Originally published September 6, 2009
What is the difference between an Olympic deadlift or clean deadlift and powerlifting style deadlift?
There is no such distinction. There never was. I am sure that many powerlifters think that they have a style of deadlifting that should be called a “powerlifting style deadlift” but the deadlift is not a derivative of the clean and jerk. It is not a part of the Olympics, and there is no style that distinguishes such.
People may display different styles of doing anything but it’s usually one person who decides to place a style moniker on something which then gets blindly handed around until it becomes gospel. I’m not sure who is responsible for this “powerlifting deadlift” thing and the subsequent “clean deadlift” I keep seeing but we well know of the animosity between powerlifters and Olympic lifters so I’m sure you can see the ego-driven need for such labeling.
Lots and lots of powerlifters are out there deadlifting. Just because a couple of “organizations” have propagandized themselves to internet fame does not mean they have the right to declare that there is a “powerlifting” style deadlift. There are, however, a few different ways of performing the lift and these are often seen to be different styles. One is a so-called “hips up” deadlift. You’d be silly to adopt it based on one or two people’s recommendation and the subsequent use by droves of gullible wannabe powerlifters. Also, there is the shoulders behind the bar, pull back deadlift, that some people see as a powerlifting style. Again, this stems from a difference in opinion about executing the lift, not from there being a clean style deadlift, which is when the shoulders are in front of the bar and pulling UP. You should not think you are performing the lift like an Olympic pull, if you deadlift this way. These are only superficially similar.
There is enough confusion surrounding the deadlift that ‘Olympic deadlift’ has become a common Google search. Of course, the deadlift is not part of Olympic lifting yet people still search for Olympic deadlift records! Even if a lot of people understand that the deadlift is not a part of weightlifting, they sill think there is an association between the two. There is no such thing as an Olympic deadlift.
The only reason to invent a so-called “clean style” deadlift is out of a misguided attempt to be diplomatic. Diplomacy does not get you strong or keep you safe. And if you came here looking for the “Olympic deadlift,” it doesn’t exist.
However, there is a clean assistance exercise that pretty much looks like a deadlift with a bad setup. This is sometimes called a “clean deadlift.” It is distinguished by a consistent low hip position and by a powerful lean back at the top, or with a triple extension, to emulate the beginning of the second pull, as shall be discussed.
This butt down position has lead many, who associate Olympic lifting with good technique, to believe that the proper way to deadlift is with the hips low, in more of a squatting position. In turn, it has led opponents to adopt the extreme opposite of a very high hip position in a misguided attempt to distinguish this style from the “clean” and make it a powerlifting style. The reason that this “clean deadlift” starts with a low hip position is because a lower hip position is needed for the first pull in the clean. However, the unfortunate choice of names causes confusion. This style of deadlift has no value for the dedicated deadlifter and it would cause less confusion if it were called something like the “Clean First Pull Assistance Exercise.” However, the purpose of this post is not to show that there is no such thing as a kind of deadlift that is used by Olympic lifters as an assistance exercise for cleans. It is to show that this has nothing to do with a correct deadlift and that the “two kinds of deadlifts” are not the clean style deadlift and the powerlifting deadlift.
The deadlift, or “two hands dead weight lift” has been around, well, forever. And from the time there were ‘bells’ there were people lifting them off the floor to the waist. And even before there were bells there were dead weight lifts.
Clean Deadlift: The Problem with Exercise Names, Again!
Some who have adopted the idea of the “clean deadlift” may have gotten the term from Jim Schmitz, who has described such a movement used by Olympic lifters and has recommended it for anyone. This is the “clean deadlift and shrug” or “CDL&S”. As described it is a slow motion deadlift with a shrug and toe stand at the end…in other words a slow triple extension with a shrug. It is NOT a “clean” lift and it bears no real relation to a clean, and obviously, since it is performed very slowly, on purpose, no relationship to a maximal deadlift. Even experts choose bad names for movements sometimes. Some people know the “slow” maximal strength movements well and some know the “fast” power movements well, but very few understand them both equally. That is to say, understand how they are trained and developed to the maximum extent.
From Bob Hoffman’s Weightlifting:
Two Hands Dead Weight Lift
The bar must be lifted with the floor until the lifter is erect with straight back. It is optional whether the heels be kept together or approximately shoulder-width apart. But the legs must be straight, the back straight, and the shoulders back at the completion of the lift. The lifter may hold the bar as he likes and the bar can touch the thighs in the progress of the lift.
Doesn’t sound like a clean, does it?
When the quick lifts were gaining popularity the deadlift was already there. And once a species of sport evolved that could be called powerlifting the deadlift entered into it the same as it had always been.
Although the technique to lift the bar from the floor in the deadlift could be compared to that of the clean such comparisons probably had more to do with the persons feelings toward the quick lifts of weightlifting versus the “odd” lifts like deadlifting.
There is nothing in the technique of the clean which you need to know to learn to deadlift. The idea that there is some “clean” technique that is safe as opposed to an “unscientific” powerlifting style which you would only do to win competitions is a figment of the imagination.
The needs of the clean and jerk are not the same as the deadlift. The cleaner wants to do what is best to set up for the second pull and part of that is to get through the transition cleanly. The deadlifter is simply lifting the bar from the floor to the waist and there is no such need.
