| | | Power Pulls for Performance

Author / John

Technical movements have become infinitely more sexy since the rise of the almighty sport of CrossFit.  Suddenly cats are performing handstand walks, ring muscle ups,  many other variations of gymnastic style movements.  Another highly technical and widely used discipline that has gained popularity as a result is Olympic lifting.  While a beautiful sight when executed well and a complete abortion when done with reckless abandon, the snatch and clean and jerk have become regular tools in virtually every competitive athlete’s toolbox.  If you ask most individuals what purpose Oly lifting serves, they’ll tell you without hesitation- explosiveness.  Sure, the Oly lifts will help train power but what CrossFitters are not saying is that often times their sport requires it- an undeniable part of competition and movement standards.


Now let’s take a look at Power Athletes, field sport, or contact sport athletes – really any arena of competition that is not CrossFit or Olympic lifting itself.  For these athletes, the Oly lifts are merely tools- a means to a very powerful end- to express strength dynamically.  Therein lies the controversy.  If it’s really just a matter of “jumping with the barbell in our hands” to quote Mark Rippetoe, what benefits, if any, are being ignored by utilizing the power variances?  Today, we’ll tell you why we take an unapologetic stance advocating dynamic pulls and power versions of the lifts over the full versions. But, before anyone gets too butthurt, let’s examine various schools of thought from our strength and conditioning brethren.  Then we’ll tell you why we’re right.

Go to any online forum and note the numerous argument threads and “bitchfests” surrounding the power clean debate.  It’s endless and glorious and you know what?  I love it.  The debate really revolves around one all-encompassing loophole, the ultimate S&C glitch in the Matrix- safety.  Arthur Jones, creator of the Nautilus machines, was one of the first prominent and vocal figures to come out against the power clean.  He claimed that it was a back-destroyer making Olympic lifting to athletic training what carbs were to the late Robert Atkins.  Maybe AJ really believed this, as he frequently used himself as an example for the basis of his findings, but it is more likely that he was just trying to protect his brand.  Listen, I get it.  If you’re trying to pick up someone at a bar you don’t tell them about your cooler and much hotter friend.  In-the-know coaches like Dan John called bullshit and have been activists for the power clean and it’s benefits for years.  Former S&C coach at the University of Tennesse, Bruno Pauletto, said it best: “Where coaches get caught is that they hear from other coaches that the power clean should be used when working out. What they do is incorporate it into the workout without teaching it to the athlete.  With improper technique the athlete can get hurt like any other lift.”


There is also no shortage of those who claim that the Olympic lifts do nothing to develop speed.  Even openly opposed field professional Matt Brzycki of Princeton wrote at length claiming that “lifting weights with rapid speeds of movement is only a demonstration of power not an adaptation.”  Sweet baby Jesus.  Would you not agree that power is in fact, an adaptation?  Granted, Brzycki talks specifically about it’s application to wrestling and takedowns and he does note that the best way to improve double leg take downs is to practice just that.  But, assuming we are strength and conditioning coaches, we are not tasked with sports specific skill development (SPP).  Instead, our job is to replicate the demands (GSP) and I would argue that a violent extension is a demand of wrestling/wrastlin’. He also goes on to say that “lifting a weight in an explosive manner is less efficient than lifting a weight in a controlled manner due to the increased involvement of momentum”.  Then why not have your wrestlers do double leg take downs by approaching each other with a gentle embrace followed by “controlled” hug into submission?  If wrestling is too abstract an example of the efficiency of power, here’s another:  Take a 100# dumbell off a rack “controlled”.  Now tear it from the rack like it stole your lunch money.  Which feels more efficient?

I remember reading a BFS (Bigger, Faster, Stronger) article talking about just this subject. They cited a study where one of the Air Force Academy S&C coaches administered a 3 year study on how different exercises affected performance of collegiate football players.  What they found is that the top three on field performers of varying positions (who all saw incredible gains) were seeing the biggest gains compared to their teammates in one particular lift…the power clean.  I had a very similar experience with three separate young go-hards this past summer.  They came to me individually in search of preparation for their freshman year pre-season football and volleyball training at DII schools.  After doing some testing and assessments the holes were obvious.  Power and speed.  With little prior technique instruction from their high school weight room, we tweaked the PC form getting it as close to perfect as possible.  If flexibility allowed for a solid receiving position, I let them catch the bar. Why did these athletes retest faster (best 5-10-5 dropped .3) and more explosive (best adding 2″ to vert)  six weeks later after implementing dynamic pulling into their training?

