Better Than Power Cleans? 3 Alternatives For More Muscle and Less Fat

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The rise of Olympic weightlifting has led many newbies and ex-athletes to trade in their running shoes for barbells. The revolution has done a marvelous job at introducing people to strength training.

However, the level of coaching needed to improve one’s technique in the Olympic lifts is far behind the number of people attempting them. As a result, the clean is being abused in weight rooms across the country. You’ve maybe seen it in your gym or on YouTube.

Someone loads up more weight than they should in an attempt to show off. Before they attempt the lift, an over-indulgence of chalk is applied to their hands, followed by a LeBron esque clap to pump them up.

Then, they walk up to the bar with to set up with a terrible starting position: Knees forward, and with a disengaged back. But somehow they muscle it up and catch it in a position that makes them look like an intoxicated walker (a zombie for those who aren’t fans of the walking dead).

The power clean is an excellent movement—for the appropriate lifter. It’s a combination of the deadlift and front squat. It works like magic for those looking for strength gain, hypertrophy and if loaded properly, fat loss.

The clean has become a regular movement for experienced lifters well versed in the basic lifts. This is most apparent in CrossFit. Whether you’re a fan or not, top level CrossFit athletes (whom which a lot are also competitive weightlifters) demonstrate impressive strength and efficacy in the barbell clean.

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But just because it they do it, doesn’t mean the average Joe should. It’s kinda like communism, on paper and in theory it looks good, but rarely works in reality.

The Olympic lifts require a high level of neuromuscular mastery. In fact, the greatest benefits are derived from learning technique early in the lifters career. With many national programs, a dense season of technical mastery is dedicated in the pre-pubertal years. Thousands of reps are performed with dowels at an early age so the neural adaptation of the lifts are developed before strength training begins.

If you are interested in training the Olympic lifts, whether its for sport or to augment athletic development, it’s far more beneficial for you to master technique first. Ben Meraz, a friend of mine who is also a national level weightlifting coach says this:

“Rather than thinking about practice in terms of time, it’s better to view it via reps, because everyone trains differently. I would say about 1000-2000 reps of each of the movements (clean/jerk/snatch) under the guidance of a solid coach could give you a basic proficiency.

I would say it takes about 8,000-10,000 reps of one of the movements under the guidance of a solid coach to have a national level proficiency assuming requisite strength is there.”

This presents a situation for the novice who comes in off the street attempting the Olympic lift for the first time. They haven’t accumulated enough reps at a light enough load to acquire technical proficiency. They haven’t built enough strength to attempt the loads they are trying to lift. And, mobility restrictions cause them to execute lifts in compromised positions.

What’s the end result when you combined all of these issues with high reps that send your heart rate through the roof or a load they have no business handling? A disastrous movement that is labeled as the clean.

So, if you’re a seasoned vet with the clean, the movement is advantageous in your training. But if you’re new to the weight-room, choosing the clean as your a staple in your training may be sub-optimal for a few reasons. Here’s why:

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Common mistakes with the power clean

Mistake #1 – The lifter’s efficacy of the lift is far behind their limit strength

Your limit strength is defined as how much weight you can move fro 1-3 reps. Since it takes thousands of reps to gain proficiency in the clean, your technique will take some time to improve. However, if you’re a novice in the gym with less than 2 years experience, strength gains come quickly. We call these #newbiegains.

Therefore, you’ll be able to deadlift and front squat a lot more than you can clean (even though the clean is made up of these two movements). So when it comes to strength gain and muscle building, practicing the clean won’t provide the appropriate stimulus.

By deconstructing the clean, and training the deadlift and clean separately, we solve this problem.

Mistake #2 – Mobility restricts proper positioning in front squat

Even if a lifter manages to muscle up the clean, a common culprit is securing the barbell in a sound front rack position. The lifter will usually compensate by holding the barbell with their elbows down. The consequence is a forward shift of weight which typically results in a missed lift.

