Volume of Power Cleans Determines Athlete’s Lactate Levels

Lactate level and lactate threshold are hot topics in the fitness world. Researchers recently examined different sets of cleans – 3, 6, or 9 reps – to see how it changed lactate levels.

Lactate is a chemical compound subject to a great deal of discussion and dispute in recent years. It’s something our body produces all the time, but also removes through various chemical mechanisms. Our body’s ability to remove the lactate has limits, and when those limits are surpassed we experience a build-up of this substance in our muscle tissue and blood. Where the controversy lies is in how exactly an increasing lactate level impacts performance.

There is some benefit to increased lactate in terms of energy production. There may also be an increase in acidity, which is where the bulk of the discussion on this topic lies. Despite its beneficial effects, crossing the boundary into greater lactate production than disposal certainly seems to hinder performance, even if the reason itself is controversial. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning looked at varying reps per set in the power clean exercise to see how lactate responded to volume.

First, why did researchers choose the power clean? It seems explosive exercises have the greatest tendency to overcome the body’s ability to remove lactate. Whether it is sprinting, weighted exercises, or plyometrics, it seems that the greater the power output, and the more dependent on the anaerobic systems the body is during the exercise, the more lactate will result.

In this study, researchers looked at three different protocols. 3 sets of 3, 3 sets of 6, and 3 sets of 9. Because it was an Olympic hybrid lift, the exercises were all performed explosively. Each group was allowed the same rest period of 2 minutes. It should come as no surprise at this point that the higher the volume, the greater the resulting lactate. In fact, the group doing 9 reps per set had nearly double the lactate accumulation of the group doing only sets of 3.

What does this mean for an athlete? The researchers speculate that overloading the lactate removal systems on a regular basis could be a way to improve the ability to express power in the presence of high levels of lactate. Now, if this were true, it would only be important to athletes who actually need to do that, like sprinters and rowers, but bear in mind this study did not review that at all, simply the relationship between volume and lactate. It’s possible, for example, that a rower really needs to just row in order to develop that ability.

For athletes who do not participate in a sport requiring power in a high lactate condition working in this capacity is probably unnecessary or possibly even counterproductive to your other goals. For example, Olympic lifters do not need to perform their lifts with multiple reps in a set like this, and thus are probably wasting energy and eating into their recovery ability by training this way. Although lactate seems to respond specifically to volume, especially with efforts requiring a lot of power, there is little evidence here that consistently overloading your lactate removal system has beneficial effects at all, least of all for any sport or goal not operating in those conditions.


1. Anond Date, et. al., “Lactate Response to Different Volume Patterns of Power Clean,” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27:3 (2013)

Photo courtesy of CrossFit LA.

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