The CrossFit program uses some unusual movements that you might not be used to seeing in your gym. One such movement is known as a “thruster”. You might still hear non-CrossFitters calling this movement a thruster, but the name was made official by CrossFit in 2001 and has stuck ever since.
Unless you’re familiar with the CrossFit library of exercises, this particular movement might catch you by surprise. If you see someone on your gym floor doing a fluid combination of a front squat and a push press, you’ve just come across a thruster in the wild. In fact, outside of the realm of CrossFit, you might hear this exercise simply called a “front squat to push press.” The unwieldy description is steadily being replaced by the shorter and friendlier name of “thruster,” so it would be a good idea to familiarize yourself with this exercise as it gains popularity.
Let’s break down the basics of this exercise so you can get a feel for what is and is not good form, and what kind of equipment you will need to provide to allow your members to do thrusters safely and effectively.
Because thrusters are a compound, combination exercise that incorporates both a squat and a push press into one movement, this exercise works the major muscle groups over the entire body. However, because it should be done with lighter weights than either the squat or push press on their own, thrusters tend to have more metabolic benefits rather than pure strength and muscle gains.
When you do a full-body exercise like a thruster, even with comparatively light weights, you tax the heart and lungs far more than you would with a simpler movement. Thrusters, therefore, can be a great way to incorporate a cardio interval workout into your weightlifting routine. And, especially when done as part of an overall circuit-style workout, thrusters turn up the calorie-burn factor and torch fat effectively because of how much energy they require.
Just because you use lighter weights to do thrusters than you would choose for squats or push presses doesn’t mean you will see no muscle-building benefits. Thrusters can absolutely help you develop explosive power over your entire body, from your legs to your core and up through your shoulders and arms.
In fact, this “explosiveness” is a key part of doing a thruster workout effectively. But in order to do this safely, first you must master your form.
Choosing a weight
The first step toward doing a great thruster is to choose an appropriate weight for your fitness level. As we mentioned above, you might be surprised at how light that weight will need to be initially. Until you get the hang of performing thrusters with excellent form, it will always be a better idea to choose a lighter weight than your maximum.
Explosive movements such as this one have ample room for error and injury if you get too confident and choose a weight that is too heavy. When you get tired and your form falters, make sure you take a rest or move to a lighter weight.
So, what is a good weight to start with?
If you’re already fairly fit, you can use this weight chart to determine your starting point. If in doubt, however, start out lighter than you think you can handle.
Once you’ve loaded the barbell (or selected the appropriate kettlebell or dumbbell pair, if you prefer), start in a front-rack position. For a barbell, this means standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart, your back tight, and the bar resting on the front sides of your shoulders. Your wrists should bend backward to accommodate holding onto the bar while it is in this position. Keep your grip shoulder-width or closer, and your elbows high. If you need a visual, take a look at this helpful post.
When you’re ready to start, push your hips back until you’re in a front squat, with your chest high, your back tight, and your thighs roughly parallel to the floor. Some exercise guides suggest dropping lower than parallel; that’s up to you and what you think you can handle. However, for the safest possible experience (for example, if you have a preexisting back injury), stop at parallel or higher.
Keeping your back straight, now explode up from the squat by driving your heels down into the ground. Use the momentum from this movement to drive the barbell up over your head into an overhead press position.
Return the bar to the front of your shoulders and regain your starting position. That’s one rep.
Thrusters are most commonly done with a barbell. Many people prefer to begin a set of thrusters by picking the barbell up from the ground and “cleaning” it into the starting position. Others will want a rack that will accommodate a barbell set at chest height.
Either way, do make sure to provide safety clips to hold weight plates onto the bar. Clips are essential for this movement because of the huge range of movement and the fast nature of most sets.
Other optional pieces of equipment include dumbbells, kettlebells, or even resistance bands for patrons who would rather avoid barbells. Though barbells are the traditional setup, any of these options are valid choices for a thruster workout.
Gym floor space is the only other “must have” to do thrusters properly. This is an explosive movement done under resistance, and as such, it requires a lot of surrounding space in order to be completed safely. If you notice a gym member doing thrusters in an unsafe area without enough space (for example, right next to other exercisers or in an area with a lot of people walking past), direct them to a more open area that would be suitable for such a dynamic movement.
Though your new members probably signed liability waivers when they registered for your gym, allowing patrons to work out in unsafe conditions can spell trouble for your gym. Keep everyone safe and happy by providing open, empty spaces for exercises like this one.