The continental clean. To anyone outside of strongman, this looks like the ugliest movement you can think of. Those not in-the-know criticize it for how dangerous and sloppy it usually looks, and I have to say that I agree. Watching lifters attempt the continental clean has given me a case of the heebie-jeebies dozens of times. I’m here to give some pointers to maximize your efficiency in the continental clean in order to perform better and, most of all, safer.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it — this can be an extremely dangerous movement. I have the scars and medical bills to prove it. Using a mixed grip to get as much weight off the floor and overhead is not ideal, but sometimes we have to do what we have to do. Without proper technique, you put a lot of pressure on your biceps, and without a good training protocol, catching an axle with maximal weight can really do a lot of damage to your lower back. However, you can make this movement safer with lots of practice.
Like any other movement in the strength world, tension is extremely important. Time after time, I see people yank on an axle with bent elbows and loose backs. The axle is one of those implements that likes to fight back. When approaching the axle for a continental clean, making sure you have tension on the bar and that your arms are straight is imperative to safely maximizing your clean. Like a regular weightlifting clean, your posterior chain should be doing the work, not your arms.
Making sure you’re centered on the bar is also imperative. Unfortunately, most axles don’t have markers on them show you where your hands go, so practicing your setup is crucial. It should be the same thing, every single time.
Once you’re centered, your hands are on the bar, and you’ve got considerable tension (i.e. back is set in a neutral position, arms are straight, posterior chain is tight and ready to rock), the next step is initiating the clean.
The initial pull should be fast and high. In a regular clean, you’re going to go from a “slow” to “fast” bar speed, but in an axle clean, it should be fast from the get-go. That initial pull should have enough power behind it to have that axle land near your xiphoid process. Any lower than that and you’re not going to be in a position to effectively control the bar. Another problem with going lower than that is that you run the risk of getting a no-rep by coming in contact with your belt (if you use one). Resting the axle on your belt is a no-go in strongman.
The second part of the initial pull, the part where I see the most mistakes, is the hand flip. I’m not separating this from the initial pull because it should be one and the same. The pressure on your biceps tendon should be minimized, which means you should have that hand supinated for as short a time as possible.
As the axle approaches xiphoid process territory, your hand should actually come off the bar to “flip” into a pronated position. This is why having such a fast and powerful first pull is important. The bar path should stay straight up, otherwise, the hand that stays in contact may “pull” the axle in, letting the other side get away from you.
There is no real secret to the hand flip, just practicing timing. Lower the weights a little and nail that timing. Perfect practice makes perfect.
Once you have both hands pronated and the bar resting high on your sternum, the next step is the rack. Again, the legs should be doing the work. I don’t know many people who can laterally rotate hundreds of pounds, but if you can, congratulations. With the bar set, you’re going to dip like you would for a push press and then “get under” the bar while rotating your elbows underneath. Again, it should be powerful and fast. We’re going for maximal efficiency here.
After you have the bar in a rack position, axle resting on your clavicles, elbows under wrists, lats tight, and bar settled, you are now in a proper position to press.
If mobility allows, the axle should be resting on your clavicles/shoulders. Sometimes, though, if you’re really large, that isn’t possible. Even so, the idea is to minimize any lost energy when “dipping” for a push press. Like in the log article, where I talked about lost energy when initiating the press, the same thing can happen with an axle press. When you’re dipping, any downward force from the axle in addition to your own anatomical downward motion creates negative force production. If you can keep in contact with your shoulders the whole time, you almost negate that extra loss in force.
As you come up with the weight, you should be firing as soon as possible, and pushing your head through as soon as the axle passes your forehead. Failure to push your head through may result in the bar coming forward and losing your center of gravity. Or even worse, a no-rep call. Don’t lose reps because you can’t push your head through.
Building Your Clean
Obviously, building your clean should involve lots of cleans. That’s a no-brainer, but it should also include learning triple extension. I see a lot of people try to muscle the clean up with little to no extension, and they are really using tons of energy getting it up into the rack position, resulting in less than stellar pressing performance.
The best part about learning triple extension is that you can learn it by training other strongman events. Loading stones, kegs, and sandbags to high platforms is a great way to learn triple extension. They also teach you to be fast off the floor in order to get the weight above your head quickly.
Another favorite of mine is simply jumping. If you want to be a strongman, you need to be an athlete. Athletes jump. It can be as simple as jumping straight up and down in place or doing box jumps. The key is to be fast, explosive, and repetitive. Jumps are also great during warm-ups, as they help “activate” your central nervous system, and get you ready for training.
So, what have we learned today? The axle clean and press isn’t a “muscle it up” movement. You’re only going to wear yourself out and increase your risk for injury if you rely on brute strength. Getting the axle up to the rack position as fast and efficiently as possible is going to save a lot of energy to smoke the impending press. Don’t risk burning yourself out for a quick PR when you can instead practice technique and set PRs for many years to come.