Should you bother with clean variations without the catch?

I’ve been involved in a few studies with my colleague Tim Suchomel looking at a number of different clean variations. In particular, the clean variations we looked at were the hang power clean, jump shrug, and the hang high pull. What is particularly unique about two of these studies, is that they are evaluating two clean variations that don’t involve the catch.  Traditionally, many coaches (myself included) have relied on clean variations that involve receiving the bar with our athletes.

They are a part of the lift, therefore, we must do them (right?). Weightlifters receive the bar, and they are pretty good athletes, so why shouldn’t the rest of our athletes catch the bar when they do weightlifting variations?

It does look pretty awesome when chalk goes flying everywhere. Eat your heart out Lebron
It does look pretty awesome when chalk goes flying everywhere. Eat your heart out Lebron

If we are going to justify catching the bar, we need good reasons to do so.

Here are a couple of those good reasons:

  1. Receiving the bar is a good way to train yielding strength
  2. Receiving the bar is a good way to learn to accept and control loads
  3. Receiving the bar might be a good way to train the ability to land (Moolyk et al, 2013)

Let’s consider the first point: “…good way to train yielding strength”. I would ask you this- are squats not adequate for developing this ability? Every time that we perform the eccentric phase of the squat, we must control the descent of the body. Is this not developing yielding strength? Now, if your athletes dive-bomb their squat (and some do, admittedly), then they probably aren’t training this ability. If they are controlling the descent at least a little bit, then they are also training this ability. So does catching a clean develop this ability any better than a squat? I doubt it. The loads that you can use in a squat or front squat are (or should be) higher than those you are able to catch in a clean. Higher load = bigger demand on ability to control it.

Second point: “a good way to learn to accept and control loads”. I have heard this said, and it stays pretty close to the same realm as point #1. If weightlifters train their front squat to improve their ability to receive and stand up in their clean, why would we take the time to do cleans in order to train the same ability? One point that receiving the bar has over the squat is the fact that the bar is falling to some degree after being elevated post-second pull. However- a proficient lifter should be able to meet the bar well (without it falling too far prior to the lifter making contact in the rack position). Meeting the bar well is going to ensure that it is not in free fall very long- and thus unable to reach high velocities, making it pretty similar to a front squat.

Third point: “a good way to train the ability to land”. A paper by Moolyk et al. (2013) compared landing from a jump, landing from a box at the height of best jump, receiving a power clean , and receiving a clean at 80% of 1-RM clean. They found some interesting things about the similarities and dissimilarities of landings and catching the bar. There was more ankle angle change in the jump landings (due to more plantarflexed position on landing), and less knee and hip angle excursion in the power clean than all other conditions. Net joint moment (AKA torque) at peak knee angle was higher in the clean and power clean than the jump conditions for the ankle and knee, but the clean was higher than all three conditions in the knee and the hip. The primary contributor to work performed in all conditions was the knee.

What does this all tell us? Jump landings and cleans/power clean catches DO have similarity.

I just gotta have my hops
I just gotta have my hops

Furthermore, because net joint moment was highest in the knee in the clean, and given that knee was the highest contributor to work, the authors’ suggested this: “the power clean and clean may be used to develop knee extensor strength appropriate for landing from a jump. In particular, the clean requires greater knee extensor loading than the power clean”. So basically, catching the bar is good for training landing ability because it develops the knee extensors. Hmm.. what was that thing I said about squats again? Oh yeah- do them. Squats are pretty good for knee extensor development too.

Now what?

Okay, so we have established that while there are some good reasons to catch the bar, there are other exercises which are generally (and should be) cornerstones of your resistance training programs- squats – which accomplish what appears to be the same thing.

One thing we have yet to consider is the possibility that those other alternatives to catching the bar, such as the mid-thigh pull, the hang-high pull, or others, either aren’t as good as say, cleans or power cleans, or are only as good, in which case it wouldn’t matter. If the clean variations are not as effective as the originals, then it is an easy choice: pick the originals, and catch the stinking bar. If the clean variations are as effective as the originals (or gasp… more effective), then we should really consider their implementation into our training programs.

Enter research from Suchomel et al, or Comfort et al and others. These guys are out there trying to figure out if there is worth in some of the other clean variations. Here are some of the highlights so far.

Suchomel et al. (2014) compared three exercises: the hang power clean, jump shrug, and the hang high pull. He used athletes with a decent amount of hang power clean training experience, and compared each of the three exercises with 4 absolute loads (30%, 45%, 65% and 80% of hang clean 1-RM). It turns out, peak power output (of the lifter/bar system), peak force, and peak velocity was higher in the jump shrug than it was in the hang power clean. The hang high pull also had greater peak power and peak velocity than the hang clean. Remember, these were absolute loads, and the statistics used in this study examined main effects of the exercises (comparing exercises across all loads). This tells us that with the same bar weight, the subjects in the study generated higher peak powers and peak velocities in the hang jump shrug and hang high pull than they did during the hang power clean. Now, higher peak velocities and higher peak powers does not automatically mean “better”, but it is pretty interesting, nonetheless.

