One of the most exciting aspects of the sport of weightlifting is that it’s not one-size-fits-all. While most lifters share the common goal of improving their strength, technique, or gaining more muscle, getting better at the Olympic lifts tends to go hand-in-hand with a personalized program.
If you’re struggling with your clean or power clean, you need the right tool for the job — the muscle clean. There may not be a better complimentary exercise for improving your technique across any variation of the barbell clean.
Whether you’re a beginner lifter or a seasoned competitor, the muscle clean can be used to make your lifts quick, tight, and efficient. In this article, we’re going to dissect everything about the muscle clean, including:
- How to Do the Muscle Clean
- Benefits of the Muscle Clean
- Muscles Worked by the Muscle Clean
- Who Should Do the Muscle Clean
- Muscle Clean Sets and Reps
- Muscle Clean Variations
- Muscle Clean Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
The muscle clean looks similar to the traditional clean, but is distinguished by how you finish the lift. Rather than aggressively pulling yourself underneath a heavy bar, you use your upper body strength to fix the bar on the shoulders in the front rack position.
Step 1 — Lock the Start
Stand with the barbell positioned over your shoelaces, with feet hip-width apart. Grip the bar comfortably outside your knees. Keep your shoulder blades pulled together and back, arms straight, and make sure the bar is lightly grazing your shins. Bend your knees so they’re out in front of the barbell to load your legs, and look straight ahead.
Coach’s Tip: To master consistency in the setup, try holding your starting position for 1 – 2 seconds prior to the movement. This static start will reinforce precision in the first pull.
Step 2 — Push to the Knee
Once you secure your start position, push through your legs with your chest up. Keep your arms straight and relaxed. As the weight lifts from the floor, keep your shoulders vertically over the barbell, and raise your hips at the same rate.
Coach’s Tip: The lift from the floor to the knee requires control and precision, so stay patient during this portion of the lift.
Step 3 — Pull to Extension
Once the bar passes the knee, continue driving to a tall extension. Pull the bar up towards your hips while keeping your hips back and knees slightly bent. When the bar reaches your upper thigh, make strong contact and violently extend your hips and legs.
The noteworthy contact and contraction of the ankles, knees, and hips creates upward momentum on the barbell, allowing it to fly high towards your shoulders.
Coach’s Tip: As you extend your body, think about “getting taller” with your legs. This will help impart force into the bar.
Step 4 — Sweep the Elbows
The muscle clean is defined by what happens after your lower body extends. As the bar travels upward, actively pull your elbows around and up to fix it on your shoulders in the front rack position. Do not dip your legs or torso down to meet the barbell, use your arms to place it in the rack.
Coach’s Tip: Try to keep your elbows on top of the barbell for as long as possible during extension and “flip them over” at the last second.
The muscle clean is a great way to enhance your technique with the barbell, get a little more mobile, and become more efficient overall. The lift highlights one aspect of the clean — the turnover of the bar — that you may not be able to work on directly with other moves.
Clean Technique Development
To perform a picture-perfect clean, you need to be dedicated to your technique. The muscle clean directly targets your bar path and upper body mechanics. Pulling the elbows aggressively around a heavy barbell requires more than a little practice to master, and the muscle clean lets you zone in on an area that many athletes struggle to improve.
Improved Leg Drive
In the muscle clean, the contribution of your legs is exaggerated for as long as possible. If your legs can’t produce enough power to elevate the bar to an adequate height, the lift just doesn’t work. Every rep you perform in the muscle clean teaches you to use the power of your legs, which can transfer widely to other strength-based movements.
Increase Elbow Speed
Your speed with the bar is put to the test in any type of clean. Moving quickly under load is not an easy task and requires many repetitions to get just right. The muscle clean is one of the few barbell exercises specifically tailored to refining upper body speed mechanics.
The front rack position of the clean requires pretty advanced mobility from the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. Olympic lifters are commonly plagued by restrictions in these areas, and the muscle clean can be great for improving access to your front rack.
Repeating a motion under reasonable amounts of external load is a great way to both loosen up the tissues and get some technical practice in — the muscle clean accomplishes both.
The muscle clean is a swift total body movement. The lift starts by loading the legs, and with patience in the pull, power is then transferred through the extension to the upper body. These muscles help the movement earn its name.
Quadriceps & Glutes
Your legs drive the barbell from the floor all the way to the top of the lift. The quads and glutes work hard to maintain your balance off the floor as well. The muscle clean accentuates the vast power potential of your lower body by creating high amounts of force from start to finish.
The traps help you finish the lift in a perfect catch. After extension, you have to powerfully shrug to keep the bar moving and get your elbows in place to flip and catch. The traps also do some isometric work early on in the lift to help keep the bar close to the body.
Arms & Shoulders
Your arms and shoulders are what truly define the muscle clean. You need strong biceps to bend your elbows under load and powerful delts to pull the bar up once your legs extend. While most weightlifting moves demand relaxed arms, the muscle clean highlights the contribution and potential power of your upper body.
