The Clean and Jerk: A Complete Guide

What is the Clean and Jerk?

The simpler of the two Olympic lifts, the clean and jerk allows more weight to be lifted overhead than the snatch simply from a mechanical perspective.

A set up similar in style to the deadlift allows elite level athletes to lift well in excess of 200kg.

On top of the obvious strength and power benefits, it also increases anabolic endurance and has cardiovascular benefits not normally associated with weight-training.

The complexity of the movement and the power required to lift weights requires tremendous explosive power and utilises almost every muscle in the body.

For decades athletic coaches have utilised the it as a supplement to improving sports specific performance. Given it’s relative simplicity when compared to the snatch it’s the lift of choice for sprinters, NFL players and other sports with such a high power output requirement.

Benefits of the Clean and Jerk

Benefits of full body movements are typically impressive (and varied), but possibly none more so than the clean and jerk. Pulling, pressing, acceleration, jumping, fast twitch fibre recruitment. The list is virtually endless.

But this infographic should help breakdown why it’s a lift you should be doing. To supercharge your sports performance or to perfect your parkour.

The Top 8 Benefits of the Clean and Jerk
The Top 8 Benefits of the Clean and Jerk
  1. Increase in Overall Strength: An effective leg builder that taxes your shoulders and triceps effectively. It’s only limitation is the low number of reps required.
  2. Enhance Power Output: You can’t clean or jerk slowly. It’s a lift that requires training at full speed and that typically translates to fast twitch muscle fibres and ATP energy improvements.
  3. Increase Anaerobic Endurance: A true builder of explosiveness that effectively recruits the body’s ATP-CP system, which is a phenomenal way to improve your vertical jump and acceleration.
  4. Improve Core Stability: Much like the front squat, the clean and jerk recruits your core for almost every second of the lift. Holding heavy weight overhead also works your serratus anterior, whilst the front squat is particularly quad dominant.
  5. Increase Pushing Power: Everybody wants a bigger bench press. Building up your shoulders is an effective way to balance your body (and mitigate the risk of injury) whilst tricep strength is exactly what the top portion of any press needs.
  6. Aesthetic Improvements: Any exercise (with diet) should do this to be fair, but your quads, core and shoulders in particular will rock.
  7. Reverse Metabolic Disease: People who lift weights are less likely to have metabolic syndrome according to this 2012 study. Whilst this may not be clean and jerk specific, regularly Olympic lifting can help mitigate against heart disease and diabetes. That’s (the opposite of) killer!

Now Read: How to Gain Muscle & How to Lose Fat

How to Increase your Clean and Jerk

The good news is the clean and jerk is much easier to improve than the snatch. Obviously it still takes a huge amount of time and effort. But it’s typically far more manageable for those looking to improve their athletic performance.

To understand how to increase your clean and jerk, we must break the lift down into it’s individual components and strengthen the isolated body parts and technique(s) associated with each. The key to successful Olympic lifting is to be exceptionally strong in each position, so accessory lifts like the hang clean or the push press.

As a beginner however it’s crucial that you run through the movement as much as possible. Even if you’re just looking to weightlift as a hobby, it’s a lot more enjoyable if you’re good at it. To be good at both, you must refine the technique as much as possible.

To improve your technique you must establish what your weak points are and you’ll only figure that out by performing the lift as much as possible. Either filming it or under the watchful gaze of someone much more proficient than yourself.

Common weak points for the Clean

1. Getting under the bar: Also known as ‘time to fixation’ can be a real problem with novice lifters. It requires confidence and pulling power to get under the bar at the optimal time. Usually hang clean variations, cleaning from blocks and tall cleans are a fantastic remedy.

2. A weak pull: Not getting the bar high enough is pretty typical for beginners. Fully extending (up onto the toes) and the subsequent pull takes some getting used to. Performing clean pulls with 105-115% of your clean 1RM are the optimal way to improve your pulling power. Make sure you shrug and fully extend at the top of the lift to reap the rewards.

3. Getting caught at the bottom: The more you squat, the stronger your legs are and the better equipped you’ll be the bottom position of the clean. Front squats are obviously more specific than back squats when it comes to cleans, but certainly more taxing on your CNS. The sweet spot for most lifters is to get to a stage where you can squat 3-4 times a week. Frequency is essential for honing technique, so don’t overdo the volume. Little and often for core lifts is ideal. Paused front squats are ideal for improving your bottom position.

