What is a Squat Clean?

The fitness world is one of the fastest-growing and fastest moving, and that’s not because we’re all working out like maniacs! The industry as a whole is constantly innovating, finding new exercises, new programs, new diets and constantly reevaluating itself and its processes. 

It’s an inherently competitive world as everyone strives to improve themselves and their regime, however, there are some exercises that endure through the continual reaching for ever more efficient workouts.

One of these exercises is the squat clean, one of the most important exercises and movements in the fitness world.

The squat clean is one of the linchpins of any weight training program and is a very powerful tool for building muscle, strength, and power.

The explosive nature of this exercise and its full body activation makes it great for improving your whole body’s strength and helping you to increase your weight on other more specialized exercises. 

The squat element of this exercise is probably the most important of all exercises, as it engages the biggest muscle groups and also helps to strengthen your core and supporting muscles. For increasing your overall strength and explosive power, squats are the best exercise there is. 

Combining the demanding movements of the squat and the clean together makes them one of the most comprehensive exercises.

You may have heard of the clean and jerk, as it’s a very popular and eye-catching exercise that is often the reserve of more experienced lifters. The squat clean is akin to this famous exercise, but the squat clean cuts out the final jerk component of the movement, focusing on the squat and clean sections of it. 

This is one of the great things about the squat clean. It’s a modular exercise that can be changed and built upon to cater to various skill levels. It’s easy to make the exercise simpler or build from squatting to cleans and then eventually to clean and jerks if you’re someone who wants to take lifting to the next level.

The squat clean itself involves using a barbell to lift the weight up in a squat position, then when you progress to the top of the lift you heave the weight up to the top of your chest and shoulders into what’s commonly referred to as the ‘rack position’.

While in this motion you also lower into a front squat position and then stand back up to complete the squat clean. The jerk section that can be added to this exercise involves performing an overhead press with the weight but using momentum to lift the weight by dipping your knees and powering up as if you are jumping and pushing the weight above your head.

There are also power cleans which are very similar to the squat clean, however, they don’t involve performing the squat part of the exercise and instead focus on the clean section.

In some sense, the power clean is a good starter workout to build confidence, while the squat clean is a little more complex and a step up towards the very complex lifts such as the clean and jerk.

What muscles does it work?

The squat clean is such a good exercise precisely because it targets so many different muscles in the same series of movements. This makes it efficient, as allowing one exercise to target more muscles will help save time as well as build up these muscles evenly.  

It also promotes the growth and strengthening of the connective tissue and supporting muscles that are actually quite difficult to target with less complex exercises. The benefit of building these smaller muscles is huge as it helps prevent injury and improves stability and balance.

There are other benefits to such a wide range of motion, as it ensures that your joints retain a good range of motion which helps maintain athleticism and further limits the change of injury and aching.

The main muscles targeted are primarily the Glutes and quads, the abs and core as well as the traps, shoulders, and biceps. 

In short, nearly every part of the body is recruited and uses some muscle in order to successfully perform a squat clean.

In the lower body, the glutes, quads, and hamstrings are recruited to pull the bar up off the floor and drive the weight up to the rack position. These movements also develop your hip flexors and other important tendons and tissues in the knees and torso. These muscles remain engaged in a supporting role once the weight has been lifted into position.

From here, the abs and core muscles stabilize everything having also supported the lower body in its effort to drive the weight up into position.

The traps and shoulders help hold the weight in place once the bar is in the rack position and also help during the initial lifting phase.

Finally, during the clean stage of the exercise, the biceps work to haul the weight up, however, it’s important to note that this isn’t the main goal of the exercise and a clean isn’t the same thing as a bicep curl.  The majority of the force and power comes from the lower body, with the biceps adding what power they can and assisting.

The exercise - How to

1. Stand behind the barbell with your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Bend down using the hips and knees to be able to hold the bar using an overhand grip. Your hands should be positioned shoulder wider than shoulder-width apart, but not too wide as this will make the exercise much more difficult to complete. 

Keep your back, neck, and head straight and focus on the bar, taking in a breath and bracing your core to begin the first stage of the exercise.

2. Push hard with your heels and begin extending your hips and knees, pulling the barbell up off the floor. As the bar passes your knees fully lock out your hips and knees in a powerful and explosive motion, pulling the bar up in front of you and keeping the bar close to your torso but not actually in contact with it. 

