The power clean is a highly explosive compound movement often performed in olympic weightlifting competitions, as part of an athlete’s training program or in the explosive block of a periodization workout regimen.
In terms of pure effectiveness, there are few exercises comparable to the power clean. Despite this particular benefit, several issues relating to its safety, difficulty and mechanics can result in an exerciser needing to replace it with a suitable alternative movement.
Fortunately, quite a few exercises may act as power clean substitutes - each of which fulfill a certain role and aspect relating to the latter exercise, such as high pulls directly carrying over to powerlifting and strongman training, or front squats possessing similar muscle group training stimulus despite the significant differences in mechanics and exercise tempo.
The most common reason why power cleans are substituted with an alternative in a training routine is the simple fact that they are quite difficult; so much so that learning to perform them with proper technique and momentum is considered an achievement for novice exercisers.
As the power clean involves moving a significantly heavy weight at high speeds, performing them with less than perfect form or making an error during a working load repetition can easily result in the exerciser becoming injured - making it an unsuitable exercise for individuals with a history of injury, novice exercisers or athletes who cannot afford to be injured.
Other reasons why the power clean may need to be substituted include a need for longer lengths of time under tension within the exerciser’s workout, a sticking point in the olympic weightlifter or powerlifter’s power clean form, lack of access to bumper plates or the individual simply finding it to be an uncomfortable exercise for their unique biomechanics.
Regardless of the reasoning behind the substitution of the power clean, any potential alternative exercise will also come with its own set of prerequisite requirements and disadvantages that must also be accounted for by the exerciser or their coach - with restructuring and reprogramming of their training routine often being the case.
As the power clean is a wide-reaching compound exercise, it is capable of inducing significant training stimulus and activation in a large number of muscle groups throughout its entire range of motion, with those activated to the greatest degree being the quadriceps femoris, the core abdominal muscle groups, the trapezius and the twin muscles of the calves.
As such, any potential alternative exercise to the power clean should also share a similar primary muscle group activation profile - with secondary muscle groups normally activated by the power clean such as the hamstrings, glutes, deltoids and hip flexors being of secondary importance respectively.
The power clean is an exercise performed not only for the purposes of developing the strength and size of an exerciser’s skeletal musculature, as it is also used for improving the athletic power output capacity of the exerciser, improving their full-body coordination, aiding in sports-specific performance capacity and even as a benchmark of a high level strength athlete’s development within their sport.
With this in mind, one can see that any potential alternative exercise to the power clean must also share one or a number of these aspects in accordance to the needs of the exerciser and their training routine; with olympic weightlifters substituting the power clean also requiring that the alternative exercise serve the purpose of improving their competition technique, for example.
One other point of similarity that may or may not be important when substituting the power clean for an alternative exercise is in their shared exercise mechanics.
As the power clean utilizes knee extension and flexion, hip adduction and abduction, full shoulder rotation and ankle plantarflexion as its primary joint biomechanics - individuals injured in these areas may wish to find a suitable alternative that does not utilize the same mechanics.
Inversely, athletes with a particular sticking point due to one or multiple of these biomechanics will instead need to replace the power clean with an exercise that improves greater training stimulus and focus on said biomechanical sticking point.
A common sight in crossfit training routines or similar functional training programs wherein explosiveness is meant to be developed as a major component of the exerciser’s athletic abilities, the kettlebell swing can act as an excellent substitute to the power clean in such regards.
This is due to the similarity in their momentum, cadence and general mechanics, wherein both the kettlebell swing and the power clean involve explosive and rapid multi-joint movements as the exerciser raises a heavy object upward and forward from ankle-height.
The sole difference between the kettlebell swing and the power clean in terms of mechanics is the somewhat reduced arm muscle group usage in the kettlebell swing, as such muscle groups like the biceps brachii and brachioradialis are relegated to a stabilizer muscle group capacity instead of a secondary mover muscle as they would be during a repetition of the power clean.
In terms of exercise programming, the kettlebell swing will utilize a somewhat lower amount of weight or resistance in exchange for higher amounts of volume.
This is a simple side effect of the smaller size of the kettlebell and the fact that the exerciser will have more trouble keeping a stable grip on the handle as they do not have the benefit of secondary muscle group coactivation from the arms, requiring that more repetitions per set instead be used in order to achieve a greater training effect.
Generally, the exerciser should aim for somewhere between fifteen to twenty reps of the kettlebell swing for the purposes of developing athletic explosiveness and cohesive body movement.
As the power clean is a highly versatile exercise with a multitude of uses depending on the athlete and their particular sport, any potential alternative must also summarily correspond with said athlete and training for their particular sport - with differing alternative exercises depending on whether it is for a strongman training routine, a powerlifter’s training routine or for an olympic weightlifter.
