May 30, 2011
June 3, 2011

Cleans were a common theme running through-out Tuesday night’s class:

Strength: 7 x 3 Cleans, 2 Front Squats, 1 Push Press/Push Jerk

Conditioning: 5 x 10 Hang Power DB Cleans & Push Press, 15 Hollow Rocks

While most of us have a firm grasp of the overhead movement (with a bit of nitpicking here and there about tightening the glutes to tuck the hips), the Clean remains an age-old nemesis for many of us, and one which has received ample coverage in the past (see specifically Coach Mike Choi’s Points of Review for the Clean). With three sets of eyes watching and helping last night, there was dramatic improvement in everyone’s Cleans. However, we are going to use the majority of today’s post for some review and terminology clarification.

Triple Extension

Triple extension movements consist of exercises that apply explosive force with the feet against the ground, movements where you will often hear a coach remind you to “push the floor away” or “drive into the floor.” These movements, which include the Clean, Jerk and Snatch, are so-called due to the use of the three major posterior-chain joints – ankles, knees, & hips – and the manner in which they are forcefully moved from the flexed to extended position. Failure to fully extend all three joints, and thus not achieve triple extension, reduces the amount of power imparted to the weight. This becomes a significant factor when we begin talking about the “three pulls” of the Olympic lifts.

The Three Pulls

Both the Clean and the Snatch can be loosely thought of as three movements which, at speed, are blended into one seamless lift. Following, will discuss each of the three movements, or pulls as they’re known, and the common faults that seem to accompany each.

First Pull
First Pull = from the bar’s starting position on the floor to the top of the knees
Setting up is key to a successful First Pull, let alone a good Clean; your hips should start lower than they do for a deadlift, allowing the chest to stay up and out, and your feet should be just under the hips (closer together than they would be for a squat) with the knees slightly flared out to allow for a more vertical bar path.

Sara at the Cap-City meet set-up for the First Pull of a Clean – notice how her hips are much lower than they would be were she simply deadlifting the weight

To execute the First Pull, take a deep breath and begin to pick the bar up by extending the legs at the knees while driving through the heels, making sure the hip and back angle rise at the same rate. Note that while the First Pull should be comparatively slower than the Second or Third Pulls, it is not intentionally slow.

The only real common fault associated with the First Pull is allowing the hips to shoot up. Our extensive use of the deadlift as CrossFitters means that we have trained our bodies to default to a deadlift position when picking weight up off the ground. This is generally a good thing; however, allowing the hips to rise too fast during the First Pull of a Clean will result in the weight getting out in front, away from your body, during the Second Pull (this leads to host of scenarios occurring through the Second and Third Pulls, none of which are optimal).

Second Pull
Second Pull = from the top of the knees to the crease of the hips
This is where the bar really gets moving, and is completely dependent on the explosive power generated by the triple extension (discussed above). In hitting full triple extension, you will significantly increase the velocity of the weight. In short, you want to impart as much power and speed to the weight as possible so as to allow the bar to become as weightless as possible for as long as possible. To execute the Second Pull, think about violently extending the legs, launching the body up on to the toes, and shrugging the shoulders while keeping the arms locked. This will utilize the entire body to get the bar moving.

Sebastian on Tuesday night just before completing triple extension – his ankles, hips and knees are all in the process of extending while his shoulders are just beginning to shrug; his arms however, are STILL locked, as they should be.

This is where the Clean usually breaks down for most. The biggest fault, and by far most common, is pulling early; i.e., the arms begin to pull the weight before you’ve achieved a full triple extension. In doing so, you’re taxing your biceps by pulling on the weight and therefore “muscling” the weight up. Additionally, pulling early is often the cause of the second most common fault in the Second Pull, and that is not reaching full triple extension. In other words, by pulling early, you often fail to fully extend the ankles, knees or hips, though it is most often the hips. It is possible to pull early and still hit full extension, but the power imparted on the bar will be far less than it otherwise could be. Let’s simplify early pulling this way:

Triple Extension = Full body used to move the weight
Pulling Early = Only biceps used to move the weight

Which do you think will allow you to move more weight for longer periods of time?
One last common problem to be aware of during the Second Pull is not keeping the weight in constant contact with the body. By not keeping the bar in close and against the thighs, you will negate much of the power generated in the Second Pull, as well as to set yourself up for problems in the Third Pull.

