In my last blog, we detailed how and why the snatch was so important in Olympic Weightlifting.
In this blog, we’re talking about its Olympic Weightlifting sister exercise: The Clean and Jerk.
The snatch and the clean and jerk are the two most iconic power exercises there are. Whilst the snatch is all about your form and your finesse, the clean and jerk allows you to use full, unleashed power (within reason).
Both exercises build muscle and make you faster, stronger and more powerful. Both exercises require your glutes, hips, hamstrings, quadriceps and shoulders to have a range of flexibility. And most of all: both exercises are a lot of fun to do!
So without further ado, here’s why your lifting needs to include the clean and jerk, as well as that snatch.
What is the clean and jerk?
The clean and jerk refers to two weightlifting movements, both performed with a barbell.
In the clean section of the exercise, a lifter will grasp the barbell using a hook grip (for more on those, read my blog here). Once the bar is above the knees, the lifter must extend using an explosion of power to raise the bar as high as possible, as quickly as possible, before then transitioning seamlessly into a squatting position.
In the squat position the lifter will then receive the bar in a racked position in front of the neck, so that it comes to rest on the shoulders. To fully complete the clean, the lifter will stand upward, propelling the bar by the shoulders, and shifting their grip on the bar as they do so. This is to prepare for what comes next: The jerk.
In the jerk section of the exercise, the lifter will explosively raise the barbell to above the head in a rush of pure power and athleticism. The lifter receives the bar with arms straight and legs bent in either a split position or a squat position. They must finish the movement by straightening the legs, and moving the feet in line with each other to have successfully performed the clean and jerk.
The world record for clean and jerk is an amazing 264kg, performed and currently held by Georgian weightlifter Lasha Talakhadze at the 2019 World Weightlifting Championships.
What are the benefits of the clean and jerk?
There are limitless benefits to the clean and jerk, but if you’re still not convinced, here are the three main reasons why it makes a fantastic addition to your lifting workout regimes.
It’s a raw strength builder
That’s not to say that the snatch isn’t a strength builder – it is, but the clean and jerk requires more of it. There’s more lifting, more hoisting, more power and more explosiveness that go into completing every aspect of the two movements.
That’s another reason why the snatch and the clean and jerk complement one another so well. The snatch invites you to focus on your coordination, flexibility and finesse. The clean and jerk appreciates all of that but steps aside to let you channel pure power into your lifting. So if your goal is Arnold Schwarzenegger levels of strength, it’s time to work on your clean and jerk.
2. It’s a balance booster
In the moments between a lifter holding the barbell on their shoulders in the final seconds of the clean, and then transitioning into launching the bar overhead and holding it there, you see an exceptional show of balance.
Some people don’t know this but scientists have actually found a link between the successful execution of balance and brain health. Specifically, balance training has been shown to improve both memory and spatial cognition in adults. So not only are you working your body, you’re working your brain. Nice!
3. It’s a motor skill enhancer
Motor skills refer to the movements that the brain, nervous system and muscles all perform in perfect synchronicity. Refined motor skills allow our bodies to move much more efficiently and improve our hand-eye coordination. The clean and jerk enhances our motor skills because both parts of the exercise require complex movements and full-body strength. By teaching our muscle groups to move together as a unit, we fine tune our nervous system and that carries over into even our daily activities.
What muscles does a clean and jerk work?
The clean and jerk is a full body exercise that works almost every muscle you can think of in the body. So much so that it’s probably shorter to write a list of which muscles it doesn’t work. As a brief overview, the main muscles the clean and jerk works are:
The Back and Traps
The back, in particular your lats, and traps are all used vigorously during the pull, squat, and jerk phases of the clean and jerk.
It’s best to incorporate a number of back and trap strengthening exercises into your workouts if these are areas in which you feel particularly weak. In the clean and jerk you rely on your back and traps throughout the lift to maintain an upright position in the squat and provide stability.
Your hamstrings get a solid workout, both in the pull phase of the clean, extending to get the bar to the knee, and then in the hip-driving phase of the clean and jerk, where they’re contracted for a short and explosive thrust.
Your quadriceps come into play once you are in the squatting position of the clean, and then later in the driving phase of the jerk.
Strong quads will aid your ability to safely get out of the clean, so it’s worth adding in some quad strengthening exercises like split squats, front squats and lunges in order to prepare.
In the jerk phase of the clean and jerk, your shoulders and supporting muscles in your arms like the biceps and triceps, are most active and worked thoroughly. Although the jerk motion begins from the driving power in your legs, you rely on your shoulders to stabilise and hold the bar before transitioning the bar overheard.
It’s recommended that you add in shoulder exercises before taking on the clean and jerk. Opt for exercises like the overhead press, lateral raises, and barbell rows.
How to perform the clean and jerk
Below I’ll outline the steps needed to perform the clean and jerk. Please note that because it is a complex exercise, it’s best watched over by experienced coaches to begin with if you’re using a barbell and weights.
1. The Set Up
Start with your feet hip-width apart. Squat down and grip the barbell with a hook grip. Make sure your spine is neutral, your chest is lifted and you’re engaging your core.
2. The Pull
The pull includes the lift of the barbell from the floor to full extension of the body, imparting upward momentum to the bar.
Lift the bar by taking a deep inhale, maintaining a neutral spine and driving through your feet. Keep the arms straight and focus on the leg drive.
As the bar passes the knee, you must accelerate it by driving your hips towards the bar and moving your torso to an upright position.
Once the bar is at your upper thigh, use your hips to explosively drive the barbell up the body, stretching up to full extension while staying balanced.
3. Catch and Receive
As the bar is being driven upward, pull yourself down into a deep squat and catch the barbell across your shoulders in the rack position with your elbows pointing forward. Keep your knees actively pressed outwards for stability.
Stand up strongly, keeping the chest and elbows pointed forwards so that the bar stays racked on the shoulders.
4. The Dip
Once steadied in the front rack position, it’s time to progress into the jerk section of the lift.
To do this, dip your knees down a few inches so that you are poised in a jumping position. This dip will create a spring which will help you to transfer the bar from where it’s resting on your shoulders to being held overhead.
One thing of importance to note is not to dip forwards! Make sure when you dip, you’re maintaining that neutral line in the spine, otherwise you may inadvertently put yourself off balance or lose some crucial power.
5. The Jerk
Once you’ve dipped down, you need to drive the bar over your head. This is where you can truly feel the raw power of the jerk. It’s almost like a push press, but with much more ferocity.
To drive the bar overhead, perform your dip, then drive through your legs to ascend the bar up and overhead, dropping into a half squat position as it does so.
6. Receive and Recover
This is the final stage. Once the bar is overhead, lock your arms out and pause so that you can stabilise the weight (this is where you’ll put on an awe-inspiring show of balance and strength).
Hold the position whilst you get set, and do not stand up straight until you feel you are balanced. Once you feel stable, stand up, channelling the energy through your arms and holding the barbell proudly above your head. Move your feet back in line with your body and the barbell to complete the lift.
Once you have held the position and feel as though you are ready to drop the weight, keep your arms locked but let them fall forward so that you drop the bar to the floor in front of you. Do not lean forward – the bar may bounce and hit your head.
And that’s it! You’ll have performed the clean and jerk. Hopefully the information in this blog has at least tempted you into getting started with it if it’s been an aspect of your lifting that you’ve avoided.
If you’re looking for more information on building strength, or Olympic weightlifting, visit my resources. Alternatively if you’re looking to get started with lifting and want a friendly environment with an experienced instructor, why not come down to our strength club?