SPEED  Squat for strength, dynamically pull for speed.  For on-field athletes, strength is a great equalizer but speed kills.  Power is really just a function of strength and speed.  The more amount of work you can do over a period of time determines your power output.  Not only do the power variations of the olympic lifts require greater musculature due to them ultimately being a longer pull, but functionally, it is more reminiscent to the initial dive and drive phase in sprinting and ultimately knocking your opponent on his/her ass.  Don’t think you can get faster in the weight room?  Getting athletes to jump with weight in their hands without compromising good position will teach the posture needed to increase speed on the field and track.  By strengthening this posture, an athlete will gain efficiency at generating force on the vertical and horizontal vectors (as in sprinting).  Thus, allowing the athlete to do more work in a shorter period of time.

TECHNICALITY Another benefit of adopting the power variations is that by their nature they are less complex than the full clean and snatch.  Imagine a scenario where you have 30-45 athletes in their teens for an off season.  Are you going to spend 4 of the 12 or so weeks teaching them to pull, scoop, dive, and catch a bar when it’s not entirely necessary to their sport?  If you choose the far less complex variation you can reap all of the benefits of the power output stimulus without risking progress due to poor technique.  This is not to say that the amortization or force absorption phase, as Bob Takano puts it, of the lift doesn’t have merit but when you’re talking about field sport athletes who train to barrel through bodies, you either train to be the hammer or the nail.


EXTENSION Where do most athletes fail in technicality when performing the full oly lifts?  A lack of hip extension is, without a doubt, the most common fault during execution. Another interesting point about the power version of the lifts is that when the movement requires a person to get tall and receive the bar high, they very often find themselves performing a full extension.  The power clean can be a great training tool for those who can’t feel, find, or see an open hip or finish the pull. Rippetoe mentions this in the CrossFit Journal: “The reason the power clean is an important assistance exercise for weightlifters is that it teaches the “finish” of the pull at the top, that last little bit of extension that must be done before going under the bar.”

The power clean, when taught and implemented properly, can be a literal game changer for athletes.  Don’t shy away from using it because of the technicality or supposed risk for injury.  Instead, man up (“A coach needs a coach.” -Tex) and seek the best coaching you can find so that your team will reap the  benefits of this tool for speed.  The movement pattern, bar path, and receiving position intricacies required by the full lifts simply aren’t necessary for most athletes. Get the same applicable bang-for-your-buck by opting for the power variations.  Reminds me of a friend who is doing all of her Christmas shopping on Amazon.  Sure, it’s less complex than actually going to a store, but the result is still the same- someone’s getting a badass Big Foot statue.


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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.


  1. NJ Seedas on December 17, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    I prefer rack jerks to develop hip power and ‘push’, which for most sports I can think of would seem more benficial than the ‘pull.’

    For ‘pull’ development- I’d go for hang clean pulls. The catch can put too much stress on the wrists. Start from the ‘hang’ to get a stretch reflex action from the initial eccentric phase.

    For speed, improving efficiency is great, but I would use stretch band work, plyometrics, and overspeed running (downhill work).

    Something like Louie Simmons Westside program, seperate strength and speed sessions, works well for young athletes.

    • CALI on December 17, 2013 at 8:56 pm

      NJ- Thanks for the comments.

      A couple of things… rack jerks can certainly train an athlete to be explosive but if the goal is to “develop hip power” you are limited by the amount of weight you can move overhead. Since most field sport athletes rarely do vertical pressing movement patterns in their sport, I would not consider it optimal for developing “hip power” as you say. It’s a tool in the tool box but it has limitations.

