Why Every Athlete Should Learn the Clean

No matter the sport you coach or what level you coach on, we all know that proper, efficient movement is a critical factor for athletic success. If your athletes are missing range of motion, specifically in certain joint positions, or fail to use the proper sequence (coordination) of movement, they will most likely be less successful than their capable counterpart. Training athletes to move more efficiently in their muscular and joint efforts will lead to greater performance improvements on the field or court. The clean and its derivatives provide a platform (pun completely intended) to reach some of these positions, as well as many other benefits. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will be in full agreement that the clean is one of the best tools for athletes to develop a multitude of performance increasing results!

Coordinated Efforts

Coordination and sequence of movement are critical for many athletic skills. Likewise, a coaching staff must work together, synergistically, in their efforts to improve their team. If even one coach on the staff is not moving in the same direction as the other coaches in their plans, the team will suffer. In turn, the team will perform at their best if all the players are on the same page and reach positions on the field or court at the right time for each play. It is the sum of the positive efforts of all involved that create a “movement” toward a championship-level team.

We can look at the muscular level in the same way as the coaching staff or the team example. Muscles work best when they are all recruited (used) at their highest level (recruitment), in the proper sequence (synchronization), and when they are recruited at a faster rate (rate coding). If an athlete can learn to move in this way, they will become more coordinated in their movement (higher movement efficiency) and will ultimately become stronger and more powerful on the field or court. This is what we think of and see as good technique: movement that just seems to flow well.

The Clean and its Benefits

Enter the weightlifting movements, specifically the clean. The weightlifting movements are extremely difficult for most when first learned. However, the benefits of these movements far outweigh the sweat, tears, and frustration that will certainly ensue as a part of the learning process. The coordination that was discussed above is inherently built into these movements. If an athlete cannot move efficiently, the result will be a miserable example of the lift or a completely failed attempt. It's like a built-in limit to the movement. Athletes have to develop sequenced, coordinated, and efficient movement effort to make the lifts successful; engraining these qualities into an athlete's ability to explosively extend the hips, knees, and ankles. The clean and its derivatives are extremely important to athletic success in sports that require strength and power in both singular and repetitive efforts.

The most important athletic benefits the clean provides, assuming the athlete moves efficiently (has good technique) are the following:

  • Improves coordination of overall athletic movement
  • Teaches the athlete to contract the muscles and move the joints of the body together in a synchronized effort
  • Improves power development/production   
  • Improves mechanics of athletic movements involving joint extension (e.g., jumping, running, throwing, etc.)
  • Improves joint deceleration/eccentric strength
  • Enhances joint mobility
  • Teaches proper front squat technique
  • When pulling from the floor, teaches technique similar to the deadlift

The Final Count

Whether you’re a strength coach or a sport coach, including clean derivatives into your program will benefit your athletes in their movement efficiency on the field or court. Once they have mastered the technique and start loading, the clean can also provide great benefits to power and strength improvements as well. Also, catching the bar increases the requirements of the athlete to be able to absorb greater external (outside) forces, benefiting those sports that require planting and cutting, or contact, such as football and rugby. Overall, the clean is an integral exercise that should be included in many programs for improved sports performance.

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Doug Berninger, MEd, CSCS*D, RSCC, USAW is a guest contributor to the Volt Blog and author of The Reality of Strength and Conditioning: Expectations for New Coaches. He was an Assistant Strength Coach at the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) World Headquarters Performance Center in Colorado Springs, CO. He is now the Head Weightlifting Coach at NorCal CrossFit in Santa Clara, CA. Learn more about Coach Berninger at Monumental Strength.