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Clean and Jerk – Tips on Form and Mistakes to Avoid

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What is the Clean and Jerk?

You’re probably aware of the clean and jerk, given that it is one of the two competitive lifts that make up weightlifting. Plus, the clean and jerk looks cool and is among the most dynamic and effective exercises you can perform.

The exercise is interesting and effective because it combines four movement patterns: a deadlift, clean, front squat, and overhead press. Because of that, learning the whole movement takes time, patience, and consistent practice.

Still, despite being challenging to master, the clean and jerk will make you stronger and more explosive. The movement also makes everyday tasks like picking things off the floor and raising objects above your head easier.

We recommend including the clean and jerk early into your workouts, given its difficulty. Doing so would allow you to practice the exercise while you’re at your strongest. 

How to do a Clean and Jerk 

  1. Stand in front of a loaded barbell with your feet underneath it and shins a couple of inches away. Your feet should be hip-width apart with toes pointed slightly out.
  2. Bend down and grab the barbell with an even, overhand grip. Your hands should be wider than shoulder-level apart, and your knees should be against the crease of your elbows. 
  3. Bring your chest out as much as you can to put your back in a safe, neutral position. Your hips should be slightly higher than your knees in this position, lower than they would be during a traditional deadlift setup.
  4. Keep your neck in a neutral position with your gaze directed a few feet in front of you.
  5. Initiate the first pull by deadlifting the barbell off the floor as you press your heels into the ground. Make the initial pull powerful because you have to generate some momentum for the next part of the lift.
  6. Once the barbell travels above your knees, keep driving your hips forward as you begin pulling the weight in a straight vertical line. Maintain a neutral spine and keep your body upright. The entire sequence should happen in one smooth motion.
  7. As the barbell travels up, squat, catch it, and have it land over your shoulders and upper chest. Maintain a firm grip over the barbell and keep your elbows pointing forward.
  8. As the barbell lands in a front rack position, dip a few extra inches until your thighs are parallel to the floor and squat up to the top, straightening your knees fully.
  9. Dip slightly and jerk the bar, bringing it over your head, and extending your elbows and knees. The motion is similar to a push press, but it requires a bit of extra momentum.
  10. Lower the barbell to your shoulders and bring it to the floor while keeping your back neutral.

What muscles does the clean and jerk activate?

As briefly mentioned in the introduction, the clean and jerk consists of four movements, each of which trains several major muscle groups in the body. One of the primary muscles that work during a clean and jerk is the quadriceps, which extend our knees off the bottom and create the necessary momentum (1). The quadriceps also work hard once we catch the barbell and perform a front squat (2). 

Our hamstrings and glutes also play an essential role during the initial part of the lift as both muscles produce hip extension (3, 4).

The entire back musculature (latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, rhomboids, etc.) produces force to keep us stable and perform the second pull. Similarly, our shoulders, biceps, and trapezius contribute to the pull, allowing us to raise the barbell enough for us to catch it in a front rack position.

The entire midsection (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques, and other muscles) flexes isometrically to provide even more torso stability, allowing us to maintain our balance during the highly dynamic clean and jerk.

Tips on the Proper Form with Clean and Jerk

Keeping the barbell close to your body is essential for a good clean and jerk. The bar should travel in a mostly straight line from the floor to above your head. 

The second tip for a successful clean and jerk is to pull the barbell with as much force off the floor as you can. A clean and jerk isn’t a deadlift, and you shouldn’t treat it as such. Raw strength is necessary but creating momentum allows you to advance the barbell and achieve the required front rack position.

The third tip for a good clean and jerk is to keep your hips low (slightly above your knees). Doing so would allow you to engage your quadriceps better, allowing them to produce a lot of force off the bottom.

Variations and Modifications of the Clean and Jerk

1. Clean and Jerk With Squat

The clean and jerk with a squat is a neat variation you can perform to increase the amount of work you’re doing, practice the lift, and reinforce proper technique. Instead of doing the clean and jerk, you must include one or two front squat reps before completing the lift and setting the barbell down.

2. Block Clean and Jerk

The block clean and jerk is a variation you perform with the barbell elevated on blocks. Doing so is beneficial for improving your pulling technique and fixing issues that might be preventing you from reaching a front rack position.

Mistakes to Avoid

A common mistake with the clean and jerk is not creating enough force off the bottom. As a result, you cannot gain enough momentum, complete a successful second pull, and get into a front rack position. Fix the mistake by using a lighter load and being as explosive as possible from the start.

Another mistake with the clean and jerk is allowing the barbell to travel too far forward. Doing so makes the movement much more challenging and prevents you from achieving a solid front rack position. As with a deadlift, the barbell should travel in a mostly straight vertical line from start to finish.

The third mistake with the clean and jerk is starting with your hips too high and knees almost straight. Doing so prevents your quadriceps from producing force off the bottom position. Instead, your hamstrings and glutes must do all the work to extend your hips.

Avoid the error by setting your hips slightly higher than your knee and pressing through your heels as you initiate each repetition.

Similar Exercises to the Clean and Jerk

Push Press

man push press arms extended barbell

The push press is a compound exercise, similar to the final part of a clean and jerk. With the barbell in your arms and at shoulder level, bend your knees slightly (dip) and press the barbell overhead as you extend your knees.

Front Squat

man full front squat barbell

Front squats are a fantastic compound exercise that strengthens your quadriceps, glutes, back, and midsection (2). The movement is part of the clean and jerk, so performing it is vital for reinforcing proper technique and improving your front rack position.

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