4. Dropping the bar forward: This tends to be a combination of lack of upper back strength and not pulling the bar high enough. Strengthening your upper back with hypertrophy based workouts is essential. Increasing your front squat frequency and volume will help your elbow positioning in the clean, preventing the bar falling forward.

Common weak points in the Jerk

1. Poor overhead strength: As a beginner lifter, the chances are you’re going to be weak overhead. Overhead pressing is notoriously hard to strengthen. Military pressing is a good strengthening move, as is the z-press. I would also recommend adding in isometric holds at the top of the lift to get more comfortable with the position. Pressing from the jerk position is probably the most specific way to improve your overhead strength for Olympic lifting.

2. Feet positioning: Performing the jerk with enough speed and confidence is tricky. The initial dip must be quick and the movement to the ‘catch’ position demands ferocity. Practice driving the bar up from the split position initially to help reinforce technique.

3. Speed: Technique is absolutely more important than strength. Just because you can push 80kg above your head, doesn’t mean you should. Focus on speed and positioning to begin with by working with 50-60% of your 1RM, doing 2 reps EMOM (every minute on the minute) making sure every rep is fast and you feel stable.

Clean and Jerk Technique

The clean and jerk is comprised of two movements. The clean, which entails moving the barbell from the floor into the front rack squat position (via the triple extension).

The jerk is the final portion of the lift, which is done by taking the bar from the front rack position to the overhead position, in one powerful motion with fully locked out elbows.

There are 3 pulls associated with the clean:

  1. The first pull which ends as the bar passes the knees
  2. The second pull starts as the bar passes the knees and ends as the bar makes contact with the hips
  3. The third pull (or turnover) phase forces you to rotate your elbows underneath, drop under the bar and squat up in the front rack position
  4. You then dip and drive the bar up and lockout above head height
  5. Driving your head through and feet into the split position, with weight roughly even distributed

The initial setup is so important for solid technique. Correct setup before starting the lift can help mitigate common faults and should be thought of like so:

  1. Set your feet to around hip width apart
  2. Turn your toes around 10 degrees outwards to help keep the knees out the way of the lift:
    1. You’re trying to avoid having to pull around the knees
    2. By pulling up in the first pull 
    3. And back into the thigh to initiate contact in the second
  3. Keep your shoulders over the bar
    1. This is the main difference between the clean and the deadlift
    2. In the deadlift you want to pull the shoulders behind the bar as quickly as possible
  4. And your hips below your shoulders, but above your knees
  5. The bar just about touching your shins

There are so many nuances involved with the clean and it’s technique, but hopefully the below video will help with your clean technique:

Will the Clean and Jerk make you Stronger?

Absolutely. Although it’s not necessarily associated with making you stronger. More explosive, with a better vertical jump and acceleration; definitely. But absolute strength typically comes from the substantial increase in squatting when Olympic weightlifting.

Compared to the squat or the deadlift, the clean isn’t as proficient when discussing strength. Squats, deadlifts or presses are compound exercises that utilise at least as many muscle groups and require less technical proficiency.

Typically your clean is around 120% of your snatch and requires less technical proficiency. So out of the two Olympic lifts, it’s definitely the go-to for out and out strength.

What muscles does the Clean and Jerk work?

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Gluteals High Lower back and hamstring injury prevention
Quadriceps High Explosive power production (jumps) & knee injury prevention
Hamstrings Medium Explosive power production (sprints) & functional motion improvement
Shoulders Medium Overall pressing strength and increased upper body strength potential
Posterior Chain Medium Lower back injury prevention & increased potential pulling strength
Core Medium Lower back injury prevention & improved stability / posture
Triceps Low Fantastic for overall pressing strength and translate effectively to pressing movements
Thigh Adductors Low Knee injury prevention & knee cave mitigation when squatting

Good for: A phenomenal overall exercise that works your legs, core, posterior chain, shoulders and triceps really efficiently. However the lack of hypertrophy involved with the movement doesn’t translate to muscular size, so accessory work is key.

How to Clean and Jerk for Beginners

As discussed, this is a pretty technical lift. Not as technical as the snatch, but like any skill it requires patience and dedication. By sticking to the above technique steps you’ll be off to a solid start, but here are some key areas of focus:

Get a Strong Front Rack Position

The stronger your front squat and front rack position, the easier it is to stand up in the clean. Initially your triceps and lats will feel incredibly tight and the front rack position will feel beyond unnatural. But it takes time, stretching and front squats. Lots of front squats.

