What Should You Do For Strength, Power Cleans Or High Pulls?

February 10th 2020

When choosing an accessory movement, are power cleans or high pulls better for strength? For a beginner? 

A lot of beginner general strength programs include the power cleans to alternate with the deadlift. 

However, many programs that are supposed to replace beginner programs often do not include power cleans. 

They might not even have high pulls.

In bodybuilding programs, high pulls are very common to add on back or leg day. However, power cleans may not get so much love.

Weightlifting programs can see a vast amount of different opinions. So, who is right and what should you do if you narrowed down your assistance exercises to these two?

In this article, I hope to shine some light on why you should try both these movements and before you make a judgment, find out what your weakness may be and develop a plan to work on getting stronger.

Power Cleans Vs High Pulls

For most beginner strength athletes, they should perform the high pulls over the power cleans because the high pulls are less technical, more versatile and heavy. However, if you are serious about your strength progress and a hard worker, learning how to the power clean can yield more results since you recruit more muscle to perform the lift. 

What is so great about high pulls?

First off, we should define what a high pull is. Here is a video to demonstrate that:

From the video, you will see that you can either start off a rack. 

You can start on the floor too, no skin off my back.

You will pull the barbell, do a triple extension and the barbell should travel above your nipple almost hitting your chin.

This is great because you get to pull something heavy off the floor. You get to be explosive.

Very few exercises will allow you to practice an explosive triple extension like doing high pulls.

If you are a weightlifter, you will either 100% support or disagree with high pulls, which is fine.

We need both sides of the arguments to advance strength to a mastery level.

On one side, high pulls can be seen as an accessory or even a main lift where you practice any cleans, hang cleans, or power cleans.

They are not as taxing as a power clean but still get a lot of work done for the athlete.

Not so great about high pulls

On the other side of the argument, they are not an effective movement since you do not have a specific goal in mind.

If you want to improve your triple extension, do the harder movement.

If you are a weightlifter, you have two different goals in mind when performing a high pull vs power clean.

When doing a high pull, the task is not complete just because you got the bar “high enough”, you need to catch the bar in a power position or in the front squat position.

Some athletes and coaches see it as a waste of time since you are not training your brain to complete the clean.

Plus, if you want to do an accessory movement, there are more exercises to do that can be less taxing while also activate the targeted muscles.

What is so great about power cleans?

This is a power clean. 

It is almost a high pull but the is the “catch” at the end with a very minimal partial squat.

The goal is to not have to squat at all but this depends on how fast the lifter is at “catching” the power clean.

You may be familiar with the Olympic clean where athletes do a full front squat with their catch. 

You can imagine that the power clean is a precursor to the regular clean.

You do not need to pull so high as the high pull (not that you could anyway) but you also need to catch it at the rack position.

This is the superior exercise of the two because you are recruiting more motor units and you need to be fast, explosive and powerful in order to complete this lift correctly.

This is also a harder lift, which may scare some lifters.

But you came to read this article for the truth.

Here is the truth - you need to perform the most difficult exercise for the best progress for you.

Of the two exercises for a beginner lifter interested in gaining strength, the power clean wins in terms of complexity and difficulty.

Lifters should try to perform both the power clean and the high pull and see which is harder for them. From that moment, choose the harder exercise for an accessory lift if you narrowed your selection down between the high pulls vs the power cleans.

My experience with power cleans

While I was running Starting Strength, I initially had power cleans as the alternative movement to my deadlifts. 

For me, I was probably doing research for about a year - looking up techniques, cues, and any information about how to strength train optimally.

Then, I would apply it to myself and try to get stronger.

Rinse and repeat for a year.

Currently, I have not touched the power clean since my Starting Strength days.

Simply put, the programs I ran at the time did not tell me to use power cleans, so I did not think about them.

Now, I have a bit more flexibility with my accessories but I have a peaked interest in Strongman training now.

Probably, I may include some power cleans in the future when I start to do more research about any log presses where I need to clean a large log and overhead press it with a neutral grip.

Since I am not a big person (I am only 5’7”), a big log will be a challenge on its own to just pick up.

At the moment, I just want to continue to train and improve my strength.

Speaking of strength, I saw on a recent Reddit AMA that Martin Licis would recommend that any amateur Strongman focus on technique first and then strength.

For bigger athletes, they may overlook technique since they can just muscle through everything and then rely on technique.

But for smaller lifters that do not have the strength to overpower obstacles, we always look over technique and tweak things so that we can increase our lifting numbers. We are forced in this way of learning if we decide on this path of strength.

So, when I start to work on log presses, the drawing board on whether or not to add power cleans will definitely be considered.

High pulls vs power cleans for mass

Power cleans work way more muscles than high pulls. However, power cleans are more difficult to learn to execute properly and if you are not activating your muscles the right way, doing the high pull correctly would be more beneficial to do than power cleans incorrectly.

Since power cleans are harder to do, you will need to recruit more muscle fibers to finish the lift. 

As a result, you will need to use lighter weight. 

For beginners, I would just stick to high pulls since you need to learn basic barbell movements before doing into anything requiring near flawless technique.

If you can hire a coach or want to be ambitious, try out power cleans but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In the end, power cleans will be the more optimal exercises but if you are lazy, unmotivated, lack body awareness and do not want to do your own research, you could get hurt by performing the power clean incorrectly.

Stick to the simpler exercise. It is still very good and will get the job done.

You will not be disappointed.

Power cleans vs high pulls winner - Do the harder movement

How do lifters grow?

They need a challenging situation, stimulus or event that forces them to grow.

They need to overcome resistance.

If you always pick what is easy, you will never get close to your goals.

You need to get exposure to the risk of failure in order to truly learn lessons that will stick with you.

Let us be real, everything that was easy in your life, you took for granted.

Come on, you do not need to lie.

But the times that you actually had to work hard, break a sweat and solve a problem, those are some of the moments that you actually remembered.

Just be aware that strength training is no different...

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