Power Cleans vs Barbell Rows for Strength and Muscle

Barbell Rows are safer than Power Cleans. Many people injure their wrists, elbows and shoulders doing Power Cleans because they lack flexibility. Power Cleans require more time and effort (and often a coach) to master proper form. Barbell Rows are easier to learn and build your upper-body muscles more than Power Cleans do. Many gyms lack the equipment to drop the bar safely on Power Cleans.

Power Cleans can be useful for athletes who must be explosive for sports. But you can develop power faster and more easily by increasing your Squat and Deadlift. Power Cleans are fun if you’ve spent the time and effort to learn proper form. But if you just want to get stronger and build muscle, Barbell Rows are better. That’s why Barbell Rows are part of StrongLifts 5×5.

Barbell Rows Are Safer Than Power Cleans

Power Cleans consist of pulling the bar from the floor on your shoulders. The top position is like a Front Squat with horizontal upper-arms. But you need flexible wrists to keep your elbows high. If your wrists are tight, they’ll carry the bar and bend under the weight. The bar will stretch and hurt your wrists and elbows. The weight of the bar can also hurt your shoulders if you have existing issues like shoulder impingement.

You don’t need flexible wrists and healthy shoulders to do Barbell Rows safely with proper form. Your hips must be flexible to keep your lower back neutral while you bend over and row the weight. But you can easily fix that by raising the bar. Load it with big plates of 45cm/17″ diameter. Or put plates flat on the floor under the weight. You’ll bend over less and need less flexibility. Power Cleans don’t have such quick fixes.

Lower back injuries are less likely on Barbell Rows. The movement is slower. This makes it easier to lift with proper form. Power Cleans are faster. Many people pull the bar to their shoulders by doing a reverse curl and leaning back. This squeezes your spinal discs and can injure them. You can do Barbell Rows wrong too and hurt your back by rounding it. But Barbell Rows are easier to do right because they’re slower.

Barbell Rows are safer to fail than Power Cleans. If you can’t lift the weight, you just lower the bar back to the floor. If you fail to rack the weight on your shoulders with Power Cleans, you’ll have to drop the bar. It will drop from a higher position than with Barbell Rows. It will make more noise, especially if you Power Clean without bumper plates or platform. And the bar can hit your arms and legs on the way down which will hurt.

Power Cleans are safe if you’re flexible, use proper form and have the right equipment. You can work on improving your flexibility. You can spend time and effort mastering proper form. And you can buy bumper plates or build a platform to drop the bar. Or you can just Barbell Row. They need less flexibility, are easier to learn and require the same equipment you use to Deadlift. Barbell Rows are safer for most people.

Proper Form on Barbell Rows Is Easier Than Power Cleans

Barbell Rows are a slower movement than Power Cleans. You can’t Power Clean slow. You have to be explosive. But the faster you lift, the harder to control the bar and your body. The more your form can breakdown and cause injury. The Barbell Row is also a shorter movement. The bar moves half the distance. Less things can go wrong. Barbell Rows look less intimidating and complicated than Power cleans, and they are.

Many people say you need a coach to learn how to Power clean. This is true if you want to become an Olympic Weightlifter. It’s false if you just want to get stronger. All it takes is stretching, videotaping yourself, watching videos, comparing your form against them and tons of practice. That’s how I did it. Most people don’t have time for that though. They want results fast. Barbell Rows give faster results because they’re easier to learn.

Don’t do Power Cleans if you’re new to lifting weights. Learn to SquatDeadlift and Barbell Row with proper form first. These movements are slower and easier to learn. They’ll teach you to move your hips properly and keep your lower back neutral. After three to six months, when you can Squat 100kg/220lb and Deadlift 140kg/300lb, you can try Power Cleans. Build a foundation of strength and technique first.

Most Gyms Don’t Have Equipment for Power Cleans

Power Cleans require you to drop the bar from your shoulders to the floor on each rep. You can’t do this with regular iron plates. It breaks the bar, the plates and the floor. It makes a ton of noise and will piss off your gym manager. You need bumper plates made of rubber to absorb the shock when you drop the bar. But few gyms have bumper plates because they cost 50% more and take more space (they’re thicker).

The only way to Power Clean without bumper plates is to drop the bar on your thighs. Drop the bar from your shoulders to your mid-thighs while doing a quarter Squat. Keep your hands on the bar to slow it down. Your legs will absorb the weight. Now lower the bar to the floor like on the way down of Deadlifts. This is how people used to Power Clean before they invented bumper plates. I’ve done it and it works.

But it hurts. Heavy weight will bruise your thighs on every rep. I Power Cleaned without bumper plates for months. The bruises on my thighs I could take. But not how lowering heavy weight stretched my biceps and lower back on each rep. There were no bumper plates for sale in Belgium at that time. I had to ship them internationally which was crazy expensive. So I quit doing Power Cleans after reaching 100kg.

Most gyms won’t allow you to Power Clean because it breaks the equipment and makes too much noise. You can drop the bar on your thighs but it will hurt once the weighs are heavier. You can stay away from failure but that limits your progress. You also switch to a gym with bumper plates or buy your own and build a home gym. Or you can just do Barbell Rows using the equipment you use already use on Deadlifts.

