The muscle clean is an effective clean assistance exercise to work on bar path, turnover and upper body strength. But how do you perform it properly? And how should you programme it into your workouts? In this complete muscle clean guide we’ll be covering:
- Muscle Clean Benefits and Purpose
- Muscle Clean Exercise Demonstration
- Muscle Clean Form
- How do I know if I’m doing muscle clean correctly?
- Muscle Clean vs Clean
- Muscle Clean Muscles Worked
- Muscle Clean Variations
- Programming the Muscle Clean
- Muscle Clean Workout
- Muscle Clean Frequently Asked Questions
- Next Steps
Let’s get straight into it:
Muscle Clean Benefits and Purpose
The muscle clean has various benefits, which include:
- Improving your turnover
- Reinforcing a close bar path
- Encouraging a higher and more active pull
- Reducing bar crash
Muscle cleans can also be useful for building clean specific musculature around your traps and upper back, as well as providing a clean variation that can be used to train around certain injuries.
Muscle Clean Exercise Demonstration
Here’s a quick 60-second muscle clean exercise demonstration including essential tips and movement cues:
Muscle Clean Form
Good muscle clean form involves ensuring that you hit all of the same positions that you would in a regular clean. That means keeping your shoulders over the bar, getting your knees out of the way to maintain a vertical bar path, and hitting triple extension as you normally would.
You also need to ensure that your elbows continue to rise throughout the movement, that your knees do not rebend after extension, and that you finish the muscle clean by receiving the barbell smoothly onto your shoulders.
I should emphasize that your ability to perform the muscle clean with good form is essential to you getting the desired benefits from it, and that poor execution of the movement will likely have negative effects.
How do you do a muscle clean step by step?
Here’s how you do a muscle clean step by step:
- Find your normal clean start position. Shoulders over the bar, flat back, strong brace etc.
- Push against the floor to initiate the movement, keeping your torso angle the same as you push your knees back and bring the bar upwards to above your knees (1st pull)
- Begin to raise your torso angle as you bring the bar up your body, keeping it close to you throughout the movement (transition)
- When the bar approaches your upper thigh (pocket region) explosively accelerate, extending your knees and hips in a manner similar to a vertical jump (2nd pull)
- Once your knees are extended, keep them extended, and continue to pul upwards on the barbell, keeping it close to your body
- Finish the muscle clean by quickly rotating your elbows through so that the barbell arrives smoothly onto your shoulders. (Turnover into rack position)
How do I know if I’m doing muscle clean correctly?
You’ll know if you’re doing a muscle clean correctly in two ways:
First, by recording and analysing your technique, comparing it against the demonstration video above.
Second, your muscle clean should feel fast, smooth and balanced. If you end up off balance, or the bar crashes onto your shoulders then you’re performing the movement incorrectly.
Muscle Clean vs Clean
The main difference between the muscle clean vs clean is that in the muscle clean you do not rebend your knees, so you do not pull underneath the barbell, whereas in the clean you do.
Practically this means that muscle cleans rely more on strength and less on technique and timing than regular cleans. It also means that you will lift less weight in muscle cleans than cleans. Below is a video by Oleksiy Torokhtiy of him performing the clean:
Muscle clean to clean ratio
There isn’t much data on specific muscle clean to clean ratios, but many people find that their best muscle cleans tend to be around 50-60% of their best cleans.
In practice, these numbers will vary wildly from person to person, and it’s rarely useful to max out your muscle clean, as it is designed as a technical assistance exercise.
What is the difference between a muscle clean and a power clean?
The main difference between the muscle clean and power clean is that your legs do not rebend in the muscle clean, so you don’t pull under the bar, whereas you do in the power clean (even if not as deep as in a full clean)
In training, muscle cleans tend to have a smooth feel, and are used to work on turnover, whereas power cleans have a more aggressive feel, and are used to work on explosiveness.
Muscle Clean Muscles Worked
The main muscles worked in the muscle clean are your hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, upper back and traps:
Hamstrings: Your prime movers for the hinge pattern, which work to extend your torso during the transition between first and second pull.