The power clean is a staple of Olympic weightlifting, and is also one of the main lifts used in Olympic weightlifting competitions - as such, substituting it with another exercise is far more significant to the impact of the athlete’s training routine than it would be for strongman competitors or powerlifters.
This is where the snatch comes into play; of which is visually, functionally and kinetically similar to the power clean but with a few key differences that cause it to present a distinctly different set of disadvantages than what the power clean allows.
Unlike the power clean, the snatch does not have a distinct midpoint as the exerciser pauses the barbell’s momentum at approximately sternum height - instead, the snatch acts as a simple cohesive movement, with the athlete essentially throwing the barbell upwards as they swing beneath it, finally ending its kinetic motion as the elbows are fully extended overhead.
However, this greater amount of momentum and larger range of motion can also directly translate to a more effective training stimulus as far as explosive strength and muscle group stability are involved; aiding in the olympic weightlifter’s actual performance of the power clean during a competition.
It is this benefit that also acts as a disadvantage though, with the snatch’s distinct similarity and direct carry-over to the power clean making it an unsuitable alternative exercise for individuals substituting the power clean due to joint issues, poor technique or an inability to master the latter exercise’s form.
In such a circumstance, the athlete may be better served utilizing another alternative exercise instead.
The power clean’s purpose in strongman training is often to aid in development and reinforcement of the hip, knee and ankle extension needed by strongman athletes - of which are the usual cause of sticking points, instability and general weakness during particularly heavy loads during strongman competitions.
In addition, the explosive momentum that is forced to come to a sudden stop as the barbell reaches the appropriate height during the power clean has a direct carry-over to many strongman lifts, especially in regards to the power output required to execute said movements.
As such, the weighted medicine ball slam is the perfect alternative exercise to the power clean for strongman athletes; retaining the explosive and power developing training stimulus of the latter exercise and building upon it by increasing the range of motion and the angle of resistance involved in the movement.
As an added bonus, weighted medicine ball slams are also quite close in shape and methodology to atlas stone training - yet another challenging aspect of competitive strongman sports.
When substituting power cleans with weighted medicine ball slams, the exerciser will be better served reducing their total resistance throughout each set while increasing total volume as their aerobic endurance dictates.
The power clean plays a rather specific role in the training program of a powerlifter; both as an exercise meant to improve muscle group stability performance during stricter compound movements as well as a modality of improving technique and exercise mechanic adherence in relation to competition lifts normally performed by powerlifters.
Knowing this, we can infer that substituting the power clean is no easy feat - so much so, in fact, that a rather uncommon combination of two exercises is the ideal alternative in the case of powerlifter training programs.
This is referring to the deadlift to upright row exercise, wherein the exerciser will perform a standard conventional deadlift with a barbell prior to continuing the movement as the exerciser’s knees reach a state of full extension at the top of the deadlift repetition, eventually ending in an upright row movement with the exerciser raising the bar higher than what an ordinary deadlift would require.
As this obviously is not possible with the full maximal weight of the powerlifter’s deadlift, it instead utilizes a far lower level of resistance so as to avoid injury and allow the upright row portion of the exercise to be performed - thereby also possessing a comparatively lower amount of weight to the power clean.
In terms of volume however, the deadlift to upright row movement may match in a perfect one to one ratio, requiring only an alteration in resistance and not in volume programming.
However, as the deadlift to upright row movement involves a greater length of time under tension and larger recruitment of the posterior chain muscle groups, requiring a reduction in total muscle fatigue throughout the workout session.
Usually performed with a sumo grip by the exerciser placing their hands closer together, the deadlift high pull is a classic among crossfit and olympic weightlifting athletes wishing to substitute their power clean with an exercise that induces similar muscular hypertrophy developments and reinforcement of kinetic transfer mechanics in an exerciser.
This is limited by the somewhat shorter range of motion and reduction in arm muscle group activation however, as the deadlift high pull is moreover meant to be performed as an auxiliary or accessory exercise instead of a primary lift as is the case of the power clean.
As such, performing the deadlift high pull will require additional technique work be included into the program unless the exerciser is not performing the power clean in order to improve athletic performance in a sports-specific capacity.
Despite this limitation, the deadlift high pull otherwise shares quite a few characteristics with the power clean that make it an excellent alternative regardless of the original purpose of the power clean within the exerciser’s training program, be it muscle group development, technique refinement, sports-specific improvements or general athletic capacity benefits.
In terms of programming, the power clean and the deadlift high pull are otherwise interchangeable in a one to one ratio when speaking of volume and resistance, requiring no further alteration in set programming - though additional technique work may be required by Olympic weightlifting athletes or similar individuals.
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