching their heads as to why.

In this article we will discuss five common clean & jerk mistakes beginners, CrossFit athletes, and even experienced weightlifters lifters make that can lead to inconsistencies in the lift.

  • 5 Clean and Jerk Faults
  • 15 Exercises and Tips to Improve Common Clean & Jerk Faults
  • How to Integrate Clean and Jerk Solution Exercises

Be sure to check out our Clean and Jerk Guide to review the key concepts and technical aspects of the clean and jerk.

1. Inconsistent Set Up

Most faults in the first pull can often be traced back to a poor set up position. If you are baffled as to what is going on with your clean and/or jerk, start here.

Below are three exercises athletes can do to improve their set up positioning and body awareness in the clean and jerk.

A. Static Starts

One of the biggest issues seen in lifters is that they are extremely inconsistent with their dynamic starts. Dynamic starts are common, and in general should he used as they can help increase strength and power off the floor. If however, a lifter fails to achieve a consistent set up and start position statically (meaning no dynamic start), he/she will be unable to achieve a proper set up and first pull mechanics.

Lifters of all levels should use static starts to improve power and positional strength off the floor, improve bodily control, and address set up issues. You can perform all clean and jerk variations with a static lift.

B. Slow Cleans

Performing slow cleans is a great way to feel how an inconsistent set up can alter the first and second pull. To do slow cleans, perform a clean from the floor with a slow tempo start. This should be done using less loading than usual. Once the bar gets to the top of the second pull/explosion point, switch into full throttle and clean it.

You can also do this same thing with the jerk, using pauses and slow controlled dips (full speed jerk drives though). You can use slow cleans as a light to moderate clean and jerk variation for 3-5 sets of 2-3 repetitions at 70-80% max.

C. Another Set of Eyes

This may seem simple enough, but many lifters don’t get the external feedback from a training partner and/or coach regarding their positions in the start of the clean or the jerk.

Ask a friend or coach to give you verbal or physical feedback on your positions. When you do this in conjunction with static starts you can start to establish better body control and muscle memory.

2. Yanking on the Bar

Yanking, early arm pulling, and lack of positional awareness off the floor and in the pull can lead to a slew of faults in the clean. Many lifters will do this as the loads get heavier and/or when they are fatigued. The key here is to trust the body and to not be concerned with the speed of the first pull (floor to knee).

Below are three exercises athletes can do to improve their positions and strength off the floor.

A. Deficit Clean Pulls

Deficit clean pulls can be used to develop leg strength and increase the emphasis on lower body activation during the initial pulling phases of the clean. Often, lifters will arm pull, yank on the barbell, and lose positioning in the first pull due to lack of leg strength and/or lack of utilization of the legs.

Perform clean pulls and deadlifts to maximize leg strength and growth at the deeped ranges of the set up. Start by performing 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions using 80% of your clean max.

B. Floating Clean Pulls

The floating clean pull is done to increase eccentric strength and coordination of the clean, as well as improve location of the lower body in the pull. 

To perform this exercise, have a lifter perform clean pulls without going to the floor, hovering over the ground for a second or two before going into the next repetition. You can also have the lifter stand on plates/short blocks to be able to train full knee and hip flexion without hitting the floor. Start by performing 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions using 80% of your clean max.

C. Pause Cleans

The pause clean forces a lifter to perform a complete stop in the middle of the pulling phase (in this case, have the lifer pause 2-3 inches off the floor). The pause will force the lifter to regain any lost positioning and understand proper balance and leg drive in the first pull, rather than resorting to pulling excessively with the bar and lower back.

You can use pause cleans as a light to moderate clean and jerk variation for 3-5 sets of 2-3 repetitions at 70-80% max.

3. Not Staying Over the Bar

Once the bar passes the knee, the lifter and barbell transition into the second pull. The key here is to keep the bar close to the body and stay balanced in the full foot as the shoulders and chest remain directly above the barbell.  If a lifter fails to stay over the barbell (pulls shoulders back) the hips often move forward prematurely, arms bend, and the lifter often fails to finish the pull.

Below are three exercises athletes can do to improve their positions and strength in the second pull.

A. Romanian Deadlifts

The Romanian deadlift is a positional strength exercise that can be done to increase back, hamstring, and glute strength needed for staying over the barbell and assuming proper positioning in the second pull. Lifters can perform the Romanian deadlift as accessory movement or as a main pulling variton.

Start by performing 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions with 80-100% of your clean or snatch max, pausing and lowering to just below the knees (hold this position for 2-3 seconds).

Master the Setup

Load a barbell and stand with your feet shoulder width apart, toes forwards, and the barbell running over your shoelaces (from the aerial view).

In this position, it is important that the torso is upright, arms are straight , and the shoulder blades are dropped downwards towards the rear. This will allow you to “lock” the back and minimize strain in the neck.

Hinge and Grab the Bar

Bend down and grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder width grip and only slight bend to the knees

Keep your back flat and shoulders over the barbell. Once you have stood up, reset in the above vertical torso positioning.

Set the Back

Push the hips back while maintaining a set back.

