If there was only one exercise movement I could do for strength and power and full body movement, it would be the full squat clean and jerk
[That’s 510 pounds people!]
(second place would go to the thruster).
First, let me talk about the thuster since it’s a very similar movement. Get the bar to the shoulder, front squat, and using the upward momentum you essentially push press the bar to a lockout position. Crossfit has really grabbed onto these and have many different weight and rep schemes and is an exceelent overall conditioning tool. One of the hardest workouts is one Crossfit Football (John Welbourn) first put out there is called “Kalsu” (named after a football player who died in Vietnam). It consists of a 100 total thrusters of weight 135#, but every minute you have to stop and do five burpees. I’ve never done it, but our gym did it when I was injured and we had people take an hour to get through it. Brutal. It’s great because it has a squat movement and push movement. But without making it into a squat clean thruster (brother to the clean and jerk) it doesn’t have that pulling movement.
The reason I like the clean and jerk over even a squat clean thruster is primarily the weight used. You can’t push press or thruster as much as you can a front squat plus a jerk. More weight means more explosive power necessary and more muscular recruitment. Cleaning (taking the bar from the floor to your shoulders) starts out similar to the deadlift position (with a hook grip)
and you’re pulling from the floor, as you increase momentum through the second pull you’re utilizing your traps as you try to get as much height on the bar to drop underneath. This deadlift plus shoulder shrug pulling movement is the adder over the thruster that makes it superior. If you’re using a heavy enough weight and are flexible enough, the depth of your drop to start the front squat can be deeper as well (ass to grass as they say). Then it’s a heavy front squat out of the hole to the standing position. Then it’s a dip and drive up as you drop underneath. I think most people split jerk, but a squat jerk is also effective. Standing up, with heavy weight overhead, in control results in great shoulder strength. I really, really like heavy push presses too for shoulder strength, but the feeling of hitting a heavy jerk is awesome.
AboutLifting waxes about the virtues of power cleans, and I say go heavier and squat clean that shit. On power versions vs “full” version from Glenn Pendlay (and though this quote is about snatches, it also applies to cleans):
“The Power Snatch is half the movement. It gives someone with a shitty pull and a shitty finish, the ability to continue to be shitty at Snatching, while moving a relatively heavy load to overhead with the shittiest, most useless possible technique. It allows under-developed lifters to feel good about themselves, while remaining under-developed, and only practicing the pulling portion of the lift. My best lifters—at the Snatch—look the exact same with an empty barbell as they do with 150kg. The Power Snatch is good for de-loading, or practicing the pull, but it should never be a lifters default choice.” –
Greg Everett is another weightlifting coach I respect and have his book: Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches. Greg and Glenn Pendlay discussed if you can build strength olympic lifting. This is a good article on the subject Glenn authored. From that article:
Consider the fact that the argument used to disparage the Olympic lifts as drivers of strength gain is usually that they use too light a weight, move too fast, and are over with too quickly to adequately provide the necessary stress. But a lifter who clean and jerks in excess of 80% of their squat or deadlift has, when performing a heavy clean and jerk, racked a bar to the shoulders that is higher percentage of their deadlift than most competitive powerlifters use to train the deadlift, front squatted a weight that is a maximal or near maximal front squat, pushed overhead and supported a weight that is a higher percentage of their back squat than many popular strength programs use to train the back squat, and completed a lift that lasted longer and had the body under the stress of the weight longer than any back squat that most lifters are ever likely to do.
My C&J is about 77% of my high bar back squat, and I don’t hit that every time, but when I do that’s a stress on my system, but not one that takes super long to recover from nor unduly taxes my lower back.
The other reason I like C&J is that it places much less stress on the Central Nervous System due to the lighter weight than deadlifts, and place less stress on my back which is turning into “old man back” and is exacerbated with Deadlifts. Coach Winchester summarizes why high speed, power movements trump things like deadlifts for recovery in this great article: Why don’t we deadlift more?
A) What do we know about deadlifts?
1) Deadlifts are a relatively low-skill movement that require relatively low amounts of mobility and athleticism. Pick it up and put it down. If you are proficient at moving weight with the proper form and muscles (posterior what?) then you should have no problem using 50-75% of your 1-RM in a conditioning session.
2) Deadlifts (“slow” lifts off the floor) place a tremendous amount of stress on your CNS (central nervous system). This can be hard to recover from if you are eating and sleeping well — more so if you are not.
3) To receive significant benefit from the movement, you have to move more weight/rep than say a faster pull off the ground (i.e. clean or snatch). More weight = more stress to the CNS (see #2).
B) What do we know about cleans and snatches?
1) They are relatively high-skill movements that require relatively high amounts of mobility and athleticism. If you suffer from poor mobility in the ankles, hips, back and shoulders – you’re screwed.
2) Cleans and snatches (fast pulls off the floor) do not stress the CNS as much, because you are using less weight than you would in a deadlift. Less time under load @ a lighter weight = less stress to the CNS = easier/faster recovery.
3) The benefits to mobility, strength, power and athleticism cannot be understated. If you can snatch 225#/155#, chances are you are strong, fast, explosive and mobile. If a guy (or girl) can catch 315# in the bottom of a clean, chances are his/her midline is “pretty strong” too… (Who needs a strong midline to deadlift?)
There’s a lot more geek talk in that article for those that seek it out.
Anyway, if you have an interest in getting the most for your time, and only can work one exercise, you’d be hard pressed to find a better bang for the buck than clean and jerks. It won’t replace squatting, or benching or pressing as individual movements, but is a good add on for those that seek strength, explosion and power and still leave room to recover proper.