Clean and Mean: A Guide for a Proper Hang Clean

As a strength coach and personal trainer at State of Fitness I work often with men’s football and wrestling teams. The two sports of football and wrestling both require the glycloytic energy system to be in use while the athletes perform their sport. To train the gylcolytic energy system the training staff and I have our athletes perform high intensity exercises that provide explosive power and short bursts of energy. An exercise that is an excellent way of training the glycolytic energy system is the hang clean. The hang clean is a very hard exercise to learn if never done before.  I outlined a simple guide to break down the movements needed to master a hang clean. The clean is broken down into five steps:

  • Step 1: The Lift
  • Step 2: Hip Drive
  • Step 3: Shrug
  • Step 4: High Pull
  • Step 5: Elbow through

Step 1: The Lift

The first step to the hang clean is lifting the bar in to the “hanging” position. The hanging position requires the athlete to be facing forward with the feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart and the bar is hanging on top of both knees. The knees are flexed at 90 degrees and the back is flat with the shoulders slightly retracted.  As the athlete approaches the barbell I always say “good dead lift on the way up” because to get into the hanging position a proper dead lift needs to be done. The main reason why I focus on this step is because athletes often decide to pick up with weight without a good dead lift because they are so focused on the hang clean and want to rush into the exercise. Improper lifting of the bar can cause a lower back muscle to be pulled and lead to future injury because of the flaw.

I believe that having little focus cues such as “good dead lift on the way up” will cause those athletes to always keep that cue in the back of their head when lifting up the weight. The more players that I have performing the lift correctly the less chance there is of any injury. The hang clean is a very complex move and is often not allowed in weight rooms such as a high school setting because it can be very hard to teach.

Step 2: Hip Drive

Hip Drive and Shrug

The next step to the hang clean is the hip drive action. In wrestling especially, there are many movements that require a strong extension of the hips. The second step of the hip drive is arguably the most important step and is the main reason why I like to prescribe my athletes with the hang clean. As the athlete is in the hang clean position he simply begins the hip drive with a slight rock back as he transfers the weight from the toes to the heels while keeping his back straight and his chest up. After the rock back, the athlete will then extend his hips and rock the weight forward on to the toes as he plantar flexes both feet.

This small movement is the reason why the movement is called the hang clean because the weight is hanging. The cue that I use in this step is either “on the toes” or “drive the hips through”.  These two cues remind the athlete to drive the hips through in fast and explosive manner. Common mistakes made in this step are in the ground force production. The force that moves the weight up is the developed by Newton’s law of action and reaction by driving the force into the ground action being followed by the reaction of the weight moving up. Many athletes tend to let their knees cave in toward the midline of the body which takes away from the ground force production going straight into the ground. If I do happen to see this mistake happen I will tell my athletes to perform the movement without any weight in their hands and to perform the movement in front of a mirror.

Step 3: Shrug

The third step to the hang clean is the shrug. The shrug is where the athlete elevates the trapezius toward the ears while keeping the arms straight. This action is followed by the previous step of the hip drive. The hang clean is a movement that uses force to begin the momentum of the bar moving up. The third step of the shrug movement is done to simply accelerate the momentum of the upward movement of the bar. To aid in the shrug movement the hips extend forward and the weight is pushed up through plantar flexion of the feet.

The third step of the shrug is step that is often skipped by athletes. A reason for skipping the shrug is because of so much focus being placed on driving the hip through. The hang clean needs to be done in a step by step fashion. In order for the exercise to be done efficiently the movement needs to be done step by step and not a single step can be skipped. Without the shrug movement the bar will not stay close to body which leads up to the next step of the high pull.

Step 4: High Pull

Next to the step of the hip drive, the second most skipped step of the hang clean is the high pull. In the high pull movement the goal is to raise the bar high close to the anterior part of the collar bone. This step is the follow up of the hip drive and the shrug. The athlete simply keeps the weight very close to the body and drives the weight straight up until he reaches the collar bone height. After the shrug action, most of the high pull should be done using the momentum that was developed in the previous steps. To cue this movement I often tell my athletes to “keep the bar close to the body”. As the athlete hears this cue he should learn to keep a slight lean backwards so that the bar can travel in the straight line destination. The most common issue that I run into is athletes wanting to lift the bar up by flexing the arms with the hands pronated (reverse curl).  By performing the reverse curl instead of the high pull, the momentum of the exercise that was developed in the previous steps is diminished and this is where you see injuries occur.  In this step, the most important factor is to keep the bar close to the body and drive the elbows up high in a fast explosive manner.

Notice the high elbows, good shrug and still has the hip extension.

Step 5: Elbow Through

The fifth and final step to the hang clean is to drive the elbows through and land in a “clean” position. This step can be difficult if the athlete has trouble with flexibility in the elbow or shoulder joint. The movement is done once the bar has been lifted high enough so that the athlete does not have to jump way under the bar. There are two common mistakes that I see many athletes perform while doing this part of the exercise. The first mistake that I see is that athletes do not drive their elbows all the way through and instead keep them straight. To fix this problem I have the athlete grab a lighter bar with no weight or even something as light as a broom stick. I have the athlete perform the movement in front of a mirror and emphasize the movement with the cue of “drive the elbows through”.

Notice the elbows are straight and not though.

Notice the elbows are shot through so the weight is moved to spine and not placed solely on the arms.

The second most common mistake that I have seen through experience is that the athletes try to shoot the elbows through when the bar has not been raised high enough toward the anterior collar bone. By shooting the elbows through early the athlete forces the muscles in the lower back to work harder as there is more hip extension involved. To fix this flaw I simply give the cue of “ let the bar come up higher” as I say this cue I remind them that the bar should be moving from the momentum that was caused by the force that was developed in the ground force production.

The hang clean incorporates several exercises into one movement. The dead lift, hip extension, and high pull are all smaller movements of the exercise that can be practiced separately. If the athlete is able to perform these smaller movements efficiently then they will be able to perform the hang clean without any risk of injury and help prepare the gylcolytic energy system.

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