Since its inception, CrossFit has introduced lots of lesser-known exercises and training tools to a wider fitness audience. Without CrossFit, kettlebells probably wouldn’t have enjoyed such a resurgence in popularity. Very few gyms would have Concept II Rowers or Assault Bikes as standard. And the only people doing things like gymnastics, Olympic weightlifting, and powerlifting would be gymnasts, weightlifters, and powerlifters!
In their quest to produce the ultimate in all-around fitness, CrossFit has borrowed from almost every type of training to create workouts that build strength, muscle mass, endurance, aerobic and anaerobic fitness, agility, and athleticism; often all at the same time!
While some people are still quite anti-CrossFit (even though they’ve never tried it!), I, for one, am grateful to them for expanding our workout horizons. Without inspiration from CrossFit, I know my workouts would be much less varied.
In this guide, we take a look at one of CrossFit’s staple exercises – the thruster – and explain why and how to do it. Plus, we reveal the seven best thruster variations and alternatives.
Thrusters – Muscles Worked
Thrusters are a full-body exercise that combines two distinct movements; the front squat and the overhead press. As such, it involves a lot of different muscles. The primary muscles worked during thrusters are:
Quadriceps – located on the front of your thighs, the quadriceps or quads for short are responsible for extending your knees. The four quadriceps muscles are rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. The Rectus femoris is also involved in flexion of the hip joint.
Hamstrings – the three hamstrings are the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus. The hamstrings flex your knees but, in thrusters, are partly responsible for hip extension.
Gluteus maximus – known as the glutes for short, this muscle works with your hamstrings to extend your hips. The glutes are basically your butt. Thrusters are a very effective glute builder, especially if you squat deeply.
Core – thrusters involve transferring force generated by your legs into your upper body and arms via your midsection. Your core bridges the gap between your upper body and lower body and keeps your spine stable. The muscles that make up the core include rectus abdominis, erector spinae, transverse abdominis, and obliques.
Deltoids – better known as your shoulder muscles and delts for short, these muscles help drive the weight upward and overhead. Thrusters work all three deltoids (anterior/front, medial/side, and posterior/rear), but the anterior deltoid is most active.
Triceps – located on the back of your upper arm, the triceps extend your elbows to push the weight up and overhead.
How to Do Thrusters
Get more from thrusters while keeping your risk of injury to a minimum by following these guidelines:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward. Rack and hold a barbell across the front of your shoulders, with your upper arms roughly parallel to the floor. Your hands should be just outside shoulder-width apart. Brace your core.
- Push your hips backward and squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor. Do not round your lower back, but feel free to descend deeper if your flexibility and knee health allow. Your torso should remain relatively upright.
- Stand up quickly, using this momentum to help you push the barbell up and overhead to arms’ length.
- Lower the bar back down to the front rack position, descend into another squat and repeat.
This exercise can also be done using dumbbells/kettlebells instead of a barbell.
Thruster Benefits and Drawbacks
Do thrusters deserve to be part of your workouts? Consider these benefits and then decide!
Thrusters involve so many important muscles that they are basically a one-exercise workout. If you are short of time but still want to train your entire body, a few sets of thrusters will get the job done.
You can use thrusters to build low-rep muscle power and strength or high-rep muscular endurance and cardiorespiratory fitness. They’re also a good body composition exercise, and not too shabby for building bigger muscles. Depending on your weight and rep range selection, you can use thrusters to achieve almost any fitness goal.
Trains your body as it works in nature
Whenever you lift or push anything heavy, you probably use your arms and legs at the same time. Thrusters train your body the same way, making it a very functional exercise.
Overload your upper body
Using your legs for assistance, thrusters allow you to lift heavier weights overhead than you can normally press. This means you can really overload your deltoids and triceps. Make the most of this by lowering the bar slowly to your shoulders, emphasizing the eccentric portion of the exercise.
While thrusters are a mostly beneficial and safe exercise, there are also a few drawbacks to consider:
Risk of back injury
Thrusters involve a deep front squat which could result in a rounded lower back. Rounding the lumbar spine puts a lot of pressure on the ligaments and vertebrae in that area and could result in back pain or even serious injury.
For this reason, exercisers MUST brace their core and maintain a neutral spine during thrusters. You may also need to work on your hamstring flexibility if you have a tendency to round your lower back.
Thrusters typically involve a deep squat, which could cause knee pain for some exercisers. This could be compounded if you descend too quickly and bounce out of the bottom position. Protect your knees by stopping at parallel and descending under control.
A lot of people complain about wrist pain during thrusters. This is mainly due to the front rack position. Tight lats, big biceps, and tight forearms can make it hard to achieve a comfortable front rack. The good news is that dumbbell thrusters are much more wrist-friendly.
Not easy to learn
While not as tricky as power cleans and snatches, the thruster is still a challenging exercise that can be hard to learn. The best way to get to grips with thrusters is to master front squats and overhead presses separately before combining them.
7 Thruster Variations and Alternatives
Thrusters are a highly effective, time-efficient full-body exercise, but that doesn’t mean you need to do them all the time. There are several variations and alternatives you can use to keep your workouts productive and interesting:
1. Push press
The push press is a lot like thrusters in that you’ll be using your legs to help you drive the barbell up and overhead. However, instead of descending into a full front squat, you just use a half or quarter-depth squat. This means your upper body gets more of a workout compared to thrusters.
