Are Cleans and Other Olympic Lifts Necessary?

Q: I have a question about what I recall you saying about there not being much of a need to engage in explosive weight room work using olympic lifts like cleans. I love the hang power clean. Are you saying that improving the clean doesn’t also improve explosiveness in other activities?

Just like any other explosive movement, the clean (or snatch) can help bridge the gap between total strength and total useable strength, if that is an area lacking. However, by itself it isn’t a miracle exercise. I love performing hang cleans myself, but a good clean is really a demonstration, or indicator, of explosiveness, just like a fast sprint and a good vertical jump are good demonstrations of explosiveness.

Let's just say for the sake of argument that the clean correlates perfectly with your on-field explosiveness (running and jumping etc.) So, any improvements you make to your clean will be transferred into your running speed and jumps. You'd obviously want to get your clean poundages as high as possible right? Let's say you choose 315 pounds as the magic number. Now, what is the best way to get your clean up to 315 pounds? Can the guy with a 200-pound squat build his clean up to 315 pounds by just performing cleans? Hardly. Can the guy with a 300-pound squat clean 315? No. Can a guy who practices cleans every day of his life, yet only squats 300 pounds, clean as much as the 700 pound squatting powerlifter who comes into the gym and does cleans for the first time in his life? Usually not. My point is this: How much you can clean is highly dependent on how strong you are overall and cleans aren't as good as movements like squats and deadlifts at making you stronger overall. Regardless of how good your technique is on cleans and how much you practice them, the only way you're gonna clean 315 is if you get your overall body strength up to the point where you are capable of at least a ~400 pound squat and 400 pound deadlift minimum.

Once you've mastered the technique in the lift and learned to express your strength in the lift, the only way to continue driving your clean poundages up is to get stronger overall. The clean is really about 1/3 technique, 1/3 explosiveness, and 1/3 strength. Initially, clean poundages will increase as you master the correct technique. Once you've mastered the proper technique, you'll continue to make some gains as you better learn to express your strength, or become more explosive in the exercise. If you're the guy who squats 500 pounds and only cleans 175, you have a big gap between your overall strength and useable (explosive) strength and obviously have a lot of room for improvement. You'd probably be able to take your clean all the way up to 315 by doing nothing but cleans. But if you're the guy who squats 300 pounds and cleans 225, you'd probably never get any better at cleans by just practicing cleans. At some point, you'd have to pay your dues in the power rack getting your strength up on basic movements like squats and deadlifts so that you’d have more raw strength to express.

Now, let's look at a sprint or a jump the same way we would the clean. They're both demonstrations of explosiveness. Since actually practicing the clean is the best way to learn to express your strength in the clean, wouldn't it make sense that practicing variations of the sprint and jumps (and things closely related to that like plyometrics), would be the best way to learn to express your strength in those movements? There is a lot of specifity involved with improvements in speed-strength movements and the carryover from one activity to the next is fairly small. If you couldn't express your strength very good in the sprint or jump what makes you think you'd best improve upon that by engaging in cleans?

Improvements in a sprint or jump are just like improvements in the clean. Initially you'll improve as you master the correct technique. You'll continue to improve as you are better able to express your strength in the movement. If you're the 175 pound guy who squats 500 and only runs a 5.2 40 yard dash, you will probably have a lot of room for improvement. But if you're the 175 pound guy who only squats 250 and already runs a 4.55 forty yard dash, you're probably not gonna get much faster by just sprinting. At some point, just like the clean, you're gonna have to pay your dues with the heavy iron and get your strength up so that you have more raw horsepower to tap into.

Now, let's assume that you already spend a significant amount of time in the weight room getting stronger overall. Let's also assume that you spend a fair amount of time performing a nice assortment of sprint, movement, and plyo work. So, in the weight room you're driving your strength and baseline levels of horsepower up. On the field, you're better learning to express that strength in the most direct way possible - by engaging in the very things that you're trying to improve (sprinting, jumping etc). Since you're already addressing your baseline strength and you're already directly addressing your ability to express strength in the specific movements, what are cleans gonna give you that you're not already getting?

I hope that makes sense. One other drawbacks to cleans and other olympic lifts is they are technical lifts that do require some coaching. I know a good coach can teach someone how to do a proper clean or snatch within minutes, but judging by the technique I've seen in most high schools there is a big shortage of good coaches that can properly teach these lifts. It’s not that cleans will hurt you by any means, I like them too but it’s not like you need them.

Having said all that, the best utility for the cleans and other explosive weight room movements would be for someone like I mentioned above who had a big squat and slow running times. His maximum strength is already there and it need not be a big focal point, so, instead of just getting him stronger in the weight room, we could focus on getting him to express his strength better in all his activities, including the weight room. He could use lots of speedier type exercises like cleans, speed box squats, and jump squats while also working on getting more explosive in his field activities. Where cleans and related exercises would REALLY be more beneficial is for this same “strong but slow” type of guy who also, for whatever reason, isn’t able to get out and engage in much specific sprint, movement, and plyo work. They wouldn’t be as effective as the specific sprint, movement, and plyo work, but would at least allow him to train his nervous system to produce faster contractions with some type of accelerative emphasis.

One other good utility for the clean and associated movements is this: Assuming that one has pretty good technique in the clean, it can also be used as a pretty good gauge to ensure that you're building useable strength, or strength that you can use in a fairly high velocity manner. In other words, let's assume that I determine that a person that can clean 75% of his best back squat is doing a pretty good job utilizing the raw strength that he has. So, assuming that technique is good, a person squatting 200 pounds should be able to clean 150, while a person squatting 400 pounds should be able to clean 300. Let's say you have an athlete that squats 400 pounds but only cleans 200. From that information, we know that he's not able to utilize his strength in a high velocity specific manner very effectively, so he would best work on bridging the gap between his strength and useable strength. In other words, instead of continually trying to push up his squat weight, he'd be best to focus on more explosive oriented work in his training. In contrast, the guy squatting 400 and cleaning 300 is already doing a pretty good job using the strength he has, and, assuming his field related tests didn’t show any explosive deficiencies, he’d know that in order to improve he could just get stronger overall.