Squat Clean – What You Need to Know

Two of the most effective weightlifting moves that you can ever perform are the squat and the clean and jerk. They are also two of the oldest exercises that we have. When you combine these two foundational moves, you get the squat clean. It is a fantastic exercise for anyone who wants to build their strength, explosive power, and functional fitness.

What is the Squat Clean?

The squat clean is essentially the first part of the clean and jerk exercise. In that movement, you clean the weight from the floor up to the rack position (shoulder level) and then drop into a full squat before ascending and thrusting the weight overhead.

The squat clean is the above movement without the overhead jerk component. It differs from the power clean, which does not include the squat part of the exercise. 

Muscles Worked During Squat Clean

The squat clean is a lower body-centric exercise. It directly stimulates the following muscle groups:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Calves

This exercise also works your core area, which braces and stabilizes your core throughout the lift. In terms of the upper body, the clean portion of the exercise directly works the trapezius, deltoids, and biceps.

Squat Clean Benefits

The squat clean combines the benefits of the squat and the clean movement. It is a fantastic move for developing explosive power, especially through the lower body. This translates to many sports applications and everyday activities.

The squat clean is a very effective training exercise for Olympic lifters. Part of an effective Olympic weight lifting program involves breaking down the three classic moves (clean, snatch and clean and jerk) into their component parts and training each one separately. By training the squat clean portion of the clean and jerk as an individual exercise, you will be training yourself to immediately drop your body under the bar during the clean movement. This will allow you to lift heavier weight.

Squat Clean FAQs

How does the squat clean differ from the power clean?

The squat clean involves the extra squat component that you do not get with the conventional power clean. This makes for a more taxing exercise but also allows you to use more weight. The reason for that is that you are not pulling the bar up as high as you would if you were doing the conventional power clean movement. You are, therefore, able to get under the bar having pulled not quite as high as you would on a power clean, conserving vital energy.

You should be able to lift a weight that is 10 to 15% heavier than you would on power cleans when doing the squat clean. 

The squat clean is a better exercise for the general gym-goer who is interested in functional fitness and calorie burning weight loss moves. It is also an effective mass builder, especially in the lower body. And, if you are looking to improve your cardiovascular endurance, the squat clean is also a good choice.

How does the squat clean differ from the hang clean?

The hang clean is another variation of the power clean. In this version, you start with the bar at your knee level rather than on the floor. So, you begin the exercise with the bar at arm’s length resting along your thighs. You then pull the bar up to the rack position while dipping the hips.

We can say, then, that the hang clean is the second half of the power clean movement. Even though it involves a much shorter range of motion than either the power clean or the squat clean, it does not allow you to move as much weight because you are not generating nearly as much explosive momentum and power.

The hang clean is more of an upper-body strengthening and conditioning move than either of the other two clean versions. It pretty much completely cuts legs out of the equation. In contrast, the squat clean is lower body dominant. 

How should I incorporate squat cleans into my workout?

The squat clean is an extremely taxing exercise, as it essentially involves four moves:

  • the deadlift
  • the clean
  • the squat
  • the ascent

Unless you are using a lightweight, you should keep your reps in the under 10 range (see “intensity” table further down. If you are using this exercise to build up your lifts, down two sets of 2 to 4 reps. For general muscle building, go with 4-5 sets of 8 to 12 reps per set. 

If you’re performing this exercise as part of a weight loss program, keep the weight down to 50% of your one-rep max, and perform three sets of 15 reps.

How is the squat clean used in CrossFit?

You will see the squat clean performed more frequently in a CrossFit box than in a conventional gymnasium. It is used predominantly as an endurance exercise. A number of the classic CrossFit WODs are built around the squat clean exercise. The most famous is known as the “Heavy Squat Clean Grace”. It involves doing 30 squat cleans with a weight of 155 lbs. in the shortest possible time.

Is the squat clean a better exercise than the standard squat?

The answer to the question of whether the squat clean is better than the standard squat depends on what your training goal is. If you are training for bodybuilding, with the goal of increasing the size of your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings, then the conventional barbell squat is the exercise for you. 

However, if you are wanting a full range of motion exercise that does a great job of improving your functional strength, then the squat clean is the better option. Obviously, you should also train with the squat clean if you are an Olympic weightlifter.

People who are wanting to improve their cardiovascular endurance and the maximum amounts of body fat, while also get more bang for their buck by replacing the traditional squat with the squat clean. The squat clean is also the best option for improving your explosive power, especially in the lower body.

Squat Clean Variations

By far the best way to perform the squat clean is with an Olympic barbell. We advise starting the exercise with an empty bar until you have perfected the technique and then slowly adding weight. This exercise is quite difficult to master and so it is imperative that you do not rush the process. Be sure that you have got your technique down pat before you start piling on the weight plates. 

If for any reason, you are unable to perform the exercise with a barbell, it can be done with dumbbells. However, the move is trickier and requires greater unilateral coordination.

Another variation of the squat clean is the overhead squat.

Doing The Squat Clean Safely

When you are performing any version of an Olympic lift, powerlifting lift or simply hoisting a challenging poundage overhead, you need to be thinking safety first. Make sure that you have no prior injuries or shoulder mobility problems. Every exercise that you perform relies on the functionality of your shoulder joint.

If you are new to this form of exercise and are worried about whether your body will be able to handle it, you should see your doctor first. If your general practitioner is clueless about Olympic weightlifting (which is more than likely the case), find a good physical therapist and have an evaluation done prior to starting any Olympic lifts.

