Introducing… the Thruster
The “Thruster” was a new movement coined by CrossFit®, first showing up on crossfit.com on February 1st, 2001. Before functional fitness, the Thruster wasn’t a thing. It was actually two things: a front squat and a push press. CrossFit® just happened to put them together and give them a name.
Anytime you are combining movements it means more muscle groups are getting pulled into the equation and the systemic loading will be greater. That’s a fancy way of saying that they spike your heart rate, tax your breathing and make you hurt quicker.
Thrusters are like any barbell movement in the sense that you can make it a strength or a conditioning tool based on the loading and number of repetitions. Building to a 1-Rep Max is a completely different technique and stimulus than 10:00 workout’s worth of a light barbell paired with Burpees or Rowing.
Historically, the Sport of Fitness has used the Thruster as a work capacity tool, both for the development and testing of fitness. In the history of the CrossFit Open, there has never been a max thruster tested and in fact, the only loading ever used has been 95lbs for men and 65lbs for women.
For that reason, this guide is going to focus on developing technique and efficiency at moderate to light loads. However, it would be a mistake to only do thrusters at a set weight. Practicing at a variety of loads in unique workout scenarios is the only way you will truly master this movement.
Mobility – Strength – Skill
To maximize your potential, capacity and efficiency for cycling cleans you must master the movement’s specific mobility, strength and skill demands. Renowned CrossFit Coach, Ben Bergeron, calls mobility, strength and skill the three-headed monster. Let’s take on the monster one “head” at a time.
1) Upright-Torso Squat
Creating an upright torso squat starts with the lower body: hips, knees and ankles. I’ll give you my top recommendations for stretches to improve each. Remember that the source of the problem is often connected to the surrounding tissues. For example, caving knees is due to weaknesses and motor control issues of the hip. Patellar (knee cap) tracking issues is often due to shortness / tone in the muscles that cross both the hip and the knee. Hamstring and low back tightness is often made worse by tension or shortness in the calves, heel cords or feet.
Here are my favorite mobilizations for the hips…
Here is my favorite mobilization for the knee…
Here are two of my favorite mobilizations for the ankles…
2) Full-Grip Front Rack
The front rack is a complex position. Just like the squat includes three joints (hip, knee, ankle) the front rack -and the press to follow- includes three joints (shoulder, elbow, wrist).
Just like most issues with squatting comes from the hips, most issues with the front rack come from the shoulder and the tissues that manipulate it. Some of the major muscles that manipulate the shoulder are the lats, pecs, biceps and triceps. Tightness in the shoulder usually originates elsewhere, but pops up at the joint.
Work with a coach to diagnose the root of your problem because mobilizing everything will be overwhelming and time consuming.
As a rule of thumb, if a position challenges you, you should spend some time “hanging out” there.
If that’s your squat, then hold a squat. If it’s your front rack, spend more time in a front rack and slowly demand that the position improves.
Here is one of my favorite ways to spend time in the front rack, which also serves as a great “catch all”…
The overhead position is an important part of your success in the Thruster, but the good news is that it requires slightly less mobility than a jerk. In a jerk variation (push, power, split) you drive then dive back under the bar to the catch. The catch position is something like a push jerk requires more available range than the Thruster (push press) where you don’t rebend the knees.
However, it is still extremely important that you have the ability to stack your joints and relax in the lockout. This is how you create efficient movement. And it’s just not about the Thruster. Overhead squats, handstand push-ups, overhead lunges, overhead yoke carries, snatches, etc. will all be significantly more efficient with a stacked, relaxed lockout. Trust me, if you in this Functional Fitness thing for the long term, it will be worth your time to develop good positions.
Here are some of my favorites for improving your overhead position…
Heavy is relative. Then again, so is efficiency. This is why It is also important to remember that a prerequisite level of strength is needed to be efficient.
For example, if the Thruster weight in a workout is above 50% of your one-rep max in that movement, you will never be efficient. In my research and empirical evidence, athletes can become efficient (i.e. relaxed, smooth, consistent, sustainable) with a barbell that is loaded at or under 25-35% of their max, depending on the movement. Since an athlete’s Thruster max will be low relative to his clean and jerk, -because of the push press- we will use the high end of that range: 35%.
In other words, for a Male to be truly efficient with the standard 95-lb Thruster barbell, he needs a max of 270lbs.
For a female to cycle a 65-lb Thruster barbell efficient, she needs a max of 185-lbs.
Does that mean if you don’t have those numbers, this guide will be useless to you?
Not at all.
But it’s important to understand that you will have a more difficult time learning to be efficient and developing the skills that will be covered in this guide at a lower level of strength. Continue to learn to be both efficient and explosive. Strength and endurance are both skills. You will need both.