This will result in you feeling tension develop in the hamstrings and across the back (lower and middle, especially around the shoulder blades), with the torso moving towards being parallel to the floor.

Initiate With the Glutes and Hamstrings

Use glutes and hamstrings to stand upwards, keeping the barbell close to the body.

If you’re having trouble keeping the barbell close, think of engaging your lats (without pulling through the arms).

Contract and Lower

At the top of the movement, contract the upper back, core, and glutes by flexing from the middle of the back to the buttocks (glutes).

While most athletes will be standing up straight at the top of the movement, avoid overextending and leaning further back than necessary.

Lower barbell the same way and repeat for repetitions.

B. No Contact Cleans

No contact cleans are a great exercise to reinforce full vertical extension and balance in the pull of the clean. Often, lifers who fail to stay over the bar and/or rely heavily on pulling their shoulders back and cracking their hips into the bar will struggle during this movement.

Lack of vertical extension and proper balance in the second pull will often result in the barbell looping out front, crashing in the front rack, and/or not achieve a high enough bar height to secure the front rack position. You can use no contact cleans as a light to moderate clean and jerk variation for 3-5 sets of 2-3 repetitions at 70-80% max.

3. Pause Cleans

Pauses that occur above the knee or just below the knee can be used during the clean to reinforce proper positioning in the pull. Lifters can integrate these pauses in most complexes and hangs to strengthen isometric control, establish greater balance in the pull, and improve timing of the lift.

Start by performing pause cleans (2-3 second pause above the knee) for 3-4 sets of 2-3 reps using 70-80% of a lifter’s max clean and jerk.

4. Poor Front Rack Mobility

Poor front rack mobility can be a result of many things, most commonly poor thoracic, shoulder, back, triceps, and elbows mobility. With that said, many athletes will feel uncomfortable in a front rack simply because it is not a “natural” position. A combination of the below solutions should be taken to best address front rack mobility.

Below are three exercises athletes can do to improve their front rack mobility and/or positional strength.

A. Lat and Triceps Stretch

Lack of flexibility in the lats and triceps can impede a lifter’s positioning. Performing banded lat openers, triceps stretches, and other upper body stretches can often improve positioning

Start by performing 2-3 stretches of 20-30 seconds of both the banded lat openers and the banded triceps stretch.

B. Lifting with Straps

Lifting with weightlifting straps during front rack drills, front squats, and light muscle cleans can be a good way to force a fuller grip on the barbell. For many lifters, this is necessary as simply stretching and mobilizing will not do the trick. Use with caution, and start with an empty bar. The shoulders, lats, and triceps will be stiff, and forced to move since the straps will keep the wrists from compensating by going into excessive wrist extension.

Start by performing your warm-up drills and light sets of front squats, push presses, and muscle cleans using straps. You can then perform light full lifts like cleans with them as once you have established proper mobility.

C. Partner Front Rack Stretches

The front rack partner stretch can be done during both front rack drills and with straps. Assume a proper front rack positioning with a barbell, making sure to keep the full grip on the bar. Your partner should trap the bar down in the front rack while simultaneously pushing your elbows up into the correct position.

It’s important that the athlete and partner work together to maintain good positions, only stretching slightly past the range that can be achieved by the athlete.

Always test front rack mobility pre and post partner stretching to look for improvements. Start by performing partner stretches before every workout, with an empty bar or during very light warm up sets in the front rack. Hold each partner stretch for 10-20 seconds, repeating 3-4 times per session.

5. Limited Thoracic Mobility and Stability

This last aspect is one often overlooked as it required dedicated accessory work and specificity. While many of the other aspects of training can target the upper back, some lifters may need to dedicate more training in this area than others. Integrate these if you are someone who has trouble assuming a rigid upper back or collapses through the thoracic spine under load.

Below are three exercises athletes can do to improve their front rack mobility and/or positional strength.

A. Sots Press

The Sots press is a strict overhead press performed while seated in the front squat position. This is extremely challenging for many lifters, yet can develop shoulder mobility and thoracic stability necessary for front squats, cleans, and overhead lifts.

Start by performing 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps using light weight (or an empty barbell). You can even use lifting straps to further enhance this upper back strengthening lift.

B. Scapular Mobility Drills

Establishing scapular control and awareness is necessary during the front rack, set up, and overhead positions. Some lifters may lack the ability to perform multi-directional scapular movements, suggesting a disconnect and lack of scapular stability and control.

Start by performing 5-10 controlled scapular slides while in quadruped position before you workout.  Have a friend give you physical feedback if you are having difficulty coordinating the movement. Be sure to do scapular depression, elevation, retraction, protraction, and circular motions (both directions)

C. Double Overhead Kettlebell Walks

The double kettlebell overhead walk is a shoulder stability exercise that targets the shoulders, rhomboids, upper back, and traps. This is a great exercise to train both the shoulders and scapular regions unilaterally.

Start by performing 3-4 sets of 20-30 seconds of slow, controlled double kettlebell overhead walks. You can also start in the stationary position, making sure to maintain a neutral spine and neutral wrist position.

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