How to Do Thrusters with Excellent Form

No matter if you're using dumbbells, a kettlebell, or a barbell, this guide will break down how to expertly execute the thruster exercise.

Woman Doing Thruster Exercise
Photo: Getty Images

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

You don't have to be a CrossFitter to master this fantastic 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 benefits 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 score the exercise's perks regardless fo the equipment you have on hand.

How to Do Barbell Thrusters

Demanding. Brutal. Full-body. Sweaty. Those are just some of the adjectives physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault, uses to describe 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 hardest thruster variation — but that's not the case. Sure, for lifting newbies, it may take a little while to get comfortable holding and using a barbell. But the barbell thruster is actually the best place to start for folks who have access to one, says Wickham. (Did you know there are 15-pound barbells and 2-ounce "mock barbells" too?)

To do 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 walk you through how to do the barbell thruster itself. Need a visual demo? Follow along with strength coach Taylor Neal, C.P.T., as she performs the barbell thruster below.

A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, the bar pressed against shins. Brace midline, hinge at hips to grab the barbell with an overhand grip, hands thumb-distance away from hips.

B. Maintaining a proud chest and tight torso, clean the barbell into front-rack position: Pull the barbell up along legs and, when the barbell passes thighs, explosively open hips (allow feet to leave the ground), and pull elbows as high as possible. When the barbell passes chest height, rotate elbows underneath to catch the barbell in the front-rack position (hands just outside shoulders, elbows directly in front of the bar, triceps parallel to floor), legs hip-width apart in a quarter squat. Stand. This is the starting position.

C. Activate core and press feet into the floor. Keeping elbows up, sit back and bend knees to lower into a squat.

D. When hips drop lower than knees, immediately drive through feet to explode out of the bottom of the squat. While rising to stand, press the barbell overhead, locking arms out completely.

E. Simultaneously return the bar to the front-rack position while sitting hips back into a squat to start the next rep.

The Key Thruster Benefits

By practicing barbell thrusters (or other variations) on the reg, you'll nab a few key health benefits.

Improves Strength In Posterior Chain

If you work an office job or your go-to weekend activity is playing Animal Crossing on the couch, the thruster is especially beneficial, says Wickham. "Your body conforms to the positions you spend the most time in," he says, "and when you're sitting all day, it takes a toll on certain muscles and joints — especially in your posterior chain and thoracic spine."

Moving and working those muscles (as the thruster does) helps counteract the damaging effects of sitting all day by improving strength and mobility, says Wickham. "Long term, this ultimately helps you ward off injury and age more gracefully," he says.

Works Your Core

The thruster exercise may seem like it primarily works your upper and lower body, but it also excels at targeting the core — and not just those six-pack ab muscles. Thrusters also target your transverse abdominis muscles, which help keep you stable and support your back. "It takes a lot of coordination and stability to do a thruster, which means your core has to be engaged the entire time," says Wickham. Let your core go loosey-goosey for even one second, and you risk losing control of the weight or throwing off your momentum. "Move well and with good form, and you'll be working your core better than most classic abs moves do," he says. (Looking at you, crunches).

Challenges Your Cardiovascular System

Oh, and beyond strengthening your muscles, the thruster exercise can also lend to a cardio challenge. "Program the movement at high rep schemes or as part of a CrossFit metabolic conditioning workout or HIIT workout, and you'll really improve your cardiovascular capacity," says Wickham. Trust, you'll feel your heart racing and sweat dripping after just a few reps, whether you're doing a barbell thruster or using other equipment. (Did you know that there are three types of cardio?)

Thrusters Muscles Worked

It's true — thrusters don't leave any muscle group unaccounted for, says Rouse. And tapping so many body parts means serious results. Specifically, the thruster brings gains to the muscles in your lower body, including your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves, says Rouse. Plus, it challenges upper-body muscle groups such as the shoulders, scapular stabilizers, lats, traps, triceps, biceps, and forearms. And as previously mentioned, the thruster exercise puts your core to work, she says. Translation: Thrusters make for a seriously effective and efficient full-body exercise.

Thruster Exercise Variations

No matter the equipment you use, the thruster exercise always combines a front squat with an overhead press into one fluid motion. But, "different equipment changes the demand on the body from a strength, mobility, and stability standpoint ever so slightly," says Wickham. His recommendation is to incorporate all of the below thruster variations into your workout (if equipment allows). "Long term, the increased variability will leave you stronger and more mobile," he says.

Modification: Reduce Weight or Slow Down the Movement

Hate to break it to you, but even for the most advanced athletes, thrusters are no walk in the park. In fact, if you ever feel like they're easy, you're probably doing them wrong. By design, compound exercises are hard because they work so many different muscle groups and joints at once, Wickham points out.

If regular thrusters aren't possible for you right now, Wickham recommends breaking down the movement into its individual parts (the squat and the press) and working on your weak point.

If thrusters are hard because you can't break parallel in your squat? Master the air squat. Once you can air squat to depth with good form, add weight by doing a goblet squat or barbell front squat, he says. If thrusters are hard because your overhead position is so-so? Work on your shoulder strength with some overhead presses and holds and these shoulder-boosting mobility movements.

Is it hard because of the rhythm of the movement? Lower the weight, and slow down the movement to a front squat to press, instead, suggests Wickham. Meaning, you'll pause at the top of the front squat before pressing the weight overhead.

Variation: Dumbbell Thruster

Can't get your hands on a barbell? Go ahead and substitute for two dumbbells. But be warned: The double dumbbell thruster is actually a harder variation of the movement, says Rouse. Unlike barbell thrusters, which allow your sides to work together (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 want to give dumbbell thrusters a try, don't be an egomaniac. "Start really light," says Rouse. Just as with the barbell thruster, to do a thruster with dumbbells, you'll need to get 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. Hold a dumbbell in each hand next to thighs, palms facing in.

