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Mastering the Art of Executing Perfect Thrusters

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  • Post last modified:September 25, 2023

Joke time: What sounds like a PG-13-rated dance move your father embarrassingly whips out at your wedding but is actually a deadly full-body exercise? The thruster!

You don’t have to be a CrossFitter to master this incredible head-to-toe exercise, says Rebecca Rouse, a USA Weightlifter, kettlebell coach, and personal trainer. “Anyone willing to learn how to do the thruster exercise properly can do (and benefit from) it,” she says. Is that you? It will be once you read about all the advantages of the move.

Read on to learn exactly what a thruster is and what you’ll gain from doing them. Plus, find out how to do a dumbbell, kettlebell, and barbell thruster so you can obtain the exercise’s benefits regardless fo the equipment you have on hand.

How to Perform Barbell Thrusters

Challenging. Brutal. Full-body. Sweaty. Those are just some of the descriptors physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault, uses to illustrate the thruster. But what is it? A thruster combines the front squat and overhead press into one seamless motion, “which creates high demand on all the major muscles and joints in the body,” he says.

If you’ve never tried a thruster before, you might assume that barbell thrusters are the most challenging thruster variation — but that’s not the case. Sure, for lifting beginners, it may take a little while to get comfortable holding and using a barbell. But the barbell thruster is actually the ideal starting point for individuals who have access to one, says Wickham. (Did you know there are 15-pound barbells and 2-ounce “mock barbells” too?)

To perform a thruster, you’ll first need to power clean the weight up to a front-rack position (when you’re holding the barbell parallel to the floor on the front of your shoulders) — that’s explained in steps A and B below. Then, steps C through E guide you through how to perform the barbell thruster itself. Need a visual demonstration? Follow along with strength coach Taylor Neal, C.P.T., as she executes the barbell thruster below.

A. Position yourself with your feet spread apart, with the bar resting against your shins. Engage your core, bend at the hips, and grasp the barbell with an overhand grip, making sure your hands are a thumbs-width away from your hips.

B. Keeping your chest lifted and torso tight, lift the barbell to the front-rack position: Slide the barbell up along your legs, and when it passes your thighs, explosively extend your hips (allowing your feet to leave the ground) and raise your elbows as high as possible. Once the barbell reaches chest height, rotate your elbows under the barbell to catch it in the front-rack position (hands just outside your shoulders, elbows in front of the bar, triceps parallel to the floor), and keep your legs hip-width apart in a partial squat. Stand upright. This is your starting position.

C. Engage your core and push your feet into the floor. While keeping your elbows up, sit back and bend your knees to lower into a squat.

D. Once your hips go lower than your knees, immediately use your feet to drive upward and explode out of the bottom of the squat. As you rise to a standing position, press the barbell overhead and fully extend your arms.

E. Simultaneously return the barbell to the front-rack position while sitting your hips back into a squat to begin the next repetition.

The Main Advantages of Thruster Exercises

By regularly performing barbell thrusters (or other variations), you can reap several important health benefits.

Enhances Strength in the Back Chain

If you have a sedentary job or your favorite weekend activity involves lounging on the couch and playing Animal Crossing, the thruster exercise is particularly advantageous, according to Wickham. “Your body adapts to the positions you spend the most time in,” he explains, “and when you spend all day sitting, certain muscles and joints, especially in your back chain and thoracic spine, bear the brunt of it.”

Engaging and working these muscles (which the thruster targets) helps combat the detrimental effects of prolonged sitting by enhancing strength and mobility, states Wickham. “In the long run, this not only helps prevent injuries but also promotes graceful aging,” he adds.

Engages Your Core

While the thruster exercise may seem to primarily target your upper and lower body, it also provides significant benefits for your core muscles—not just the visible six-pack abs. Thrusters also engage your transverse abdominis muscles, which contribute to stability and support for your back. Wickham states, “Executing a thruster requires considerable coordination and stability, meaning your core must remain engaged throughout the entire movement.” Even a momentary lapse in core engagement can result in loss of control over the weight or disrupt your momentum. “Performing the exercise correctly and with proper form will engage your core more effectively than traditional abdominal exercises,” he notes. (Yes, that includes crunches).

Cardiovascular System Challenges

Oh, and aside from strengthening your muscles, the thruster exercise can also present a cardio test. “Incorporate the movement in high repetition patterns or as part of a CrossFit metabolic conditioning workout or HIIT workout, and you’ll significantly enhance your cardiovascular capacity,” says Wickham. Rest assured, you’ll experience an accelerated heartbeat and perspiration after just a few repetitions, regardless of whether you’re performing a barbell thruster or utilizing different equipment. (Did you know that there are three types of cardiovascular exercise?)

Muscles Engaged in Thrusters

It’s true — thrusters engage every muscle group, claims Rouse. And involving numerous body parts yields impressive outcomes. Specifically, the thruster targets the muscles in your lower body, such as your buttocks, hamstring, quadriceps, and calves, mentions Rouse. Additionally, it challenges upper-body muscle groups like the shoulders, scapular stabilizers, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, triceps, biceps, and forearms. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, the thruster exercise activates your core muscles, she explains. In other words, thrusters serve as a highly effective and efficient full-body exercise.

Variations of the Thruster Exercise

Irrespective of the equipment used, the thruster exercise always combines a front squat with an overhead press in one seamless motion. However, “distinct equipment slightly alters the demands on the body in terms of strength, mobility, and stability,” states Wickham. His suggestion is to incorporate all the thruster variations listed below into your workout routine (assuming the equipment permits). “In the long run, increased variability will result in enhanced strength and mobility,” he claims.

Modification: Decrease Weight or Reduce the Speed of the Movement

I hate to deliver this news, but even for the most advanced athletes, thrusters are far from easy. In fact, if you ever find them to be effortless, you’re probably performing them incorrectly. Compound exercises, by design, are challenging because they engage multiple muscle groups and joints simultaneously, notes Wickham.

If you’re currently unable to execute regular thrusters, Wickham advises breaking down the movement into its individual components (the squat and the press) and focusing on improving your weak point.

If thrusters are challenging due to an inability to reach a parallel squat position, master the air squat instead.

Once you are able to perform an air squat to the appropriate depth with proper technique, incorporate additional resistance by including a goblet squat or barbell front squat, according to the expert.

If you find thrusters challenging due to your somewhat mediocre overhead position, focus on enhancing your shoulder strength by engaging in overhead presses and holds, as well as trying out these mobility movements aimed at improving shoulder mobility.

Is it challenging due to the rhythm of the motion? Decrease the weight and slow down the movement to a front squat and press, instead, suggests Wickham. Significance, you’ll briefly stop at the top of the front squat before pressing the weight overhead.

Variation: Dumbbell Thruster

Unable to obtain a barbell? Go ahead and replace it with two dumbbells. However, be warned: The double dumbbell thruster is actually a more difficult version of the movement, says Rouse. Unlike barbell thrusters, which allow your sides to cooperate (and compensate for each other), “each side is working independently of the other” during double dumbbell thrusters, says Rouse. “Because of this, double dumbbell and kettlebell thrusters require extensive body control and awareness.”

If you desire to attempt dumbbell thrusters, do not be conceited. “Start extremely light,” says Rouse. Just like the barbell thruster, to perform a thruster with dumbbells, you’ll need to bring the weight into the front-rack position (described in steps A and B). Then, follow along with Neal as she demonstrates the dumbbell thruster.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand next to thighs, palms facing inward.

B. Brace your midline, then hinge your hips backward, lowering the dumbbells to mid-thigh. Next, simultaneously extend your legs and pull the dumbbells vertically upward, rotating your elbows underneath to catch the dumbbells at shoulder height in a quarter squat. Stand up. This is the starting position.

C. Keeping your core tight, elbows high, and chest forward, sit back and bend your knees to lower into a squat.

D. At the bottom of the squat, press your heels into the ground to straighten your legs while pressing the dumbbells overhead. The repetition is complete when your legs are straight and the dumbbells are directly above your shoulders, with your biceps pressed against your ears.

E. Lower the dumbbells back to your shoulders while descending into a squat to begin the next repetition.

Variation: Kettlebell Thruster

Kettlebell thrusters are slightly different from dumbbell thrusters. “The mechanics of the kettlebell thruster are almost identical to the dumbbell, but you need to pay a little more attention to the setup and front-rack position, due to the position of the handle of the kettlebell,” says Rouse. So, if you’re new to the movement and you have a set of (manageable) dumbbells, start there before progressing to the more technical kettlebell thruster.

Note: “It is crucial to maintain a tight front-rack position as you lower into the bottom of the squat,” notes Rouse. If at any point the kettlebells begin to move away from your body while you’re in that squat, it puts your lower back in a compromised position”.

Oh dear.

Below, steps A and B elucidate the appropriate approach to power scour the kettlebell into the start position, while steps C and D expound on how to execute a kettlebell thruster exercise, which is exemplified by Neal.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, clutching a kettlebell in each hand in front of hips, palms facing in. Pivot hips backwards and descend the bells a few inches, then purify the bells into the front-rack position.

B. Recheck front-rack position: The grip of the bell should be along the center of palm, the sphere of the kettlebell rests on the posterior of forearm, and arm should be adjacent to the body. Biceps should be tucked in next to ribcage and elbows angled towards the floor, not outwards.

C. Maintaining a taut core and impartial wrist (otherwise known as no fissure between hand and arm), regress and flex knees to descend into a squat. Propel through heels to ascend to an upright position while pushing the bells vertically overhead.

D. Regress the bells to front-rack position while descending into a squat to commence the subsequent repetition.

Variation: Single-Arm Thruster

Do not be mistaken: Employing one weight rather than two does not imply that the movement is half as difficult. Conversely, when executed correctly, unilateral movements fortify your core more than bilateral exercises do, affirms Rouse. “When only one side of the body is loaded, the core musculature on the opposite side is greatly recruited to assist in maintaining stability,” she elucidates. Regardless of the fact that only one side of the body is bearing the load, the entirety of the body is collaborating to perform the movement successfully.

Additionally, “most individuals are not equally sturdy, mobile, and pliable on both sides of their body,” declares Rouse. Engaging in any type of unilateral work is advantageous in identifying and remedying those asymmetries, which can also aid in injury prevention and rehabilitation, she asserts. Here’s to a lengthy lifespan!

If you appear exceedingly askew, you are likely executing it incorrectly. “Because you exclusively possess that one weight, it is habitual for individuals to exhibit imbalances while performing this movement,” advises Wickham. “This is not ideal.” The solution: Maintain engagement of your core to preserve alignment of hips and shoulders throughout the movement. Again, steps A and B explicate the process of cleansing the weight up to the front-rack position, while C and D clarify how to execute the single-arm thruster, as demonstrated by Neal.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in the right hand, dangling in front of the thigh.

B. Pivot hips, lowering the dumbbell somewhere above knees. Propel through feet while pulling the weight up alongside the body. As the dumbbell surpasses hips, elevate it up into the front-rack position, capturing it in a quarter squat before standing. The left elbow is flexed and the left hand is poised in front of the chest. This is the initial position.

C. Inhale and tighten core, then regress and flex knees to descend into a squat until buttocks surpasses parallel.

Next, propel upwards, exhaling while striking the load above your head. Conclude the repetition by extending your lower limbs and upper limb, compressing your biceps towards your ear.

D. Slowly return the dumbbell to the shoulder and lower the hips back to the starting position for the next repetition.

Variation: Medicine Ball Thruster

In general, the incredibly versatile medicine ball is one of the most underutilized pieces of equipment in the gym, according to Wickham. Besides wall balls, medicine ball squat cleans, ball slams, Russian twists, and medicine ball V-ups, medicine balls can be used for thrusters.

“Medicine ball thrusters are an excellent choice for individuals who do not feel comfortable using a barbell,” says Wickham. “It is generally lighter and safer, and a spherical tool is typically more familiar.”

Because medicine balls are generally lighter, they are a great option for workouts with light weights and higher repetitions that focus on improving cardiovascular capacity (which means getting you out of breath rather than just building strength), he adds. Steps A and B explain how to bring the ball up to the front-rack position, while C and D describe how to perform the medicine ball thruster, which Neal demonstrates.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding each side of a medicine ball, with fingertips facing down.

B. Brace the core and hinge at the hips to lower the ball to the upper thighs. In one smooth motion, straighten the legs while bringing the ball up along the body, shrugging the shoulders toward the ears, and rotating the elbows to catch the ball in a front-rack position in a quarter squat. Stand all the way up. This is the starting position.

C. Inhale and brace the midsection. Then, keeping the elbows high, move the hips back and bend the knees to lower into a squat.

D. Drive through the heels to stand while pressing the ball overhead. Slowly bring the ball back to the shoulders and lower the hips back to the starting position for the next repetition.

Common Thrusters Mistakes

When performing a thruster, the fundamental guidelines for proper squat form apply: Maintain the weight in your heels and avoid extending your knees beyond your toes, according to an article published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. As you press the weights upward toward the ceiling, ensure that you do not arch your lower back (a sign that your core may not be properly engaged) or hyperextend your knees and elbows, as stated in the Journal.

The weight you choose to use also makes a difference, according to Neal. “It is crucial to load the weight with enough heaviness that the athlete or exerciser needs to generate power through the legs to ‘thrust’ the weight overhead,” she explains. “By loading the exercise too lightly, the explosiveness of the movement is eliminated, reducing the strength and power gained.

How to Include Propellers in Your Schedule

Keep in mind: You’ll need to master the regular crouch and the customary overhead press before taking on the propeller exercise. And if you’re feeling any discomfort while practicing those exercises or currently have an injury, be sure to talk with your healthcare provider and receive confirmation from them to continue on in your fitness journey. Once you’re prepared to combine the two movements into one exercise, begin with a light weight. “Master the movement at a weight you can complete 15 to 20 repetitions without interruption and with correct form,” says Wickham.

Then, adjust the weight and repetition plan based on your individual fitness objectives. “Propellers can be utilized to enhance power, strength, or endurance, depending on how you load the movement,” says Rouse. If strength is your aim, allocate some time for warming up and progressively increasing the weight. Then, perform a set of 5 x 5 propellers, using a weight as heavy as possible while maintaining good form, taking a 2-minute break between sets. Spicy.

If endurance or cardiovascular capacity is your objective, perform propellers with a high number of repetitions. You might attempt CrossFit WOD Fran, which combines 45 repetitions of propellers and 45 repetitions of pull-ups. Or try CrossFit WOD Kalsu, which involves completing a total of 100 propellers as quickly as possible, while performing five burpees at the beginning of every minute.

And if overall fitness is your objective, Rouse suggests performing 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions with a 90-second break between sets.

Truly, no matter how you integrate propellers into your workout routine, you’ll become more fit and stronger as a result. Of course, the movement won’t make you (or your father) better at dancing, but it will certainly provide you with the legs and lungs you need to dance all night long.