Because of the front squats upright nature, they will improve your front rack position and help strengthen your quads. You’ll initially struggle with pulling your elbows up tight enough and preventing your chest from dropping forward, but consistency, stretching and squatting will *Coldplay voice*

fix you.”

Play around with your grip width until you find a comfortable hand and wrist position. One that allows you to grip the bar with each finger.

Break the Pulls down

Initially you do need to run through the clean in it’s entirety. That way it enables you to pick up on your weak points. But don’t be afraid to break the clean down once you feel slightly more proficient.

A bad first pull will inevitably ruin the rest of the lift, so use a clean-pull to perfect the first section of the lift. Make sure you differentiate it from the conventional deadlift by keeping your shoulders over the bar for as long as possible whilst keeping your back angle the same.

Pull until the contact point or the start of the second pull.

Perfect the Point of Contact

This contact point is arguably the most important part of the lift because it requires patience and timing that only comes with practice.

Practicing a contact drill is an ideal way to knit the first and second pull together.

Improve your Mobility

Ankle flexibility and overhead stability are two of the most common issues with Olympic weightlifting. Overhead squats (with just a barbell) aren’t just useful for improving your snatch bottom position. The increased flexibility and stability required in the lift is fantastic for improving your mobility and confidence in the bottom of the clean.

Start with no weight and hold the bar with a clean grip overhead in the bottom position for as long as possible. Keep repeating this each workout adding weight as you go.

Work on Time to Fixation

Time to fixation is just ‘getting under the bar.’ Getting under the bar at first will seem scary. But you need to practice it. Start with a no contact pull from the waist. Pull the bar up and drop under into the bottom position, driving the bar up to the front rack position.

Start with no weight on the bar and practice it until you feel confident adding weight.

Get your Feet Sorted

The jerk portion of the lift requires fast, accurate footwork. Don’t worry about weight at the start. Work on pushing the par up from the split position to begin with. Then move to the front rack position and start with military presses, push presses, push jerks and finally split jerks. All the time focusing on fast, accurate footwork and finally the recovery position.

Clean and Jerk to Squat Ratio

Lift to squat ratios are obviously highly variable amongst athletes. The better your technique and anthropometry for the lift, the better your ratios will be.

For example, your snatch may be weaker than your clean and jerk in terms of ratios if you:

  • Have shorter arms relative to your body
  • Are weak in the bottom of the overhead squat position
  • Flexibility issues from bench pressing too much that makes a stable lockout tricky

These ratios can also help you identify where your weaknesses are. If your power variations of the lifts are well below the estimated 1RM, then you know you have explosive power issues. Remedy that with more power work, box jump variations and explosive drills.

The below table is a rough guide to how the lifts compare to the back squat 1RM:

Corresponding Lift % of Back Squat 1RM
Front Squat 82.5 – 87.5%
Clean 75 – 80%
Power Clean 62.5 – 67.5%
Snatch 60-65%
Power Snatch 50-55%
Overhead Squat 65-70%
Clean Pull 100 – 110%
Snatch Pull 90 – 100%

Can you Clean and Jerk Everyday?

I liken the clean and jerk (and the snatch) more to the bench press than the squat and deadlift.

By this I mean the clean and jerk is far less taxing than either of these lifts and can effectively be performed at a higher frequency.

The trick with any of the Olympic lifts however is technical proficiency. You can get away with having sub par technique with the ‘big 3,’ and still have reasonable numbers. The clean and the snatch require more focus. Typically you shouldn’t perform more than a triple of either lift, but your overall frequency and volume can be quite high.

So in order to clean and jerk everyday you’d have to keep the volume low and focus on speed. Grinding through squats everyday means your lifts will slow and your CNS will suffer (a la the Bulgarian Method).

But if you were to squat 2-3 times a week and clean and jerk every day you could find a highly effective program designed around speed and technical improvements. But it would be tough and only recommended for advanced intermediate lifters.

As a beginner lifter you certainly won’t be improving by going to max every session. But by working with 70-80% of your 1RM for a 3-5 sets of doubles, you’ll improve quickly on a linear model of periodisation.

Development of speed and rhythm are weightlifting essentials, whilst grinding maxes or missing lifts will wear you down and cause overtraining. Grinding through squats, deadlifts or bench presses are OK in powerlifting circles as long as it’s not a frequent occurrence.

