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Weightlifting is a sport that demands not only brute strength but also precision, technique, and power.
Among the sport’s most iconic and challenging lifts are squat clean and power clean.
Both exercises are essential for developing explosive power, core strength, and muscle mass in the legs and upper body.
But what sets these two lifts apart, and how can you effectively incorporate them into your workout routine?
This comprehensive guide will delve deep into the critical differences in proper technique, function, and results between the squat clean and power clean.
What Is A Clean In Weightlifting?
In weightlifting, the term clean refers to the act of lifting a barbell from the ground to the shoulders in one smooth, clean motion (hence its name).
The clean is the first part of the exercise known as the clean & jerk. The clean and jerk is a compound exercise performed at the Olympics.
But the clean exercise isn’t only for Olympic weightlifters.
On the contrary, there are multiple variations of the clean exercise used in powerlifting, bodybuilding, CrossFit circles and in other strength training programs.
The clean is a great exercise to target multiple muscle groups at once while developing power, strength, and muscle mass.
Technique To Perform A Clean
- Stand with your feet around hip width apart.
- Push back your glutes keeping your chest up, whilst bending your knees and hips, lowering your body so you can take hold of the bar. (As if about to do a conventional deadlift)
- Grip the barbell using an overhand grip (palms facing towards you) with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Your shoulders should be slightly in front of the barbell with a neutral spine.
- Extend your hips, knees, and ankles to pull the barbell off the ground and bring it to your shoulders. As you stand your hips should extend rapidly to provide momentum for throwing up the weight. This movement should be quick and smooth.
- Shrug your shoulders and execute a pull under with the arms, essentially getting your elbows under the bar. The barbell lands on your upper chest and shoulders.
All power-based exercises are very effective for increasing strength and building muscle.
However, they are also much more technical. This means that form is critical in order that you limit any possibility for injury.
As mentioned above, there are several variations in which to perform a clean which we consider below.
Types Of Cleans In Weightlifting
In Olympic weightlifting, there are two main types of clean; the squat clean (also referred to as the clean) and the power clean.
Both variations involve lifting a barbell from the ground to the shoulders in one fluid motion.
However, the major difference lies in the position of the body at the catch position.
Whilst both the squat clean and power clean are permitted in a weightlifting competition, most lifters tend to opt for the squat clean as they can lift heavier weights.
The squat clean is a variation of the clean where the lifter pulls the barbell from the ground and receives it in a full squat position.
Whilst performing a squat clean, you must drop into a deep squat position with the hip crease below parallel.
Then, you would power back up with maximal effort to a full standing position with the barbell on your shoulders.
The squat clean is also known as the full clean or, most commonly, the clean.
The power clean is a variation of the clean where you would lift the bar from the ground and receive the barbell across the chest in a partial squat position.
The power clean is not a triple extension exercise.
Triple extension means to simultaneously extend the hips, knee, and ankles.
This means there is a shorter range of motion required in the power clean making it easier to execute when compared to the squat clean.
You’ll usually lift less weight with this variation.
The power clean is ideal for beginners and, as it targets fast twitch muscle fibers, makes it an excellent exercise in crossfit training helping to improve athletic performance.
The hang clean removes the deadlift portion of the exercise as the bar starts from around hip height and by “hanging” in the hands, meaning you’ll be pulling the bar a shorter distance.
This is different from the squat clean and power clean where the barbell starts from the floor.
Upon catching the barbell across the chest and shoulders, you should be in a full deep squat.
Hang Power Clean
As with the hang clean, you’ll be eliminating the deadlift part of the movement with the bar starting from a hip width height.
The main difference is how your body is positioned upon catching the barbell.
As the bar lands across the upper chest, you should be in a partial squat position.
As you won’t be squatting as deep, you can start with the bar positioned on a power rack. Sometimes, this can be referred to as a rack clean.
As the name implies, the block clean involves starting with the barbell being positioned onto blocks.
The block clean is done with full range of motion whereby upon catching the barbell, you would be in a full squat position.
Lifting from blocks can help a lifter to improve their rate of force development, essentially this means their explosive strength.
This variation very similar to the power clean. However, instead of receiving the barbell in a standing position, you must catch it in a split stance, i.e., with one foot forward and the other back.
Keep in mind that all clean variations require high levels of skill and coordination.
Differences Between Squat Clean And Power Clean
As mentioned above, the primary difference between a squat clean and a power clean is that of the position of the body upon catching the barbell across the upper chest and shoulders.
In a squat clean, the body would be in a squat position with hips below parallel.
Conversely, in a power clean the stance of the body upon catching the bar would be in a partial squat.
Aside from that, there are other factors that differentiate the clean and power clean exercise.
Form And Technique
Here is a comparison of form and technique in squat clean vs power clean:
- Set-up – the set-up for the squat clean and power clean is similar, with your feet hip width apart and grip shoulder-width apart.
- First Pull – the initial lift is also the same for both exercises. First, you will lower yourself to grip the barbell and then explosively extend your hips, knees, and ankles to pull the barbell off the ground.
- Second Pull – In the squat clean, you will continue pulling the barbell while hinging at the hips to a squatting position in preparation for the catch. In the power clean, the lifter is only required to extend the knees slightly resulting in a partial squat.
