table of contents

  • i. the clean-and-jerk
  • ii. mechanics of the clean
  • iii. mechanics of the jerk
  • iv. conclusion

the clean-and-jerk

This, my friends, is the pinnacle of human movement, along with the snatch. No other movement combines the genius of the human body and what it can produce - strength, speed, timing, flexibility, balance, and most importantly courage - like the clean-and-jerk. People can bench press, move the bar 24 inches, and consider themselves "strong," but among weightlifters there is only one true measure of strength, and that is moving the weight from the floor to arm's length overhead. The clean-and-jerk accomplishes this first through pulling the bar in one "clean" movement to the shoulders, then first driving the bar up and pushing the body underneath it to catch it overhead.

It's a total-body movement. Many things, like the deadlift, come close, but the clean-and-jerk is the real thing. You pull, you drop under to catch it, you squat it back up to a standing position, you drive again with your legs, push yourself under it, catch it overhead, and stabilize to a standing position again with feet together. Back, legs, shoulders, everything in between.

I love the clean-and-jerk because it's about more than strength. You don't just muscle the weight up, you wouldn't be able to lift anything worth talking shit about that way, you've got to produce the hardest impulse possible on the bar, create just enough space for you to squat under it and receive it on your shoulders, and you've got to do this fast enough that gravity and time don't beat you. This is why weightlifting is an Olympic sport and powerlifting is not; in powerlifting, technique is just about maximizing leverage as much as possible through all phases of movement. In the snatch and clean-and-jerk, technique is about achieving the right position for the clean, timing the end of the pull and beginning of receiving just at the end of the moment of the most forceful acceleration of the pull, being fast enough to catch the bar before gravity pulls it too low, then collecting your head for the jerk, which is a whole new story in itself. As a weightlifter, you have to master a movement that gravity does not want you to be doing. It's not really about lifting a weight, it's more like throwing it, then catching it, and we're talking poundages that are well in excess of your bodyweight, three hundred, four hundred, sometimes five hundred pounds. How do you not get crushed by this, how can you even imagine putting it overhead?

The snatch and clean-and-jerk are unique in that they don't just make you strong. All that other shit you see in gyms, bent-over rows, bench pressing, yeah, you can put on muscle, sure, you can move a lot of weight, but it doesn't make you an athlete. The clean-and-jerk makes you more explosive, teaches you to absorb something heavier than you falling onto your shoulders in a squat position and stand out of it, teaches you the timing to catch it while it's falling - it makes you athletic.

And yeah, it makes you plenty strong, and the good kind of strong, too; the kind of strong where you can develop a lot of force in a very short period of time. In athletic communities this kind of strength is called "explosive" strength, this is what helps a high school football player tackle harder, this is what helps a wrestler drive into another body and take it off its feet before it can adjust, it's what makes a high jumper jump higher and a sprinter sprint faster. It's not a miracle exercise, that's hardly what I'm saying; it's just hard enough that it helps brings your body closer to its potential.

You have to realize that this is not just a bench press, this is not something where you wake up one day and decide, "that secondchances wrote a damn good write up, I'm going to go clean-and-jerk today." No man, this is something that takes time just to learn, coaching, months of it, but once your body learns the motor pattern and you start developing your strength, you'll see what the big fuckin deal is about. You never thought you could ever bring 250lbs from the floor to overhead, but when you get there you'll realize, this is barely the beginning. There's so much more you can do.

ii. mechanics of the clean

OK, so how the fuck do you "make enough space" to drop under the bar and receive it on the shoulders? Sounds impossible. It isn't. Sounds complicated. Yeah.

Well the bar starts on the floor. The idea is to get it in this position, referred to as the second pull, where your hips give you a lot of leverage, and when you shove them forward, as hard as you can, your body extends upward with considerable force. If you combine this trunk extension with a violent shrugging of the shoulders while you're holding onto the bar, you can create a large impulse on the bar, a moment of acceleration during which the bar rises against gravity. You can't maintain this pull for very long; a shrug is like 2-3 inches of muscle contraction, maybe, and the trunk extension is good only until your hips align with your shoulders and heels. However, inertia keeps the bar moving up before the force of gravity overcomes that inertia and pulls it back down, and there's like a very small window, less than half a second, in which the bar is either rising or weightless (not falling). In that time frame, you've got to stop pushing against the floor, and start pulling yourself under the bar. People can get very fast with this, you're thinking, "this is impossible," but it's not, you would not believe how fast people can get under the bar. Again, the key here is impulse; you can pull pretty hard when the arms are extended, but the more contracted they become, the less force you can exert, so you pull hard initially to begin that pull-under, then you start worrying about the rack, when you actually receive the bar.

The rack is like the front squat bottom position; elbows up, bar resting on the collar, above the clavicles, and on the shoulders. In the clean, it involves rotating the elbows around the bar. Obviously they're going to start above it, then you pull yourself under and as the bar rises up and you are shooting down, you flip your elbows around to create the rack. Note that your arms support none of the weight, the elbow position just creates a "shelf" with your shoulders on which the bar rests.

The easy part is the recovery, standing out of the squat. I say easy but I'm just fucking with you, this is probably not the kind of squat you see at a gym, this is knees completely flexed, ass four or five inches off the floor, calves compressed against hamstrings, and the idea is to stand with weight resting across your shoulders. It sucks at first, but after a couple months, there is no other way to squat.

OK, so the clean is just moving the bar to a position in which your hips give you a lot of leverage, using that leverage to accelerate the bar, then pulling under fast enough to catch it before it starts to fall. What about everything before you get to the second pull position?

