Forgotten Exercises: The One Arm Clean and Jerk


Recently I had the good fortune to stumble across Alan Radley’s excellent History of Physical Culture work. A combination of fun facts, serious scholarship and enough photographs to keep any Ironhead happy, it’s likely that I’ll be dipping in and out of this work for years to come.

In any case, Radley’s scholarship highlighted a number of odd lifts and techniques that although hugely popular during the heyday of physical culture in the early 1900s, have now largely fallen by the wayside.

The focus of today’s short post is one such lift, namely the one arm clean and jerk.

The One Arm Lift in History

As detailed previously on this site, the history of weightlifting as we understand the term is a relatively recent one. This fact alone means that the sport was for many years, rather chaotic in terms of its lifts. Some would only lift using the ‘continental‘ style, others preferred to rely on heavy dumbbells en lieu of barbells. Some, deadlifted using only their pinkies! The last one being an extreme, albeit true, case!

Such variety is important to consider as it encouraged a great deal of experimentation both in terms of one’s own personal training but also in exhibitions of strength. Trying to establish yourself as a showman or showwoman during this time required something out of the ordinary. Hence many lifters became very proficient in one, or a select number of bizarre and exotic exercises.

It is here that one finds the one arm clean and jerk. A bastardisation of the two-handed clean, the one-arm variation was one a popular lift with several heavyweights in the Physical Culture game. Indeed, at one time or another the lift featured in the shows and training of Eugen Sandow, Arthur Saxon, Milo Steinborn and the French lifter, Charles Rigoulot. While the numbers lifted varied, there is no denying that Saxon’s successful lift of 247 lbs. in this exercise is extremely effective! If you’re interested in learning about more of the Herculean feats in this lift, check out this 1970s article on the subject (available here).

How to Clean and Jerk

When myself and a friend began utilising this lift many moons ago, we erroneously believed that Sandow et al., had been using Dumbbells instead of Barbells. How wrong we were!

Though some physical culturists, most notably Sig Klein, were hugely in favour of dumbbell clean and jerks, this tended to be the minority stance. Trawling through Radley’s work earlier this week re-confirmed our subsequent idea that such men had in fact used a barbell. An altogether different sort of beast!

So to begin with this lift, you’ll need to approach the bar the same way you would with the traditional, two-handed lift. The difference being that instead of bringing both hands to the bar, roughly shoulder width apart, you’ll instead place a single hand in the middle of the bar. From there, the lift is exactly the same. Simple right?

Well judging by the volume of YouTube videos botching this exercise, it appears not. Having spent the last twenty minutes looking for a correct example, words cannot express my gratitude to the Virtual Strength and Conditioning Coach.

What makes this example correct in my eyes is the explosiveness of the lifter. Many of the videos online show undoubtedly strong individuals cleaning and jerking the bar through a laboured and strenuous process. Weightlifting, to my mind at least, is primarily about explosive power. Hence my preference for the above style of lifting. As an aside, another great resource for this lift comes from the folks (available here)

Incorporating the Lift – How and Why 

In the first instance, I find this lift to be a welcome addition to either shoulder or leg training, depending on how I’m feeling. Given my propensity to stick with my training programme for far too long, I usually cycle the lift in and out of my training at various points of the year.

If the one arm clean isn’t included as part of my warm up, it’ll be the first or second exercise of the day. Similar to the traditional or convention Olympic Lifts, I’ll usually go low rep on this one. This means that one day of training might look like 4 reps each side x 5-6 sets before I move on to the next exercise.

Regarding the Why…

In the first instance, this exercise, like the conventional Olympic Lifts, is just downright fun. If your training has become stale, the introduction of this lift blows off the cobwebs like nothing else. Coupled with this, the lift requires quite a bit of technical learning to execute correctly. Meaning that you go back to basics and rediscover the joy of performing something properly.

Now aside from the benefits of explosive lifting in general, this lift pays dividends when it comes to stabiliser muscles. In my experience, most people can power the bar to chest height with varying degrees of form. What separates the novice from the experienced is the push or jerk motion. One handed barbell presses are one of the most awkward exercises on the gym floor, mainly because the majority of us neglect our stabiliser muscles. This exercise forces us to check the ego at the door and bring these muscles into focus. The results, in my own case at least, have been worth it.

During the last training cycle, lasting roughly three months, the one arm jerk undoubtedly helped me increase in both the military and bench press. It also looked pretty badass in the gym, which let’s be honest, always helps!

Have you used this exercise before? If so, let us know how you get on?

Never used this exercise? Why not give it as try and let us know how it goes!

As always, happy lifting!

One thought on “Forgotten Exercises: The One Arm Clean and Jerk

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  1. There is one other way to do this exercise that I’ve seen in old footage of Charles Rigoulot. The lifter sets up parallel to the bar and grips it in the middle, but with a supinated grip. The pull is like a power curl, except that immediately after extension the lifter’s body shifts to being perpendicular to the bar, and the bar is caught and racked with the upper arm using the hip and lats for support, kind of like a bent press or a side press. The jerk is then more like a dumbbell jerk from the hammer curl position. The key to all of the foregoing is that since it’s not practical or safe to have the long bar rotating along an axis that is not its center axis, the lifter moves their body instead. I imagine this style also developed to make the lift work with fixed weights that don’t have spinning sleeves.

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