The Ultimate Guide to Thrusters for CrossFit

Written By Charleh Dickinson  |  Thrusters 

For any CrossFitter, barbell thrusters are the ultimate test of strength and endurance. This exercise combines a front squat with an overhead press and is sure to leave your muscles burning.

The movement consists of three parts: 

  1. The bar starts on your shoulders
  2. You then squat below parallel 
  3. You end standing with the bar completely locked out overhead

While thrusters may seem straightforward, there is a right way and a wrong way to do them.

But fear not. In this guide, we will cover why you should incorporate thrusters into your regime and the proper technique, including standards, modifications, common mistakes and even some advanced tips so you can smash your next workout. 

Why do thrusters in the first place?

Thrusters are actually one of my favorite barbell movements - if I could just do one exercise for the rest of my life, it would probably be thrusters. 

That's because thrusters require hip and ankle mobility, good thoracic spine mobility (being able to squat in an upright position), and they also involve shoulder mobility. 

All those mobilities aside, there's also core strength, overhead strength, leg strength, making it a great combination of mobility and strength. 

Thrusters also make you really, really tired - so you can get a great cardio workout doing a heck of a lot of thrusters. If you don't believe me, then try the Fran workout. 

So that’s why they’re worth your time. Now, let's take a look at some of the standards you need to know about. 

Thruster standards

This isn’t necessarily a standard, but because there’s a squat involved, I always suggest putting your feet in a squatting position that's generally just outside your hips or underneath your shoulders, ready for when you pick up the bar.

Next, you're going to get the bar to your shoulders - that’s a power clean. From this position, squat below parallel, so that the crease of your hip ends up below the top of your knee. Then, with power, drive out of the bottom and press overhead. 

And that’s how you do a thruster!  

But before you try it for yourself, let’s take a look at some of the most common faults you need to avoid.

Common thruster mistakes

There are a tonne of different mistakes I see athletes making when they're doing thrusters, but I'm going to cover the top five mistakes to keep things simple. 

Mistake 1: Bad rack

The first mistake that I want to talk about is what I call a bad rack - there are three different instances of this. 

Holding the bar away from the shoulders

So the way that we start a thruster is in what's called the front rack position. That means the bar is resting the majority of its weight on your shoulders as you squat and then go overhead.

The problem a lot of people make is that when they have the bar on the rack, they're not even letting the bar sit on their shoulders, and they do this thing where they just pick the barbell off their shoulders, and they'll squat with the barbell not touching their shoulders. Just doing one rep like that is absolutely exhausting. 

A good rack position should have the bar sitting on your shoulders so that if you take your hands away from the bar, it will stay in place. So remember, the bar needs to be sitting on your shoulders, and you should just have your hands on the bar.

Dropping the elbows

The next bad habit that people tend to do is letting their elbows drop. 

If your elbows are pointing down when you squat, your elbow is going to hit your leg or knee when you squat down. That’s one sure way to break your wrist, so it’s super important that you don’t make this mistake. 

So as the bar rests on your shoulders, try to drive your elbows up so that when you squat, your elbows aren’t anywhere close to touching your knees. 

Resting the bar on your fingertips

The final mistake that contributes to a bad rack is when you end up in a position where the bar is resting on your fingertips. It’s impossible to lift the bar overhead like this.

What you need to do as an athlete is find a happy medium.

So how can you keep at least four fingers underneath the bar in the front rack position? And how can you keep a majority of the weight resting on that rack of your shoulder and not put all the weight and pressure on your elbows and on your wrists?

The goal is to get as much weight on the shoulders, go into the squat and then drive up and overhead. 

Mistake 2: Bad stance

The second most common mistake that I see athletes make is that they have a bad stance. 

This bad stance could be because of your hand or feet position. 

Bad foot stance

More often than not. I see people pick up the bar, and their feet are super narrow. They get into a good front rack position but struggle to then squat because their feet aren’t wide enough.

So remember, in order to have a good stance, you want your feet wide enough so that you can execute a squat very easily. For me, that's feet underneath the shoulders or outside the hips.

Bad hand/arm stance

I’ve also seen people where, rather than having a rack position where their hands are outside their shoulders, they have their hands super narrow. I can tell you right now, this is not an efficient way to do a thruster, and it makes it way too difficult to rest the bar on your shoulders.

I’ve also seen people do the opposite, where their hands are too wide apart on the bar. That’s another thing to avoid unless you want to be stuck doing awkward thrusters. 

To recap, a good stance consists of having your feet just outside the hips or underneath the shoulders for a good squatting stance with your feet. You also want a good stance with your hands. For me, it's just outside the shoulders. 

And that’s how you get into the perfect stance for a thruster.

Mistake 3: Not using your legs

Mistake number three is not using your legs.

Remember, your legs are probably much stronger than your arms. So when it comes to the standard barbell thruster, you want to be using your legs as much as possible.

The common mistake that I see is rather than driving from the legs, hips, and then arms, some people will do something where they start pressing too early or where they rely too much on their shoulders and arms.

Typically, with a bad, all-arm thruster, you’ll start pressing overhead as you stand, so the bar leaves your shoulders way too early. That’s a strict thruster, which you don’t want.

Instead, create as much momentum as possible using the legs.

To get it right, think about it in this order: legs, hips, and then arms. 

The movement should also be slower on the way down and explosive on the way up. 

To get the most power and the most efficiency out of your thruster, use your legs and drive out of that front squat as hard as you can. Extend your hips, squeeze your butt cheeks and glutes. And then, to finish the movement, press overhead without relying too much on your arms.

Mistake 4: Not breathing properly

Common fault number four is not breathing, or at least not breathing properly.