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

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

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

E. Lower the dumbbells back to shoulders while descending into a squat to start the next rep.

Variation: Kettlebell Thruster

Kettlebell thrusters are slightly different from dumbbell thrusters. "The kettlebell thruster mechanics 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 kettlebell handle," says Rouse. So, if you're new to the movement and do have a set of (manageable) dumbbells, start there before progressing to the more-technical kettlebell thruster.

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

Below, steps A and B explain the proper way to power clean the kettlebell into the start position, while steps C and D explain how to do a kettlebell thruster exercise, which is demonstrated by Neal.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a kettlebell in each hand in front of hips, palms facing in. Hinge hips back and lower the bells a few inches, then clean the bells into the front-rack position.

B. Double-check front-rack position: The handle of the bell should be along the center of palm, the ball of the kettlebell rests on back of forearm, and arm should be close to the body. Biceps should be tucked in next to ribcage and elbows angled toward the floor, not out to the side.

C. Maintaining a tight core and neutral wrist (aka no break between hand and arm) sit back and bend knees to lower into a squat. Press through heels to rise to standing while pressing the bells vertically overhead.

D. Return the bells to front-rack position while dropping into a squat to start the next rep.

Variation: Single-Arm Thruster

Don't be mistaken: Using one weight instead of two doesn't mean the movement is half as hard. On the contrary, when performed correctly, unilateral movements strengthen your core more than bilateral exercises do, says Rouse. "When only one side of the body is loaded, the core musculature on the opposite side is super recruited to help keep you stable," she explains. Even though only one side of the body is bearing the load, the entire body is working together to perform the movement successfully.

Further, "most people are not equally strong, mobile, and flexible on both sides of their body," says Rouse. Doing any kind of unilateral work is beneficial in identifying and correcting those asymmetries, which can also help with injury prevention and rehabilitation, she says. Cheers to longevity!

If you look really wonky, you're probably doing it wrong. "Because you only have that one weight, it's common for folks to look crooked while performing this movement," says Wickham. "This is not ideal." The fix: Keep your core locked in to keep hips and shoulders squared throughout the movement. Again, steps A and B describe cleaning the weight up to the front-rack position, while C and D explain how to do the single-arm thruster, as demonstrated by Neal.

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

B. Hinge hips, lowering the dumbbell somewhere above knees. Press through feet while pulling the weight up alongside body. As the dumbbell passes hips, shrug it up into front-rack position, catching it in a quarter squat before standing. Left elbow is bent and left hand is hovering in front of chest. This is the starting position.

C. Inhale and tighten core, then sit back and bend knees to lower into a squat until butt breaks parallel. Then, thrust upward, exhaling while punching the weight overhead. Finish the rep by straightening legs and arm, squeezing biceps in toward ear.

D. Slowly bring the dumbbell back to shoulder and sink hips back to start the next rep.

Variation: Medicine Ball Thruster

Generally speaking, the oh-so-versatile medicine ball is one of the most under-utilized pieces of equipment in the gym, according to Wickham. In addition to 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 a great option for folks who don't feel comfortable using a barbell," says Wickham. "It's generally lighter and safer, and a ball-shaped tool is generally more familiar."

Because medicine balls are typically lighter, it's a great option for light-weight, higher-rep workouts that are geared towards increased cardiovascular capacity (aka getting you breathless vs. just building strength), he adds. Steps A and B describe how to clean the ball up to front-rack position, while C and D describe how to do the medicine ball thruster, which Neal demonstrates.

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

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

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

D. Drive through heels to stand while pressing the ball overhead. Slowly bring the ball back to shoulders and sink hips back to start the next rep.

Common Thrusters Mistakes

When performing a thruster, the basic rules for proper squat form apply: Keep your weight in your heels and avoid extending your knees past your toes, according to an article published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. As you press the weights up toward the ceiling, make sure to not arch your lower back (a sign your core may not be properly engaged) or hyperextend your knees and elbows, according to the Journal.

The weight you choose to use also matters, says Neal. "It is important to load the weight heavy enough that the athlete [or] exerciser [needs] power through the legs to 'thrust' the weight overhead," she explains. "By loading the exercise too light, the explosiveness of the movement is eliminated, reducing the strength and power gained."

How to Add Thrusters to Your Routine

Remember: You'll want to nail down the regular squat and the traditional overhead press before tackling the thruster exercise. And if you're experiencing any pain while practicing those exercises or currently have an injury, make sure to chat with your health-care provider and get the all-clear from them to continue on in your fitness journey. Once you're ready to combine the two movements into one exercise, start light. "Master the movement at a weight you can crank out 15 to 20 reps unbroken with good form," says Wickham.

Then, adjust the weight and rep scheme based on your individual fitness goals. "Thrusters can be used to improve power, strength, or endurance, depending on how you load the movement," says Rouse. If strength is your goal, spend some time warming up and building in weight. Then, do a set of 5 x 5 thrusters, as heavy as possible with good form, resting 2 minutes between sets. Spicy.

If endurance or cardiovascular capacity is your goal, do thrusters with high repetitions. You might try CrossFit WOD Fran, which combines 45 reps of thrusters and 45 reps of pull-ups. Or try CrossFit WOD Kalsu which entails completing 100 total thrusters as fast as possible, while doing five burpees on the top of every minute.

And if general fitness is your goal, Rouse recommends doing 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps with 90 seconds rest between sets.

Really, no matter how you incorporate the thrusters into your workout routine, you'll be fitter and stronger for it. Sure, the movement won't make you (or your pops) better at dancing, but it'll certainly give you the legs and lungs you need to boogie all night long.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles