The clean and press exercise is one of the most efficient
for building muscle mass, but also one of the most controversial in
weightlifting. That s because it was eliminated from the Olympics in 1972. The
judges of the lifting trials could not agree on what constitutes proper
technique for performing this exercise and hence could not come up with a
cohesive judging standard. In the meantime, it s accumulated quite a reputation
as a great way to build both strength and size and it s currently being used in
popular training programs like CrossFit, but also in regular gyms.
At first glance, the clean and press may seem simple. After
all, it only involves two parts: the clean and the press, from which it
obviously derives its name. It s a strength exercise that mainly works the
shoulder muscles, but it also involves numerous other major muscle groups, like
the abs, calves, glutes, hamstrings, both the middle and the lower back, plus
the quads, shoulders, traps, and triceps. It can be performed with just about
any type of weight at least in theory. There s a clean and press kettlebell
exercise available, and you can also try it with dumbbells. However, the
classical version of this intermediate-level compound exercise involves the
In the following, we ll start you off with a brief guide on
proper form for these two parts of the movement. Then, we ll discuss that
age-old weightlifting issue: should you opt for a clean and press barbell
exercise, or for a dumbbell clean and press? Finally, we ll be offering you
tips and tricks for this move, as well as alternatives to it, which can be just
Clean and press proper form guide
The clean move
You start off in standing position, with your feet about
hip-width apart and the barbell right in front of you. Breathe in profoundly, thenlift
the barbell in one clean swoop, which involves a jump in three stages. This
triple extension involves the hips, the knees, and then the ankles, in a very
rapid succession. Once the bar has been lifted as high up into the air as
possible by your legs, you need to pull it under. You do this by swiftly and
abruptly contacting the traps, or the trapezius muscles, which are located on
your upper back. As you do this, you need to drop into a squat and twist your
grip on the bar, so that your elbows are pointing outwardly. Simultaneously
bring up your arms as you extend your elbows, so that the bar ends up resting
on your palms, frontal part of the shoulder (the deltoids) and your clavicle.
At this stage of the movement, you should be in full squat
position, with your glutes resting on your heels, or at least very close to
them. Your upper body should be perched straight up, with the bar lying across
your delts and palms. Make sure to keep your chest stiff and breathe in deeply and
regularly. This way, you ll be keeping the bar comfortably rested over your
The press move
Once you re in full squat position, it s time to bound back
up to your feet, but proper form demands that you perform the actions in a
certain sequence. You will be performing what is otherwise known as a front
squat. These days, the front squat is far easier to complete than in the early
twentieth century, when bars were differently designed and much more difficult
to lift this way. Your aim is to press the barbell fully overhead, once you ve
gotten it to the point where it s resting on the frontal part of your delts.
Stand completely straight as you press up, then slightly point your knees
toward the ground and spring up, pushing through your legs and back. Make sure
you re investing as much effort and energy as is available to you into pressing
the weight to the ceiling. Then, you can drop back or lean back, to hold the
weight up past its sticking point. The end position will have you standing up
straight, with the weight over your head and your arms locked upward.
Up until 1972, when this exercise was still performed in the
Olympic weightlifting trial, several variants of the press move emerged. That
is because most weightlifters would dip back while pressing up. Only a handful
could hold a completely upright position. The comparatively easier version,
which allows for a dip back, also allows the lifter to push more weight through
Alternatives to the clean and press barbell exercise
The popular fitness and weight lifting website
Bodybuilding.com ranks the clean and press at number three on its list of the
top rated exercises for the shoulders, as per its users preferences. The side
laterals to front raise is the number one exercise for the shoulder, closely
followed by the single-arm linear jammer and the website offers a ton of
amazing resources for building the size and strength of your shoulders.
However, today we re only going to focus on exercises with which you can
replace the clean and press barbell. Perhaps you simply want to mix things up
on shoulder day, or maybe the clean and press is too difficult for you.
Whatever your reasons may be, here are some great alternatives to this very
Standing military presses
You might also know them under the name of standing barbell
presses , or standing overhead presses . The standing military press is also a
strength compound exercise for the shoulders and it also engages the triceps.
To perform you re going to need a barbell and it s okay even if you re a
beginner. You ve got all the odds in your favor to perform this exercise
properly. Start out with a squat rack, on which you place a barbell at about
the level of your chest. Choose proper weights, then grab a hold of the barbell
with your palms faced in front of you. Your grip needs to be more ample than
shoulder width. Bend your knees a little and position the barbell on your
clavicle. Then, raise toward the ceiling, but make sure the bar is still
resting on your chest. Take one step behind you and increase the distance
between your feet, as to position them right beneath your shoulders.
Raise the barbell into the air, once you ve made sure you re
gripping it at the right distance. Elevate it above your head and lock your
arms into position. At this point, the bar should be roughly at the same level
with your shoulders and a bit before your head. Take a slow, deep breath in,
then start lowering the bar down toward your collar bone. Once the bar has
reached the collarbone, raise it back up to the initial position. Meanwhile,
breathe out slowly.
For alternatives, you can opt for a sitting military press
especially recommended if you ve got a bad lower back. Don t hold the bar
behind your neck if you ve got shoulder issues, since this can over-exert your
rotator cuff. When you place the bar behind your neck, you re hyperextending
your shoulder. Finally, if you want an exercise that isolates your shoulder
muscles better, try using dumbbells instead of a single barbell.
One-arm kettlebell push presses
You may simply call them push presses; no matter what you
call them, though, they still remain a great compound strength exercise for
your shoulder muscles. You will obviously need a kettlebell to perform this
intermediate level workout, which also fires up your calf muscles, quadriceps,
The exercise is simple enough to perform in proper form.
