What’s in a thruster? Plus, a few tips to do them more efficiently

Written by:

Damect Dominguez

Last updated:

If there’s one exercise that’s synonymous with CrossFit, it’s probably the thruster. Heck, the term thruster was first coined by CrossFit. Ask 4x Games champ Rich Froning what he thinks the best exercise is and he’ll say it’s the thruster.

So, what makes the thruster such a valuable and respected movement? Below we outline the benefits of the thruster, along with some tips to help you tackle the exercise more efficiently. But first, lets break down exactly how to do a thruster.

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 1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, your lower back tightly arched, and the barbell racked on your shoulders with your hands no wider than the outsides of your shoulders, and your elbows up in the front rack position.

2. Keeping your chest up with your head in a neutral position, push your hips back and descend into a below-parallel squat.

3. From the bottom position, explode back to the start position as hard as you can, using your momentum to simultaneously press the bar over your head.

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4. Finish in a standing position, with the barbell over and slightly behind your head, with your shoulder stacked over your hips and your hips stacked over your ankles. Then smoothly lower it and descend into another squat in one continuous motion.

The thruster is a serious compound (utilizes more than one joint) exercise that combines a clean, front squat and push-press. Because the exercise comprises multiple movements into one, you get multiple benefits. The thruster works all of the major muscles in your legs (glutes, hamstrings and quads) during the squat portion of the movement. The power that you generate from your legs when you drive out of the squat is transferred to your upper body through your abdominals and lower back before finally reaching your shoulders, upper back and triceps to help propel the bar over your head. Damn. Needless to say, the thruster is very much a whole-body exercise—much like our friend the burpee. And, much like the burpee, the thruster is metabolically demanding and dramatically elevates your heart rate, which in turn helps to improve your cardiovascular performance. But, unlike the burpee, the thruster can vary in weight (unless you wear a weight vest for your burpees, which is just a sickening idea). By adding weight to make the thruster heavier, you will develop muscular strength and power. Making your thruster lighter will be more taxing on your muscular endurance and aerobic capacity. Finally, the thruster is a versatile workout. Though it is usually performed with a barbell, it can be easily swapped out for dumbells, sandbags, kettlebells, medicine balls—there really is an extensive list for potential alternatives. Truly, the thruster is an incredibly valuable movement, great on it’s own or paired with another exercise, such as …burpees, for example J

Tips for a better thruster
There are plenty of helpful videos online that talk about the thruster, but if you had to pick one, then go with 2008 Games champ Jason Khalipa—a man who won the title on the very last event, which was…thrusters (actually, it was ground to overhead, but there were no rules saying you had to pause at any point—you could say that Khalipa was a man who pioneered the thruster).

In addition to Khalipa’s video, have a read of these helpful tips that will better your efficiency and overall performance in the thruster.

Drive through your heels
Remember, the first aspect of the thruster is either going to be a clean, or a power clean into a front squat. With both of those movements, you want to drive up through your heels. As soon as you come onto your toes, you are generating momentum forward and you have nothing to push off against, meaning you will instantly lose power. During the thruster the barbell should be moving up and down in a straight path in the vertical plane. If your weight is not in your heels, you will rock forwards and backwards, meaning the barbell will move outside of that plane, creating a far more inefficient movement that requires extra work.

Your hips and legs are your best friends
I’m sure you’ve heard the cue “Knees out!” many times before during any power or Olympic lifts. The reason being that driving your knees out helps to engage your hips and generate power to move the weight up. Same concept applies for the thruster, drive your knees out and push up forcefully to generate momentum to get the bar overhead, saving your arms from having to do extra work. After all, you can lift more with your legs than your arms.

Keep your elbows up
This is a common mistake that severely impacts an athlete’s performance to do a thruster to the best of their ability. Once again, the first part of the movement is a clean or a front squat—if your elbows are down, then all the weight from the bar will be pulling you down too, making it that much harder to stand up. Keep your elbows nice and high to create a solid base for the bar to rest on your shoulders, which will allow you to pop the bar off your body when you drive through your legs, as mentioned above.

Keep the movement fluid
I know I’ve talked a lot about the thruster being built up of a front squat into a press, but in reality, the best way to do this movement is in one fluid motion. This will be harder for some more than others, but you should be able to do it in one motion—otherwise the weight is not appropriate. It is imperative that you avoid pausing in the middle of this movement, otherwise you will have to attempt to press the bar overhead, or do an extra front squat. Instead, try resting when you lock the bar out overhead, or when you bring the bar back down to your shoulders after a successful rep. Once you go into that first front squat, you better believe that you are doing the whole rep in one motion.

Don’t have a tight grip
At least when the bar is in the front rack position. A tight grip can quickly fatigue your forearms during thrusters, so loosen your grip when you can. When the bar is overhead, tighten your grip slightly to prevent the bar from wobbling or dropping unexpectedly.

In most workouts, the inclusion of thrusters means that the WOD is designed to gas you out. A lot of people forget to breathe when performing the thruster, as they are so intimidated by the movement. Don’t be. Instead, utilize your breathing to keep a steady rhythm. Try one breath per thruster; inhale on the way down, and exhale at the top of the press.

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Rest when needed
Look, only you know what you are capable of and what your limits are. You may think that you can speed through thrusters with ease, but if you are not efficient with your movements, you can get out of rhythm real quick and before you know it that bar gets very heavy and you are gasping for air. Of course, there are exceptions to this (like Sam Briggs in 14.5), but I would advise you to look at the strategy of Rich Froning during that same workout. He knew his limits, he knew his capacity, and he kept a steady pace, taking short pauses when the bar was overhead, and eventually caught and passed Briggs for the victory. Whether you rest with the bar on the ground, in the front rack position or overhead, compose yourself and take a breath—but don’t let the thruster defeat you. Resting for too long will make it that much harder (mentally) to pick the bar up again and finish your reps.

About Damect Dominguez

Co-founder of BoxLife Magazine. Author: Training Day: 400+ Workouts to Incorporate in Your Training.

1 thought on “What’s in a thruster? Plus, a few tips to do them more efficiently”

  1. This is an informative article. I liked how you ended it with the strategy of knowing your metabolic limitations, and resting in three different positions. (Overhead would be tough. I’ll leave that to Rich.)


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