Third Pull
Third Pull = from the crease of the hips to the finished position
(“finished” meaning the rack position on the front of the shoulders for the Clean, or overhead for the Snatch)
This is the point when the bar should be somewhat floating in mid-air as you move in to position to properly receive the weight. To properly execute the Third Pull, begin to bend the arms (only AFTER you have hit full triple extension), keeping the elbows high like a scarecrow, and pull the bar up your body. The path of the bar path should remain in close against the body. As the bar passes your sternum, the elbows will drop and rotate around the bar, finishing out in front, with the upper arms parallel to the floor and the bar in the rack position. The process of the pulling the elbows around is extremely fast and is often described as “whipping the elbows” around the bar.

Andraea on Tuesday night in the process of completing the Third Pull – she has kept the bar nice and close, pulling the weight high, and is beginning to “whip” her elbows around the bar. Notice too that Andraea has also unlocked her knees in order to pull herself under weight slightly and absorb the catch.

Scott on Tuesday night after completing the Third Pull and with the bar in the correct rack position (i.e., with the bar in his fingers, weight on his shoulders, and elbows up high.

There are two common faults associated with the Third Pull. The first is front or reverse curling the bar – keeping the elbow low and simply using the biceps and forearms to curl the bar into the rack position. If at any time during a workout with Cleans, your forearms begin to get tight and burn, rest assured you are front curling. The second common fault is catching the bar in your hands in front of your shoulders. There are a number of causes, but the most common are allowing the hips to shoot up early in the First Pull and/or not keeping the weight in close to the body during the Second Pull. Each of these faults often results in the bar ending up too far out in front of the body. Thus, instead of falling into place on the shoulders at the end of the Clean, the bar ends up falling slightly in front of the shoulders, requiring you to catch the bar in your hands before moving it back onto your shoulders. Sore, achy wrists are a good indication that you are catching the bar with your hands rather than your shoulders.

Barbells vs. Dumbbells

One final point: It doesn’t matter whether your using a barbell or a set of dumbbells when doing your Cleans, the movement is the same, from First Pull to Second Pull to Third Pull. The only difference should be in the receiving position, where your hands will be in a neutral grip (with palms facing the head).

Reggie during the Met-Con portion of Tuesday night’s class – the weight is resting on his shoulders in a neutral grip position, but his elbows are still well in front of the weight, just as they would be if he had cleaned a barbell.

That’s a lot of information, I realize, but it’s extremely important, and will help the next time Cleans come up in class. If there was one last piece of advice I could give, it would be this: Don’t get frustrated! The Olympic Lifts are a game of patience. It takes patience and practice to not only learn the movement, but adapt your CNS to specific neurological recruitment pattern required during each of the three pulls. It will come, I promise – just ask Andraea, who up till now pretty much loathed Cleans but was really hitting her form on Tuesday night and enjoying it to boot!

Great job everyone. The comments over the past few days have been awesome, so keep it up. I would love hear what weights everyone worked up to, as well as field any questions or clarifications anyone might have about today’s post/Tuesday night’s class.



  1. Maiko D. says:

    Nice informative write-up Salty! I especially appreciate that you noted the common faults on each of the three pulls. I was wondering if there’s a comparison video out there showing a person pulling too early during the second pull vs. a person doing it properly? It’s definitely one of the things I remember having problems with in the past.

  2. SaltyHat says:

    That’s a good suggestion, I think I may try to track something down; ideally, I’d like to use a video in conjunction with freeze-frame photos, so people can see the difference at the end of the Second Pull as well as the overall effect on the lift. Consider the search on!

  3. Andraea says:

    I second what Maiko said, great step-by-step write-up! I really enjoyed this workout. I loved the combination of the clean, front squat, and then into an overhead press. My face looks funny in that picture though! Definitely need to do more front squats as that was the roughest part. Thanks Chris for pointing out that I need to focus on squeezing the glutes and not arching the back during the overhead press before the db finisher, I could feel a difference and no pain in my lower back!

