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Smith machine power clean: Burn fat & build your traps

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

One thing's for sure. The hang power clean definitely isn't part of your average Smith machine leg day—especially not if you're a bodybuilder.

And that's because the power clean is an Olympic lift. Which as the name suggests, requires an Olympic barbell—not a Smith machine bar on guided tracks.

That said, while I definitely wouldn't recommend an Olympic lifer to ditch their trusty barbell, I do think that the Smith machine power clean has some merit from a general fitness perspective.

I believe that Smith machine power cleans were initially popularised by Jim Stoppani in his Shortcut to Shred program. Since the power clean burns more calories than virtually any bodybuilding exercise, it makes sense that he'd include it in his weight loss program.

So, just how effective is the Smith machine hang power clean?

Let's find out.

"Quite simply, Olympic weightlifting can completely change one’s holistic levels of strength and fitness."
International Weightlifting Federation

Smith machine power clean exercise details

  • Main muscles: Glutes, hamstrings, lower back, quads, upper back, triceps, abs
  • Exercise type: Olympic
  • Difficulty: Advanced
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Chalk, wrist wraps, weightlifting belt
  • Exercise purpose: Improve explosive power

How to do a Smith machine power clean

  1. Position the Smith bar at knee level.
  2. Take a double-overhand grip outside of shoulder width and then unrack the bar, letting it hang so that your arms are fully extended.
  3. Ensure that your elbows are internally rotated but not completely pointed to the side, as exaggerating the grip can hurt your rotator cuffs.
  4. Push your hips back as if you were initiating a Romanian deadlift. Be sure to keep your chest up and maintain a forward eye gaze.
  5. Now, drive the bar upwards by forcefully thrusting your hips forwards while simultaneously extending your knees and flexing your ankles. This is called triple extension (more on that in a sec).
  6. Allow your elbows to bend and rotate forwards as you drive the bar up your body and catch it at the top position (called the clean position).
  7. Finish the rep by lowering the bar back down. Note that you don't need to control the eccentric to the extent that you would with a bodybuilding exercise.

Power clean mistakes

Neglecting your mobility

woman with her personal trainer

Many people who say that they can't perform Olympic lifts, such as the Smith machine hang power clean, are simply lacking in mobility.

Now, poor mobility isn't something that you can fix overnight. But, in just a few short weeks of resistance band rotator cuff training, you'll notice some pretty significant improvements in your range of motion.

And, when your range of motion increases, it's only a matter of time before your Olympic lifting strength follow suit. If only I'd learnt that a few years ago...

Thinking like a bodybuilder

Portrait of shirtless bearded bodybuilder over grey background.

There are 3 ways that you can use the Smith machine hang power clean:

  1. To get better at free weight power cleans via extra training volume
  2. To shed fat quickly
  3. To work on your explosive power

Since I'm not exactly an expert on Olympic weightlifting, I'm going to stick to the first two uses of the Smith machine hang power clean for today.

The biggest power clean mistake that I see bodybuilders—and even some powerlifters—make is trying to muscle the weight up with their upper body.

Not only does this turn the movement into a very heavy upright row, which could potentially wreck your shoulders, but it also defeats the purpose of performing power cleans in the first place from a physique perspective. Namely, to burn fat and increase your explosive power.

While getting a pump with bodybuilding exercises is certainly important, it's completely irrelevant with the Olympic lifts. Remember, we're performing the power clean to increase our general explosiveness. Don't worry though; this explosiveness will carry over nicely to pretty much any muscle-building exercise in your program.

After all, muscles are designed to be explosive by their very nature. So if you never lift explosively, you're bound to stagnate in strength (and thereby muscle growth) pretty damn quickly.

Science also agrees. Those who move the bar slowly during a power clean are significantly more likely to fail the rep than those who lift explosively [1].

More power = more strength, and more strength = more muscle mass.

Maxing out

weightlifer struggling to lift a heavy barbell

As any seasoned weightlifter knows only too well, maxing out on your major lifts isn't the fastest way to gain strength. In other words, you have to first create the strength before you can display it.

According to research on power clean training, this is best done with 60-80% of your one-rep max [2].

At this intensity range, you're lifting with what's widely considered the most optimal training intensity for increasing power and explosiveness. Any heavier, and your bar speed will slow down significantly, making it harder to develop power.

