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Deadlifts vs Clean Start Position… There’s a Difference?!

YES. Before you read the rest of the article, please repeat after me: The clean is NOT a deadlift and the deadlift is NOT a clean. If you need a refresher on deadlift starting position- check out our blog on deadlift form.

Ignore the way my plates are loaded, Brooksie was insistent on how they should go on the bar!

To start, let’s review the goals of the deadlift and clean so you can have some perspective on why they would need some subtle variations.

Deadlift Goal:Get this heavy ass barbell off the floor in a STRAIGHT line.

Clean FIRST PULL Goal:The first pull (aka, the part that looks like a deadlift where you go from the floor until about mid-thigh) aims to create optimal position, balance, speed, and timing so you can nail acceleration in your second pull. The bar will move BACKWARD toward the body.

Deadlift ROM Goal:Lift maximal weight off the floor to meet my hips in extension

Clean ROM Goal:Lift maximal weight to my shoulders.

Deadlift: ONE pull, acceleration is not a factor or necessity, you are just moving it off the floor.

Clean: THREE pulls, with the FIRST pull aiming to OPTIMIZE the second pull. The first pull should be SLOW, and the second pull should be FAST. A good clean is DEPENDENT on your ability to accelerate with the barbell. While the deadlift and first pull can look similar to the untrained eye, you can now see they’ve got different goals, which means differences in mechanics are needed at set-up to optimize performance.

There are some other differences to think about. Let’s continue our chat…


Deadlift: you want to wear flat shoes. OLY shoes will pitch you forward more, and make it difficult to have your weight distributed the correct way.

Clean: OLY shoes will help the catch position and enable you to get deeper into your squat. Remember, with OLY shoes on, you need to pay special attention in the first pull to not let the bar drift away from you.

Hand Position/Grip Deadlift: You can use hook, supinated, or alternate. Hook is preferred if possible to minimize biceps injury potential, however, may be a limiting factor based on your hand size. Hands about one thumb’s distance from your hips.

Clean: Hook grip. Hands about one thumb’s distance from your hips.

The finer details

Torso/Shoulders At Setup:

Remember how we discussed in our deadlift blog that you don’t want to have a butt down position when you set up? You want to hip hinge down, and NOT squat into your set up position, because doing so may take tension off your posterior chain? We want your butt up to the point where you have tension there (slack out) and in your shoulders before the pull off the floor starts. If not, you end up looking like Mylie Cyrus twerking with a loaded barbell. Simply put, your torso really shouldn’t be that vertical. The longer the torso you have relative to your femur will alter the way this looks for your deadlift, and you will naturally end up more vertical in your torso to have posterior chain tension in comparison to the short torso/long femur lifter who will look more parallel to the ground.

Note the position of the knees and shins- mostly vertical = deadlift set up. However, my shoulders are still over the bar. I look a little more parallel to the ground than someone with a longer torso/shorter femur.

Butt down start in a deadlift = limiting what you pull off the floor. However, for the clean, a butt down position with the torso as vertical as possible is the most effective position to start your first pull.

Notice how my torso is more upright, knees are in front of the bar, as are my shoulders, and the tension has decreased in my posterior chain.

BUT, there is something similar. Your hips and shoulders rise at the same rate. In a clean, this is optimal because if you try to get your trunk more upright too soon, your shoulders will end up behind the bar too soon and you loose power. In a clean, your shoulders should move FORWARD between the first pull and the second pull.

Bar Start Position

Deadlift: Vertical Shin. Bar super close to body. Ideally, knees behind bar. Hips above knees.

Clean: Bar starts slightly away from the body. Knees in FRONT of the bar. Hips above knees. Shoulders are in front of the bar- care being taking to not lean too far forward or you are going to strain your low back. If you are behind the bar with your shoulders, you would have too much weight in your heels.

Notice that in my clean set up, my knees come forward in front of the bar. This would not be ideal for a deadlift.

Bar Path

Deadlift: Aim for a straight line, sometimes lifters will do a “reverse S” and move around their knees. In a deadlift, your shoulders and hips rise at the same time in a 1:1 movement.

Clean: An Olympic lift pull has a classic “S” pull pattern. You move into your body until you complete the second pull, where it will naturally move away slightly, and loop into the body again at the completion. In a clean, we need to make sure those knees are fully extended so you don’t have to move around them in your pull. Moving around your knees is a huge no-no here. You end up too much in your toes, and can’t accelerate properly into the second portion of the lift. If you end up moving around your knees, you also kill any ability to generate power as your shoulders are likely behind the bar. If your hips rise too early in a clean set up, the bar will be too low. Our shoulders need to stay over the bar, and lats engaged with the bar in contact with our thigh.

Julie looking like a boss.

So, there you have it. They will look the same to many with an untrained eye at set-up. But, now you know. The more you know, the better you can move. The better you move, the better you will feel! Until next time, Dr. Amy PS- got any sweet workout photos we can use as we talk about lifts? Send them our way!

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