The movement of the bar off the floor to the knees is referred to as the first pull. The first pull is all about timing the hip, knee, and shoulder positions to establish the second pull. It sounds like you could just deadlift it above the knees, but that's not how it works. The first pull is about establishing a specific position in relation to the bar; deadlifting is about maximizing leverage as much as possible.

The back angle ideally stays constant throughout the first pull, meaning that the hips are going to have to be set low at the beginning of the pull, and this is true whether you are short or tall, unlike the deadlift, where short people can get away with setting their hips higher. The chest hovers over and a little ahead of the bar, not behind it, as it would in a deadlift. The knees are pulled back, so that the bar is allowed to move towards the hips unobstructed, and once they pass the knees, the knees are then shifted back under the bar - this is called the "double knee bend," or "the scoop," and it establishes the second pull position. Hips cocked for the extension, shoulders over the bar, bar close to the center of mass in order to maximize the force that can be exerted on it. Then you set yourself free: bang, pull hard, extend, shrug, and then you are weightless, you pull yourself under for the rack.

You are alive in that moment, when you and the bar are weightless during that transition, when the relationship between yourself and the bar is reversed; you are falling, the bar is rising, this is yin and yang, up and down, positive and negative. There is nothing greater in this life, when everything's been said and done, when you've pulled your hardest and that's all you can do, from then on it's a question of faith, or a question of truth, will you do what you have to to receive the bar, or was everything up to this point meaningless.

iii. mechanics of the jerk

There used to be a clean-and-press in weightlifting competition, which one could argue was a greater measure of strength in some ways. A press is a strict, controlled movement, no leg drive, no hyperextension of the back. It was dropped from competition in 1972; athletes were learning to "pop" the bar off their shoulders by jerking back ever so slightly and then simultaneously leaning forward and pressing up to move weight, and it was becoming harder and harder to judge a legal press. So that left the two events in weightlifting meets today, the snatch and the clean-and-jerk.

The difference between a press and a jerk is the involvement of the entire body in the jerk. The legs are used to drive the bar up initially, and the only pressing involved is pushing the body under the bar, not pushing the bar up. The feet stop pushing into the floor, the lifter drops lower in order to catch the weight at arm's length, then recovers to a full standing position. It sounds like all it is is using the legs to move the weight and the shoulders to hold it overhead, but the nature of the jerk allows a lot of weight to be moved, and therein lies the total-body involvement. Only a few people understand what "overhead pressing" is truly about, but it's probably the only upper body press that really, truly matters. There's a lot of muscles along the rib cage, the serratus anterior and the intercostal muscles, which suddenly become very, very tense when you're holding heavy weight overhead. You're also going to feel your lats struggling to stabilize your torso along with the abdominals, obliques, and lower back. You don't realize the necessity of this tension with "regular," everyday pressing with dumbbells or while military pressing, unless you're pressing a fair amount. The jerk illuminates the truth. The wreath of muscles around your neck, the shoulder units, and the trapezius, are all squeezed tight, tight, tight back, that's how you hold big weights overhead, you don't hold it with your chest, the bar in front of the head, you hold it with the bar behind the head.

The key here isn't how high you can drive the weight, i can pretty much guarantee you're not going to get it much higher than your forehead, the key is pushing yourself under to catch it at arm's length. This means two things, one, you must do this fast enough, before the weight develops excessive downward momentum, and two, the hips must drop lower in order to maintain a stable catch position with an erect torso. If you lean forward to catch the bar, you're going to have a really hard time catching it, unless you've got exceptional shoulder flexibility.

There's two styles of dropping the hips: the split, and the squat jerk. The split involves splitting the feet fore and aft, and this is what most weightlifters are going to do, because the position is a lot more stable and easier to recover from. However, it's slower, more movement is involved than in the squat jerk, and you can't drop as low as you can in a squat jerk.

The squat jerk involves just pushing the body under the bar and dropping into an overhead squat. This is the more efficient movement, but the overhead squat is the most mechanically disadvantaged movement you could possibly try to do. Most squat jerkers are going to try to stop the downward motion before their hips get past their knees, but they can't always reverse direction against such great momentum. If they get driven to the bottom, they're in a lot of trouble, unless they happen to be fucking beastly. You've got to be really, really strong overhead to hold the weight and keep yourself from tilting forward, or losing the weight behind you, especially in the bottom of an overhead squat. There are some Chinese superstars who do this a lot and are somehow very, very successful; Shi Zhiyong at 69k, Zhan Xugang at 77k, and Zhang Guozheng at 69k.

There have been some freaks of nature who are strong enough to power jerk everything, which is like the squat jerk, but doesn't involve dropping as low, just driving the bar higher and pushing under much more quickly. Pyrros Dimas was one of those guys, at 85k he clean-and-power jerked 215k in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

conclusion

I'm sure a lot of you have seen videos of people lifting weights, half of which are probably clips of people fucking up and/or getting hurt, and I can understand why you would think this isn't a big deal, and in a way, it's not, "it's just weightlifting," just like it's just football, just track and field, just boxing. But it's athleticism, athleticism at its finest, testing the boundaries of the human body, and the clean-and-jerk tests a lot of boundaries. People don't decide to do the snatch or clean-and-jerk one day, and just go to the gym and do it, they spend their lives trying to perfect it, becoming more and more efficient, finding the positions in the pull, finding the timing for the transition. It's a lifelong process of learning, perfection, and involved in that process is becoming stronger, faster, and finding a certain kind of courage within yourself.

Like I said, there's a reason weightlifting is an Olympic sport and powerlifting is not. The complexity of the clean-and-jerk is one of those reasons.

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