Five-Ring Circus

What’s the Best Part of the Clean and Jerk, the Clean or the Jerk?

Qingquan Long of China competes during the men’s 56-kilogram Group A weightlifting contest of the 2016 Olympic Games on Sunday.

Lars Baron/Getty Images

Weightlifting is my favorite Olympic event. It’s simple, dramatic, and looks really good on television. As a recreational weightlifter myself, the rules are easy to understand—see weight, lift weight, do not drop weight prematurely—and the athletes’ skills are easy to admire. If all of that wasn’t enough, Olympic weightlifting consists of the snatch, followed by the clean and jerk.

The clean and jerk—great name, great lift, great times—is the final-round lift in Olympic weightlifting. A competitor must bring a barbell up from the floor to her clavicle—the clean—then hoist the barbell over her head in one fluid motion and keep it under control for a few seconds—the jerk. That, my friends, is the clean and jerk. Now, let’s see it in slow motion:

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That’s some good cleaning and jerking. As former U.S. Olympic weightlifting coach Jim Schmitz put it in the above video, the clean and jerk “requires all your energy, all your might, and all your concentration. It’s the best single lift for developing strength, power, and determination.” Take that, lat pulldown!

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The clean and jerk, we can all agree, is the king of weightlifting. But what if life wasn’t all peaches and cream, cleans and jerks together in one happy exercise. What if you were forced to choose? What’s your desert-island lift, the clean or the jerk?

The case for the clean: The clean is the heart of the clean and jerk. There is no jerk without the clean. Ever heard someone say “lift with your legs”? Brother, you haven’t lifted with your legs until and unless you’ve done a clean.

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A good clean takes power, timing, and impeccable form. It is a compound motion. First, your legs do all the work as you lift the weight off the ground. Next, your arms join the fun as you snap the bar up to your deltoids. Then it’s back to the legs as you drop into a squat. Only then do you stand to your full height. Then, and only then, have you successfully completed your clean. See how intricate the clean is? Far more complex than the simple jerk!

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The case for the jerk: The jerk is more dramatic than the clean. It is more fun to lift something over your head than to lift it to your breastbone. Try it sometime with an infant. Raise the child over your head and it will squeal with delight; balance it on your clavicle and it will howl and demand to watch some stupid TV show.

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Like the clean, the jerk requires precise technique. Unlike the clean, the jerk is more crowd-pleasing in its execution. A good jerk will get a crowd on its feet. Based on what I’ve seen thus far in Rio de Janeiro, it is harder to successfully jerk a barbell than it is to clean it. The jerk is also more dangerous than the clean, if only because an unsuccessful attempt could end with an athlete falling over, or with the barbell conking her in the head. If we accept that the jerk is harder and more dangerous than the clean, then mustn’t we also admit that the jerk is better than the clean?

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Verdict: This was initially too close to call. I could see the case for the clean, and I could see the case for the jerk. Unable to choose, I consulted an expert, Michaela Breeze, the retired British weightlifter who has been killing it as a weightlifting commentator in Rio this month. Her gracious response:

There you have it: The best part of the clean and jerk is the jerk.

Previously in Olympics Jerk Watch: The Return of Michael Phelps; The Chinese Swimmer Who Kicks and Splashes People

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.

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