I know it seems ridiculous. But oftentimes, whenever a barbell or heavyweight is involved in a functional fitness workout, there's this tendency to forget to breathe when we're under tension. 

When it comes to a thruster, you're under tension, or you have a barbell weighing down on you and you're moving pretty much the whole time. So a lot of people just forget to breathe, so they end up burning out really quickly.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I've seen people hyperventilating and not actually doing a real true breath. 

To avoid this, I like to breathe out as I'm pressing up and locking out, then breathe in at the top and as the bar starts to come down.

Personally, I don’t breathe during the squat - some people find this effective while others don’t, so try it for yourself to see what works best for you. 

The bottom line is don't overlook breathing - and make sure you pay attention to it in the middle of your workout, and you might end up finding the perfect breathing pattern to help you maximize your thruster efficiency. 

Mistake 5: The lazy lockout

The final mistake I’m going to cover is one of my biggest pet peeves: the lazy lockout. 

This is when you're not locking out your elbows all the way, or you're locking out but not letting your head stay neutral so that you're pushing the barbell out in front or looking up. 

The bent arm lazy lockout is something I see all the time. It's where you're just getting the barbell over your head, but don't lock it out. That's a no rep. 

Another thing that happens when it comes to lazy lockouts is this weird technique of keeping your head back. So maybe you’re getting arm extension, but the bars in front of your body and your head is back. That’s another no rep.

Now, let's move on to modifications to help you get better at thrusters.

Modifications

The really cool thing about CrossFit and functional fitness, in general, is that it's infinitely scalable.

So if you’re still struggling to fix the faults I’ve covered or can’t meet the movement standard, there are plenty of options to modify the movement and improve your thruster performance to eventually meet the standards. 

Scale the weight

The first option is to scale your weight. A 65-pound thruster is going to be a lot easier to navigate through with the full movement standards than a 95-pound thruster.

Scaling the weight down will help you to increase your range of motion and increase your efficiency so that you can get the stimulus you want out of the workout.

Scale the ROM

Tip number two is to scale your ROM (range of motion).

If you can't do the full range of motion, I'd rather see you do three-quarters of a thruster perfectly than trying to do a whole thruster, and it's an absolute train wreck. 

To do this, you can simply shorten your squat. 

Alternatively, if you have issues locking out the bar overhead, even with the weight completely scaled-down, you can always allow yourself not to lock out your elbows. 

I know I mentioned this was a fault, but if you can't meet the standard due to a specific injury or immobility, it's your job to make sure that you're always bumping up against your limits.

Another scaling option is to remove the bar from the equation and use a kettlebell or some dumbbells instead, using one or two arms - whatever works best for you.

Switching to a single-arm lockout is a great option if you're struggling to lock out both your elbows above your head with a bar.  

Elevate your heels

Another thing you can do if you're having trouble with squat depth you may be dealing with an ankle flexion or dorsiflexion issue.

To solve this, try placing a couple of little plates under your heels or wear weightlifting shoes to raise your heel up. 

By lifting the heels up, you’ll be in a better position to do the squat, and you’ll notice getting into that full range of motion is easier.

Split the movement

The final scaling option is splitting the dynamic movement into its different parts. This approach works really well for beginners who are struggling with unbroken thrusters and want to get to grips with all the different components of a thruster. 

You can either split the thruster into a front squat and a push press or even a front squat and a strict press to break the movement down into individual parts. 

To do this, do a front squat, take a breath and then press the bar overhead. You can do that in exchange for thruster reps. While it’s not technically Rx, you can still get the same stimulus and practice.

Eventually, you can get rid of that pause in between and turn it into a real thruster.  

If you need support to become a more well-rounded athlete, check out for step-by-step programming that will help you to Rx more workouts.
ultimate guide to Thrusters

Advanced thruster tips

For those of you who already have done a lot of thrusters and completed Fran multiple times, here are some advanced thruster tips to help you move more efficiently in workouts.

Squat your first rep

Advanced tip number one is to squat your first rep - or, more accurately, clean your first rep. 

So rather than stepping up to the bar, picking it up to your shoulders, resetting your feet and then doing your thruster, combine all of those movements to incorporate a squat clean into your first rep. 

This means that, as you step up and pick up your bar, you drop directly into your squat. While this may seem like just a small difference, taking that first rep and making it as fast as possible will save you a lot of seconds over the course of a long workout.  

Rest at the top

Advanced tip number two is something that I discovered from studying Rich Froning, and that’s to rest at the top.  

High-level competitors do this all the time. They find it easier - and more efficient - to rest with the barbell at the top than resting with it on their chest.

Obviously, this isn’t going to be the case for most people, but for advanced athletes doing thrusters, you might find that pausing for a very small amount of time - something like a quarter of a second - at lockout is the perfect amount of time to get that full breath cycle and accordion into your next rep.

Speed reps

The third advanced tip is what’s called speed reps. This is where you take that pause and throw it out the window. 

I don’t use this strategy very often - the only time I would use speed reps is if it was a very fast workout such as Fran (and you can already do it unbroken, no problem).

So if you’re an advanced athlete or the bar’s light enough, you can lock it out and then literally pull the barbell down into your next rep rather than waiting for gravity to accelerate the movement  - that’s how people get the world record Fran times. 

To Summarize

Overall, the thruster is a great exercise for full body conditioning and developing power. But as with all exercises, there are some scaling options to make the thruster more accessible for beginners, and there are some advanced tips to help you move more efficiently.

If you’re new to thrusters, start with the scaling options and work your way up. And if you’re already doing thrusters, try out some of the advanced tips and see how they help your workout times. 

I hope you found these tips helpful! 

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