Everything You Need to Know About the CrossFit Clean

how to crossfit clean

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Regardless of the athlete you are or aspire to be, learning the CrossFit clean is essential.

While not 1 of the 9 fundamental CrossFit movements, cleans come up in many classic CrossFit workouts as well as competitive situations, like at the Games and in the Open. 

They’re not the easiest exercise to master, but there is a simple way to break the movement down for beginners. With some practice, you should have the basics down in just a few workouts.

In this guide, you’ll learn how cleans fit into CrossFit, the benefits you’ll receive by programming this exercise, and how to perform the various clean exercises in CrossFit.

What’s a Clean in CrossFit?

A clean is a functional, multi-joint exercise used in CrossFit. To perform a clean, an athlete brings a loaded barbell from the floor to their shoulder in one swift motion.

The two most basic types of cleans you’ll find in CrossFit programming are the power clean and squat clean. These workouts come up in both metabolic conditioning workouts (MetCons) and strength workouts frequently.

Common variations of the clean you’ll find in CrossFit include the hang clean (or hang power clean), muscle cleans, dumbbell cleans, and kettlebell cleans.

While CrossFit had a hand in making this exercise popular, it does not come from CrossFit.

In fact, cleans form one half of an exercise called the clean and jerk, which is a strength exercise performed during the Summer Olympics. 

Along with the snatch, athletes get 3 attempts to establish the heaviest 1-rep-max of each exercise for a total score.

Benefits of the Clean

Cleans offer tons of benefits to any CrossFit athlete, regardless of your fitness level. Here are some things you’ll gain by adding them to your programming:

  • Better explosiveness and power
  • Stronger grip 
  • Better pulling strength (which translates to other weighted exercises like deadlifts and snatches)
  • Stronger shoulders, lats, and biceps
  • Stronger hamstrings, hips, lower back, and abs
  • Better coordination and balance
  • Improve shoulder flexibility

How to Perform a Clean

The easiest way to break down a clean is to learn the three phases: the start, the pull, and the stand (or the finish). 

Here’s how to learn the CrossFit clean, per CFHQ’s guidelines:

Start

  • Feet: Start with your feet under the bar in a shoulder-width position.*

*Line your feet up at the base of your shoelaces. Any closer and the bar will hit your shins; any further towards your toes and you’ll lose pulling power.

  • Hands: Place your hands on the bar with your thumbs touching the knurling. Your deadlift grip is probably close to where you should be, although some prefer their hands slightly wider.
  • Hook Grip: Wrap your thumb around the bar, then lock your four fingers on top of it. Squeeze to lock it in place. Your thumb shouldn’t be able to move.

* Olympic lifts like the clean and snatch are performed with a hook grip to prevent the bar from slipping out of your hands at heavier weights. It may hurt at first, but with practice it gets easier. A little tape on your thumb will help prevent tears on the inside of your thumb.

  • Body position: Line up with your shoulders over the bar and your hips slightly higher than a deadlift position. Knees bent, tight back, shins vertical, bodyweight in heels.

Pull

  • First pull: Raise your hips and shoulders towards the ceiling at the same speed. Keep your arms straight and your hips down until the bar passes your knee.
  • Second pull: Driving through the heels, pull your torso vertical extend your hips explosively (enough that your feet leave the ground) and shrug the bar with your straight arms. As the bar elevates, drop your arms underneath it and lower yourself into a squat. Catch the bar on your shoulders in the front rack position.

Stand

  • Bottom of the squat: You’ve caught the bar in the bottom of a front squat position. Find your balance and drive through your feet to a standing position.

To finish the rep, drop the bar back to the ground (in a controlled fashion) or let it fall to a hang power clean position. Then repeat.

If you’re completely new, try this exercise with an empty bar or PVC pipe.

*Using bumper plates is helpful for starting at the same mid-shin position for each rep. If you use an empty bar or PVC pipe, try to mimic this position instead of starting from the floor.

How to Do Each Type of Clean In CrossFit

Besides the squat clean, there are several variations of CrossFit cleans you may come across during strength sessions or in WODs. 

The fundamentals of any clean are similar, but there are nuances you need to understand to do each variation correctly. Here’s more on each:

The Hang Clean

Hang cleans start from the hang position, which is located right above the patella (kneecap).

  • Follow the same set up as the standard clean; once you have your feet, hands, and grip, pick the bar up to a standing hang position.
  • To initiate the clean, bend your knees and kick your hips back with a flat back. 
  • When the bar gets to the top of your knee, initiate the second pull phase: bring the torso vertical, extending the hips and shrugging the bar. Catch the bar and stand from the squat.

The Power Clean

Power cleans and squat cleans are very similar. The main difference is in the receiving position, or the catch.

  • Follow all the cues of a standard clean.
  • Instead of dropping into a full squat, catch the bar in a quarter squat. This is called the “power position.*”

*Note: the quarter squat is higher, meaning you have to pull the bar further off the ground to complete the rep. Many beginners find power cleans easier than squat cleans at first. But as your technique improves, you’ll likely find you can squat clean more than you can power clean.

