by Ben Bruno T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- Barbell thrusters are great for those who can do them with excellent form, but not for most lifters. The rack position of a front squat and the overhead press grip make a difficult combo for one exercise.
- If you do get the thruster form down, your overhead press will limit the load and number of reps you could be doing for your front squat.
- Deconstruct the thruster by doing several barbell overhead presses, then rack the bar, readjust your form, and immediately do several more front squats.
- Switch to landmine thrusters to improve your form and get an equal distribution of difficulty for both upper and lower body.
The barbell thruster is a fusion of a front squat and overhead press. It works like magic for those seeking heart pounding intensity, hypertrophy, and fat loss.
It’s becoming a staple for those experienced with basic barbell lifts, especially skilled CrossFit competitors. When they do thrusters, it usually looks fluid and athletic. Check out this video from CrossFit featuring Rich Froning:
So in theory, it should be a great exercise for everybody because it works just about every muscle in the body and it jacks up your heart rate to boot.
But just because some can do them well, it doesn’t mean it’s a good exercise for most lifters. It’s like watching Olympic diving on TV and then going into your backyard with your buddies and trying to replicate what you saw off your diving board.
It’s not going to look anything like what you watched on TV, and someone may get hurt.
That’s what happens when most people try thrusters. Technique and mobility restrictions keep them from performing it well, so at best they have an unsuccessful exercise; at worst they have a health hazard.
Many lifters can’t overhead press correctly without leaning back. Many lack the mobility to squat with a complete range of motion and good form. Many struggle just to hold the rack position of a front squat.
Now combine all these issues, add speed and momentum to the exercise, and do a ton of reps in the name of jacking your heart rate up. What you end up with is one giant train wreck known as thrusters.
Most ordinary lifters performing thrusters don’t realize how cringe-worthy their form is. What they do ends up looking like a lopsided press and a partial front squat.
The Trouble With Good Thrusters
Assuming you can do both overhead presses and front squats with good technique, there are still two unavoidable problems with the thruster exercise.
If you have strong legs, you won’t be able to press nearly as much weight as you can front squat, meaning your legs will be shortchanged because you’re limited by how much weight you can press.
Good front squats require holding the bar in the rack position, which is very different from the grip you use for overhead presses.
For front squats you want to keep the elbows up so that the upper arm is approximately parallel to the floor and perpendicular to the torso. This makes it infinitely easier to keep an upright torso while you’re squatting.
In order to achieve a good rack position, most lifters will do better taking a few fingers off the bar.
Now contrast that with an overhead press grip where you’re gripping the bar tight, the elbows are in line with the torso. Notice how different the upper arm position is between a front squat and an overhead press.
Thrusters require holding the bar with a press grip, which makes the front squat very uncomfortable on the wrists and also makes it hard to keep an upright torso because you can’t keep your elbows up.
And if you start to lean forward on the squat, it puts you in a bad position to start your press, so both portions of the movement suffer.
Two Options Better Than Thrusters
Option 1: A Deconstructed Overhead Press and Front Squat Combo
Rather than trying to fuse the front squat and press into one movement, try this:
- Do a set of strict overhead presses.
- Rack the bar and reset your grip to a more comfortable front squat grip.
- Do a set of controlled front squats for twice as many reps as you did the press.
This allows for cleaner presses and cleaner, more comfortable front squats. It also allows the legs and upper body to receive equal stimulation.
Most lifters should be able to do about twice as many front squats as presses, but if you’re particularly strong or weak on one exercise, adjust the ratio accordingly so both exercises are challenging. As a rule, stick to 5-10 overhead presses and 10-20 front squats.
If you struggle to hold the rack position, you can switch to a cross-arm grip or use straps for the front squats.
If you’re worried that this combination won’t jack up your heart rate as much as thrusters, don’t be. I put a heart rate monitor on myself and several clients and found that doing six presses and 12 front squats led to higher heart rates than a set of 12 thrusters.
Bonus: Separating the exercises will also allow you to use greater loads.
Option 2. Landmine Thrusters
Landmine thrusters are a user-friendly alternative to the barbell thrusters. They’re easier to perform and easier on the joints.
Landmine squats and presses don’t have the same mobility demands as conventional squats and presses, so more people will be able to do them well.
Most lifters find landmine squats to be easier on the knees and lower back than front squats, and landmine presses to be easier on the shoulders than traditional presses.
Using the landmine eliminates the need for the rack position, which a lot of folks struggle to achieve.
Lifters’ landmine squat and landmine press are a lot more even strength-wise than they are when done the standard way. So the squat portion of the exercise doesn’t get short-changed nearly as much as it does when doing it the conventional way.
As an added bonus, landmine thrusters can work as a great self-teaching tool for the squat pattern. Use it as a tool if you tend to struggle to bring your hips all the way through at the top part of the squat.
It’s important to achieve full hip extension at the top part of the squat, but a lot of people stay in hip flexion and never go that last little bit, especially during sets of higher reps. By adding the press to the landmine squat, it forces you to bring your hips through at the top.
So you can have all the benefits achieved by the thruster without any of the drawbacks.