The power clean has been considered the ultimate lift for the football athlete. It is a full body exercise that requires speed, explosion, and strength. It has been said that the best athletes can power clean a lot. I agree with some of this. However, the power clean is not as important as many believe. In my opinion it is not even necessary for building great football players. I believe this because of some fundamental problems I have with the power clean as a training tool.
Elements of the Power Clean
Let’s begin by analyzing what it takes to be “good” at the power clean.
- Great Form
- Strength in the hips and legs
First and foremost is great form. With a lot of practice, an athlete can develop the proper muscle memory to pull the bar up, explode underneath it and catch it in a good front squat position. The people that excel at the clean do a great job of getting underneath the bar and catching it in a solid position. Second, is explosion. An athlete must be explosive in order to get a good amount of weight moving off the floor. Third, is quickness. Once an athlete explodes the bar off the floor, he needs to be quick at getting underneath the bar. Finally, the athlete needs to have good strength in the hips and legs to push the bar to a finished position.
From what I have seen, athletes, regardless of size can excel at the power clean if they possess these 4 attributes. In short, a good solid athlete that develops proper technique will be able to excel at it. Many argue that there is a good correlation between teams with players that have good power cleans and a team's winning percentage. However, I believe that the correlation is founded on the fact that the team has good athletes. Athletes with good form can power clean, period! The power clean can serve as a good assessment of athleticism, especially at the higher levels. However, the proposition that the power clean can be at the core of football training in the weight room, is not valid.
Problems with the Clean
First, consider what it takes to implement the clean properly into football weight programs. Much time must be dedicated to developing proper form. This can take a great deal of time, especially for lesser athletes. Flexibility, explosion, quickness, and flexibility must all be fine-tuned to allow this to happen. Getting these things to sync up is a challenge. The major requirement here is the close monitoring and training by a coach whom is knowledgeable about the lift. Finding a steady group of coaches whom are well schooled at the clean is a difficult thing to do. For the most part, strength and conditioning coordinators that want to implement the clean into their program properly must spend a good deal of time training the coaching staff to monitor and correct the athletes properly. Probably the biggest flaw with the power clean is the resources and time a team must commit to it. Time is always against us, and the more time we have to dedicate to something means less time to work other things.
Second, the claim that through the power clean an athlete can become significantly better is suspect. Again, consider the 4 qualities I discussed at the beginning. I have already discussed the problems with developing form. Next, consider the development of explosion, which is developed by moving a reasonable weight faster. This can be done with your own body weight, resistance bands, or free weights. Beginning athletes don’t have the coordination down to properly move the bar off the floor with a reasonable weight. So the weights they begin working with don’t really push their bodies to exert the force needed on the field. I am not saying the power clean does not help an athlete become more explosive, but the amount of explosion developed is not optimal given the time it requires. Third, consider the development of quickness. Even if an athlete has the coordination to clean properly, can cleaning weights through repetition make an athlete quicker? I don’t think it can to the extent many believe. Finally, how much does the clean to do to develop strength in the hips and legs? A good power clean for a person weighing 140 pounds is 250lbs. A good squat for the same person is 400lbs. If a person is working out on a 5x5 plan with 75% of the 1-Rep max, then the bar should be loaded with approximately 190lbs for the clean and 300lbs for the squat. Which weight load would be more developmental for the hips and legs? Obviously the squat weight. The full workout for the clean would tax the body with 4,750lbs of weight, while the squat workout would tax the body with 7,500lbs of weight. When the body is stressed by heavier weight it is forced to get stronger. That is why as an athlete's workout loads must increase in order for their max to increase. The clean does not put enough pressure on the body to develop strength in the hips and legs to the highest levels.
As football coaches, what do we want our athletes to get out of the weight room? In general, we want their bodies to get stronger, more explosive, and less susceptible to injury. A strength coach can put together a workout plan that accomplishes these goals much more effectively than a program built around the power clean. For developing strength in the hips and legs, the box squat is very effective and takes a fraction of the time to teach compared to then clean. An added bonus from the box squats is the heavy stress it puts on the glutes and hamstrings. Most high school athletes are underdeveloped in this area. Another bonus from box squats is the development of explosion. As athletes begin to get stronger in the box squat, they begin to move weight faster. Also, explosion can be developed through plyo-metrics and weight exercises like box jumps with dumbbells. Quickness that translates to football performance can be better developed through various agility drills that most coaches employ during off-season.
Another goal that coaches have in mind from weight training is the ability to hit and drive (or tackle) opposing players more effectively. If you consider what it takes to hit and drive another person back you will see that it involves the uncoiling of the hips from the “football position.” This uncoiling is directed at the opposing player. To put it clearly, the power from the hips is exerted forward. In the power clean the little hip push that is used, is pushed near vertical. This is not the ideal angle for hit and drive. Again, box squats and machines like Hammer Strength’s Ground Based Jammer can work this motion much more effectively.
Even if you plan to use power cleans as a secondary lift, do you plan to teach the proper technique? Do you have the time to? Are the benefits worth the costs? Can the goals of a weight training program be accomplished without the power clean? To last question I believe yes.
I know the clean is a good test of athleticism and requires great skill to preform at the highest levels. I just don't think it is necessary for developing strength and power in football players.
I know many coaches might disagree with this, I have debated with many about this. I have just watched players work their tails off at the power clean and achieve minimal gains. Their development as athletes can be better done with other means. The time it takes to develop the power clean is not worth their minimal reward. Even the deadlift (another lift that takes a minimal time to learn) can produce good gains in the explosion and strength areas. If I decide to write about strength training some more, I will discuss the deadlift in more depth and the benefits it can have for the football player.