Uncomfortable strain on the wrists is also a by-product turning the lift into a wrestling match with the barbell. While wrists inflexibility may play a role, it’s common the a tight upper back is restricting mobility in the front rack position.

If you have mobility issues that prevent you from moving daddy weight in the front squat, I’ve got a killer movement combo for you. More on this in a minute.

Mistake #3 – Inadequate starting position (restricted mobility and/or lower back issues)

Ironically, the starting position in a clean is often overlooked. But its arguably the most important aspect of the lift. Without a rock solid set up, the lifter is doomed for a poor execution.

Without proper diagnosis, many novice lifters are told to perform the clean with the bar starting on the floor. This presents two problems. One, a beginner lifter may not have the mobility to get down in a structurally sound starting position. Two, novice lifters have little kinesthetic awareness, which leads to poor structural integrity.

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The set up demands a certain level of mobility in the ankles, thoracic spine, and hips. These also happen to be the areas where people are the least mobile. Even if the lifter has a limit strength that can overpower mobility issues, they’ll eventually default to these motor patterns causing poor habits during the lift.

If you struggle with mobility, don’t worry. I’ve got your back. The movement pairing I list below will help you build strength and improve your positioning at the same time.

Mistake #4 – Goals don’t match training stimulus

Lastly, you’ve got to know what your desired training adaptations are. If you have a thirst to master the Olympic lifts, then you’re going to have to put in the reps to gain technical proficiency. But if you’re goal is strength gain, muscle building or fat loss, Olympic lifts aren’t necessary. They can certainly augment the process, but they aren’t necessary.
Too many times, new lifters are employing methods that don’t line up with their goals.

3 Alternatives to the Power Clean

1. Deadlift + Bottoms Up Front Squat

Who this is for. This combo is suited for the lifter who’s limit strength is far beyond their technical proficiency in the clean.

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Deadlift

While there are variation of the deadlift like the sumo, hex bar, single, leg or conventional, very few people will argue that it’s on of the best movements for strength and physique enhancement. For the sake of this post, pull conventional.

I think it’s the best posterior chain builder. Sumo deadlifting is legal, but it is a leverage lift. To build strength and muscularity, you want to increases the range of motion and time under-tension. The conventional pull provides that.

Bottoms up front squat

When a lifters proficiency is disproportionate to their strength level, practicing the clean with such a light weight will not stimulate enough stimulus to induce strength or muscle gains. Therefore, it’s wise to train the front squat as a stand alone movement.

It’s common to use the stretch reflex in any movement that starts with a concentric movement. This is because the stretch reflex stores up energy on the descend allowing you to “bounce” into the concentric portion of the lift. Think of it this way:

If you held a basketball just above your head and you let it fall to the ground, it would bounce back up to about your shoulders. Now, take the same basketball, hold it above your head, and with all your might slam it into the ground. The ball would probably go 20 feet in the air.

The stretch reflex is great when you are working power and speed. But for maximum tension and muscle building, we use the similar front-squat movement pattern with a slight tweak.
Enter the bottoms up front squat.

By squatting this way, you eliminate the bounce out of the bottom. This improves your tightness out of the hole and it increases time under tension in the quads.

First you’ll want to set your rack up. Sit safety pins at a level where you are at the bottom of a front squat, and then load your bar at this level. The movement will start at a dead-stop. By doing so, you automatically train yourself to get tight as you explode out from the hole. You’ll ascend only half way up then return to starting position. Arrive at a dead stop by allowing the barbell to rest on the safety pins before initiating your next rep.

2. Dumbbell Power Curl + Dumbbell Front Squat

Who this is for. This combo is for the lifter who is restricted in the front squat position, whether it be in a clean or in the front squat done as a stand alone movement.

Dumbbell power curl

The dumbbell power curl is a move I stumbled upon in my garage. It started as a set of heavy hammer curls, that turned into a cluster set. Then I realized, by going heavy, and returning to the ground each rep, I could get some arm work in, while working all of the posterior chain muscles that are activated in a pull off the ground.

