5 Drills Athletes Can Do For Explosive Power Instead Of Power Cleans

By Jordon Haslem

So this may be controversial and may upset many strength coaches, especially old school hard nosed ones, but I’ll just say it: I think power cleans are mostly overrated for athlete performance training.

This isn’t to bash power cleans. I actually enjoy doing cleans, especially hang cleans, and occasionally will use them in my athletes programming. Power cleans can definitely be an incredible display of power. But the past few years, I have shifted away from programming them at all and now think there’s way too much emphasis and hype surrounding Olympic lifts in regards to performance training. Old school strength coaches especially almost believe that you can’t possibly improve athletic performance with a training program that doesn’t include power cleans, and I believe they’re wrong.

The reason for my aversion to olympic lifts for athlete performance is because of the high degree of technical efficiency and form that is required to adequately perform cleans correctly so they aren’t risking injury. Technique that requires a lot of time to learn and practice. We’ve all seen the max power clean attempts of high school football players who are nearly fully crushed under the bar as they try to get the weight up with their teammates surrounding them, screaming and hyping them up.

Yes it is awesome to see the athletes intensity and success. But I just don’t believe it’s worth the risk, especially when these kids aren’t weightlifters. They’re athletes. As a performance coach, I’m not training them to be good at power cleans and good weightlifters. I’m training them to enhance their physical abilities and performance directly on the field or court.

In my opinion, the amount of time it would take to teach a young athlete to efficiently perform a power clean due to the high learning curve and technical skill just takes time away that I could be spending on simply turning them into a better athlete overall with good plyometric, speed, and agility programming. They already have plenty of technical skill work they need to do just for their sport. They don’t need that in the weightroom too. There’s plenty of effective drills for helping athletes develop explosive power that don’t require the same amount of time to learn and are also less of a risk to compromise the athletes. If you’ve done any of our online programs with OTA, you’ll also notice we rarely program power cleans.

If you have any athlete or group of athletes that you work with year round and can devote that time to just learning clean technique, then great. But reality is, as a performance coach, I won’t always have that kind of time with an athlete. Especially at the high school level where they’re playing multiple or year round sports. Many times I’m getting to work with an athlete between 2-4 months before they start their sport back up. My goal in that time is to help them become a better athlete and increase their explosive power in the most efficient way possible without adding more stress than necessary. And I can do that effectively with plyometric, speed, and agility training.

So here are 5 simple drills I wanted to share with you to help build explosive power that you can do instead of power cleans:

Med Ball Power Toss/Underhand Vertical Toss

I LOVE using med balls and ballistic exercises for developing explosive power. If there’s anything that should be in every athlete performance program, it would be med ball tosses and throws. They’re so versatile. You can target different planes of motion, muscle groups, and movement patterns, and the technical learning curve is very low. It’s just a max effort exercise with low risk, high reward.

The med ball underhand power toss stimulates the same triple extension (ankles, knees, hips) pattern as a power clean. Max concentric force just without a catch. You can toss the ball vertically for max height or backwards for max distance. Either way, the focus is achieving full extension or over extension of the legs to produce max force.

Resisted Squat Jumps

So this is a great drill not only again to focus on full extension through the hips with resistance, but also training the athletes ground reaction time. We want to develop their ability to quickly absorb and reproduce force, which applies to the vast majority of sports. You don’t need a ton of weight for these, as it’s more about speed and how quickly they can land and immediately perform repeated jumps. Again, low learning curve and simple exercise that will develop explosive power.

Heavy Banded Kettlebell Swings

So this exercise does require a little more progression before adding the band, but it’s a great exercise. KB swings are only effective when done HEAVY. You need to force your hips to do the work and produce the momentum for the swing with resistance. I see too many athletes going way too light on KB swings so they aren’t getting the benefit of the exercise. When adding the band as well, this speeds up the eccentric motion as the KB comes down, forcing a quicker counter motion and faster extension of the hips.

Trap Bar Jumps

So trap bar jumps more closely resemble power cleans, as the athlete is driving the weight directly off the ground. What makes the trap bar jump better, in my opinion, is that it sets the athlete in a safer neutral position when performing the jump. Power cleans create more anterior load on the spine while performing jumps with the trap bar help keep the athlete in a more upright position. These can be done lighter for speed, similar to dumbbell squat jumps, or can be done with heavier loads. If you did go heavy, you would want to make sure you aren’t compromising your body trying to catch the full weight when landing. Just let the weights hit the ground and reset for the next rep.

Snatch Grip High Pulls

This exercise is a progression for olympic lifts, as it’s basically the first half of the power clean without the catch. Still a much easier exercise to coach and still get the training effect of a power or hang clean. You can perform these from the floor or from a hanging position. I like it best from a hang to really focus on the explosive hip extension. Same as trap bar jumps, you can do these lighter for speed or really push the intensity with heavy weight. Also, snatch high pulls will help you build massive traps as well as explosive power. No exercise has blown up my traps as much as when I was doing snatch grip high pulls regularly.

So these are my alternative exercises to program for athletes trying to build explosive power instead of teaching cleans. Again, I’ll reiterate that I love cleans as an exercise. But when my goal is to help athletes improve their overall performance fast and efficiently, there are just better, simpler, yet still effective exercises to program that will greatly improve their explosive power. You can find these exercises and more in our Football Performance System.

Let me know your thoughts.

Jordon Haslem
Jordon Haslem

Jordan is one of our coaches here at OTA. He specializes in football athletes but loves to help athletes from all sports. If you want to learn more about Jordan check below.