The inclusion of the hang clean exercise in strength and conditioning programs is a controversial topic among coaches. Some are very strong supporters of its implementation and will base their entire programs around this lift. Others vehemently oppose it due to the high technical demands and injury risk. Both sides of the argument have some strong points that need to be considered when selecting exercises for your athletes. The hang clean requires a great deal of mobility, flexibility and coordination. These are all great qualities for athletes to have. Unfortunately, developing the skill to perform this movement safely can take quite a bit of time. Since our time with the athletes is so valuable and limited, is it worth spending several weeks working on technique? Could these weeks have been better spent on less technically demanding exercises where heavier loads could be utilized? The answer to this question depends on the coach and his/her philosophy. However, perhaps there is some middle ground here where we can derive the same benefits from the hang clean without having to do a full hang clean.
There are several variations of the hang clean exercise that can be easily coached and performed by the athlete. Common movements like the jump shrug and high pull are often used as progressions in teaching the hang clean pattern before implementing the catch. An interesting new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by Suchomel et al. (2014) compared peak power output, peak velocity and peak force between the jump shrug, high pull and hang clean in 17 male subjects with previous experience with the Olympic lifts. Interestingly the jump shrug exercise significantly outperformed the high pull and the hang clean for each variable. The authors explain; “JS may be related to a greater need to focus on producing enough force and a fast enough velocity to leave the platform rather than focusing on catching the bar.” Additionally, the researchers determined at what particular load, the greatest power, force and velocity were generated. The sweet spot appeared to be with loads between 30 and 45% of each athletes 1RM hang clean.
The catch phase of the hang clean is typically where most athletes have difficulty with the exercise. Lack of mobility and/or flexibility often leads to catching the bar with hyper-extended wrists, leading to pain and soreness over time. The high pull, and especially the jump shrug appear to be suitable, if not, superior alternatives to the hang clean exercise. The main benefits from the hang clean are derived from the explosive extension of the hips, knees and ankles (i.e., triple extension). Performing the hang clean variations still include this important component. If you have been avoiding the Olympic lifts for the issues stated above, consider the jump shrug and high pull variations as they are very effective exercises without the technical demands of the catch phase of the clean.
Suchomel, T. J., Wright, G. A., Kernozek, T. W., & Kline, D. E. (2014). Kinetic comparison of the power development between power clean variations. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(2), 350-360.