You’ll set up with a dumbbell deadlift position. Be sure to engage your back, load your hamstrings and keep a tight midsection before pulling. From the ground, you’ll extend the knees, and then the hips.

Rather than stopping here, you’ll continue the motion into a double hammer curl. On the way down, you’ll initiate be pushing your hips back while keeping an engaged back and tight midsection. Tap the front head of the dumbbell on the floor and repeat.

Dumbbell front squat

Since there won’t be a straight bar across your neck, you can relieve yourself of the wrestling match you have with the front squat.

You’ll rack the dumbbells on your shoulders (to get them there you can use the dumbbell power curl method). Your grip, along with the dumbbells will be parallel, which allows for better positioning if you have trouble in the traditional front squat with the bar. The dumbbell heads closest to year face can rest on your shoulders.

Once you’ve racked the dumbbells, you’ll initiate the front squat by taking your hips back with a shoulder width stance. On your way down, keep a tight midsection with your chest up and be sure to track your knees outward. Hit the hole, explode out, then repeat.
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3. Hex Bar Deadlift + Goblet Squat

Who this is for. This combo is for the lifter who lacks a solid starting position.

Trap bar deadlift

The trap bar (also known as the Hex Bar) may be the greatest innovation in the strength-training world in the last few decades. It was originally founded by the powerlifter Al Gerard. His aim was to figure out way to train around a lower back injury. Since then, the trap bar has allowed thousands of people who have lower back issues or poor mobility to pull heavy weight off the ground.

Since the conventional deadlift with a straight bar requires a good distance from the axis of rotation (the hips), much of the lower back shoulders the load in the pull. This is a no go for the lifter who has lower back problems.

The conventional pull also requires a solid set up which demands mobility in the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine. Some lifters new to the iron simply cannot get down in a structural position with any integrity.

Instead of goodbye to any pulling movements all together, employ the trap bar deadlift.

Since the trap bar is designed for the lifter to step inside, rather than setting up behind it, the lever is shortened and the axis of rotation is reduced. This means less force on the lower back. The trap bar also offers a more natural set up position that new lifters can adopt easily. The trap bar deadlift requires less technical teaching than the conventional straight bar pull.

Goblet squat

Popularized by Dan John, the goblet squat is an awesome movement for those who want to learn how to squat properly. If the bar hurts your back or if you lack the mobility to front squat, the goblet squat is a no brainer.

Oh, and don’t view the goblet squat as a sissy move for beginners either. If you don’t believe me, find yourself a 100 lb dumbbell, and do 10×10 on the goblet squat with 60 seconds of rest between sets.

Establish a stance with your feet right outside of your shoulders and toes pointed out slightly. Hold the dumbbell vertically from one end against your chest. Then, initiate the movement by pushing your hips back and down.

As you descend, be sure your knees track outward and not forward over your toes. Stay in your heels. When you get to the bottom, it’s okay to have your elbows push your knees out.

Wrapping Up

This wasn’t a bash on the Olympic lift, the barbell clean. Rather it was to provide you, the lifter, with some clarity.

If your paramount goal is to get great at the Olympic lifts, then putting the practice in to master your technique is the road you’ll travel. If your aim is to build muscle and strength, and you’re not proficient in the clean, then deconstructing the lift into the deadlift and front squat is your best option.

Every lifter is different and obstacle to success will vary. We’ve listed the most common ones in this piece: limit strength far beyond technical mastery, restricted mobility, and inadequate starting position. Assess yourself and see where your weaknesses apply. Then, use the movement combo solutions provided.

By doing so, you’ll be able to power through any road-blocks in your way.

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Name: Brian McFadden

Bio: Brian teaches motivated but overwhelmed active individuals the importance of adopting an integrative approach to their health and fitness, so they can finally make the gains they want in the gym, but also live a healthy life outside of it.