But in Olympic weightlifting force only matters if you can apply it at speed. Squats typically should be performed at >0.8m per second, so grinders will serve very little purpose other than to throw the rest of your training off.

Lastly, incorporating daily variation into the set, rep and weight schemes is essential for long-term progress and enabling viable barbell acceleration.

Running a 5(5) with 80% of your 1RM everyday is going to fail after a while and you need to vary the rep %, number of reps and overall volume in order to progress. Save your power and CNS for the heavy day(s)!

The Top 4 Clean Assistance Exercises

Given the clean’s technical proficiency, the best assistance lifts are going to be very close variations. The goal of the assistance lifts should be to help increase power production, speed and technical proficiency with less stress on your ability to recover.

1. Power Clean: A lift that demands speed, power and technique to perform properly. The primary advantage of the power clean is that it improves your ability to pull the bar higher and faster in the turnover (or third pull). This should carryover into your speed (and confidence) getting under the bar.

2. Front Squat: Obviously the front squat is more taxing than the lift itself, but as a beginner you won’t be able to handle much weight and your hamstring & ankle flexibility and front rack position will hold you back more so than anything else when trying to clean. The front squat will improve each of these, so you should be training it at least once a week IMO.

3. Clean Pull: The clean pull is essentially a deadlift performed from the clean position. Shoulders over the bar, pulling through to the point of contact and rising up onto the toes. For maximal benefit you must complete the third pull. As you rise onto your toes, pull the bar as high as you can completing the extension. Perform the lift with only up to 115% of your clean 1RM.

4. Hang Clean: The hang clean and the power variations of it complement each other perfectly. One increases your ability to pull the bar high, the other increases your speed under the bar. Combining them together helps you perfect the trickiest portions of the lift, keeping the bar as close to you as possible. Power and speed variations are phenomenal for any athlete.

The Top 3 Jerk Assistance Exercises

1. Push Press: Ideal for beginners as it promotes upper body strength and forces you to become comfortable with the dip and drive portion of the jerk. The lift trains the timing of the movement, strength in the dip position, strength of the legs and rate of force development when driving the bar up. It’s multi-faceted, simpler than the actual jerk to learn and has fantastic carryover.

2. Jerk Recovery: Take up stance in the split jerk position and practice pressing the barbell overhead. Start with light weight and focus on a controlled eccentric portion of the lift too. This will help train your legs to absorb the weight and build maximal overhead position strength. Perform an isometric hold at the top of the lift for maximum stability improvements.

3. Power Jerk: Lifters tend to hate this exercise because it requires greater flexibility than the split jerk. But it forces you to use less weight and helps train an entirely vertical dip and drive. The precise nature of the lift has tremendous carryover to the split jerk as it trains aggression and accuracy.

Can you Clean and Jerk with Kettlebells or Dumbbells?

Yes. And as a beginner it can be a really powerful way to train the movement patterns without using a barbell.

Typically kettlebells are used for circuit training, as full body strength and power movements or to increase your metabolic fitness. The dumbbell clean and press uses largely the same muscles as the clean and jerk and can be performed as a uni or bi lateral movement.

The benefits of using it as a unilateral (single limbed) movement are perhaps more impressive:

  • Improved unilateral strength and movement coordination
  • Addresses muscular imbalances that may be deeply ingrained into your movement patterns
  • Improved technique and the ability to identify uni or bi lateral weaknesses
  • Core strength to resist the rotational force due to the asymmetrical loading on the body
  • Increased overall strength in the jerk

Essentially using kettlebells or dumbbells can be a great way to clean and jerk without less stress on the body. Equally training a unilateral movement and increasing your overall volume is great for conditioning and addressing muscular imbalances you may not know you had.

Is the Clean and Jerk useful for Powerlifting?

I personally don’t think there is much carryover from the clean and jerk to any powerlifting movements.

Given the technical proficiency required to do it well, you’d need to spend significant time training the lift and it’s variations to perform it adequately. This is time you arguably be better spent running more conventional pressing movements, squat variations and deadlifts.

But Olympic lifting definitely increases your vertical jump and power production, so power cleans can be effective if you have identified explosive power as a weakness of yours.

I think consistently performing cleans and snatches (plus snatch pulls and clean pulls) will transfer across to your deadlift. But it takes significant time and if true strength is your goal then you’d be better off just powerlifting and sticking with it.

