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Teaching the Clean

One of the most technically difficult movements to learn and perform well, the clean is also one of the most beneficial. It’s a dynamic blend of strength and power development, full body mobility, and precise proprioception. It’s no surprise it’s often referred to as one of the most athletic lifts.

Starting new athletes in the clean can be a tricky endeavor due to it’s many moving parts. Here at PLT4M, we like to start at the “top” with the most basic element of the clean and work our way down over time.

Thus, we begin by teaching the “High Hang Power Clean” – basically focusing on the jump and pull with a catch in our front rack position. We introduce this movement in parts:

Hands & Feet:
The athlete’s feet should be in a neutral position directly under the hips. Their hands should be at least “thumb-swiping” distance from the thighs on the bar, with the arms hanging long and loose from the shoulders.

Position 1/Jumping Position:
From here, we instruct the athlete to simply “soften” the knees, or bend them slightly. The torso remains vertical, we’re not looking to lean forward, here. It is just a little 2 inch dip of the hips.

Pull & Catch:
We tell the athlete to jump with the legs while pulling the bar up the torso. Cue them to try and pull their shirt up with the bar, keeping the elbows high and outside. Once the bar has reached chest height, we shoot the elbows through and assume a quarter squat position – also known as the power position.

Even breaking it down to these most basic pieces, you will see many different athletes exhibiting many different faults, From here, it’s easier to identify individual issues and fix with each athlete, rather that try and break the movement down even further.

Fault 1 – Scarecrow vs Zombie:
One of the most common issues you’ll see with new athletes is the tendency to reverse curl the bar as opposed to the proper high pull. First, cue the athlete to mimic a Scarecrow, not a Zombie (elbows high and outside – video here: https://youtu.be/r2bFx9iJBQI). If the visual cue doesn’t work, provide them with a tactile cue, placing a physical obstruction like a pvc pipe in the way, forcing the bar to travel upward instead of out from the body.

Fault 2 – Starfish Catch
The next most common issue relates to hip and foot position on the catch. Often, athletes will jump the feet out wide in an effort to stabilize the weight. While this is instinctual for many, it puts them in an unsafe position under load, and also limits their ability to move weight. Cue them to avoid this starfish catch, and jump from hip-width to shoulder or squat width (video here: https://youtu.be/gA2PyfCHeps). There are a number of ways to fix this issue. You can use a tactile cue by placing your foot or other obstacle in the way of excessive width, or a visual cue with a taped target area on the floor.

Once we’ve mastered the high hang power clean, we can much more easily begin to introduce the other variations – moving all the way down to a full squat clean from the floor.

Always remember that we are looking to instill great mechanics before we add serious loading. Set good habits and the weight will come!

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Teaching the Back Squat

Once our athletes have mastered the foundational air squat (and only then), the first loaded variation we introduce is the “High Bar Back Squat”. The back squat, along with the bench press and barbell deadlift, is one of the 3 “Power Lifts” and is widely considered one of the best tools for developing raw strength.

You may see other programs and trainers utilize a “Low Bar” back squat. While this is also great tool for pure strength development, we feel the low bar variation is difficult to perform well by new athletes. It often turns into some sort of good morning/squat hybrid that goes against all of our movement tenets. Thus, we aim to first master the High Bar squat when training our high school athletes.

The loaded back squat is relatively simple in it’s execution, so long as you master the set up and always keep all 4 points of squat performance in mind during every rep.

To set up appropriately, the athlete should set the bar to roughly chest height (to allow for a little dip when getting under the bar), and grasp the bar with a double overhead grip just outside of the shoulders (or wider depending on shoulder mobility). The athlete steps into the rack and under the bar, positioning it on top of the actively engage traps which create a sort of shelf on which to rest the load.

The athlete stands to full extension in order to lift the bar out of the hooks. Once standing tall, he or she steps back away from the rack. Taking the time to get comfortable (don’t rush!), the athlete sets up in proper squat width stance and begins the prescribed reps.

As with any squat, all 4 Points of Performance apply for the duration of the set:
1. Entire foot in contact with the ground
2. Lumbar curve maintained
3. Knees tracking toes
4. Hips descending below parallel (hip joint below the knee joint).

If, at any point, these points begin to falter, we stop our athletes, drop the weight and correct the movement before adding heavier weight back into the equation.

Upon completion of the set, the athlete walks back into the rack until the bar hits the j-hooks (not by leaning forward). Then, he or she softens the knee and allows the bar to settle back into the hooks before stepping through.

Keep an eye out for our video discussion on how best to teach athletes about spotting, bailing a bad rep, and staying safe in the gym!

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Speed & Agility – Built in the Gym.

Speed & Agility.

These days, they are the ultimate buzzwords in athletics and performance training. Every coach wants faster athletes, every athlete wants a better 40 time, and every trainer claims he has the drills that will drastically improve your speed and agility on the field of competition.