At the same time the technique the cleaner uses, while being perfect for the needs of the clean is not necessarily safe or efficacious when lifting maximal weights off the floor.
I don’t mean for this to be an analysis of the clean and I do understand how someone would want to compare the clean to the deadlift. They both start on the floor and you pull the bar up to a standing position…
Guess what? The similarities end, pretty much, with the bar being on the floor. With a deadlift, once you stand up, you’re done. With a clean, you’ve got to do a bunch of other stuff.
The deadlift is ONE pull, from the floor to the waist. The clean is two pulls and the SOLE PURPOSE of the first pull from the floor is to OPTIMIZE the second pull. A butt down position with the torso as vertical as possible (of course not ‘actually’ vertical) is the most effective position to begin the first pull of the clean. For many reasons none of which have anything to do with a deadlift. Because the clean and the deadlift ARE TWO DIFFERENT LIFTS.
The real acceleration of the clean begins with the second pull. Trying to pull the first pull super fast will not help. The idea is to get into a proper position for the second pull.
Many Olympic lifting experts that have never spent a lot of time doing maximal deadlifts tend to look at the deadlift as a loosey-goosey anything goes lift by comparison. To them, the fast lifts are so highly technical and precise that a slow deadlift, by comparison, looks barbaric. Heck, it was this kind of attitude that made the fast lifts part of the Olympics in the first place while the “slow lifts” became a part of “powerlifting”. And the battle and confusion have gone on ever since.
While it is true that a deadlift has “leeway” as compared to a clean, that leeway is inherent in any slow versus fast lift. Similarly one might compare the end of the snatch lift or the jerk portion of the clean and jerk as having more leeway than the first part of the lift. Since at the end of both those lifts you have placed the bar in an overhead position and all that is left is to get into a fully upright position. This can be done sloppily or elegantly. The fact that it is possible to do it sloppily does not “define” the last part of the lift as “loosey-goosey anything goes”. There is an optimal way to return to the upright position that can mean the difference between success and failure. The same goes with a slow lift like the deadlift.
Beyond the Olympic lifting versus powerlifting nonsense, I am aware of some Olympic lifting coaches who refer to assistance exercises such as “clean deadlift” or “clean deadlift and shrug”, sometimes meant to be performed slowly. Why people must appropriate terms that do nothing but create more confusion is beyond me. Since a deadlift is not “clean” then a “clean” is not a deadlift.
Just as there is an optimal position for the first pull of the clean there is an optimal position for the deadlift. It is true that the realities of the deadlift will tend to cause certain things to happen IF you get the bar off the floor…that’s a big IF. And while with the clean, we are intentionally setting up for a burst of acceleration, with the deadlift we are never in a position to exert extra acceleration on the bar.
This means that getting the bar off the floor with as much vim and vigour as possible is important. Since the typical sticking region of the deadlift is somewhere mid-shin to knee and since that region exists because we are in a position, due to the mechanics of the lift, where we cannot move the bar as effectively, the more powerful the lift off the floor the better. You may see lifters, during a maximal effort lift, hitching the bar up the shins or doing whatever they have to do to complete the lifts, but none of them will tell you to start slow off the floor!
So, in order to rip the bar off the ground as quickly as possible, we need the most favorable mechanics. Which means we need the most favorable position. Which is very different from that of a clean. Whereas the clean lift seeks to save the lumbar erectors in order to maintain as much rigidity as possible for the completion of the lift, the deadlift must use the FULL body from the get-go in order to lift the heaviest weight possible. Are you getting this?
A butt down position for a deadlift is LIMITING what you can pull off the floor. The clean is not a deadlift and the deadlift is not a clean.
It is true that some weightlifters may use deadlifts. Some also use Romanian deadlifts as well. The may also use clean pulls.
Of course, some will tell you that you should never lift maximal weights off the floor because you’ll get injured. And so you should lift in a clean style. Vicious circle. The deadlift was always about lifting maximal weights off the floor. The clean was about lifting the most weight to the shoulders “clean” (and then to jerk). Two different goals considering the distance involved and the clean part. If a clean and jerker was caught doing some of the things deadlifters do he would immediately be disqualified.
I’m all for science and technique. But not for needless complications, confusing details, and obfuscation. The deadlift is a simple lift. The clean is not.
Perhaps I should bring back the continental and jerk and rename it the powerlifting jerk.
Speaking of which I’d like to demonstrate this notion of a “clean” by it’s opposite. The video below shows the Strongman Loglift. It would be quite impossible for the lifter to lift the log to his shoulders in one smooth continuous motion due to the thickness of the log and the size of the lifter’s body. Not to mention the awkwardness of the implement.
Notice how he rests the log first at the belt before bringing it to the shoulders. This is NOT a clean by virtue of the fact that it is not CLEAN. Contact is made with the body and the weight is rested and reset. Getting the weight to the shoulders in this way is like the Continental and Jerk I just spoke of which has sometimes erroneously been called the continental clean and jerk by those who misunderstand what the word clean signifies. Except of course, in this case, the lifter is pressing the weight overhead rather than jerking it.