Clean and Jerk for Boxing or Wrestling Training

I wrote a guide on how to combine weightlifting with boxing here. But boxing is an entirely different stress. The glycogen sapping workouts require a different take on nutrition and mentality. There aren’t rest periods, which will horrify most weightlifters, but there are advantages to lifting weights effectively for boxing:

  • You must increase your rate of force development and weightlifting is an effective way to do so
  • Single leg strength is a significant contributor to punch power, so unilateral movement like lunges or pistol squats can be effective. As can box jumps.
  • Kettlebells are particularly effective at increasing your V02 max and overall power production, allowing you to lift and work your cardio system at the same time

But the hardest thing is combining the two effectively. If you work 40+ hour weeks and already lift weights, adding in additional stressors (especially such a taxing one) can be daunting. Take it slow, add in one session per week and see how you feel.

But new skills are fun and keep you fresh, so don’t omit it instantly.

Clean and Jerk for Bodybuilding Training

According to this Wikipedia article, bodybuilding is:

“…The use of progressive resistance exercise to control and develop one’s musculature. An individual who engages in this activity is referred to as a bodybuilder.”

Given this, I would never recommend utilising the clean and jerk for bodybuilding. As we’ve discussed, it’s a technical lift and requires significant training. And you can stimulate hypertrophy at all well with either the clean or the jerk.

Your primary concern when bodybuilding is around muscular size, definition and mitigating the risk of injury. Cleans will increase your risk of injury and require significant calorie intake if performed consistently. If you’re in a calorie deficit, heavy compound lifts aren’t at all necessary.

Now Read: How to Bulk for Beginners

Clean and Jerk for Power Training

The power variations of the Olympic lifts (power clean, power snatch and power jerk) can all play a part in increasing your rate of force production and total power output. The standard lifts will still increase your power output, but the power variations are there for a reason.

Multiple studies have referenced how weightlifting can increase an individual’s vertical jump. This study on volleyball players (a sport where a player’s vertical jump can make or break) highlighted how beneficial weightlifting can be to a player’s power production and therefore vertical jump.

The second pull in both the clean and jerk and the snatch mimics the requirement to push aggressively against the ground when performing a vertical jump. Vertical jump performance is largely reliant on force produced at the hip, knee and ankle joints. The ability to perform this at speed with substantial weight attached to it is an excellent way to increase explosive power production.

Clean and Jerk for Sprinters

Sprinting is a cyclical activity that is reliant on instantaneous speed and momentum. Top level sprinters release and absorb kinetic energy. As speed increases, hip flexors and extensors increase the amount of positive work done whilst knee extensors and flexors absorb more energy. SO it’s heavily reliant on knee and hip ‘performance.’

Much like the above, clean variations can play a particularly prominent role in increasing your acceleration and rate of force production for sprinting. We know that Olympic lifting is an effective strategy to increase your vertical jump and jumps and single leg training can be an effective way to increase your acceleration. So by proxy cleans can be a very effective movement to incorporate into your regime.

The trade off for all of these is the time taken and the additional stress required to perform these lifts. If you can find a way to incorporate simple clean variations into your training I would recommend it. If you feel it negatively impacts performance, it isn’t a necessity.

Should you Clean and Jerk with a Belt?

I covered everything you need to know about wearing a belt here. For squats and deadlifts you absolutely should as it increases intra-abdominal pressure and overall performance in terms your 1RM. It has also been known to reduce the risk of injury, but never entirely proven.

I don’t think belts are as important in the Olympic lifts (especially the snatch) but I would definitely wear a belt when clean and jerking. Increasing your intra-abdominal pressure will help you support the weight overhead and given you essentially end up in a front squat close to your 1RM, you absolutely should wear a belt.

Do you need to wear Weightlifting Shoes?

I also covered the multitude of benefits weightlifting shoes offer here. The Olympic lifts absolutely require proper shoes. The elevated heel and wide soles provide balance, support and increased flexibility that will allow you to lift more weight. The Olympic lifts put you in an especially awkward position with regards to balance and shoes are the most effective solution.

Not wearing proper shoes and / or a belt puts you at a disadvantage to your competition. If you want peak performance, both of these are a necessity. For me it’s also a confidence thing. You need to feel good to perform at your best and wearing comfortable, supportive shoes and a sturdy belt provides you with a mini ego boost.

This guide to improving your clean and jerk is completely wasted if you never try. You’re not Clarence Kennedy and yes you need a belt. And shoes.

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