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The Clean & Jerk vs. The Clean & Press — Important Differences for Strength, Size, and More

There’s more than one way to take a barbell from the ground to over your head. The clean is a powerful expression of strength that gets the bar to your shoulders. After that, you have two solid options — the press or the jerk. One is a classical strength movement that challenges every aspect of your upper body, while the other is a borderline supernatural technique for hoisting heavy weights overhead in the blink of an eye. 

The first step to a perfect overhead lift is differentiating between these two foundational movements. In this article, we will specifically discuss the differences in technique and application between the press and the jerk, so you know which is better for helping you reach your goals.

man holds a barbell on shoulders
Credit: Satyrenko / Shutterstock

Differences Between the Clean & Press vs. the Clean & Jerk

Since the clean is present in both skills, the difference here is in how you finish. The press uses mainly absolute upper body strength, while the jerk is an explosive power movement that utilizes a lot of leg drive. 

Weight Load

You can lift more weight in the jerk than the press simply because you’re forced to rely on only your shoulders, triceps, and upper back in the strict press. In the jerk, you can use all the power of your legs to drive the bar high off your shoulders. Your arms exist only to “catch” the bar as it ascends to arms’ length. 

Degree of Difficulty

The press is simple enough, but the jerk is more technical. You need good form, precise timing, and solid coordination to perform well.

The press is often used when learning to jerk properly. It’s a technical stepping stone that all weightlifters must master before moving forward. 

Strength vs. Hypertrophy

Both lifts allow you to train heavy, but most athletes can jerk far more weight than they could ever press. To that end, the jerk is a better expression of absolute, full-body strength.

Conversely, the press isolates your deltoids, triceps, and upper back. This makes it better suited to growing muscle or improving pressing power overall.

Similarities Between the Clean & Press vs. the Clean & Jerk

These two lifts have historically been confused for one another due to the notable similarities between them.

The Clean

In both lifts, you must first successfully clean the weight and suspend it in the front rack position. This sets you up to drive the bar overhead, whether by a press or a jerk.

The Setup

Following the clean, both movements involve the same setup. In both the press and jerk, you must be balanced across your feet and maintain a rigid trunk.

The Finished Product

Both the press and the jerk result in an overhead lift with two straight arms and legs. The two lifts share a common outcome of finishing with the barbell overhead, with your elbows securely locked. Believe it or not, the lifts are far more similar than they are different overall. 

Clean & Press vs. Clean & Jerk Technique

Although they may look somewhat similar, the techniques for the press and jerk are vastly different, especially in the latter half. Here’s how.

Barbell Drive

The biggest difference in press and jerk technique involves your legs. A strict press is just that — driving the barbell overhead to straight arms using only your upper body musculature.

In a jerk, you move the weight by pushing into the floor with your legs. This creates a chain reaction that causes the barbell to fly off your body. A successful jerk is made by letting your legs do the work.

Arm Action

Your arms are involved in both lifts, but in different ways. In the press, they control the path of the bar from start to finish. In a jerk, your arms only come into play to catch a bar that is already moving upward.  

How to Do the Clean & Press

Grip the bar comfortably outside your legs with two straight arms. Bend your knees so they’re out in front of the barbell to load your legs, and look straight ahead. Push through your legs to lift the bar toward your hips. Pull through a standing position by making hip contact, and shrug to extend. Explosively drive your elbows up, under and through to catch the bar in a front squat position, then stand up.

Grip the bar tightly and adjust your elbows downward. With a tall chest, push the bar up in a straight line, while tilting your chin back to make way. Once the bar clears your forehead, move your head back through. The bar should fixate above your ears.

Coach’s Tip: Avoid pushing the barbell forward. If anything, it should drift up and back slightly as you press. 

Benefits of the Clean & Press

  • Focuses on upper body concentric strength for hypertrophy gains.
  • Refines your movement mechanics for other overhead lifts.

Clean & Press Variations

There are two ways to perform the clean & press: totally strict, or with some help from your lower body. Using your legs won’t necessarily turn the movement into a jerk, though. 

Thruster

A thruster pairs up a front squat with a push press to create a comprehensive, full-body movement. To generate force from your legs, you sink into a full front squat position before driving out of the hole and continuing that momentum as it transfers to your arms and you press the weight overhead. 

Clean & Push Press

The push press allows you to involve your legs in the lift. By beginning the movement with a dip and drive, you can assist your arms and move heavier weight overall.

How to Do the Clean & Jerk

The clean is identical to the clean & press, ending in a standing position with the bar in the front rack. The traditional style of jerk used is the split jerk. For this lift, dip your legs and drive the barbell off your shoulders while slightly dropping underneath the barbell to a wide and stable split stance

Your arms will extend rapidly in the catch. Secure your balance in the split, then recover your front foot to the midline, followed by your back foot. The lift is completed by placing both feet together with the bar overhead.

Coach’s Tip: If you want to jerk a heavy weight, you must first clean it. Make sure your clean technique is dialed in to set you up for success in the jerk.

Benefits of the Clean & Jerk

  • Maximizes power utilization for athletic development.
  • The clean & jerk is an extremely efficient way to lift a heavy weight overhead.

Clean & Jerk Variations

Even though the split jerk is the most commonly used style, it is not the only lift that is classified as an acceptable jerk. Most variations have a dip and drive motion that is the same, but the catch is what makes them unique. 

Clean & Push Jerk

The push jerk requires that you not move your feet at any point. Your heels may leave the ground during the drive phase, but that’s it. Push jerks help you learn how to “use the floor” to generate force.

Clean & Power Jerk

The power jerk is very similar to the push jerk, but your feet slide outward slightly to catch in a wider squat position. The dip and drive is the same, but as you catch the bar in a high squat position, you slide your feet out. This allows for extra power and stability to be incorporated into the catch. 

Clean & Squat Jerk

The squat jerk forces you into a full deep squat to receive the bar. Instead of catching in a tall position, a good squat jerk will see you sinking as low as your mobility allows to catch the heaviest weights possible. 

The Clean & Press vs. the Clean & Jerk — When to Use Each

Knowing the difference is well and good, but correctly applying the appropriate lift to your training program is how you’ll actually see results in the gym.

For Maximal Strength

When it comes down to loading the most weight on the barbell, you want to utilize the clean & jerk. It’s easier to get a barbell over your head if you bring both your legs and your arms to the party.

However, you probably can’t jerk well if you can’t press properly in the first place. Make sure your technique is sound before you load up a heavy jerk.

For Hypertrophy

When your goal is to build muscle, you should probably stick to the clean & press. The press demands more muscular engagement from your upper body to move the bar. This results in more time spent under tension that will build up the size of your shoulders and arms.

For Athletic Performance

Both the press and jerk require coordination and awareness to perform correctly. As long as they don’t interfere with your overall athletic pursuits, both lifts deserve a place in your training. 

The Bottom Line

The clean & press and clean & jerk are similar at a glance, but each is unique in their own methodical ways. The press should be used for hypertrophy work and muscle recruitment, while the jerk should be trained for total body power development

That said, you can’t go wrong incorporating both from time to time. They can work synergistically to improve your overall performance in the gym and make you a more refined trainee.

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