The resurgence in olympic lifting both in athletic training and basic fitness programs (Crossfit) has polarized the fitness community. Once viewed as highly specialized and technical lifts that take years to master, people are essentially grabbing a barbell and giving them a shot their first day in the gym. On top of that, these technical lifts are often performed to failure or in a state of fatigue, where the potential deterioration of form could pose an increased risk of injury.
In athletic circles, olympic lifts were popularized due to the high power outputs achieved during the lifts and the simple fact that these high power, triple-extension movements (hip and knee extension along with plantarflexion) are often equated to movements which occur during sports. Putting the debate on the ability of these lifts to transfer to athletic performance aside, a better question might be whether it is necessary to spend time teaching the clean, exposing your athletes and clients to a highly technical lift that is often performed incorrectly, or whether a similar training effect can be achieved using an easier olympic lift variation, the high pull.
I can’t say conclusively that adding cleans to an exercise program increases the risk of injury, and, assuming proper coaching and supervision, I don’t think there would be any increased risk. Spend any amount of time searching for injury risk and olympic lifting, and you’ll find three things. The first is that compared to other sports and recreational activities the injury rate for weight-lifting is really low (a good thing) (3,4). That would be fine if it weren’t for the second point, where the bulk of the information regarding olympic weight-lifting injuries is based on professionally trained or coached lifters, where supervision and technical expertise is high, two circumstances that likely significantly reduce the risk of the activity (3,4). And finally, if you search for specifics on weight-lifting exercise performed in the general public, you’ll be left with nothing to go on, as any large studies consider resistance training as a whole (5,6), and usually don’t consider any type of subdivision of strength training exercises. So that being said, if you’re looking to have a study showdown on cleans vs high pulls, it’s not going to happen, but it only takes witnessing a few less-than-graceful cleans in the gym to understand why an alternative might be advantageous.
Now switching from trained olympic lifters to the more common, everyday situation – a typical commercial gym and a trainer with limited experience in the lifts, or a novice strength-trainer trying to learn how to clean from YouTube. The likelihood of injury is probably higher than our controlled situation above, despite the lower levels of strength, and the regions that are likely to be injured might be different than those of the experienced lifters. Anecdotally, I’ve seen many a butchered clean in the commercial gyms that I’ve had the ‘pleasure’ of working out in, both by clients and the coaches teaching them, and that this tends to occur in a very specific phase of the lift. Looking at the clean specifically, it is typically broken down into four main phases (1):
- First Pull: lifting the barbell from the floor to just above knee level.
- Unweighting: a transition phase in body position, often referred to as the scoop, where the body repositions into an optimal pulling position.
- Second Pull: an explosive phase of the lift that resembles a vertical jump while holding a barbell, where sequential use of large to small muscle groups propels the bar vertically.
- Catch: the final phase of the clean, where the lifter positions themselves under the bar to rack it at shoulder height.
While technical errors can occur across all phases of the lift, the one I most commonly see in the gyms is an improper catch phase of the lift. Obviously the clean is a sequential lift that requires significant coordination, and while the problem may appear as an awkward catch position, it is possible that errors in the earlier phases can reduce the bar height going into the catch phase, only making the lift more difficult and increasing the likelihood of a mangled catch of the bar. Regardless of the source of the error, it seems that more often than not, the lifters usually end up failing to drive the elbows under and in front of the bar, resulting in a catch position with the elbows underneath the bar, the bar not in contact with the shoulders and upper chest, and the weight of the bar driving the wrist into unsupported hyperextension. While catastrophic injuries don’t seem to be cropping up everywhere, nagging wrist sprains and forearm strains can put a damper on the rest of training, and this could be easily preventable in this case by either taking the time to learn the lift, or by omitting the catch phase of the lift.
If your rationale for including cleans in your programming is based on the high power outputs achieved during the lifts, a quick glance at a force-time graph for the clean might persuade you to opt for pulls over a full clean. The graph of a typical clean (shown below, adapted from (2)) highlights the four phases I mentioned above (first pull, unweighting, second pull and catch phases (1)) and shows how the force produced by the lifter varies over the course of the lift.
We see that force rises during the first pull as the lifter breaks the barbell from the floor, decreases during the unweighting phase as the lifter adjusts the bar, then rapidly increases to its highest point during the second pull, when the bar is rapidly pulled to its peak height. As the lifter positions themselves under the bar at the end of the pull phase and into the catch, we see an unweighting effect again with decreased force, then a ramp up during the catch phase as the lifter finally receives the bar onto their shoulders and regains position.
The key point here is that the highest rate of force development and the peak ground reaction force both occur in the second pull phase, not in the catch phase. If you include cleans in your programs to benefit from high power outputs and the triple extension mechanics, you’ve achieved both of these goals by the end of the second pull, no need to catch the bar at all. So by omitting the catch phase, we can still retain the benefits of triple-extension movements while achieving high power outputs with the exercise. While we don’t need to throw olympic lifts out of all programs (they’re still great lifts that have their benefits), you’ll need an excellent coach that can put you through the proper progressions to learning the clean and the complete versions of the olympic lifts if you want to master them. If you’re pressed for time, have a particularly technically-challenged client or have clients whose arms are worth some money (ie: baseball players), you may be better off to omit the catch phase and stick with pull variations instead.