Barbell Rows Build More Upper-Body Muscle

Power Cleans are mostly a hip movement. The bottom is like a Deadlift. Your knees and hips straighten to lift the bar and create momentum. The top is like a Front Squat with your shoulders catching the bar in a Quarter Squat like position. Your traps shrug under the weight while your lats keep the bar close. But your arms don’t curl the weight but just hang on the bar. Your legs do most of the work.

Barbell Rows work your upper-body mostly. Your lats, traps, rear shoulders and the rest of your upper-back pull you shoulder-blades back to lift the bar to your chest. Your arms work to bend your elbows behind your torso. You can use your hips to get the bar more easily off the floor and lift more weight. But your torso shouldn’t rise more than 15°. Your upper-body does most of the work on Barbell Rows.

StrongLifts 5×5 with Power Cleans instead of Barbell Rows makes the program imbalanced. It adds more exercises for your lower body. It can turn you into a frog with big legs but small arms. Here’s a quick comparison of the weekly volume your body gets with Power Cleans vs Barbell Rows:

  • StrongLifts 5×5 with Barbell Rows: 80-85 reps for lower body (Squat, Deadlift). 100-125 reps for your upper-body (Bench, Press, Row).
  • StrongLifts 5×5 with Power Cleans: 110-130 reps for lower body (Squat, Deadlift, Power Clean), 75 reps for upper-body (Bench, Press).

StrongLifts 5×5 with Power Cleans is 50% less volume for your upper-body each month. Big difference. And you lose the biceps work you get from Barbell Rows (by bending your elbows back on each rep). Unless you don’t care about bigger arms, you’ll have to add Barbell Rows or Chinups on top of Power Cleans to work your arms. But this increases how much time you spend in the gym. It’s simpler to just stick with Barbell Rows.

There Are Easier Ways To Build Explosiveness

Power Cleans build explosiveness. They develop the ability to generate force fast. In physics, Power is how much work you can do in a given time (P=W/t). You’ve done work if you applied force to the bar and it moved (Work = Force x Distance). You can move that bar slow or fast. If we both Deadlift 200kg, we’re equally strong. But if it took you ten seconds to lift but me only two, I have more power.

You must be strong and fast to be successful at sports. You need the strength to apply force against opponents. Think of grappling in martial arts or pushing someone away in football. Stronger is better. But you need to generate that force quickly. You need to be fast. You can’t do a Power Clean slow. The only way to pull the bar on you shoulders is if you’re fast. That’s how Power Cleans develop power for sports.

But increasing your strength increases power too. Remember, Power is Work / Time. Double your Squat and you increase how much work you do in the same amount of time. You’re therefore more powerful. It’s a myth that lifting weights make you slow for sports. You don’t become “muscle bound” if you get stronger. And a quick look at basic high school physics shows why. More strength is more power.

The other way to increase power is to decrease the amount of time it takes you to do the work (again, Power = Work / Time). But it’s much harder to decrease the Time part of the Power equation. In The Sports Gene, David Epstein wrote reaction times are around 200ms whether you’re a pro athlete or average person. The bottom limit is 150ms. You can double your strength. But you can’t halve your reaction time.

The simplest and fastest way to build explosiveness for sports is therefore to get stronger. Double your Squat from 60kg/135lb to 140kg/300lb and you’ll be stronger and faster at the same time. Practice your sport so you can apply the strength and power you’ve built with Squats, Deadlifts and Barbell Rows. You’ll be a more explosive and competitive athlete despite never doing Power Cleans or plyometrics like box jumps.

Power Cleans Won’t Increase Your Deadlifts

Some people Power Clean to increase their Deadlifts. There are oldschool no-Deadlift programs which claim you can increase your Deadlift by not Deadlifting. The thinking is that Deadlifts overtrain the lower back. You should therefore avoid it and do Power Cleans and Goodmornings instead. Power Cleans build power from the floor. Goodmornings strengthen your lower back. Put together, your Deadlift magically increases…

But it doesn’t work. The best way to increase your Deadlift is to Deadlift. Just like the best way to get better at playing guitar is by playing guitar. You don’t get better at guitar by playing violin. It doesn’t matter if they’re both string instruments, they’re not the same. Yes, Deadlifts and Power Cleans are both barbell exercises. They both involve pulling weight off the floor. They look alike. But they’re not the same movements.

Specificity is key to getting stronger. To get good at something, you must practice it. Technique on Deadlifts is different than on Power Cleans. The movement is shorter and the weight is heavier. Strong Deadlifters always have great technique because that increases efficiency. The only way to improve your Deadlift technique is to practice Deadlifting. It won’t improve if you never Deadlift but Power Clean instead.

No Power Cleans Then?

Of course not. If you’re interested in Olympic lifting, Power Cleans are a great introduction. Power Cleans are also the only way to get the bar from the floor to your shoulders on the Overhead Press if you have no Power Rack. And Power Cleans are fun if you know how to do them right. But the learning curve is bigger, you need bumpers and you can get stronger without Power Cleans. Most people should just Barbell Row.

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