1 – The Clean
The Thruster typically starts from the floor (versus a rack) and the easiest thing to do is a squat clean into the first Thruster rep: a “Cluster” if you will. You want to shorten that clean extension and perform a “Pull Under” version of the Clean, it will save you a bit of time and energy on the initial rep.
Remember, each time you drop the bar in the Thruster it will give you a chance to breathe and recovery (obviously), but it also means that you must “Buy-In” with a clean to be able to do Thrusters again. This doesn’t seem like much, but let’s look at a quick example. Let’s say we had two athletes do Open Workout 19.5…
For Time // 27-21-15-9
Athlete A: His strategy is to break up the sets in small chunks of three’s to maximize his ability to do the Pull-Ups in bigger sets.
Athlete B: Her strategy is to go unbroken on the Thrusters and then small manageable sets on the Pull-Ups, allowing the heart rate to come back down.
Both Athlete A and Athlete B did cleans that counted for nothing. But Athlete A ended up doing 24 cleans while Athlete B did 4.
Realize that at the same fitness level, this does not mean that Athlete A attacked the workout wrong (necessarily) or that Athlete B got a better time. It just means they were forced to do extra work.
The takeaway here is that bigger sets are better, but they are also costly. There is a fine line between avoiding a Clean “Buy-In” and redlining your heart rate past the point of return. Your job is to be able to find that line and toe it in each workout, knowing that total reps, workout duration and movement pairing will be formed in endless novel combinations.
2 – Timing
So we’ve found our way in the bottom of the clean on that first rep. As you begin to stand up that front squat, there’s a very important piece of timing you need to master.
You must not begin to press until you have fully extended your hips. Wait until you feel your knees push back and lock to begin your press. Lock the weight out and meet the movement standard. Then unlock your elbows and catch the weight again, but wait to unlock those legs. As soon as that bar touches your shoulders the hips unlock and you begin to catch the weight. It’s a lot like catching a water balloon; give with the weight.
A helpful analogy is imagining you have a button on your shoulders. The button, when pressed, unlocked your hips, allowing you to squat freely. However, as soon as that bar leaves the shoulders, the button isn’t being pressed and the hips lock. Essentially, anytime the bar is overhead the joints of the lower body must be stacked: the hips, knees and ankles.
3 – Posture
Back in the mobility requirements, I articulated why an upright torso squat is so important. Essentially if your back rounds, the hips get pushed behind the bar or the elbows drop, even a light Thruster weight will bury you. An upright torso allows you to move up and down with minimal wasted movement and allows you to maximize your power transfer. It also allows you to utilize the front rack or “shelf” so you aren’t holding the weight.
The collective of factors that allow you to organize in an upright torso Thruster can be described as posture. Posture is something that is universal: it’s not just about the Sport of Fitness of the Thruster. Posture leads to confidence and effectiveness in an array of realms, both inside and outside of sport.
Posture -and an upright torso squat- start in everyday life. Check the way you walk, stand, sit and sleep. Draw your attention to your position in moments throughout your day. Allow that to carry over to other areas, like air squats in warm-ups and empty barbell technique work. If you take the time to be deliberate and not skip steps, you will eventually be able to express this capacity in weightlifting movements, including the Thruster.
Sometimes athletes are capable of good posture, but they simply aren’t focused or deliberate so sloppy technique takes over. One of my favorite drills to overcome this is the Triple Pause Thruster.
There are three high support positions in the Thruster: the bottom of the squat, the bottom of the dip and the lockout overhead. To reinforce balance, position and breathing mechanics you stop at each position and take a full breath: inhale + exhale. I demo it below…
4 – Bracing
Bracing is simply the amount of tension needed to effectively complete a movement. There is a window for an appropriate brace. Too little brace and you will lose position, caving and rounding, which is inefficient. Too much brace and you will stop breathing, acculude blood flow and spike blood pressure, which is inefficient. The correct amount of brace is the minimum amount it takes to maintain position because this allows you to breath through the brace, stay relaxed and continue to move through many reps. This juxtaposition of relaxed tension is one of the keys to efficiency. I talk more about it in Breath & Move Article.
Obviously, there are different types of Thruster workouts, each requiring a unique amount of brace. Factors that will determine an often subscious decision about the amount of brace needed will include: athlete’s strength, loading of the bar, speed of movement, workout duration and movement pairing.
5 – Breathing
Lastly, a huge separator for athletes in the Thruster is mastering breathing. I highly recommend reading the article Breath Ratios before continuing into this section. It will provide you with the background you need to get the most of this information.
There are two options for breathing in the Thruster.