  4. edgy reggie says:

    Hmmm…I guess I better comment if the class wishes to be “burpee free.” πŸ™‚

    @Salty: Nice write-up. πŸ™‚

    I was just reviewing my USAW (USA Weightlifting) Sports Performance video to see if there was any additional information I could add about performing the clean (and the snatch). The video suggests that newbies to Olympic lifting perform the clean (and the snatch) in the following progression:

    (a) barbell at mid-thigh,
    (b) barbell from above-the-knee,
    (c) barbell from below-the-knee, and
    (d) barbell from the floor.

    One thing that Chris mentioned in his write-up that I would like to stress: Practice and patience. Most of you hear me say “Practice, practice, practice!” in class. I may sound like a broken record, but it is true. It takes a lot of repetitions to get to a certain “comfort level” with the Olympic lifts. If you aren’t practicing these lifts (or the assisted movements and skill movements) outside of a CrossFit DC class; then, it will take a while to “feel comfortable” with the lifts. So…don’t get frustrated. Keep at it, and you will get better.

    Now, in order to get better, one needs to check his/her ego at the door. (This is not directed at any specific person at CrossFit DC; it’s a mind set that one must have and maintain for self-improvement.) That means that one may need to lower the weight in order to improve the technique (and to reduce the risk of injury). Once the technique is improved, the strength gains from increased weight will come.

    With the Olympic lifts, there is always room for improvement. I, personally, look at Olympic lifting as a life-long challenge.

    Clean, front squat, overhead anyhow: I did four rounds at 50 kg and the remaining three at 60 kg. The more reps I did, the more I was able to get under the bar (which is the usual case with me…I’m a slow starter). My jerks need work (which is why I’m using Wednesdays for skill work sessions).

    Dumbbell clean-and-push press/hollow rocks: I used the 40# dumbbells. The humidity (and those damn 20 burpees) really sapped my strength; thus, I just took my time to complete this portion (which I did in 10:00 and some change).

    Apologies for the long post.

    CFDC’s own ODB is…celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” album. πŸ™‚

  5. Dian says:

    I agree with Maiko and Andrea that this is an excellent write-up. I actually enjoy Cleans. Not that I execute the movement properly mind you. It seems that my problems begin right at the beginning. I have trouble getting set-up at the bar. Unlike Sara, (thank you for posting that fantastic photo of her), I just can’t quite get my hips low enough, my feet right, my knees right. This is a flexibility issue for me which I am working on (hello Yoga). I make just about every mistake you pointed out. Oh well, nothing left to do but to keep practicing.

    I love that photo of you Andrea.

    I’m sorry I missed this class. Bloody deadlines. See y’all tomorrow.

  6. edgy reggie says:

    On another note, pick up the June issue of Competition magazine when you can (it’s free). There is a good article about Brian MacKenzie, CrossFit Endurance, and why he started it.

  7. edgy reggie says:

    @Dian: Could your running shoes contribute to your set-up problems? Try a flatter-soled athletic shoe (e.g., Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars or “Chucks”) the next time you attempt cleans (or snatches, squats, jerks, or deadlifts for that matter).

  8. SBV says:

    I love power cleans, even though I don’t believe they’re great for my long-term Olympic lifting development. I tend to neglect the third pull and, instead, just try to get straight-up nasty.

  9. Tom Brose says:

    Sometimes getting nasty is the only way to go!

  10. Sara says:

    Salty you weren’t kidding about the long write-up, but this was great and very informative. Great job to everyone in class. I spent most of my time down by the ladies. They really improved on the cleans. It seemed the front squat was the most difficult part for some.

    It was good to see people transition to the metcon and maintain the form use in the strength component.

  11. Steph says:

    I miss cleans!! So much that I dream about them!

    Awesome picture of Andraea! I heard that your cleans are getting really good and you did quite well in class πŸ˜‰

    Sorry I couldn’t be there to watch the fun. June’s work schedule sucks my ass!

  12. Steph says:

    Oh yes, very detailed and informative write-up Salty!! Me likey.

  13. Brendan says:

    Crossfit DC Social
    Friday, June 10th
    Time: TBD, probably from 7 pm to ?
    Ireland’s Four Fields
    3412 Connecticut Ave NW
    Washington, DC 20008

    2 block’s north of the National Zoo and right next to the Uptown Theater.

    Located one block south of the Cleveland Park Metro Station On the Red Line.