Look, don’t get us wrong, top-end speed and the ability the change direction quickly is important in athletics. That being said, the perception of training these abilities has become drastically skewed. Everywhere you turn, you see elaborate cone drills, agility ladder progressions, and “speed” drills. Here’s the problem, training the Pro-Agility drill every week will only make your athletes better at the Pro-Agility drill. The relevant aspects of speed and agility to competitive athletics, in regards to training, are much more compartmentalized. Athletes benefit from the ability to accelerate or decelerate quickly & efficiently, change direction with ease & precision, and maintain peak power & force production over the course of whatever time domain their play lasts.

So, how should you go about improving these elements?

Power

First, we must develop the athlete’s maximal power output. Moving faster is a result of generating force into the ground by lower body musculature via the foot. Power is, by definition, a combination of strength and speed as it relates to muscle contraction. So, we first work to build basic strength through compound movements like the back squat and some simple linear periodization. We simultaneously train high velocity movements such as various plyometrics and lighter weight olympic lifts to cultivate explosiveness. The resulting combination is a greater ability to generate force at high velocities. This enables an athlete to accelerate and decelerate faster, as well as improve top-end speed.

Proprioception

Next we must spend a good deal of time working on athlete’s proprioception, or body control. To start, we work this by introducing complex compound “strength” movements in the gym (think overhead squatting, pistol squats, or toes to bar, etc) to promote strength and control through full ranges of motion. Then we incorporate more coordination-based exercises (think jump rope progressions and agility ladder work) to cement the neural connections between brain and limbs for fast, repeated movement. In total we have a stronger, more precise sense of body control. Such enhanced coordination allows athletes the chance at better economy of movement. Any athletic coach knows mechanics are everything. Wasted, rushed, and sloppy movement are a bigger determinant of “speed and agility” than anything else with young athletes. (*Though we do not go into it here, proper running mechanics obviously also play a large role for the same reason. In this instance, speed coaches can be very beneficial for athletes with poor mechanics.)

Conditioning

Lastly, we mustn’t neglect conditioning. Many people wrongly separate speed from conditioning. Top-end speed is great, but if you cannot replicate your maximal force production or maintain body control beyond a single effort – your “speed” is effectively useless. You’re only as fast as you can run repeatedly, especially when fatigued. To make sure our performance lasts, we develop all 3 metabolic energy pathways through numerous different approaches. We do it all: from finishers promoting muscular endurance and strength at high heart rate, to shuttle runs of varying distance to develop anaerobic conditioning and change of direction, to classical aerobic conditioning to increase lasting power.

The true goal, is to develop an athlete that can see results on the field, not just in a 40 time or Pro-Agility drill. We only have so much time with our athletes, make the most of it by training speed & agility in the gym!

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Training for Athletic Performance

As a Strength and Conditioning Coach, one thing that is always on my mind is the development and improvement of athletic performance.  One of the most common things I hear in discussions with Head Coaches, Athletic Directors, and Sports Medicine is the concept of sports specific training.  Sport specific training is your sport.  Previous thinking stated that if you wanted to improve on catching a football, you practice catching a football.  However, everything you do in the weight room does not need to mimic the sport.

To me, sport specific training refers to training the particular energy systems and movements of the sports.  This is a concept that is pretty widely accepted among Strength and Conditioning Coaches, but at times, can get lost in translation.  In general terms, if you make athletes stronger, run faster, jump higher and increase their work capacity – they will be better at their sport.  By increasing the Athletic Performance of an athlete, the risk of injury will decrease.  With that said, you still cannot prevent all injuries.  Unfortunately, sometimes bad things happen and you just have to deal with it.  However, you can better prepare the body to withstand the hardships of the sport.

One thing I tell my staff, interns, and coaches at the college level is we get amateur athletes.  A term that used to be used to describe young athletes or 17 to 21 year old college students.

In general, the following are issues I have seen in college athletes over the years:

  • Lack of mobility (Hip, Hamstring, Shoulder)
  • Low Strength Levels
  • Low Power Levels
  • Ability to recover and handle daily sport demands

In order to overcome these obstacles, if you go into each workout wanting to address mobility, strength/power, and recovery – I believe you will see great results.

Below are some of the things I do at the college level which produce successful results:

  • Start each workout targeting problem mobility areas.  Increasing mobility will have awesome results in your workout.
  • Olympic Training. (Clean, Snatch, Jerk) There are many variations you can use. Start a workout with an Olympic movement. Constantly teach and coach the movement.  I use Complexes before my Athletes do an Olympic movement. Complexes refer to breaking down the particular movement you are doing in pieces with very light weight.
  • Strength movement (Squat, Bench, Deadlift) – again there are many variations of these lifts.
  • Spending time under the bar will make individual athletes and their teams stronger.  Strength and power go together; you cannot have one without the other.
  • Train the back.  Pull Ups, Chin Ups, Rows, should be a staple in your program.
  • End the workout with recovery.  This will help them get ready for practice or the next training session.

Sometimes keeping it simple will have the biggest results.  Numbers do not lie.  Increase strength and power, practice your sport and you will see your athletes increase their athletic performance and development.

Chris Fee – MS, CSCS, USAW

Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Sacred Heart University.