Of course, strength training (>90% of 1RM) should be part of any weightlifting program. But due to the restrictive nature of the movement, I don't think that Smith machine power cleans are the best exercise for such type of training.

Recommended training gear for Power cleans

1. Weightlifting chalk

psychi chalk ball

Did you know that using chalk can improve your pulling performance by between 16-58%?

When I found this out, I immediately ordered a Psychi Chalk Ball.

I got great results: all of my pulling lifts increased by at least 10kg, meaning that I could stimulate more muscle growth by lifting heavier weights.

However, this particular type of chalk makes a real mess, so I switched to this Superior Grip Lifting Chalk instead. It dries in seconds, and there's no annoying chalk cloud every time you cover your hands. Plus, it's much more convenient for getting a grip boost on the sly—if your particular "gym" doesn't allow chalk.

2. Wrist wraps

man wrapping his wrists before a workout

One of the downsides of weight lifting—especially Olympic lifting—is that it's incredibly tough on the wrists. And that's a problem. Because if you injure your wrist, then you have to take time off the gym. And if you love training as much as I do, time away from lifting is pure torture!

Personally, I've resolved to do everything I can to protect my wrists. In fact, you'll rarely see my training without my Beast Gear Wrist Wraps.

I've had so many wrist problems in the past (and I'm not getting any younger) that lifting raw simply isn't worth it anymore. These heavy-duty wrist wraps have secure Velcro fasteners, and unlike lower quality products, they don't loosen during your set.

aqf wrist wraps

Instead, my Beast Gear wrist wraps give me the firm support that I need to test my strength with peace of mind. No more wrist injuries for me!

If you're on a budget, however, then I can also recommend the AQF Weight Lifting Wrist Wraps.

While the Beast Gear wraps are a bit more comfortable, I can't deny that these AQF wrist supports don't stabilise my wrists. Their hook and loop closure system gave my wrists cement-like support, and they helped me to achieve many a new PR before I switched over to Beast Gear.

3. Weightlifting belt

After training with my powerlifting mate and trying his lifting belt, I finally bit the bullet and ordered my own.

rdx weightlifting belt

His belt cost nearly a hundred quid, and there was no way that I was paying that so I went ahead and ordered the RDX Powerlifting Belt for Weight Lifting.

And honestly, I have to chuckle to myself, because this supposed "entry-level" belt (according to him) provides just as much support as his designer weightlifting belt.

If anything, my RDX belt is actually sturdier than his customised belt because it's made from 4" thick cowhide leather. So unsurprisingly, it also comes with a lifetime guarantee.

I don't do much Olympic lifting myself, but since wearing my RDX belt I've put around 7.5kg on my squat (180kg > 187.5kg), which I'm pretty happy with considering how long I've been in the gym.

Power clean muscles worked

Glutes

Illustration of the gluteus maximus anatomy

The Smith machine hang power clean develops explosive gluteal power by necessitating that you thrust your hips forwards to get the bar moving at the start of every rep. Naturally, this means that the movement carries over well to any sport that involves running, and any weight lifting exercise that involves the glutes, such as deadlifts.

Hamstrings

Illustration of the hamstring anatomy

As with the rest of the posterior chain, the hamstrings are highly active during the power clean. They play a crucial role in hip extension and, like the glutes, generate that initial power that you need to get the bar moving [3].

Erectors

Illustration of the spinal anatomy

The spinal erectors are highly active during any Smith machine clean variation because they prevent your lower back from rounding and help you to maintain an upright torso in the catching phase of the lift.

Quads

Illustration of the quadriceps anatomy

As powerful knee extensors, the quadriceps assist your other leg muscles in propelling the bar upwards by forcefully contracting as you thrust your hips forwards. Add some plantar flexion into the mix, and you have the triple extension—hips, knees, ankles—which is used by athletes to generate maximum explosiveness.

Traps

Illustration of the trapezius anatomy

The traps are active in two ways during the Smith machine power clean.

First, they help to stabilise your thoracic spine when you squeeze your shoulder blades together during the initial phase of the lift.

And second, they're highly active as scapula elevators when you shrug the bar up (along with help from your other muscles, of course).