      Hang power cleans are a great variation. As I discussed in the article, the catch is not necessary but if an athlete can catch the bar- it can be a good training tool to safely mimic impact on the field. You cannot rely entirely on the hang power clean to train power. Sport rarely offers you the luxury of eccentrically loading to utilize a stretch reflex – think about the start of a play in football. Again, variations of power pulls can be advantageous and have merit but I disagree with relying on the HC also with regards to position. The set up of a power clean is more reminiscent of an athletic position – think of a 3 point stance.

      With regard to speed- the power pulls are a low hanging fruit. Obviously there are innumerable ways to improve speed through sprint mechanics and over speed training.

      Anything works with young athletes. It’s science. They have an untrained central nervous system and they PR every other day which is a beautiful thing. So yeah, of course Louie’s stuff works.

  2. Ben on December 18, 2013 at 2:14 am

    I’m an S+C intern at a professional rugby club in Australia. The head coach here doesn’t like the olympic lifts or their variations, due to the time it requires athletes to learn and in his experience most of the athletes still don’t reach full triple extension before catching the bar. As a result he doesn’t program them in the teams weights sessions. As an avid crossfit football follower I can see the benefit of utilising the power clean and power snatch, however the coach believes you can get more bang for your buck with an exercise like the trap bar jump shrug. What are peoples thoughts on this?

    • CALI on December 18, 2013 at 10:07 am

      Ben- the power shrug is not a replacement for pulling from the ground. Like I mentioned before, think about starting position for most contact field sports. We need to be replicating the demands of sport to the best of our ability. Throwing in variations to avoid overtraining a specific movement pattern (but achieve a very similar stimulus) is fine BUT I would be very careful using the trap bar. Jokers love to use that bar improperly (ie deadlifts) turning pulling movements into quad dominant exercises. Know why you’re using it and then know exactly what to look for – with a trap bar, an athlete can hide poor posture and position.

  3. JeffM on December 18, 2013 at 6:07 am

    This is gold. “What are you training for?” Really great explanation.

  4. Derrek Pratt on December 18, 2013 at 6:33 am

    Nailed it!
    A squat clean is just a missed power clean…

    • Tex on December 18, 2013 at 6:46 am

      What’s a squat clean?

      • CALI on December 18, 2013 at 10:07 am

        your mom’s a squat clean

  5. Derrek Pratt on December 18, 2013 at 6:36 am


  6. Rook on December 18, 2013 at 7:39 am

    Great article. Helped give me some clarity on the subject. Also I completely agree with Cali’s response. Just because it works with novices doesn’t mean it’s optimal. They just need a linear progression with big movements (and power cleans, if you have bumpers and enough equipment, which my team currently does not).

  7. Rook on December 18, 2013 at 7:43 am

    @Tex I think that is one of those Crossfitter types using the wrong word for full clean or just “clean”.

  8. NJ Seedas on December 18, 2013 at 7:50 am

    Thanks for the response Cali.

    Ben- My thoughts. This article is for you & coach. It directly addresses the “full triple extension.” The power clean helps eliminate the “I have to get under the bar quick so I will cheat the last pull” mindset/fault. And if you eliminate the “catch”, getting under the bar is less of a priorty.

    Does it really take that long to teach a power clean? Doesn’t seem like a valid reason. I have seen coaches spend more time having to teach how to squat than how to clean and I don’t see many coaches eliminating squats due to time constraints.

    Trap bar jump shrug are effective but weighing the “bang for the buck” depends on the oft repeated mantra- What are you training for? – and I would add what does the rest of the training look like. Every exercise should serve a function. I see clean, snatch, and weighted jump for dynamic hip development. For strength at the hips, its hard to beat squats.

    For specific sports like football and rugby, I still don’t understand why there isn’t more heavy-bag, heavy med-ball training. Hang the bag pendulum style and now you can mimic impact and the reactive force, great overspeed eccentric plyo training. Receive and return a heavy med-ball in various positions, fun and effective.

  9. NJ Seedas on December 18, 2013 at 8:09 am

    To clarify, I did not mean to promote Westside as best practice. I used it as an example for using seperate sessions to train strength and speed.

    Some programs overuse olympic lifts thinking they can blend strength and speed training-saving time. Seperating and targeting the sessions helps prevent overtraining and has been shown more effective.

