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Why You Need to Start Doing Medicine-Ball Cleans, Stat

What if we told you there's a move that does to your lifts what lube does to sex: make literally everything better. Well, there is: the medicine-ball clean.

"The medicine-ball clean (aka med-ball clean) is one of the most underutilized movements in exercise," says Kayla Tote, co-owner and head coach at CrossFit for the People (CFTP) in Albany, New York. "It's a full-body movement that can help you develop the technique needed to do almost any lift." In fact, it's considered one of the nine foundational movements in CrossFit, which means it also echos movements rooted in everyday life.

But whether you regularly step into a CrossFit box or not, the medicine-ball clean is a tool you can use to develop strength, power, speed, technique, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. Below, everything you need to know.

What Is a Medicine-Ball Clean?

To start, the only thing you need is a soft medicine ball. Sometimes called Dynamax balls (which is one of the brands that manufactures them), these balls feel like a larger and cushier version of a volleyball, and come as light as four pounds and as heavy as 30 pounds. "When you're shopping for a medicine ball, I recommend picking one that has laces or wording, which will come in handy when making sure you're doing the movement correctly," says Abbee Bailey, a CrossFit Level 1-certified coach (CF-L1) at WillyB CrossFit in Williamsburg, New York. (Related: The CrossFit Equipment You Need For A Badass Home Gym)

At first, you're going to want a coach to guide you (or take a video of yourself) so you can check your form. Remember: The goal of the med-ball clean is to enforce or teach proper lifting mechanics, so moving properly is paramount.

1. Start standing with feet hip-width apart, medicine ball between feet, laces facing outward. Put both hands on the sides of the medicine ball, fingers facing down, in a quarter-squat position. Make sure your shoulders are just over the ball, chest is up, and back is flat.

2. In one fluid motion, keeping arms long, pull the ball up from the ground, and stand up straight. "Stand up quickly, as if you were jumping towards the ceiling. The aim here is to be explosive, so engage your butt and squeeze those glutes," says Bailey.

3. Immediately shrug your shoulders to your ears, shoot elbows forward, rotating hands around the ball, and drop into a squat. You should end with the ball in a front-rack position (propping it up in front of your chest), and stand up to finish.

A few form tips:

  • The ball should stay close to your body the whole time, so that it's not swinging out and away from your body, but rather gliding up it.
  • Pay attention to which way the laces or logo is facing when you finish the rep in front-rack position. The goal: The laces should still be facing away from you. "After you've pulled the ball to your chest, to get the ball into front rack position, all you are going to do is rotate your hands around the ball," says Bailey. "If they're facing toward you, it means you've bicep curled the ball up, which is incorrect."
  • In your squat, double check that your chest is upright and that you're not letting the med-ball pull you forward. As you stand, drive your hips forward.

How do you know if you're doing it right? Ideally, the first time you try any new exercise you'll have a coach available to help fine-tune your mechanics. If that's not possible, Tote recommends videoing yourself. Because this is such a fast-paced and explosive movement, a mirror is actually insufficient here.

Why Is This Movement So Beneficial?

Because the medicine ball is less intimidating than a barbell, it's an excellent progression whether you're learning to lift or just want to move smaller loads while honing your technique. (So you eventually master all these essential barbell exercises.) To understand why, look at the three main parts of the movement: 1) the set-up and pull, 2) the hip extension and shoulder shrug, and 3) the pull-under and squat.

If you've deadlifted before, the setup of the med-ball clean should feel familiar. "This beginning part of the med-ball clean helps with your deadlift because the set-up and initial pull from ground are the same." (BTW, here's how to do a barbell deadlift, if you haven't before).

"I would even go a step further in saying that it helps with overall hamstring mobility as well," says Bailey. And if you sit all day (like most of us do), chances are you could benefit from improving your hamstring flexibility.

Moving onto the second part of the lift: Does this hip extension and shrug remind you of the barbell clean, one of the main lifts used in the sport of Olympic weightlifting? It should! Here, you're learning how to simultaneously generate force from your hips and shrug your shoulders to launch the weight (whether it's a bar or ball) up and into the front racked position.

Improving your explosiveness will also help with the snatch, another Olympic weightlifting movement. "Your speed getting under a movement is crucial in Olympic lifts, and the med-ball clean works on that," adds Tote. (Hey, maybe one day you'll be able to snatch a make-shift barbell like badass Jessie Graff).

Finally, there's the pull-under and front squat. The pull-under will directly translate to the barbell clean and is also a gentle way to warm-up and improve wrist mobility—which you need for everything from a front squat and overhead squat, to push-ups and handstands, says Tote.

The squat portion helps with ankle mobility and hip mobility, says Bailey. "This will improve all of your weighted squats, and also the squats you do in everyday life," says Bailey. (Related: One Dangerous Mistake You Could Be Making During Squats).

How to Add Med-ball Cleans Into Your Workout

If you're planning to (or even just thinking about) lifting a barbell, add a medicine-ball clean to your warm-up. Go for a circuit-style approach, suggests Tote. "Try a warm-up that's three rounds of 8-10 medicine-ball cleans, and then two other movements that'll prep you for the lift you're doing." For instance, if you're going to deadlift, you might do med-ball cleans, glute bridges, and good mornings.

And if you're doing a workout with barbell cleans in them, Tote suggests doing as many as 50 medicine-ball cleans, going as slowly as you need to keep proper form. "This will reiterate and reinforce the proper mechanics of the movement like speed, hip flexion, and the shrug, which you need in a barbell clean."

Of course, you can also incorporate medicine-ball cleans into the meat of your workout. Tote says one of the hardest workouts she's done was a 10-minute AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) of 15 medicine-ball cleans with a 14-pound ball and 30 ab-mat sit-ups.

And hey, since you've got your med-ball out, you might as well try squat therapy to improve your squat form.

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