Thrusters 101 an unbeatable Full-Body Exercise

Nov 4, 2021 | Exercise guides, Strength & Conditioning

Arguably the most grueling, efficient, functional full-body movement and the biggest middle finger to gravity is the thruster. Like burpees, thrusters are a very polarizing exercise—you either love them, hate them, love to hate them, or some combination of all three. It’s complicated.

(If you or someone you know has been personally victimized by a thruster workout, the TrainHeroic team offers our sincerest sympathies and condolences to your shattered soul.)

Get Proficient at This Unbeatable Full-Body Exercise

Much like the Olympic lifts, the snatch and clean and jerk, the point of the thruster is to use your whole body to move a load from dead weight on the ground to as far away from the ground as possible, which is fully extended overhead. 

The thruster is essentially a combination of two lifts: the front squat and the push press.

A properly performed thruster needs a solid combination of balance, coordination, flexibility, strength, and endurance. The mechanics of the movement require your major joints to accordion from full flexion to full extension, top to bottom: ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows. 

Because of these mechanics, thrusters work most of your major muscle groups including your posterior chain (legs, back, glutes), your upper trunk (shoulders, arms), and your core all at once. Maximum bang for your fitness buck. Also the reason they’ve earned the reputation as being one of the most draining exercises. Like a burpee, but with weight. Awesome.

There’s something special about having to mentally prepare for a big, nasty thruster workout like Fran. The doom of a max-effort thruster session looming in your future is like making it to a final boss. You know it’s going to take all your effort, skill, and lung capacity to conquer the workout. 

TrainHeroic Thrusters
Dumbbell Thrusters
Thrusters

Did you know – faces of pure joy are a side-effect of thrusters!

Any Load Counts!

If you have very few equipment options and no time to do anything else, a workout of 50 thrusters will get your heart pumping and your muscles fatigued. Since you can do a thruster with a huge variety of equipment, they’re versatile and easy to program on days you’re pressed for time or can’t get to the gym.  

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How to do a Barbell Thruster 

Points of Performance

Setup

There are two different ways to set up a thruster with a barbell: from the squat rack or more commonly, from the floor. Whatever your setup, the movement itself starts when the bar is resting across your shoulders in the front rack position.

If the barbell is in a squat rack, it should be set at about chest height. Step up and unrack it like you would for a front squat, being sure to use the Olympic clean grip (not the Macarena grip). Grip the bar just outside shoulder width with an overhand grip, then drive your elbows through to the other side of the bar. The bar should end up resting across the top part of your palms with your elbows pointing forward. 

If the bar is on the floor, you’ll need to power clean it up to your front rack. Find your squat stance with your feet about shoulder width and your toes pointing straight ahead or slightly turned out. 

Squat

Take a breath to brace your core and with a neutral spine hinge at the waist to sit your butt back into a squat. Your thighs should reach parallel to the floor or deeper. Keep your knees in line with your toes, your chest up, and eyes forward. 

Press

Push your feet into the floor and squeeze your glutes to come up out of the squat fast. Use the speed of your hip extension and leg drive to help press the bar overhead. Try to time the movement so you initiate the press as your knees straighten. Your upper body takes over to finish the press when your elbows reach full extension and your biceps are beside your ears. 

Coach’s Tip: Don’t move the bar out and around your head, but tuck your chin out of the way until the bar passes your forehead. Your head should move back between your arms as your elbows lock. You want the bar path to be over your midfoot for the entire lift.  

Receive

From the overhead lockout position, bend your elbows and control the bar back down to catch it in your front rack. If you’re linking multiple god-forsaken reps together, this is where you immediately flow into the next squat and start praying.

But how do you breathe during a thruster?

Cycling your breathing through high-volume sets of thrusters or wallballs is a real challenge. Plenty of athletes just don’t breathe at all, then wonder why they’re dying after a few reps. Forgetting to breathe properly is a common fault for thrusters, because bracing with your breath creates core stability for load-bearing movements.

Pay attention to your breathing. Aim to exhale as you extend your arms into the press, then take your next inhale as you bend your elbows to receive the bar for your next rep. This goes for all thruster variations—exhale and inhale at the top of the movement. This breathing cycle allows you to keep a tight core for the full squat.

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Fun Thruster Variations

Clusters are a combination of a full-squat clean and a thruster—they can be done with any kind of equipment. Clusters are commonly used to start sets of thrusters in high-speed workouts or metcons. They’re also the usual way to go for a 1-rep max thruster, because you’re already using momentum from the clean. (Watch record-holding Russian weightlifter/madman, Dimitry Kolokov, absolutely dominate a 418lb cluster.)
A good place for beginners to start learning the thruster is by using dumbbells instead of a barbell. Holding a weight in each hand instead of one load in front allows for some movement freedom in your arms/shoulders. You may need to work a little harder to stabilize, but if you have mobility restrictions, DBs can be lighter and friendlier than a barbell. 
Similar to dumbbells, kettlebells are a good way to scale barbell thrusters. Grip the handle of each kettlebell so the bell portion rests against your upper arm. Point your fists slightly in and keep tension in your shoulders so your elbows don’t collapse down. You can also use kettlebells to create weird hybrid Frankenstein movements like the KB wall ball shot, because why not?
Wall ball shots (also just called “wall balls”) are a thruster with a fun game! Instead of a barbell, hold a medicine ball in front of your face with both hands. Squat down, then at the top of the squat, launch the ball to your target. Catch the ball and immediately drop back into your squat in that same thruster pattern. On top of all the other thruster benefits, wall balls challenge your accuracy and timing.

P.S. If you want to lose a friend for life, be sure to make them do Karen for their first CrossFit metcon. 

Sandbags are a little more awkward than most other equipment because they’re unevenly weighted. The sand moves around in the bag, forcing you to stabilize in different directions. Most bags have two handles so you can grip them similarly to how you’d hold a barbell. You might need to practice manipulating the handles and figuring out the grip at first, but sandbag thrusters are a whole mess of fun. 
If you have trouble locking out overhead with a barbell, try working with single-arm dumbbell or kettlebell thrusters to nail that overhead positioning one side at a time. Use your non-working hand out to the side to help you balance. You can also get creative here and alternate arms using a kettlebell swing to switch hands.
Bonus: use odd objects
The caption on this video says it all: “You can literally use anything.”

 

Happy thrustering, Heroes. 

Lily Frei Headshot

Lily frei

Lily is TrainHeroic’s Marketing Content Creator and a CF-L1 with an English background. She was a successful freelance marketer for the functional fitness industry until being scooped up by TrainHeroic. An uncommon combo of bookish, artsy word-nerd and lifelong athlete, Lily is passionately devoted to weightlifting, CrossFit, yoga, dance, and aerial acrobatics. Find her showcasing her artist-athlete hobbies on IG @lilylectric.

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