Squat Cleans: How Low Can You Go?

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by LARRY PASTOR

In order to get underneath a heavy bar, squat cleans require faster hip and elbow turnover than a power clean.
So you’ve mastered the power clean, and you want to go heavier. What next? Well, if you want to ensure that you get underneath that nasty, heavy bar, then it’s time get low using a squat clean. (For the record, this means having a strong front squat – or developing one soon — so you can stand up with the weight once you catch it.) If you want to get better at squat cleans, or if you’re struggling to get into the proper receiving position, read on. Learn some of the cues for good squat clean form and some of the fixes for bad squat clean form.

Why Squat Cleans?

Squat cleans — or cleans —  add a speed and a coordination component to the movement, which is not used in the power clean. In order to get underneath a heavy bar, squat cleans require faster hip and elbow turnover than a power clean. They also require the athlete to get into a proper front squat position under the bar, thus putting a higher demand on speed, footwork, and hip mobility. Obviously, this adds a tremendous coordination and accuracy component to the movement as well. Making incremental changes in your technique can lead to a PR — just ask any Olympic lifter who has spent years working on this first part of the clean & jerk. If your goal is become a fitter athlete, squat cleans provide a lot of bang for the buck.

Pulling, Jumping, and Catching

A clean breaks down into three distinct pulls.
So what is a squat clean? Basically, a squat clean can be broken down into 3 phases, each of which is equally important to a successful lift:

1. A pulling movement: You are basically pulling the barbell from the floor into a power position at the upper thigh with the hips and knees slightly bent and the weight on your heels.

2. A jumping movement: From the power position, bring the body quickly to a fully extended position. This quickly moves the bar upward and creates space and time to catch the bar in a front squat position.

3. A catching movement: From the top of the jump, you quickly rotate your elbows around the bar while quickly reversing your hips and moving them under the bar into the bottom of a front squat position. This is an active pull under the bar, not just a fall into a squat.

Squat Cleans Allow You to Lift More Weight

Did you know? In the 2011 CrossFit Games Open, athletes were allowed to sub a power clean + a front squat for full cleans, if needed.
Coach Doug Larson of Faction Strength and Conditioning demonstrates the differences between the squat clean and power clean. More importantly, he explains how a squat clean allows you to lift more weight by  pulling under the bar at lower height than a normal power clean and then receiving the bar in a full front squat position.  According to Larson, power cleans typically represent 80-85% of your squat clean. Your 3-rep max for a front squat is also a good weight to help determine a 1-rep max for a squat clean.

Breaking Down the Clean

In this video, Jon Gilson teaches the squat clean by breaking it up into progressions.

  • Part 1 – The up-shrug: The demo athlete brings her body to full extension from a power position where her knees and hips are slightly bent. The focus is on keeping the the bar  close to the body while executing.
  • Part 2 – Pulling into the bottom position: From the top of the up-shrug position, the athlete practices ripping underneath the bar. First, however, she has to demonstrate a solid rack position, where her elbows are parallel to the deck, and the bar is resting on her upper deltoids, and her fingertips. He then has her hit the “rock bottom” position from a standing position and has her stay there so that she can become comfortable with the bottom position of a front squat. She stands up from the bottom position by leading with her elbows.
  • Part 3 – The transition: Gilson has his athlete practice the transition from the hang shrug to the bottom position of a front squat by bringing her body to full extension out of the power position and ripping herself under the bar by dropping her hips and rotating her elbows quickly around the bar. Gilson then has her practice “hitting the bounce” by using the “stretching and shortening of the hamstring” to launch her out of the bottom of the squat.
  • Part 4 – Reviewing the set-up: Finally, the athlete brings the bar from a deadlift position to the power position and then finishes the squat clean. Gilson recommends starting the deadlift with knees and feet slightly pointed outward. Why?

    This allows for a more upright posture and less unfolding of the torso which leads to better power transmission to the bar because there is less rotation occurring and more vertical movement happening.

    In other words, keep your chest up and remember to jump vertically to get upward momentum on the bar.

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