Glutes: A major hip extensor muscle, which you will use to in your 2nd pull (explosive triple extension)
Spinal Erectors: Major muscles used to maintain your back position and stable torso as throughout the movement.
Traps: Used to add speed and height to the bar as you shrug in your second pull
Upper Back: Used to as you continue to pull the bar higher after your second pull
Muscle Clean Variations
If you’re wanting some variation from the standard muscle clean, then here are three muscle clean variations you can use in your own strength training.
Hang Muscle Clean
The hang muscle clean is a muscle clean variation where you start with the bar off the floor, typically around your shin, knee or hip height. Here’s what the hang muscle clean looks like:
Hang Muscle Clean Form
Good hang muscle clean form is similar to good muscle clean form. Aim to hit your regular clean positions with a flat back, strong brace and shoulders over the bar. I recommend finding your starting hang position from the top down, i.e. by lowering from standing and then holding for a second before lifting.
Tall Muscle Clean
The tall muscle clean is a muscle clean variation that completely removes the lower body from the lift. You won’t have to hinge your hips, load your quads or think about your lower body movement at all. Here’s what a tall muscle clean looks like:
Tall Muscle Clean Form:
Good form in the tall muscle clean is all about initiating the movement with a big shrug, and then keeping the barbell close to your body throughout the lift. Try to make sure you finish the lift with a quick turnover and smoothly receive the bar onto your shoulders (rack position)
Pro Tip: This drill tends to be good for higher reps, often as a technique primer or warm-up drill.
Programming the Muscle Clean
How many sets of muscle clean should I do?
You should typically do 2-4 sets of muscle clean towards the start of your workout, typically as a warm-up or technique primer, or as the main lift on lighter days.
How many reps of muscle clean should I do?
I recommend that you do 3-6 reps of muscle clean in most cases. Although if you occasionally want to do some slightly heavier singles or doubles that’s okay too.
What weight should I use for muscle clean?
I recommend that you use a light to moderate weight for muscle cleans. This might be anything from an empty bar up to around 50-60% of your best clean, but never so much that you sacrifice good technique.
If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend starting with the empty bar and working upwards, aiming to keep the bar moving fast, smoothly and accurately.
Muscle clean standards
There are not many places you can find muscle clean standards online, simply because very few people regularly max them out or test them, so there’s not much normative data.
How often should I train muscle cleans? (Frequency)
I recommend that you train muscle cleans anything from 0-3 times per week. As assistance exercise, there will be periods in which you simply do not need to use them (hence 0 times per week) but there will also be periods where they might be part of your technical focus (hence 3 times per week)
Muscle Clean Workout
An effective muscle clean workout uses the muscle clean as a warm-up and technique primer. Here’s an example:
– Tall Muscle Clean: 3×10 @ Empty Bar
– Muscle Clean: 3×3 @ 30-50% of Best Clean
This combination of lifts will help you warm up for cleans by reinforcing active arms, a smooth turnover and a close bar position throughout the lift.
Muscle Clean Frequently Asked Questions
Why do muscle cleans hurt my shoulders?
Muscle cleans hurt your shoulders if you’re allowing the bar to crash onto them. Aim to start moving your elbows through sooner to ensure a smooth turnover, and do not allow the bar to get too high above your shoulders.
Why can I muscle clean more than I clean?
You can muscle clean more than you clean because you’re very strong, but you lack the technique to clean properly. By improving your clean technique, you will be able to clean far more weight.
Are muscle cleans good?
Yes, muscles cleans are good as an assistance exercise to support the clean. However, they must be performed correctly in order to have the desired benefits.
Do muscle cleans build muscle mass?
Muscle cleans rely more on strength than regular cleans, and can help to build weightlifting-specific muscle in your traps and upper back. However, muscle cleans are definitely not an efficient or optimal way to build muscle as they have no eccentric component, no stretch under load, and too low a rep range. For more on this, see this article on weightlifting and bodybuilding.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…
1) Try out the muscle clean in your own training program, or if you need a bit more guidance consider having a look at custom programme options.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching you can find more information about my services here.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 8+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.