As your body becomes upright you should feel the barbell working your shoulders. Always keep your feet planted throughout the lift at this crucial stage of the exercise.

3. As the bar passes your navel you want to bend your arms and allow them to move forwards as you transition the weight up towards your chest. As the bar gets up into the rack position you want to allow the barbell to rest there against you, using your fingers to hold the bar in place and your shoulders to cushion the bar.

You’ll know you’re in the correct position because your elbows will be pointing out in front of you and the backs of your arms and triceps will be parallel with the floor. As the bar gets into this position on your chest you need to drop down and get your weight beneath the bar.

There should be no pause between the barbell hitting the rack position and the commencing of the front squat movement. Keeping your elbows high is crucial to keep the weight steady and maintain stability through the next steps. There should be a fluid motion between each of these steps, without any pauses.

4. Drop into the squat position, maintaining good squat form. Keep your head up, elbows high, and back straight as you hit the bottom of the squat. Your core should be engaged to help assist with stability, and your chest should be out and up.

The depth of your squat is really up to you, but a good minimum squat depth is until the backs of your thighs are parallel to the floor. Many however go way deeper than that for this exercise to help improve their power and explosiveness.

5. Drive up out of the hole extending your hips and knees fully as you reach the top of the squat.

6. From here you can now begin preparing to lower the weight to the floor. This should be done in a controlled manner to avoid injury or damage to equipment. You should keep your core engaged and use your legs to help lower the weight if it’s very heavy.

Benefits of the squat clean

  • This exercise is great for improving your strength and helping advance your other lifts and personal bests
  • It helps promote a healthy and athletic range of motion
  • It builds up the supporting muscles and tendons
  • It strengthens the core

Problems and common mistakes

Naturally, such a complex lift comes with a few common mistakes and problems. There are a lot of complex parts to this lift and it can take time to build the strength and confidence to even attempt it, which is why many lifters start with a simpler power clean to help prepare the body for the step up to squat cleans and eventually clean and jerks.

  • Timing - One of the big problems with this exercise is timing each movement correctly so that your muscles and the energy you’re using are transferred efficiently to the next phase of the lift.

This also extends to transferring power and energy through the many different muscles this exercise uses.Making sure that the clean transfers into the front squat at the correct moment is the key and the hardest thing to get used to with this exercise, and mastering it is everything.

  • Form - Correct form is important with every exercise - incorrect form causes injuries after all. However, the squat clean is an exercise that can use a lot of weight and momentum, which makes it a little more dangerous and difficult than your average exercise.

This of course means that form is even more important. Because the exercise is technically two exercises rolled into one there is a lot to keep track of. Correct foot position, correct hand placement, maintaining good posture, and keeping the head up - these are all very important and also help keep your body in check as you go through the movements.

Additional issues such as maintaining good elbow height during the squatting phase and dipping adequately into the squat are also important to make sure you get the most out of this lift.

  • Reps, Sets, and Loading the Barbell - The debate about how many reps and sets you need to do for a given exercise is one that often doesn’t seem to have a correct answer. However, when it comes to this exercise, it’s definitely important to start with low reps and a handful of sets particularly if you’re a beginner.

It is also important to focus on getting the correct form in place before adding a heavy load to the barbell. Many lifters recommend doing a warm-up with a light weight or an empty bar to get your body stretched out and to make sure your muscle memory and kinesthesis are sharp and ready to correctly perform the movements required.

Alternative exercises

If you’re not quite ready to begin using the squat clean there are some other exercises you can consider to begin preparing yourself and getting some of the benefits this move can provide.

The best choice is the power clean which is the baby brother of the squat clean. It’s a much simpler exercise without as many moving parts and is much more forgiving to beginners.

Another option is kettlebell squats and kettlebell cleans, to help improve these exercises separately before combining them.Finally, there is the clean and jerk, which is the big brother of the squat clean and a great choice for those who feel the squat clean isn’t challenging them enough.

Final thoughts

To conclude, the squat clean is one of the best exercises out there, a compound movement that is as rewarding as it is challenging. While quite complex, it provides near unparalleled efficiency and will greatly enhance your power, strength, stability, and most crucially, your confidence. It is also easy to adapt and build upon, making it a core exercise for anyone seeking to up their lifting game.