A study by Comfort et al (2011a) compared multiple clean variations in elite rugby players with at least 2 years experience with the lifts, using 60% of 1-RM power clean for all lifts. They found that peak power output was higher in the mid-thigh power clean (catch) mid-thigh clean pull (no catch), compared to the power clean (catch) and hang power clean (catch). They found similar trends for vertical peak force and instantaneous rate of force development. Interesting to see that there wasn’t a difference between the catch and no-catch variation of the mid-thigh clean, but the no-catch variation was comparable for peak power, peak force, and peak rate of force development. A similar study by Comfort et al., (2011b)found that no-catch variations were at least comparable to catch variations for similar variables

The sum of the prior research tells us that it may not matter whether you catch or you don’t catch, with the possibility that not catching is superior when the loads are similar.

The aspect in which (certain) non-catch variations have the most substantial advantage over catch variations is the fact that you can load non-catch variations with far heavier loads than is possible in catch variations. Lifts like the mid-thigh pull (no catch) allow for loads that far exceed what you are able to do in a power clean or even a full clean. Thus, your ability to overload what your body is capable of in the power position is much greater with non-catch variations, because you have a much higher limit of loading possible. This means that for development of strength, certain non-catch variations (like the mid-thigh pull) are probably better for strength development.

Other miscellaneous advantages

I’ll be honest, receiving the bar is difficult. It is hard to do, and especially hard to do well. When I was a weightlifter, I could have cleaned far more if I could just keep my darn chest and elbows up!!! If I were a non-weightlifter athlete in that same situation, would it really make sense for my technical execution to be the limiting factor in training the power position? Heck no! Mid-thigh pulls and other variations would have been very well-suited for me as a non-weightlifter because it wasn’t my second pull that was the problem, it was my catch.


Yep, that’s me, dropping my chest and my elbows.

This is especially true with beginner athletes and lifters- teaching simpler lifts like the mid-thigh pull, or jump shrug are advantageous because it simply doesn’t take as long to teach, and for your athlete to master at an acceptable level. Which is better? Weeks of teaching your high-school football player not to deadlift-shrug-power curl, or 1 week of teaching pulling from the mid-thigh position? Obviously the latter. Spending tons of time on technical mastery is worthwhile, assuming there is a big payoff at the end, but the research favoring a superior performance adaptations from doing catch variations simply isn’t there. If you can do something that gets good payoff earlier, rather than similarly good payoff later, you are much better off.

Having the big payoff early is incredibly important- it means the athlete is able to work on developing strength, rate of force development, power etc. earlier because they don’t have to put in as much work mastering the technical details. This aspect is important because you can start seeing results sooner- which certainly helps the athlete’s buy-in! They see progress sooner, and for relatively new and younger athletes- this is hugely important to get them digging into what you prescribe. Many new athletes are still not sold on the whole idea of resistance training (or you for that matter), so if you can increase their confidence, self-efficacy, and early success, you will reap substantial dividends.

In the collegiate setting, and especially the high school strength and conditioning setting, athlete-to-coach ratios are generally abysmal. Wouldn’t it make more sense to use exercises (again, like the mid thigh pull) that have a similar (or better) bang-for-your-buck as catch variations, with less technical demand? Less technical demand means it is harder to screw up, which means there is less chance of injury for your athlete, and means that the strength and conditioning coach’s life is much easier and less hectic.

Another really nice thing about the non-catch variations is that they are still teaching progressions for the full lifts. A good catch is the result of a good first pull and even more importantly, a good second pull. Properly prescribed non-catch clean variations will improve the athlete in the ways that they should be getting better to catch heavier cleans and power cleans. Even if you don’t use the catch in the majority of their training, they are still going to get better in the ways that result in bigger lifts. Obviously the point of training is not just to put more weight on the bar, but if you do like to see more plates, non-catch variations will help with that too.

One last point I want to make is regarding the fear of injury in catching cleans, whether they are justified or not. I really don’t know if there is in fact a higher-than-normal risk for the wrists and elbows upon catching the clean, but there are many folks and coaches who do believe this. I worked with athletes in the past whose coach believed his pitchers had no business doing the catch. While I disagreed, I acquiesced to him because my rationale behind using weightlifting variations was not to make them clean more weight. My goal was to get them powerful and strong in the second pull position. I wanted them to generate lots of force, very quickly, in triple extension. Whether you believe there is or is not a risk in catching the bar is a moot point, because high force development, created very quickly in the second pull, is what is most important.

Conclusion:

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t practice catch variations- after all, there might be some benefits to receiving the bar, especially into a full clean. Remember that the major purpose behind using clean variations is to develop force production ability in the power position. Developing yielding strength, eccentric force development, and the ability to land well is something that you can also probably accomplish with squats and their variations. Catching the bar is not necessary for effective athlete development, for reasons that that I’ve hopefully done a good job outlining.

Take Home Points

  • Catching the bar isn’t necessary to get a great training effect from weightlifting variations.
  • Catching the bar can be a focus, since it might be useful for training yielding strength, the ability to absorb force, and to land well. It shouldn’t be a major focus though.
  • The existing research supports using non-catch variations of cleans, since they are at least as capable of high peak force, peak velocity, and peak power outputs.
  • Certain exercises, like the mid-thigh pull, make it easy to overload with weights far greater than the equivalent catch variation would allow.
  • Final take home: doing non-catch variations is probably a good idea. Do them!

 

A big thank you to Tim Suchomel and Ben Gleason for feedback.

Update 2-18-15: Tim recently had a paper published in Sports Medicine on this very topic- Weightlifting Pulling Derivatives: Rationale for Implementation and Application

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