- Catch Position – In the squat clean, you will catch the barbell in a squatting position, with your hips below parallel. In a power clean, you will catch the barbell in a partial squat position. In both instances the barbell is caught in the same place.
- Finish – The finish position for both variations require the lifter to stand upright.
Both the clean and power clean are compound exercises that target multiple muscle groups and are helpful for overall strength and explosive power development.
They engage the core muscles to stabilize the spine and maintain proper form throughout the lift.
However, the specific muscles that each variation targets vary.
The squat clean targets muscles of the anterior and posterior chain.
These include the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, biceps, delts, quads and lower back. A well-executed clean will work the muscles of the entire body.
On the other hand, the power clean primarily targets the muscles of the upper body with less activation of the quads, hamstrings and glutes.
This is because this variation draws power from the hips, shoulders, upper back, and arms.
Power And Strength Development
The clean is one of the most challenging weightlifting exercises and requires significant amounts of strength, skill, and coordination.
Both the squat clean and power clean are highly effective for strength and power development. But the specific ways in which they do so can vary between the two exercises.
The squat clean is more technically demanding since it requires you to execute the movement while incorporating a full front squat.
Hence, this full-body exercise is not only effective in strengthening your legs and lower body but is also a great way to hone your coordination and work the stabilisation muscles.
In contrast, the power clean isn’t as technical but puts more strain on your upper body, particularly the lower back. As such, the power clean is a great way to build muscle mass and power in the shoulders, back, and arms.
This variation is also better to target fast twitch muscle fibers meaning it has great carry over to activities such as powerlifting, football and sprinting.
Use In Competition And Training
Both the clean and power clean form one aspect of the weightlifting exercise known as the clean and jerk.
The clean being the first part and the jerk being the final execution of the movement which involves using momentum to push the barbell up and overhead with arms straight.
Either variation of the clean can be performed in a competitive environment but a lifter is likely to use the clean (squat clean) as they’ll be able to lift more weight.
Risk Of Injury
As expected, the risk of injury is slightly higher in a squat clean.
Due to its technical demands, the squat clean may carry a higher risk of injury to the lower back, knees, and ankles.
That’s not to say that the power clean does not invite injury risks.
In case of improper form and technique, the power clean can lead to shoulder, elbow, and wrist injuries.
Keep in mind that a high risk of injury goes together with improper form and technique, regardless of the variation you perform.
Squat Clean vs Power Clean – Pros and Cons
When deciding which clean variation is best for your goals, ability and training plan, you need to consider the specific muscle groups targeted, the technical demands and the risk of injury.
Below are some pros and cons of the two variations.
Squat Clean Pros And Cons
Here are the pros and cons of squat cleans.
Squat Clean Benefits
- Counts as a full-body exercise
- Develops the lower body, specifically the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
- Improves overall power and explosiveness
- You’ll be able to lift more weight
Squat Clean Disadvantages
- More technically demanding
- May not suitable for beginners or people with limited mobility
- Carries a higher risk of injury to the lower back, knees, and ankles.
- Requires a high level of hip and lower back and ankle mobility
Power Clean Pros And Cons
Here are the pros and cons of power cleans.
Power Clean Benefits
- Develops upper body strength and power
- Targets fast twitch muscle fibers
- Better for CrossFit athletes and beginners
Power Clean Disadvantages
- Carries a higher risk of injury to shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
- You won’t be able to lift as much
5 Clean Mistakes to Avoid in Weightlifting
Weightlifting is a challenging and rewarding sport, but without the proper form and technique it could result in serious injury.
The clean is one of the most technically demanding exercises in weightlifting, and making rookie mistakes can not only hinder your progress but also put you at risk of injury.
Here are five common mistakes to avoid when performing the clean:
- Rounding your back during the clean is a common mistake that can lead to serious injury. When pulling the barbell off the ground, make sure to keep a neutral spine, keeping your head and chest up whilst engaging your core muscles to maintain a stable position. If you do find your back rounding, consider dropping the weight load so you can concentrate on perfecting your form.
- Pulling with your arms can lead to a lack of power and a breakdown in form. It can also cause severe injury to the forearms and biceps with incorrect form. Make sure to engage the legs and hips to generate the necessary power to lift the barbell.
- Catching the barbell too high on the chest can put unnecessary stress on your shoulders and wrists. Make sure to catch the barbell in the correct position, with neutral wrists and your elbows pointing forward.
- Not keeping the bar close to the body during the lift can compromise your form and reduce the power you generate. Try to keep the barbell as close to your body as possible throughout the entire movement.
- Not standing up all the way at the end of the clean can leave you unstable and unable to perform a press or jerk.
- Remember, weightlifting is a skill-based sport and takes practice, so make sure to work with a coach or experienced lifter to improve your technique and help you to avoid mistakes.
The Final Verdict
The squat clean and power clean are both powerful compound exercises that can help you build strength, power, and explosiveness in your body.
The squat clean is a more advanced and technically demanding exercise that targets the lower body.
On the other hand, the power clean is more accessible for beginners and intermediate weightlifters.
The best way to decide between the squat clean vs power clean is to consider your goals and training plan and cross-check them with the targeted muscle groups, technical demand, and techniques of the two variations.
As always, remember to practice proper form, progress gradually, and listen to your body to ensure a safe and effective training experience.