Before you start lifting, make sure that you clear the lifting area. The only thing on the lifting platform should be you and the bar. That means clearing the area of any obstructions, including extra bars, plates or collars. If you miss a lift and have to bail out of it, having extra equipment lying around could cause a potential safety hazard. When you’re dealing with a heavy barbell, all it takes is one misstep and you could put yourself out of action for months.

You should also check your equipment for damage before lifting. Give the bar a once over and be sure that the sleeves are held tightly. If they are held on by screws be sure that they are securely fastened. Even though it may seem obvious, make sure that you have the same size, weight and number of plates on each side. Don’t make the mistake of loading one side of the bar with two 25-pound plates and the other with a 50-pound pate. Your body will notice the difference.

If you think that you’re too clever to make the mistake of an unevenly balanced bar, just think back to June 20, 2020, when powerlifting legend Julius Maddox attempted a world record 800-pound bench press. Even though this was an official world record attempt, the officials who loaded the weight put 25 KG more on one side of the bar than the other. This completely threw Julius. He knew instantly that something wasn’t right and managed to abandon the lift. He was rightly furious but, fortunately, unhurt.

As you can see by watching the above video, when the number of plates is uneven, the bar will lean to the side with more plates due to the upset of the centre of gravity. This greatly increases the risk of dropping the bar.

When you are loading or unloading plates of an Olympic bar that is sitting on a rack, do so one plate at a time as you alternate sides. If you take all of the weights off one side first, the bar will become unevenly weighted and may fall off the support rack.

Before lifting you should also have a quick inspection of the plates, specifically checking for cracks. If a plate is correct and you drop the bar, there may be damage to the floor or platform. There is also a possibility that a cracked plate could break apart while you’re in the middle of the lift, something which could cause serious injury. Be sure to check the collars to make sure that they are undamaged and properly secure the plates in place.

When you are using an Olympic lifting bar, you should only use collars that are rated for Olympic weightlifting and always be sure to use the same two collar types on each end of the bar. You never want to mix collar types by, for example, putting a spring collar on one side of the bar and a clamp collar on the other side.

Check over the squat rack or the power rack that you are using before use to make sure that the J-hooks and other components are all in good order.

Knowing how to escape out of a missed lift is very important. If you miss a hang clean, simply push the bar forward and move back. Things are a little trickier if you have to pull out of a full clean. However, you should follow the same strategy by pushing the bar away from you and jumping backward.

When it comes to escaping a missed lift on the snatch, you need to move in the opposite direction to the bar. So, if the snatch is missed while you are attempting to go overhead, it will be heading behind you. Release the bar and it will continue in that direction. Now move yourself forward as quickly as you can.

If you fail on the snatch or lose control of it while you’re on the bottom of the squat and the bar is over your head, you will have to quickly determine which way the bar is going to fall. Simply let it go in that direction and move in the opposite direction. 

Key Safety Points for the Squat Clean

  • clear the lifting area
  • check the bar for damage
  • check the weight and dimensions of plates on both sides of the bar
  • check the plates for cracks
  • check the collars for damage
  • make sure that the collars are a matching pair
  • check the squat rack for any abnormal wear and tear

How to Squat Clean

Movement_Demo_-_The_Squat_Clean-1
How to Squat Clean
  1. Stand in front of the bar with a closed stance and the toes pointing slightly outward. Take a grip on the bar which is slightly wider than you would have if you were dead lifting. Drop your hips, and bend the knees to lower into starting position. Look at the floor and breathe in as you tense your abs.
  2. Begin the clean motion by pushing into the floor with your heels and driving up with your hips as you bring the bar up directly in front of your torso. As your body ascends you want to bring the bar as high as you can.
  3. When the bar ascends to the level of your core, flip your elbows to power them forward. This will bring the bar up to the rack position at shoulder level.
  4. As soon as the bar makes contact with your deltoids, drop down into the squat position, being sure to keep your core breast, and your chest up. Go all the way down into the full squat. 
  5. From the bottom squat position immediately power back up to erect position.

Key Form points

  • As you start the lift, the elbows should be in contact with the knees.
  • Be sure to take a deep breath and embrace your core as you begin the lift.
  • The recovery at the top of the clean involves a small partial squat.
  • Make sure that you drop down into a full squat with the elbows and knees level in the bottom position.
  • Keep your chest up at all times.
  • Do not cause or take a breath as you transition from the clean into the squat.
  • Thinking about getting over the bar in the top position.

Intensity

This is a measure of the degree of effort and is expressed as a percentage of your one-rep max (1RM). This is the most weight you have ever lifted in the exercise with proper form for one repetition.

The following chart shows how percentage of 1RM relates to training intensity.

%age of 1RMIntensity LevelUsefulness
60-70LightTechnique
70-80Light-mediumTechnique, Speed work
80-85MediumPower, muscle gain
85-90Medium-HeavyStrength
90-95HeavyStrength
95-100MaximumStrength
How percentage of 1RM (one rep max) relates to training intensity

Conclusion

The squat clean is a great full body training exercise. Though quite technically difficult to master, once you do master it, will be able to use it to improve your numbers on the three Olympic weightlifting moves, build tremendous lower body explosive strength, improve your functional fitness, and burn a ton of calories. So, whether you are an Olympic lifter, a bodybuilder, an athlete or simply someone trying to get in shape, the squat clean is definitely an exercise worth mastering.

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