How to Vary Your Routine and Get Better at Thrusters

Thruster variations can help develop mobility, stability, and strength.

They are the exercises that give you butterflies when you see their names in your workouts. The ones you know are incredibly beneficial, but it takes all of your will not to make an excuse why you can’t do them right now.

For me, that means thrusters. An exercise that deserves to be among exercise royalty for its amazing ability to cover so many different aspects of fitness – flexibility, stability, strength, endurance. I am always surprised that thrusters aren’t more of a cornerstone of functional training.

Thrusters are an excellent exercise that are too often avoided in people’s routines.

Building Strong Foundations

While burpees seem to get more attention than thrusters, we can easily make a parallel between the two movements. In fact, I would argue that you should possess a good thruster in order to perform burpees.

So many people slop through burpees thinking careful form isn’t important because it’s a bodyweight movement. But the reality is the burpee is an explosive drill requiring both mobility and strength in the hips, while also needing stability and strength through the shoulder girdle. Sound familiar?

It can be difficult to gain all these qualities from just doing burpees. Thrusters, though, offer an opportunity to use a wide scope of variations to help us gain these sought-after abilities. Thrusters allow us to open up the playbook in regards to effective and purposeful variations to challenge our fitness in many different ways.

“Yes, a lot of people do have mobility issues in their upper body, but using tools that allow us to have the arms move independently can help us work around such issues.” 

If thrusters are such a great exercise, why do so many may avoid them? Some will say lack of mobility in the shoulders and/or thoracic spine. Others may believe thrusters are only a conditioning exercise and lack great versatility. Both are legitimate issues, but can be solved if we take a big-picture look at how we can use the thruster to solve a multitude of fitness needs.

While most rely on thrusters performed with the barbell, I have found kettlebells and sandbags to be a far superior means of both optimizing and building purposeful progressions of thrusters. Why?

Independent Movement

Yes, a lot of people do have mobility issues in their upper body, but using tools that allow us to have the arms move independently can help us work around such issues. This also raises some of the metabolic and stability demands. An article published in 2012 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that we get more muscle activation when the arms work independently versus being locked into bilateral movements.

sandbags, josh henkin

Upper body mobility can be a challenge for many people, but sandbag training can help work around this.

Increased Problem Solving

The sandbag also provides solutions to mobility issues by allowing us to alter the direction of the load. While most assume the movement of the weight can only be vertical, some sandbag variations expand the possibilities of where we can take the external load during the thruster. This can help in building strength, endurance, and stability simultaneously.

Movement Accuracy

Ask most people why they would use a sandbag in the first place and they’ll tell you because it is unstable. However, ask them why that is important and they can’t clearly say.

“Most wouldn’t be able to argue with the old saying, ‘You shouldn’t try to fit a round peg in a square hole.'”

Instability requires us to create higher levels of movement accuracy. Instead of just muscling through a drill, movement accuracy requires precise movement and integration of the entire body. If there is fault in any level of the movement or a weak link in our kinetic chain, our movement accuracy becomes compromised. Increasing our movement accuracy leads to our nervous system becoming “smarter” and carries over to the idea of real-world strength.

More Muscle Activation

Most wouldn’t be able to argue with the old saying, “You shouldn’t try to fit a round peg in a square hole.” However, we do this all the time when choosing which tools and movements we try to put together.

In the variations shown below, you will see that in some cases it is possible to use the barbell, but doing so would actually take away from the benefit of using some of these thruster variations. That is due to the placement of the load being different between the barbell, kettlebells, and sandbag. Where the barbell sits on the frame of the body, the sandbag and kettlebells usually find themselves more anterior to the body. This slight anterior position means we are actually compressing the body more so and activating more muscles.

In a soon to be published study, researchers found using sandbags and dumbbells of the same weight and volume, with the same movement, held in the same position actually created a different metabolic response. The research showed that on average, the sandbag group had an eight beats per minute higher heart rate than the dumbbell group. That can be almost a 5% difference in exercise intensity, which is huge considering all the training variables are the same other than the implement.

For the Lifting Skeptic

Now, before you become skeptical as you feel these two implements aren’t going to provide you enough load, I challenge you to perform the following thruster variation with double 48kg kettlebells or a 160-pound sandbag.

Chances are you will never run out of loading options, but that really isn’t the whole story. When you combine movement accuracy, core activation, and increased mobility with stability, you are increasing your strength in a more holistic and meaningful manner. You will find your strength is truly functional because it will carry over to many other movements. And, yes, including your favorite burpees.

If you aren’t sold yet, I recommend you try a thruster workout created by Coach Anderson called Purgatory. If you don’t think thrusters can be all that, you will probably change your mind after this workout!

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1. Saeterbakken AH, Fimland MS. “Effects of body position and loading modality on muscle activity and strength in shoulder presses,” J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jul;27(7):1824-31.

Photos courtesy of CrossFit Empirical.

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