A total-body functional movement like the muscle clean cannot be performed with an active and strong core. By bracing your core in the start position, you can effectively transfer power from your lower body up to your shoulders to facilitate a strong finish.
The muscle clean is useful to lifters of any level, ability, or experience. There are many different athletes who should incorporate this lift into their programming to strengthen the clean movement pattern.
The barbell can be very overwhelming. When introduced to the clean for the first time, understanding the nature of the arm action can be made easy via the muscle clean. By isolating the role of the upper body, you can break the clean down into digestible parts that are easy to learn, improving the rate at which you develop your technique.
Even a professional should take things back to basics once in a while. Since the nature of the muscle clean is so directly related to weightlifting performance, it will always serve a purpose in a well-designed program, even for an advanced athlete.
Lifters with experience can use the muscle clean as a warm-up to prime themselves for speed on the platform, or as an accessory if they’re suffering from bar crash in heavy cleans.
The benefits of the muscle clean go beyond competitive weightlifting. CrossFit training isn’t shy about including the clean or its variations. In fact, CrossFitters need to be particularly proficient at swift, controlled movements, since they often perform barbell cycling or high-rep cluster sets during WODs. If you’re into functional fitness, the muscle clean can be used outside of class or competition to improve your relationship with the barbell.
Depending on your goals, the muscle clean can help support your training in many different ways. Different programming methods exist to maximize the benefits of the exercise.
As a Weightlifting Accessory
The muscle clean’s primary function is as an accessory move in a weightlifting program. When using the muscle clean as an accessory, you should probably work on it towards the end of your training recession, and for slightly higher reps than you would on snatches or jerks.
Perform 4 – 5 sets of up to 5 repetitions following your training for the clean.
For Strength Development
Even though you can’t load up the bumper plates on the muscle clean, you can still develop some decent strength through practicing it. All you have to do is cut your reps down and pull hard.
To gain upper body strength with the muscle clean, perform sets of 1 – 3 reps with a challenging weight that doesn’t impede your technique.
For Mobility Practice
When the muscle clean is practiced for the purpose of improving mobility, even repetitions with just the empty bar can be beneficial. It’s also a great warm-up exercise for the arms and shoulders before a training session.
To mobilize your body, keep the weight very low and repetitions high. 3 – 4 sets of 6 – 10 repetitions with an empty barbell should afford you better access to your front rack position.
Since the muscle clean falls into a specific training niche, there aren’t many ways to tweak it. After all, it is already a variation of the main movement — the clean itself.
That said, the exercise may be performed with dumbbells or kettlebells if you don’t have access to a barbell. Simply “rack” the bell’s face on top of your working shoulder to finish the lift.
One of the best things about weightlifting accessories is that most of them help to improve the same outcome — pulling a barbell in a straight, clean line. Here are some alternatives to the muscle clean to help develop a tight bar path.
The power clean brings things one step closer to the clean proper. The major designation between the power clean and muscle clean is that you will catch the barbell in a high squat stance.
Everything else is the same, but adding a dynamic element lets you crank up the weights used while still improving lower body kinetics. As an aside, the power clean is a valid movement in a weightlifting competition, but the muscle clean is not.
The muscle snatch is to the snatch as the muscle clean is to the clean. The only noteworthy distinction is that you’ll rely on an extra-wide snatch grip, and the barbell flies to a fixed overhead position instead of resting on your shoulders. From the floor to the hips, the movement is identical.
Not everyone has the wrist strength or mobility in the shoulders to hold the barbell in a front rack position. If you’re weak or restricted, you can still develop your bar path without the muscle clean.
In the upright row, you can practice the upper body pulling action from the floor or at a standing position, whatever is more comfortable.
Moving the barbell is a complicated task. Even as your lifts improve with time, new challenges will always arise and require a new approach to training. If you aren’t practicing the muscle clean currently, the lift may help you understand how to use your arms in the clean better than before.
Weightlifting is all about working towards the bigger picture, even if you don’t always get there the same way. Even professional lifters at the Olympics understand the importance of going back to basics at the right time. Now that the muscle clean is a tool in your toolbox, you can break it out when the time is right.
You may still be wondering about a few important details of the lift. See below for further clarification on how to correctly use the muscle clean as a training tool.
Can the muscle clean be performed in a weightlifting competition?
Even though the muscle clean is very similar to the traditional clean, the muscle clean does NOT suffice as a competition lift. Since the finishing pull of the muscle clean is strict, the movement can technically be considered a two-motion lift. In weightlifting competition, the clean must be a singular pull from the ground to the shoulders, which excludes the muscle variation.
What if the muscle clean is painful on my wrists?
If you’re experiencing strain, it’s best to keep the weight load low enough where repetitions can be practiced without pain. If the stress on the wrists become too intense, try changing the medium to dumbbells or kettlebells temporarily, or pick up some wrist wraps.
Featured Image: William Breault / BarbellStories