Abs

Illustration of the abdominal anatomy

The abs are engaged isometrically during the power clean. And while dynamic contractions are generally thought of as superior to isometric contractions, Olympic weightlifters have some of the most impressive ab development on the planet. Which is evidence that many ab-specific exercises might be overrated.

Power clean benefits

Ingrains proper movement patterns

group of people lifting weights together in a gym

Although the Smith machine removes virtually all stabilisation from the equation, it's still useful for ingraining the proper power clean technique into your form because it forces you to use a linear bar path.

So, as an Olympic lifter, you could plausibly use the Smith machine for extra training volume once your stabiliser muscle tire from free weight power cleans.

However, it's very much arguable that Smith machine power cleans are so dissimilar to the actual practice of Olympic weightlifting, that machine-based training simply isn't worth it.

Bigger traps

bodybuilder doing the most muscular pose

Power cleans are mainly performed by Olympic weightlifters and athletes who're seeking to maximise their explosiveness on the platform or on the field [4].

However, as a bodybuilder, you can reap the rewards of power cleans and build bigger traps by forcefully shrugging the weight up.

Not only does lifting explosively build a ton of muscle mass (it's why sprinting alone can get you jacked), but, when you go back to performing bodybuilding trap exercises, everything'll feel ridiculously light because you're used to lifting as forcefully as possible.

Of course, don't just shrug the weight up. You need to engage your prime movers—hips, knees, ankles—if you want to realise your true strength.

Supercharged fat burning

Slim young woman measuring her thin waist with a tape measur

Besides maybe the deadlift, no other exercise recruits more muscles (and thereby burns as many calories) as the power clean.

Ok, so you could technically try to do a Smith machine clean and jerk, which might require a bit more energy expenditure than the power clean. However, a true Smith machine clean and press is simply impossible unless you're very short because there isn't enough room to lock out the bar.

Although you should always lift explosively when it comes to power cleans, if you're just using them for fat burning or conditioning purposes, then it's a smart idea to lighten the weight and perform sets of 6-12 reps.

This kind of full-body weight lifting will really get your heart pumping. And, with a good enough diet and a few strategic supplements, your body will burn fat pretty much on autopilot.

Amazing athletic performance

Track athlete exploding out of the starting blocks

What separates the average athlete from a world-class athlete?

Genetics? Determination? Consistency?

While the answer is obviously a resounding "yes" to all of those, I think sheer explosiveness is what separates the elite athletes from the part-timers. You need look no further than sprinting to see this in action, where the most powerful, explosive competitor always wins.

Power is, if not the difference between average and world-class athletes, at least the basis for it.

And while I wouldn't use the Smith machine power clean to develop maximum explosiveness, the free weight version is one of the single best exercises that you can do to get powerful—fast.

But, in case you'd like some power clean alternatives...

Power clean alternatives

Smith machine deadlift

woman training inside a modern gym

If you want to learn how to deadlift on a Smith machine properly, then check out our detailed guide. But in short, the Smith machine deadlift isn't much of a deadlift. In fact, it's more like a rack pull.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing if you're just trying to build hench traps. But if strength, rather than size, is your primary goal, then you definitely need to deadlift heavy barbells off the floor.

Box jumps

female athlete performing a box jump

Box jumps are easily one of my all-time favourite exercises. They're particularly useful for athletes who're trying to develop lower body power (in which case, quality, explosive reps are the name of the game).

Once regular box jumps get too easy, you can wear a weighted vest to increase the challenge (and thereby your power). I used to do them with dumbbells but found that I was training balance at the expense of power.

With a quality weighted vest, on the other hand, I can focus purely on developing power in my legs.

However, if improving your endurance is priority number one, then high rep box jumps—especially while wearing a weighted vest—will condition legs like nothing else. Just don't do them on a full stomach!

Clean pull

man doing olympic weightlifting in his gym

The clean pull is one of the best exercises for developing raw, off-the-floor power for Olympic weightlifting. You can naturally lift 110% of your clean 1RM, which makes it a brilliant exercise for getting used to the feeling of holding a heavy weight in your hands [5].

When paired with lighter power cleans, it'll develop your clean strength excellently. Plus, the clean pull is remarkably effective for improving your posture at the bottom part of the pull since you need to keep the bar close to your body and maintain the correct torso angle.

Overall, a great exercise and much better than the Smith machine power clean. At least for Olympic lifting.

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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