When I see athletes fail on clean attempts, their first instinct is to blame hip mobility or their speed under the bar (and of course, those are both important.) But one thing that is always overlooked is start position. It seems like the easiest part of the lift. Pick the bar off the floor. Just like a deadlift! …yes? NO! No. No. No.
Sure, the bar starts on the floor for both lifts. But starting a clean the same way you start a deadlift is a surefire way to be pretty terrible at cleans. As is the case with most barbell movements, the start of the clean looks simple at first glance, but in reality, the subtleties of the start can be the difference between being average or great at your lifts.
The key to a great deadlift is to maximize the force your body puts into the ground, while minimizing the distance the bar has to travel. Keeping that in mind, you want to make sure you emphasize the strongest lower body muscles, the glutes and the hamstrings, when setting up for a deadlift. For most people, that means starting with the hips relatively high. Your feet should be directly beneath your hips, which should feel pretty narrow for most of you. This should be closer together than your feet are in a squat. Narrow feet width is a very efficient way to transfer force from your legs into the ground because all of your leg joints are stacked on top of each other. With narrow feet, your hands can be narrow as well, so the bar has to travel less distance before your hips are fully extended. There is no explosive component to the lift, so you don’t have to worry about any re-positioning or re-bending of the knees. Just lift the weight up.
On the other other hand, the clean has a lot more moving parts. You have to move the weight explosively in a vertical trajectory, and then quickly pull yourself under the bar and catch it in a front squat in an insanely short amount of time. Therefore, we want to set up in a position that allows us to do all of those things quickly and consistently. If you set up with your hips as high as you would in your deadlift, you have two problems. The bar is more likely to move outward during your hip explosion (instead of vertically), and you start with your torso too horizontal which sets you up for a poor receiving position when you need to catch that bar in the front squat. An upright torso, on the other hand, allows you to accelerate the bar vertically and then quickly drop down into a front squat with minimal re-positioning. If you are too horizontal, you’ll miss the bar forward. That said, because we are aiming for a vertical torso, your shins by necessity need to be further forward, so the bar needs to be closer to your big toe.
Here are your general guidelines for the start of the deadlift, and the start of the clean.
Clean Start Position
Feet Width: Medium
Bar distance from shins: Directly over the base of the big toe (1st metatarsophalangeal joint- for those of you into anatomy)
Grip: Hook grip
Hip Height: Medium/low depending on proportions
Goal: Catch the weight in a front squat with an upright torso
Feet Width: Narrow
Bar distance from shins: As close as possible
Grip: Mixed (over/under)
Hip Height: High (hip dominant movement)
Goal: Stand up with your hips extended with as much weight as possible, strengthen glutes, hamstrings and back
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