Simply pick up a kettlebell by its handle, then lift it in one clean swoop all
the way up to your shoulder. Make sure you re also contracting your leg muscles
and supporting the move with your hips. As you pull up the kettlebell rotate
your wrist to the point where your palms are facing forward. Once you ve
completed this first step and set up the initial position of the push press,
bend at the knees. Your upper body should remain completely straight. After
you ve swiftly dipped your knees, press up to the ceiling with all your might,
through your heels. You ll basically be jumping into the air, with the
kettlebell pressing overhead. Reach your arms out the point where they re
locked out and drive the whole energy of this move into pressing up with the
kettlebell. To complete the rep, bring the weight back down to shoulder level.
The circus bell may sound like a barrel of laughs as does
its alternate name of fat dumbbell press but, in fact, it s a complex
compound exercise, which addresses the weightlifting workout needs of the
experts. Aside from giving your muscles a run for their money , this exercise
also puts the hamstrings, forearms, glutes, lower back, trapeze muscle and
triceps to work. It s actually a pro weightlifting exercise, which can also be
seen during competitions for this sport.
As its name suggests, it s performed with a circus bell a
very large dumbbell with a thick bar. In the beginning, the dumbbell needs to
be positioned between your feet. Grab a hold of it with both your hands, then
bring it to one shoulder with the use of a single hand. Your hips and knees
will be providing the stability you require to clear the weight. To maintain
your balance, you need to make sure that one of the heads of the weight is
positioned behind your shoulder. Slightly bend your knees and dip forward as
you raise the circus bell over your head. Drive the weight up and bend your
upper body slightly in the opposite direction from it.
Slowly lower the weight back down to the floor. You need to
control this negative portion of the move as best you can, since circus bells
are heavy and can seriously damage a floor. The best tip in this sense is to
use a rubber mat, which will help protect the surface beneath it.
Why do it? The top 3 reasons to perform the clean and press
As you may have gathered up until this point, the clean and
press barbell workout is not easy, but the truth is you d be hard-pressed to
find any other move that is as comprehensive as this one. It s an all-in-one
type of exercise which will literally work every muscle in your body and
greatly enhance your strength, when performed right. Since we re on the topic
of form, it s worth mentioning that most beginner weightlifters who decide to
give up on the clean and press do so because they find it too complicated to
perform it right. It s not really that hard and here s what you stand to gain
Strength, speed, and cut muscles
If you re into CrossFit, you may have heard of the power
clean and the squat clean. The power clean involves putting the bar back on the
squat rack at the end, while also dipping your knees to the point where you re
in quarter squat position. For a squat clean, you ll need to dip your body all
the way into a full squat. These exercises are similar to the clean press, in
the sense that they require a sizeable amount of power, plenty of speed, and
strong muscles. Those athletes, whom you see lifting impressive amounts of
weight all do cleans. Not only do cleans help them stay strong, but they also
sculpt muscles like few other compound exercises do.
A one-stop-shop for just about all your muscles
The power clean and press uses just about any muscle in your
body that you can name, from the glutes and the quads, to the muscles on your
back, hamstrings, shoulders, arms, and core. A good rep, i.e. one that s
properly executed, will engage them all, which means that you can include the
clean and press in any number and type of workouts. Clean and press barbell
exercises are not just for the shoulders. In fact, most professional
bodybuilders also use them as benchmarks, to understand how their strength
levels are evolving in time.
Learn some technique, while you re at it
There are plenty of moves out there that don t involve a
complex sequence of movements. The clean and press, however, does entail a
certain degree of complexity. Most beginners, for instance, have trouble
lifting their elbows properly and/or at the right time during the move. Don t
give into frustration, if you also come across this issue. Simply take your
time with it and you ll see that eventually you ll get the hang of it. And the
results will be well worth it!
Frequently asked questions about clean and press barbell exercises
How can I integrate them effectively into my workout?
Clean and press barbell exercises can either be performed on
their own, as a separate exercise, or within a more complex circuit. If you
take the first approach, for instance, you might be interested in the 5 x 3
strength enhancement workout. This involves completing five sets of 3 clean and
press moves each, with varying degrees of 1RM: from 75% all the way up to 95%. For
a full workout, you can try 3 sets of 5 reps of clean and press moves, 3 sets
of 6 to 8 reps of back squats, 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps of lying leg curls, and
finally 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps of leg presses.
Some lifters also integrate the clean and press barbell
exercise into their workouts as a form of High Intensity Interval Training (or
HIIT). In this version of the move, the weight (be it a barbell, kettlebell, or
set of dumbbells) is driven down as much as possible and the move itself is performed
for time. While this is a great way to gauge your strength gains, you should
not attempt to approach the clean and press like this before you re absolutely
sure that you ve got the technique down pat.
Is the clean and press suitable for beginner lifters?
The short answer is yes, why not? The longer one involves
pacing yourself in terms of the weights you choose. Start out small, because
this exercise truly is very intensive and you are by no means at Olympic
lifting levels yet, as a beginner. For novices, the most important thing to get
right is the proper technique. Also, it s important to put in an adequate
number of repetitions, which might also be challenging at first.
On what training day should I integrate the clean and press?
There are numerous answers to this question, since, as
outlined above, the clean and press involves numerous muscle groups, from the
glutes to the calf muscles. Perhaps the most involved group of muscles is that
of the legs, so it might be a good idea to start out your leg training day with
the press and clean or the power clean. It s very important to begin your
workout with this move, because it s strenuous and in order to make sure you re
doing it right, you should be well rested and with your glycogen levels high.