    • CALI on December 18, 2013 at 10:16 am

      For sure, dude. This article is just meant to highlight the benefits of using the Oly lifts to train power. I purposely did not discuss or advocate the programming theories or implementation guidelines. That’s another rant for another day…

  10. Ian McCulloch on December 18, 2013 at 8:55 am

    Now I’m super pumped for Friday! If power cleans aren’t programmed, I’m doing them anyway.

    • CALI on December 18, 2013 at 10:16 am

      No ballzz!

  11. Matt on December 18, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    This is excellent stuff. I’m loving the content you guys are tossing up the on the PA site. Side note: how come folks who say “squat clean” don’t also say “squat snatch”. If we’re gonna just make up words we should pick the funniest words possible.

  12. Jim G. on December 18, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Cali, so could you expound a bit more on why HPCs aren’t programmed or utilized? Just because of the stretch reflex? I would think if I could HPC 225 for a set of 3 versus someone else who could only PC for a set of 3, that I would be considered more powerful. I’m moving the same load a shorter distance.

    Or does load not matter and we just need to talk about speed? Since we are talking Westside, Louie, from what I can remember, was really into measuring bar speed. And a certain speed was optimal based on his research. That’s why he uses his percentages for speed days. Because once the barbell slows, you’re losing your benefits.

    • CALI on December 19, 2013 at 11:04 am

      Jim G- Thanks for the comments, dude. Allow me to answer your question with another question…did you see my response to this same question above?

      “Hang power cleans are a great variation. As I discussed in the article, the catch is not necessary but if an athlete can catch the bar- it can be a good training tool to safely mimic impact on the field. You cannot rely entirely on the hang power clean to train power. Sport rarely offers you the luxury of eccentrically loading to utilize a stretch reflex – think about the start of a play in football. Again, variations of power pulls can be advantageous and have merit but I disagree with relying on the HC also with regards to position. The set up of a power clean is more reminiscent of an athletic position – think of a 3 point stance.”

      What if you’re slow off the ground but explosive only above the knees? What are you training for and do you feel this will affect your performance?

      I wasn’t really talking about Louie but it did get brought up. In terms of approach to bar speed, we advocate the same theory- move the bar as fast as possible utilizing compensatory acceleration. In an attempt not to go too far off topic, I’ll just say that Westside has different training goals and niche population and so yes, parts of their training will differ greatly from ours.

  13. Derrek Pratt on December 18, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    @Rook next time you’re trying to look smart don’t leave out Olympic clean… I use squat clean do I don’t have to explain the difference…and I understand the difference fully…. BTW I haven’t done a full clean in at least 2 years, it’s been all power, muscle, and hang cleans since then

  14. Derrek Pratt on December 18, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    Silly guys on here these days….

  15. […] Power Pulls For Performance             “The power clean, when taught and implemented properly, can be a literal game changer for athletes.”—Cali from Power Athlete  […]

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  17. Seminole 4 on December 21, 2013 at 12:27 am

    I feel like I always want to confirm really simple stuff.

    “If flexibility allowed for a solid receiving position, I let them catch the bar.”

    The way I read this is that a snatch or clean high pull is an adequate substitute for the power versions of the lifts when dealing with an inflexible athlete. So, am I reading that correctly?

    • CALI on December 24, 2013 at 4:49 am

      If an athlete is using the Oly lifts as a tool for power development – a clean or snatch pull is an adequate sub. But, if their sport requires that they catch a bar in performance (ie CrossFit or Oly lifting) then obviously, they need to catch a bar. Unfortunately there is no black and white answer for all Power Athletes. Do you abandon the receiving position due to inflexibility for a MMA fighter? In that case, I’d say there is more crossover- work towards gaining that ability. How about for a DI pitcher? Do you want to keep your job? Hope that makes sense to you, Seminole 4.

  18. Ingo B on December 24, 2013 at 9:36 am

    Sorry a little late to the party. The math in Luke’s last article scared me.

    What you wrote is exactly what I’ve been struggling to articulate with my Crossfitting buddies. Now, more linking, less stumbling. Thanks for providing a resource.

  19. Jay on January 2, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    Will be sharing this

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