With Olympic lifting at an optimal high in training facilities, I ask the question – to squat or to power clean?
What’s better? I know any good strength coach like Charles Poliquin, Dave Scott-McDowell and Scot Prohaska and will say it depends upon their program. I then ask, why do some coaches who I believe get their certificate over a weekend (more on this later, or see my article on What Makes A Good Strength Coach) preach power cleans for close to 100 reps when we know that this is a technical lift and high reps increase the breakdown of form?
Squats are a staple in many successful athletes’ programs, and for a reason: too MANY people are too weak for their speed. “Strength is an essential component of all human performance and its form development can no longer be neglected in the preparation of any athlete.”
As Mark Rippetoe states in Starting Strength, “Physical strength is the most important thing in life.”
What does that mean? People need to get under a bar and squat!
Squats are what I call a slower strength movement (obviously there are some speed variations, but for this purpose we will focus on back squats), or more at the maximal strength component of the strength speed continuum, aka force velocity curve.
As you can see in the diagram above, squats’ emphasis is on maximal strength and strength speed during dynamic training days. Some variations of squats that would emphasize different phases of the force velocity curve are:
Back / front / safety squats for maximal weight – maximal strength
Back / safety squats with bands – shifts more to strength speed
Back squats with bands – traditionally strength speed and depending upon load closer to speed- strength
Jump squats – dependent upon weight – at SST we emphasize speed during this exercise and have our athletes NEVER exceed 25% of bodyweight as their load for their day. If you are in doubt, ALWAYS aim for the lower weight and increase speed during this exercise
The power clean and its variations… pound for pound, the power clean and cleans are great exercises when performed properly, and this is where the issue lies. Cleans are a component of Olympic lifting and a sport in itself, which many coaches and athletes neglect. It takes thousands of hours to become proficient. There are many qualified coaches who are able to coach this lift properly, but unfortunately there are way more that have no clue!
An example of this is a client of mine who won the North American Masters Javelin championship. After performing an assessment, I discovered many imbalances such as unable to fully squat, but what dumbfounded me more was that he told me his trainer had him proficient in power cleans. I said, “OK, go ahead and please show me with light weight.” he must have seen the sheer terror in my eyes after his rep and asked what was wrong. Quickly I said, “We have a few things to work on prior to cleaning again.”
The Clean is a tremendous exercise that falls in the strength-speed and speed-strength continuum dependent upon load. When coached properly, an athlete will see tremendous gains in athletic ability such as jumping and sprinting. Power cleans and variations of cleans are exercises that allow one to “Jump with weight.” Sometimes as coaches and athletes we neglect this aspect, but the underlying premise is, it’s still a loaded jump.
One of my biggest concerns, and this is with many lifts, is that athletes want to lift more and more weight independent of their form. I prefer to use cleans as a speed strength exercise to improve jumps and speed only. With squats I shift our focus to more of a maximal strength and strength speed exercise. As stated earlier, most athletes are too weak for their speed, thus the focus should be on maximal strength and the king of this is squats and other variations.
Another variable to consider when comparing cleans to squats is that the power clean teaches more timing and synchronization of motor units, whereas the squat is more of a BEAR DOWN and sweat, or what I call “Get under the bar and lift” type of exercise. I know there are some more technicalities regarding the squat such as position, application of force, etc., but the rate of force production and synchronization is greater in the clean.
So let’s get back to our original question: to squat or to clean? What is right? It all depends. If you find you are too weak for your speed, then squats should be the focus. In fact, one of my top strength coaches, Antoine Hamelin, has a rule: if a person cannot squat their own body weight, they squat 3–4 times per week!
If you are too slow for your strength, then cleans may be the better choice. I witness this with athletes who have powerlifted. But do remember this: Athlete A, who squats 500 lbs, will always be able to clean more than an athlete who only squats 200 lbs.
In my next article I will discuss the importance of full squats for sprinting.
Verkohoshansky and Siff; Supertraining; Sixth edition – expanded version.
Larry Jusdanis is the owner of Sports Specific Training (SST) the #1 rated speed program in Canada!
For more information about Sports Specific Training’s SUMMER speed programs please