Some three years ago, when I first started learning the clean at Crossfit South Brooklyn (CFSBK) my Coach Extraordinaire David Osorio said it would take two thousand repetitions to get the clean ‘right.’ As I’m fond of saying to my fellow CFSBK’ers, I’m not sure I am at two thousand reps yet, because I don’t think I have the clean right. I certainly clean more than I used to three years ago; my heaviest clean is now at 175 pounds, and I remember feeling ridiculously pleased when back in September 2009, I first went past 125 pounds. But the mere fact of being able to hoist a greater number of pounds from the floor into something that approximates a finish position does not mean that the lift has been accomplished in technically correct or aesthetically pleasing fashion.
For as more than one coach has noted, on more than one occasion, when I’m done with my lift, while I might not have pulled off ‘a foul rep’ insofar as I didn’t drop the bar, fail to catch it, or anything else like that, the lift has still ‘gone bad’: my elbows have not come around fully, I have landed too wide, I have pulled ‘too early’, I didn’t ‘set my ass back’ properly. And without fail, on the clean, there is a progression: some twenty pounds or so beneath my maximum lift is where my form is at its best, and above that, my form starts to break down. My max clean, as noted is 175 pounds, and my ‘cleanest’ heavy clean occurs at about 155 pounds (i.e., one where my coaches don’t feel compelled to roll their eyes, grimace, shake their heads, or otherwise give indications of severe distress). Needless to say, the max clean is one ugly baby, so ugly that no one in their right minds would kidnap it.
On the clean, it seems, one never stops learning, never stop getting little insights into the lift that are revelatory, helpful, and contribute to a greater understanding of this complex, powerful movement. These little moments of insight, ludicrously small as they might seem, all add up in contributing to the effective execution of the lift. For instance, in recent weeks, I’ve learned to become more conscious of two cues that help me manage the complexity of the ‘three pulls’: one, as you deadlift the barbell up and past your knees, don’t move it around the knees, rather, get your knees out of the way. (That this is an ‘insight’ tells you how confused I might have been in the past; after all, the first pull is just supposed to be a deadlift up to the pockets, innit? And aren’t you supposed to get your knees out of the way when you deadlift?) And then, as you reach the ‘pockets’ and ready for the explosive hip-opening pull, cue yourself by brushing the barbell off the pockets, (audibly even), as you pull it up, get under, and rack the barbell.
Competency in the clean feels like a moving target, as an attempt to fix one component of it results in another going wrong. No other lift quite induces the feelings of Sisyphean labors the way the clean does: seemingly, almost every improvement in the max weight cleaned results in technical competency at that weight breaking down so that having mastered competency at one weight, one moves on to try and get better at the next step. I’m better now at 155; a year and a half ago, that was my one-rep max, my 155lb lifts were all ugly, and my 135lb cleans were, ahem, cleaner. So there is hope here then: at least, there is a slow and steady graph of improvement, even though as one’s strength improves it seems that all the old insecurities about being able to pull off the lift well return.
No other lift, also, I think, quite makes the lifter want to do it well even as he struggles with it. A well-executed clean is a thing of beauty so a sensitive lifter can feel the aesthetic imperative of the lift acting on him. The desire to achieve competence in the clean can burn strongly in a motivated lifter, not just because he wants to lift more weight but because he wants to do it correctly and perhaps even ‘well’; an ugly clean is never satisfying and the lifter knows it.
So, hail to you, the mighty clean. You never fail to stay out of my reach, but in doing so, you make me work just a little harder.