The Squat Clean

Squat cleans in CrossFit are most commonly referred to as cleans. Most athletes and coaches will use ‘clean’ when they are referring to the full squat clean. If they want you to hang clean or power clean an exercise, they will typically specify.

See the cues above for guidance.

The Muscle Clean

Muscle cleans eliminate the jumping portion of the exercise. There’s still an explosive element, but your shrug and pulling power are overemphasized. 

  • Follow all the same cues as the squat clean. 
  • In the second pulling phase, keep your feet on the ground. Extend your hips, but use your arms to pull the bar high enough to catch it.

Muscle cleans are great for developing pulling power if that’s a weak point. They’re also good for shaving time off in metcon workouts that include cleans or power cleans. But as a general rule, you want to practice the regular version of each exercise when lifting heavy.

The Dumbbell Clean

Dumbbell cleans are a phenomenal piece of equipment for minimal CrossFit WODs. The hang dumbbell clean has also been used in CrossFit Open workouts.

It’s basically the same exercise with different equipment.

  • Set up with your feet shoulder-width apart. Place the dumbbells outside your feet or at a 45-degree angle in front of you.
  • With a flat back and driving through your heels, bring both dumbbells up. The same steps apply; extend your hips, shrug the bells, and catch in the receiving position at the bottom of a squat or in the power position. Then stand.

Practice with lighter bells or do one at a time if two is overwhelming at first.

The Kettlebell Clean

Kettlebell and dumbbells cleans are different, namely because you’re using one bell instead of two in this variation.

  • Start with the bell between your feet. Follow the same cues as above to get it to your shoulder.

The other main difference is you have to let the kettlebell move in your hand as you drop underneath into the catch position. This allows your elbows to come through into the front rack position and prevents the KB from hitting you in the shoulder or head.

How to Improve Your Clean

Most athletes find improvements happen (after initially learning the exercise) by figuring out which position you are weakest in and specifically working on that part of the exercise.

The clean can be broken down into:

  • The setup
  • The pulls (1 and 2)
  • The finish (the cath and stand)

Here are some tips for improving each area of your clean:

The Setup

  • Practice the hook grip. For some, the limiting factor on cleans is grip strength. The hook grip hurts at first, but your thumb will eventually get used to it. Try doing hook grip deadlifts a few times a week.
  • Plate pinches. If grip strength is a problem, try adding these to the end of your workouts.

The Two Pulls

The first pull aims to bring the bar above the knee; the second pull is where you extend your hips and shrug, then start dropping into the receiving position to catch the bar.

First pull

  • Practice romanian deadlifts (RDLs). RDLs build up hamstring and lower back strength and help nail down the fundamentals of the first pull. Try doing them on a slow 6-count to really bolster hamstring strength.
  • Improve deadlift strength. While not the same setup (with cleans you start with your shoulders more over the bar), building up posterior strength will translate over to the first pull of cleans.

Second pull

  • Practice hang cleans. Pulling from the hang position into the catch helps emphasize the explosive aspect of the second pull. Work with light weights and be very aggressive with your hips.
  • Practice rack cleans/pulls. Set the pins on your rack to just above knee height. Work on rack pulls (the top of a deadlift to lock the bar out) or cleans from this position. This is also a good time to work on the hook grip.

The Finish (Catch and Stand)

  • Build up your front squat. A strong front squat will make coming up from a clean much easier. High-level Olympic athletes can almost always front squat more than they can clean. Slow-count or paused front squats are great, too.
  • Practice catching with the bar from blocks or high pins. Set the blocks at belly button height. Pull the bar and practice catching and receiving from the bottom.
  • Work on front rack mobility. Open up your shoulders by doing basic shoulder mobility exercises. If your forearms are tight, roll them out with a foam roller.

Popular Clean Workouts

Cleans have been around since the beginning of CrossFit. Here are 4 popular WODs that use the standard squat clean and some of the variations you learned about earlier.

1. Grace

The Grace WOD is as old-school a CrossFit workout gets. It’s one of the original CrossFit girls WODs, along with other staples like Annie and Fran.

The workout is:

For time:

30 Clean and jerks, 135/95lbs 

Guys like Rich Froning have completed a scaled up version known as ‘Superman Grace’ (225lbs instead of 135lbs) in under 5 minutes!

2. The Chief

The Chief WOD is a five 3-minute AMRAPs with 1 minute in between:

3 power cleans (135/95lbs)

6 push-ups

9 air squats

Score = total rounds completed in the 5 sets.

3. Elizabeth

Another CrossFit OG workout, The Elizabeth WOD is a brutal “For time” couplet:

21-15-9

135 power cleans

Ring dips

4. CrossFit Open 18.1

Complete as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes of:

8 toes-to-bars

10 dumbbell hang clean and jerks

14-cal. Row

The Open standards for this WOD will help you better understand the hang clean aspect.

About Julien

Hey! Thanks for being here. I’ve been active pretty much my whole life and I discovered Crossfit about 5 years ago. I want to help you improve your Crossfit performances by giving tips on specific movements, workouts and equipment. You have a question? Get in touch!

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