Failing on the front squat part of the clean

Over the last few weeks I have been working extremely hard on my squat cleans and my strength has improved significantly. Interestingly, although I can front squat more weight than I can clean, it has reached a point where I am failing on the front squat part of the clean. This is most likely because, although I can front squat the weight ok, by the time I’ve got the bar from the floor to shoulders I have already used a lot of energy – the clean is an exhausting movement.

So what actually happens when I max clean?

One of two scenarios happens:

  1. I get the bar up to my shoulders, drop down into the squat position, and then I freeze. I’m stuck, I can’t get up again. The image below shows the position I get stuck in. I have to roll the bar forward and drop it to the floor.
  2. I get the bar up to my shoulders, drop down into the squat position, my knees collapse and I make it up, albeit with bad form and difficulty.
bottom of squat clean

This is the bottom of the squat clean, where sometimes I fail the lift

Now how exactly do I fix this? Well, the answer is to improve my front squat.

Admittedly over the last year I have not front squatted as much as I should have. I’ll be honest and say that I really enjoy back squatting, so that has always been my preference on squatting days.

However, since coming across this problem, I have been given a kick up the backside and have reassessed my priorities! Since my goal is to be awesome at Olympic lifting and to get strong, it is now time to improve my front squat, which will consequently improve my clean.

Thanks to for the image

A good front squat. Thanks to for the image

Improving the front squat

Front squatting more frequently

The best way to improve / get stronger at front squatting is simply by front squatting more! Thus over my next 4-6 week mesocycle I have taken out back squats completely and have instead incorporated front squatting two times a week.

One of these days will be higher reps and one will be lower reps. I will squat with a band around my knees on one of the days in order to stop my knees collapsing in the bottom position going up.

Keeping upright

Clearly I need to work on my front squat form if my knees are collapsing. This seems to occur because I am not always totally upright and my elbows could always be just a little bit higher. By keeping this vertical position, it ensures that the shoulders and elbows rise at the same time as the hips on the way up from the squat. The upright position also ensures a tight core. If you start leaning forward, your core is slack.

Using the “pause” method

On every rep, when in the bottom of the squat, I will make a conscious effort to PAUSE for a second or two. This will ensure there is no ‘bouncing’ out of the bottom position. Instead, it will be tight and controlled. After the pause I will drive my knees out and drive my elbows up.

I have good leg strength. In fact, in comparison to my upper body I have superior leg strength. I think my problem might lie with my nervous system and motor unit firing, rather than my strength. The “pause” method should fix this.

Driving knees out

The knees should always be in line with the toes. Once in the bottom position, I will cue myself to actively squeeze my glutes, push my heels into the floor, and drive my knees out.

Experiment with foot position

What’s the best foot position for front squats? Ideally it should be the same as the squat position of the clean. However, I am experimenting with foot and toe placement. If your feet are square on (toes pointing straight forward), the knees are less likely to track inward. Therefore it might be a good idea to try this position. N.B. Be careful if attempting this position as you will need to have superb flexibility in the hips.


The more your toes are pointing outward, the more careful (aware) you need to be of your knee travel.

Everyone is individual and not everyone has a knee collapse problem but I know in my case I really need to focus on my knee travel all the time.


Hopefully through these methods my front squat weight will increase quite quickly! I’m really happy with how my clean is progressing so far. It’s a shame it has to stall because of my lagging front squat. 🙂