  14. Dian says:

    @Reggie-Thanks for the advice Reggie. You often point out to me in class that I should take off my running shoes when we are lifting. I know my flexibility is a big issue since I still have problems even when I’m in my flat feet. Still, I need to bite the bullet and get some proper lifting shoes. Oh, and that photo of your arms…I’ve made a mental note to never, ever piss you off.

  15. Goose says:

    Keepin’ the bar in the correct rack position since ’87

  16. Kenna says:

    I’m commenting just in case… I’m half shown in the background behind Andrea’s awesome lift.

    I got up to 65lbs on the 3rd set and stuck there for the rest. Those squats were tough! I know I need to work on engaging my core and overall technique with those cleans. It’s a bit of a muscle memory mind game for me. Thanks for all the coaching tips!

  17. Maiko D. says:

    A social! but there’s a chance I won’t be able to make it due to work πŸ™

    Great advice from Reggie. I second his shoes suggestions. I found that the plain old Chucks or barefoot works best when I’m without my weightlifting shoes. I will say that of the two I feel better in Chucks than barefoot or VFF when doing Olympic lifting. YMMV

  18. Tom Brose says:

    Great write up from Chris. A few points: the first pull does NOT generate the speed and power. Its job is to drag the bar into position for the second pull, while keeping the body in the optimal position to transition into the second. The second pull is “where the magic happens”. The aggressive, fast extension creates momentum on the bar, to be guided (not generated) by the arms. A great way to train this is by practicing the “hips-shrug” movement keeping the arms LOCKED. Chris and I discussed how to write up the Third pull, and decided to keep it simple. I’d generally describe this as pulling UNDER the moving barbell, to land in either the power or squat position. remember, even a power clean lands in a partial squat position, having dropped from full extension while upward momentum is still imparted on the bar.

    I’m not a big fan of barefoot O lifts, and while running shoes are not good, at moderate loads I would prefer to some of the other options. A raised heel allows for a better start position the issue tends to come when loads squish the shoes.

    Andraea, best lifts I’ve seen from you!

  19. edgy reggie says:

    @Dian: Thanks for the compliment…I think. πŸ™‚

    You could never piss me off (not in class anyway). πŸ™‚

  20. Maiko D. says:

    “I’d generally describe this as pulling UNDER the moving barbell, to land in either the power or squat position.”

    I had to do some digging around the blog but here’s a picture of Aimee Anaya of Catalyst Athletics doing exactly that. She’s doing a snatch here but this image should help you visualize exactly what you’re trying to do after the 2nd pull. She’s pulling herself under in order to catch the weight in a overhead position before gravity can work its magic on the weight. At least that’s how I explained it to myself way back when πŸ™‚ Hope this helps!

  21. SaltyHat says:

    @ Andraea – again, great job Tuesday night, not just on the cleans, but also on the form correction for the OH work. You, Kenna, and Mackenzie all were much better during the met-con about keeping your mid-line’s nice and stable. We’ll work on the front squats – I think a few tweaks will help tremendously.

    @ Dian – well, the shoe-horse has been beaten to death at this point, but let’s see if we can’t also come up with some quick mobility exercises for you to work on outside of class – I think you’ll get a lot of mileage out of just a few more degrees of flexion.

    @ Sebastian – you say you neglect your third pull, but in truth, it has come along way from the days of the uber-wide footed jumping-jack clean. Pretty soon your squat clean is going to look as smooth as your jerk does.

    @ Scott – your rack position is solid, but more than that, it’s your elbow speed on the 3rd pull that makes that elbow position look so good at speed. Nice work.

    @ Kenna – don’t worry, the front squats will come; you have an extremely natural and solid deadlift position, and I think your body wants to default to using your hammies whenever possible, so – as you pointed out – you’ll just need to be a tad patient with the various squat positions as your body builds up the muscle-memory. Again, nice work on the form corrections through-out class!

  22. edgy reggie says:

    And the verdict on burpees tonight is…? πŸ™‚

  23. Tom Brose says:

    The verdict? Thats up to McKenzie isn’t it?

  24. Mackenzie says:

    Ahhh I am so sorry team! I totally dropped the ball on this one. πŸ™ I’ll drop and give you 20 in my office right this minute to make up for it.

  25. Okay, I fell off the wagon… but I’m getting back on. If I can’t get out of the office soon enough to make it to Crossfit tonight; then Sunday it will be!

    So are there guidelines for the content of these comments?