Despite the similarities in their name, both the power clean and the squat clean should be considered entirely separate exercises due to the differences in how they are performed and the subsequent results of such a performance.
That being said, both progressions of the clean exercise share several characteristics that make them somewhat interchangeable within the correct context.
For the most part, the difference between the power clean and the squat clean is the simple involvement of knee flexion during the exercise, with the squat clean making use of a full squat range of motion while the power clean only employs a small bend at the knees.
In technical terminology, the power clean is a free weight compound exercise with a body-wide muscle recruitment pattern usually performed for developing high amounts of strength and power throughout the entire body.
Most often performed with a barbell, the power clean involves the exerciser pulling a barbell from the floor and raising it up to shoulder height by thrusting their body beneath - all in a single smooth movement.
The power clean sees frequent use in many olympic weightlifting workouts, as well as in any athlete’s training program if their sport directly involves such skills like explosiveness and force production.
The squat clean is also a free weight compound exercise performed for the purposes of developing explosive capacity and raw muscular strength, of which is primarily caused by its activation of every muscle group throughout the body.
Much like the power clean, the squat clean also involves pulling a barbell from the floor and thrusting it overhead - although the two differ by way of the exerciser squatting at the end of the repetition instead of simply standing erect, as is the case in the power clean.
Though less common, the squat clean also sees a fair amount of usage in many powerlifting and olympic weightlifting training programs.
The power clean and the squat clean share a nearly identical muscular activation pattern, with such muscles like the deltoids, trapezius, the latissimus dorsi and the gluteus maximus all acting in tandem to produce the explosive movement involved in either exercise.
However, as one may guess from its name, the squat clean involves greater recruitment of the musculature that makes up the lower body, with the quadriceps femoris, hamstrings, calves, hip flexors and glutes being recruited to greater effect due to the squat position involved.
Conversely, the power clean recruits the biceps brachii and deltoids in a more intense manner due to the fact that the barbell rests on the upper chest shelf, with the exerciser’s torso tilting more backwards than in the squat clean due to natural biomechanics.
This is not to say that the power clean does not activate the leg muscles, or the squat clean the biceps brachii - simply that one exercise targets certain parts of the body more than the other, with the majority of other muscle groups sharing the same extent of activation between the two movements.
The total amount of weight used in the power clean and the squat clean is not, in fact, the same.
This is simply because of the greater involvement of the leg muscles in the squat clean exercise, allowing for a larger amount of weight to be lifted than in the power clean.
Such an increase in maximal weight load can aid an athlete in becoming accustomed to lifting more during competitions, with this difference directly carrying over to olympic clean performance or similar exercises that involve explosive weightlifting.
Though the squat clean and the power clean present nearly identical requirements and difficulty, it is the squat clean that is considered to be more complex and therefore harder to perform, as the power clean does not directly involve executing a form-perfect squat movement while also performing a barbell clean movement.
As such, for lifters of lesser experience in regards to olympic weightlifting exercises, it is suggested that the power clean be practiced first prior to progressing towards the squat clean exercise.
As was mentioned at the beginning of this article, the primary difference between the squat clean and the power clean is in the sort of exercise mechanics involved in each one.
These, while appearing minute outside of a technical perspective, are nonetheless quite consequential at the higher levels of athletic performance and as such must be paid attention to if the exerciser wishes to truly optimize their training.
One major point of distinction between the power clean and the squat clean is in what sort of mobility each exercise will require; the power clean will require only an average level of lower body mobility, whereas the squat clean will require significant knee, lower back, ankle and hip joint mobility due to the depth involved.
Having poor mobility while attempting to execute the squat clean will result in the exerciser losing their balance, sustaining an acute injury or otherwise failing to maximize the training stimulus they may develop from the exercise.
As can be inferred from this, novice exercisers or individuals with a history of lower body injury will be better served avoiding the squat clean as its mobility requirements may be too difficult for them.
A larger range of motion will require a greater amount of exertion in comparison to a shorter range of motion, even in cases where the total weight carried is the exact same.
As such, the fact that the squat clean produces a significantly larger range of motion due to the involvement of knee flexion and hip abduction also equates to a greater perceived rate of exertion per repetition of the exercise.
This higher level of exertion will, in turn, reduce the amount of repetitions the exerciser will be able to perform in totality - unless they program their workout around the squat clean, or if the resistance is sufficiently lowered.
If simple training volume is what the lifter is seeking, it is the power clean that is the ideal choice.
In terms of raw movement pattern and exercise mechanics, the power clean is more conservative and involves fewer moving joints than the squat clean.
This presents several benefits, such as reduced strain on the various connective tissues of the body as well as a lower rate of exertion per repetition - although a less complex movement pattern is also less useful in terms of developing athletic and sports-specific skills such as total body force output or coordination under tension.
Synchronous motor unit contraction is a vital part of executing any high-power explosive kinetic chain, meaning that the squat clean will develop this particular ability within a lifter to a greater extent than its counterpart.
In instances where an athlete wishes to maximize the capacity to perform at a high level within their sport, the squat clean’s more complex and robust movement pattern will be the ideal training tool.
Though both the power clean and the squat clean make use of explosive momentum driven by the legs, it is the squat clean that does so to a far greater extent, especially in the latter half of the movement wherein the exerciser dips beneath the bar to catch it.
A greater usage of momentum during heavy free weight exercise such as a clean will generally equate to more difficulty in performing the movement, relegating the squat clean to usage in more advanced training programs as novices may risk injuring themselves or developing improper clean mechanics otherwise.
Apart from acting as tools meant to induce muscular hypertrophy, both variations of the clean exercise are also frequently used as methods of improving individual ability in other aspects of athleticism, with competitive sports performance being the majority of such cases.
There is no doubt that usage of either exercise aids in an olympic weightlifting athlete’s performance of the clean and jerk, though what particular aspect of this competition lift will decide whether the power or squat clean is a more appropriate choice.
If the athlete finds their range of motion is hampered by weakness, or if a particular sticking point in their form is present; it is the power clean that is the ideal solution.
Otherwise, the squat clean may be used to remedy more fundamental issues concerning olympic weightlifting movements, such as proper force production or an improperly timed movement pattern.
However, in less specific cases of athletic training such as developing front squat performance or jump height, both the squat clean and power clean are equally as effective - with the sole deciding factor between the two being the involvement of the legs in whatever athletic carry-over task it is intended to help with.
Like in many cases of choosing one exercise over the other, neither the power clean nor the squat clean is a clear cut more effective than the other. Instead, the answer is more circumstantial.
For athletes, more advanced weightlifters and exercisers wishing for a more complete muscular activation pattern, the squat clean is the clear winner - so long as it is performed safely and with proper programming.
In other cases such as intermediate level weightlifters or exercisers wishing to practice a certain portion of their clean movement, the power clean is far more suitable.
Nevertheless, both the power clean and the squat clean are equally useful exercises for developing a variety of aspects relating to strength and athleticism, earning them a place in any serious weightlifter’s training program.
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