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Using the power clean and olympic lift variations for size and development


The past decade or so has witnessed a real comeback in popularity of Olympic Lifts and Olympic Lift variations across a wide range of fitness applications.

I have implemented Olympic lift variations in many of my MET Programs as well, although often for very different reasons.

But every so often the question is posed as to whether Olympic Lifts and their variations are useful in a physique development program. I get asked this question a lot about Power Cleans in particular.

“Should” power cleans be used in weight-training programs designed for physique development and bodybuilding?

Well, perhaps the better question isn’t so much “should” the power clean be used in these programs, but “could” the power clean be used in such programs? These are two different questions to address.

If you look at the early physique stars before the days of PhD-level of pharmaceutical enhancements and all, you witness well-developed physiques and these trainees almost always used some kind of Olympic Lifts in their training protocol… more out of tradition and lack of other innovative exercise options at the time.

People like my own mentor Bill Pearl, whose physique inspired real awe in his day, made regular use of the power clean and the overhead barbell lift. Bill's physique would have been comparable to any modern day world-class level physique to be sure. But that was then, when exercise options were limited and exercise innovation barely in its infancy. Is there still value in utilizing the power clean in modern day programs designed for developing a great physique? (And by great I mean “balanced” as well.)

Well to answer that question let’s first address the power clean in general.

The power clean is popular these days and used pretty much across the board in sports conditioning protocol because the exercise “trains” explosion.

The power clean “expresses” strength as a component of power, meaning strength with speed. This is relevant in the athletic world where “expressions” of power and strength matter far more than does mere physical appearance. But if your goal is purely about acquiring an aesthetic physique, are power cleans or olympic variations “essential” in muscle development programs? Well the answer is an equivocal “kind of yes,” but mostly “no.”

Let me explain.

The difference is that while power cleans are “essential” in strength and conditioning programs for athletics, the exercise itself is, at best, merely an “adjunct” exercise in the tool box for training programs designed specifically for muscle development and balanced physique enhancement.

So in this way, the answer is “no,” the power clean exercise isn’t really “essential” in physique development programs.

However, the exercise can be “useful” in such programs under many varying specifications and the “need’s state” of a trainee.

For example, very often physique development stagnates after many years of the same kind of training muscles in isolation from each other (see my book The Abel Approach for more on that). Put simply, there is a price to pay in terms of “bodypart” training, and often “neural confusion” is that price. This neural confusion often stands in the way of adequate muscle fiber recruitment during exercise.

As the old saying goes “a problem is never solved at the level of thinking that caused it.” Trainees interested in physique development and long-term bodybuilders are often “stuck” in this mindset of “isolated bodypart training” even when their own progress has been stagnant for a long-time.

What the Olympic lifts and their variations offer to the plateaued bodybuilder is a sort of neuro re-education if you will.

The power clean and snatch variations have more systemic effects and this is a big plus that is often negated by regular isolated bodypart training. Olympic movements use kinetic chain expressions and will re-engage muscles to finally work “in concert” with each other again after so many years of isolation. This “different kind of stimulus” of kinetic chain expression can be very useful in overcoming training plateaus induced by same ol' same ol' isolated bodypart training. The key here is using these exercises while still within the frame-work of physique enhancement programming, and not solely adapting them as they are used in athletic conditioning.

But the power clean itself still remains problematic to my mind.

For one, it is a bitch to learn to do properly, effectively, and safely.

That learning curve can be even steeper after so many years of isolated bodypart work, such that the muscles aren’t used to coordinated efforts of strength expression. That can often feel frustrating for a trainee who is used to “feeling” a great training response from an exercise.

There are even more caveats to consider here as well in regards to the power clean. For instance, older trainees with arthritic issues – or simply “old” elbows, shoulders, and wrists – are much better off not even considering using power cleans in their training programs, especially if those programs are being implemented solely for aesthetics. Eliminating the power clean exercise is not merely limited to the aging trainee either. Very young and new trainees, or anyone with arthritic issues (especially osteoarthritis), as well as trainees with poor coordination and limited athletic ability, or people with chronic knee issues or chronic tendonitis issues from previous training, or people with lower lumber or disc issues… all these demographic groups would likely be better off not even considering using the traditional barbell power cleans exercise in their training protocol (something more Cross-fit leaders should begin to think about as well before mixing up their next batch of koolaid WOD one-size-fits-all implementations).

So of all the useful olympic lift variations, I find the barbell power clean the least adaptable to programs emphasizing physique development and aesthetics.

I do like dumbbell versions of clean and press and snatches. Any form of the snatch also obeys the useful and constructive training effects of the integrated dynamics of balance demands, force transfer, and leverage considerations of power coming from the ground and driven through the core musculature.

My own personal opinion is that some snatch variations – like the One Arm Dumbbell Snatch – are often a better choice of any Olympic lift variation than is the power clean. And this is especially true for trainees who have trouble “shoulder racking” a barbell in the power clean for whatever reason (injury, limited ROM, arthritic conditions, lack of coordination and technique, just to name a few). The DB Snatch and its one-arm variation bypasses these limitations.

And let me be real clear here as well, unless the trainee is working specifically at training in a sport, then I prefer the DB snatch variations, and the DB Clean and Press with DB’s at your side, over the far more technical and troublesome execution of the traditional barbell power clean. (See some of these variations here.)

These are the variations you will find in my MET programs. Some would consider the DB clean and press with DB’s at the side to be a “bastardization” of the Olympic lift. I consider it merely a relevant “tweak” of these movements in order to still be able to have similar positive effects of kinetic chain expression without the consequences of shoulder strain, spinal compressive forces etc.

And I still like to point out that the DB snatch variations are generally safer all around. They are also a “longer” movement of kinetic chain expression of power. They are still explosive, as they are still driven by ground forces and still require some athletic ability. Moreover because of my use of “tweakology” in these lift variations, more reps can also be used than is followed when traditional snatches or cleans in pure athletic protocols, where reps schemes are usually done between 1 and 5 repetitions.

So in conclusion, no, I am not really an advocate of the traditional barbell power clean for use in programs targeting muscle development and balance. But I do like variations of Olympic lifts and “tweaking” them for specific use in such programs.

Let me offer an example.

Bonus: An Example of Such Tweakology

Below in “Workout #1” example of a 5 Days Program I have called Olympic Lift Variation Hybrid.

It’s only Day 1 of the 5 day sequence, but you can see the “tweaks” and use of the Olympic lifts in this well-laid out workout plan. I’ve highlighted the Olympic variation and “tweaks” in bold.

You can look up all of these exercises in the exercise library and even give this workout a try if you like.

Workout 1

1a) One Arm DB Snatch 4 X’s 4-5 ES
1b) One Arm DB Heavy Lateral Throws from Floor 4 X’s 6-8 ES
1c) SB Reverse Hyperextensions (or on Machine) 4 X’s 15-20
2a) BB or DB Heavy Bent Rows 4 X’s 6-8
2b) One Arm DB Front Swings 4 X’s 6-8 EA
2c) One Arm Overhead DB Push Press w Hammer Grip and Split Stance 4 X’s 6-8 ES
3a) Deadlifts (any kind, change style each week) 4 X’s 5
3b) Pulldowns or Chins (light) 4 X’s 15-20
3c) One Arm Lying DB Chest Press on SB 4 X’s 6 EA
4a) BB or DB Squats 3 X’s 10-15
4b) 2 Arm DB Clean and Press 3 X’s 10-15

It will allow you to “feel” how these kinds of variations could be so useful when needing to shake up traditional bodypart training protocol, while still targeting physique enhancement (but of course keep in mind this is just one workout of the 5 days program).