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

By Gabrielle Kassel
May 26, 2020
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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 USA Weightlifter, kettlebell coach, and personal trainer Rebecca Rouse. "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! *Devil emoji*. 💪

Read on to learn exactly what a thruster is and what you'll gain from doing them. Plus, find out how to do thrusters with dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells.

What Is the Thruster Exercise?

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.

It's true—thrusters don't leave any muscle group unaccounted for, says Rouse. And tapping so many body parts means serious results. According to her, the thruster brings gains to the below muscles:

  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Quads
  • Calves
  • Core musculature
  • Shoulders
  • Scapular stabilizers
  • Lats
  • Traps
  • Triceps
  • Biceps
  • Forearms

If you work an office job or your go-to weekend activity is playing Animal Crossing on the couch, Wickham says the thruster is especially beneficial. "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. Love that. (Related: Why You Should Care About Thoracic Spine Mobility).

Another muscle group the thruster exercise excels at working? The core. (And no, not just those six-pack ab muscles—your transverse abdominis muscles, too, 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).

Oh, and beyond strengthening your muscles, it 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. (Did you know that there are three types of cardio?)

How to Do Thrusters

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 types of thrusters into your workout (if equipment allows). "Long term, the increased variability will leave you stronger and more mobile," he says.

How to Do a Barbell Thruster

If you've never tried a thruster before, you might assume that barbell thrusters are the hardest thruster variation—but that's actually not true! Sure, for lifting newbies (hey, congrats on your recent endeavor!) it may take a little while to get comfortable holding and using a barbell. But according to Wickham, the barbell thruster is actually the best place to start for folks who have access to one. (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-B below. Then, steps C-E walk you through how to do the thruster itself.

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

B. Maintaining a proud chest and tight torso, clean barbell into front-rack position: Pull 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 barbell in the front-rack position (hands just outside shoulders, elbows directly in front of bar, triceps parallel to floor), legs hip-width apart in a quarter squat. Stand. This is your start position.

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

How to Do a Dumbbell Thruster

Can't get your hands on a barbell? Go ahead and substitute for two dumbbells or kettlebells. But be warned: The double dumbbell thruster is actually a harder variation of the movement, according to Rouse. Unlike barbell thrusters, which allow your sides to work together (and compensate for each other), during double dumbbell thrusters "each side is working independently of the other," says Rouse. "Because of this, double dumbbell and kettlebell thrusters require extensive body control and awareness."

If you want to give them a try, don't be an egomaniac. "Start really light," says Rouse. K?

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).

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 dumbbells to mid-thigh. Next, simultaneously straighten legs and pull dumbbells vertically up, rotating elbows underneath to catch the dumbbells at shoulder-height in a quarter squat. Stand. This is the start position.

C. Keeping core tight, elbows high, and chest forward, sit glutes back toward the ground.

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

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

How to Do a 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," Rouse emphasizes. 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. (Related: The Most Common Causes of Back Pain. Plus, How to Soothe Them ASAP).

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.

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 bells a few inches, then clean the bells into the front-rack position.

B. Double-check front-rack position: Handle of the bell should be along the center of the palm, the ball of the kettlebell rests on the back of the forearm, and the arm should be close to the body. The bicep should be tucked in next to the ribcage and the 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 into a squat. Press through heels to rise to standing while pressing bells vertically overhead.

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

How to Do a 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, Rouse says when performed correctly, unilateral movements strengthen your core more than bilateral exercises do. "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. (See more: What Is Unilateral Training and Why Is It So Important?)

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.

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

B. Hinge hips, lowering dumbbell somewhere above knees. Press through feet while pulling weight up alongside body. As bell passes hips, shrug bell up into front-rack position, catching in quarter squat before standing. This is the start position.

C. Inhale and tighten core, then sit down until butt breaks parallel before thrusting upward, exhaling while punching the weight overhead. Finish rep by straightening legs and arm, squeezing bicep in toward ear.

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

How to Do a 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. (Related: Why You Need to Start Doing Medicine-Ball Cleans, Stat)

"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."

He adds that because medicine balls are generally 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). Steps A and B describe how to clean the ball up to front-rack position.

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

C. Inhale, 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 ball overhead.

Is It Possible to Make the Thruster Exercise Easier?

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. (See more: What Are Compound Exercises and Why Are They So Important?)

If the above thruster variations 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 it's 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 it's 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.

How to Incorporate Thrusters Into Your Workout

If you're just learning the thruster 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 a thrusters workout 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. (Buh-buy elliptical, hello CrossFit thruster workouts.)

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.

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