How to do it:
- Rack and hold a barbell across the front of your shoulders, with your upper arms roughly parallel to the floor. Your hands should be just outside shoulder-width apart. Brace your core, and stand with your feet between and shoulder-width apart.
- Keeping your torso upright and heels on the floor, squat down between quarter and halfway. Do not round your lower back.
- Stand up explosively, using the momentum to help you push the barbell up and overhead to arms’ length.
- Lower the bar back to your shoulders and repeat.
You can also do push presses using dumbbells.
2. Split jerk
The split jerk is closely related to the push press. However, it involves dropping into a lunge as you press the weight overhead. This allows you to get lower under the bar, which should increase the amount of weight you can lift. However, you’ll also need better balance and lower-body flexibility to do this exercise, not to mention fast feet.
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet hip-distance apart, and your bar racked across the front of your shoulders. Your upper arms should be parallel to the floor, elbows pointing forward.
- Keeping your heels down, bend your knees, and then explosively extend your legs.
- Drive the weight up and then split your legs to land with one foot forward and one foot back, weight held overhead. Alternate lead legs rep by reps.
- Bring your front foot in first, and then step in with your back leg.
- Lower the weight to your shoulders and then repeat.
3. Power clean
Power cleans are a simplified version of one of the Olympic lifts – the clean and jerk. Like thrusters, power cleans are a full-body move that works many of the muscles in your body. Power cleans often feature in CrossFit workouts and are also popular with athletes from a range of sports.
Power cleans aren’t easy to master, but don’t let that put you off this great exercise. Whatever your fitness goal is, you’ll probably reach it sooner if power cleans are part of your workouts!
Learn how to do power cleans in our detailed guide.
4. Wall ball
Wall ball shares many similarities with thrusters. The main difference is that you release the ball at the top of a wall ball rep instead of keeping hold of it. Wall ball is also easier on your wrists than barbell thrusters.
How to do it:
- Stand in front of a tall, smooth wall. Hold a medicine ball in front of your chest, hands toward the bottom of the ball, and palms facing up. Place your feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward. Brace your core.
- Push your hips back and squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor. Do not round your lower back.
- Quickly stand up and push the ball up and overhead to a point roughly ten feet above the floor.
- Catch the ball as it comes back down, and repeat.
5. Bear Complex
Just in case combining two exercises together wasn’t enough for you, the bear complex involves five barbell moves all rolled into a sequence. The exercises that make up the bear complex are the power clean, front squat, push press, back squat, and another push press.
How to do it:
- Starting with the barbell on the floor, power clean the weight up to your shoulders.
- Do a full front squat, taking care not to round your lower back. Stand back up.
- Next, descend into a quarter squat and push-press the barbell overhead to arms’ length. Lower the bar down behind your neck.
- Bend your legs and do one back squat and stand back up.
- Dip your knees and then drive the weight back up and overhead to arms’ length. Lower the weight to the front of your shoulders.
- Return the weight to the floor and repeat the entire sequence.
6. Sotts press
The Sotts press is a strength and mobility exercise from the sport of Olympic weightlifting. Like thrusters, it combines squats with overhead presses but, this time, it’s a back squat. Be warned, this is a TOUGH exercise, so go light to make sure you can do the movement without losing your balance.
How to do it:
- Rack and hold a barbell across your upper back. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward. Brace your abs.
- Squat down until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. Do not round your lower back.
- Staying in the squat position, extend your arms and press the weight up and overhead. Lower it back to your shoulders and press it up again.
- Continue pressing for the required number of reps and then stand up.
The Sotts press can also be done using dumbbells:
7. Sumo deadlift high pull
The sumo deadlift high pull is to pulling exercises what thrusters are to pushing exercises. Like thrusters, the SDHP works a great many muscles, and you can use it to build strength and power or for conditioning and fat loss.
How to do it:
- Place your barbell on the floor. Stand behind it with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart, toes under the bar, and slightly turned out.
- Squat down and grab the bar with an overhand shoulder-width grip. Straighten your arms, drop your hips, and brace your abs. Your lower back should be slightly arched.
- Drive your feet into the floor and stand up.
- As the bar passes your knees, pull with your arms and bring the bar up the front of your body until it’s just below your chin. Your elbows should be higher than your hands.
- Lower the bar back down to the floor and repeat.
- This exercise can also be done from the “hang position,” i.e., starting/finishing with the bar around knee height and without lowering it to the floor between reps.
Thrusters are a challenging exercise that will build brute strength and power, increase muscular endurance, develop cardiorespiratory fitness, or burn fat. While it may take a while to learn and master, the combination of front squats and overhead presses is very time-efficient and involves many of your major lower and upper body muscles.
Is it an easy exercise? Hell, no! It’s a killer, and even elite CrossFitters dread seeing thrusters in their WODs (Workout Of the Day). But, as the saying goes, if you want to change your body, you’ve got to challenge it, and there is no denying that thrusters are a VERY challenging exercise!