First is a 1:1 Breath-to-Rep Ratio, in which you will inhale as your shoulders catch the bar, breifly hold it as you change direction in the bottom of the squat, and then exhale as you drive the bar back overhead.
The second option is a 2:1 Breath-to-Rep Ratio. Here the breathing during the actual movement is the same. The only difference is you pause in the lockout overhead and take another full breath cycle: inhale and exhale.
It’s possible to do a 3:1 or 4:1 Breath-to-Rep ratio, which essentially just means taking more breaths with the bar locked out overhead, but this becomes progressively more inefficient and slower. I recommend 1:1 or 2:1 or dropping the bar.
The two factors that will determine whether you use a 1:1 or 2:1 Breath Ratio is breathing rate (a marker of systemic fatigue) and tricep fatigue (as it becomes progressively harder to hold the lockout).
These factors are more obvious in the latter half of a workout. This is where it becomes more and more important to find the correct balance of breath pace and cycling reps. If both your breathing and triceps are equally fatigued, chances are you will stick with the 1:1 Breath Ratio and break up the reps as needed. If tricep fatigue is higher than global fatigue (e.g. a Ring Dip & Thruster couplet), you will stick with that 1:1 Ratio and limit the amount of time under tension on the triceps. But if systemic fatigue and breathing are out of control, yet the triceps are fine (e.g. a Running & Thruster couplet), you will switch over to the 2:1 Breath Ratio and allow yourself to keep moving and not drop the bar.
To athletes with poor overhead mobility: You may not have the ability to execute a 2:1 Breath Ratio effectively because your lockout is not a relaxed, high-support position. You may have to cycle through as many reps using 1:1 and not stopping until you decide to drop the bar.
Common Errors: Using a Fingertip Grip (or) Holding the Bar Up
One of the most frequent mistakes I see with Thrusters has something to do with the Front Rack. Typically the athlete lacks mobility or doesn’t understand the position, but typically those two come as a package deal.
The first error is that the athlete let’s go of their full grip go for a more ‘spacious’ fingertip grip, like they often use for cleans or front squats. The issue is there is no jerk (a movement that allows for a counter motion) in the Thruster. With no time to reclaim a full hand on the bar, the athlete is left to press the bar with just their fingertips. It’s bad news for both pressing strength and the wrist joint.
The second error is if the athlete holds the bar with a full hand, but doesn’t use their delts and collar bones for support. Ideally, you should be able to take your hands off the bar completely and still be able to front squat. An athlete who has this type of error often has a combination of poor mobility and a lack of experience / knowledge of what to do.
Common Errors: Changing Torso Angles in the Bottom of the Squat
For athletes that struggle to maintain an upright posture when squatting, it is usually the combination of several factors: poor mobility (hips, ankles, t-spine, etc.), long femurs, respiratory & postural fatigue, etc.
If you are struggling with this fault, start by pulling back all the layers. Film yourself in an unfatigued setting with a moderate load. If you notice you still can’t maintain an upright torso, it’s a mobility thing In other words, work on your Range of Motion while also producing force. If the problem disappears or is significantly better, it was likely you lose postural integrity as load and fatigue increase. Build up strength in unfatigued settings before adding fatigue back into the equation.
Common Errors: Holding Your Breath (or) Having Scattered Breathing
One of the most common mistakes I see with the Thruster is athletes not knowing how to breath in the movement. If you notice you are holding your breath through multiple reps, not getting a full exhale (shallow breaths) or just aren’t being consistent or organized in your breathing pattern…go back to the barbell. Practicing breathing and during Thrusters unfatigued and at loads that allow you to focus on the breath. Start low, go slow. Don’t try to layer on complexity too quickly: heavier weight and fatigue may seem like good training, but position is a more important stimulus over the long term than suffering. All the common errors, this one included, follows the same principals.
Prioritize the adaptation. Prioritize movement quality.
TL/DR | Here’s the Summary
1) Upright-Torso Squat
2) Full-Grip Front Rack
3) Stacked Overhead Barbell Lockout
1) Efficient Movement: Below 35% of Your 1RM
2) Males: 95 pounds is ~35% of 270 pounds
3) Females: 65 pounds is ~35% of 185 pounds
1) Clean – Use the “Pull Under” Technique for Light Loads
2) Timing – Hips don’t unlock until the bar contacts the shoulders
3) Posture – Consistent Back Angle, Straight Up & Straight Down is Efficient
4) Bracing – Like Goldilocks (Not too much, Not too little, Just right)
5) Breathing – brief hold during squat change of direction, breathe when bar is overhead
- Using a Fingertip Grip
- Holding the Bar Up (not letting it rest on your shoulders)
- Changing Torso Angles at the Bottom of the Squat
- Holding Your Breath
- Scattered Breathing