Thrusters – One Arm or Two?
Written by Nick Hawkes

If you could sum up the idea of CrossFit in a single movement it would be the thruster. Just like the ideology of CrossFit that utilizes mixed modalities, the thruster is just that; a squat into an overhead press. It is a thing of beauty, pain, anxiety, and triumph all compounded into a single movement. 

Being a long-femured athlete I never really enjoyed the thruster, where you have athletes like Nicole Kribs (DeHart) who would boast how she, “just loves thrusters because I enjoy seeing just how fast I can go”. Although I can’t really appreciate her sentiment, and “love thrusters” are not two words that I feel should ever go together I still find value in the idea of the thruster.

Here’s Nichole warming up for her fast thrusters back in the day…See how her hair is flying around? Proof of speed…

To be honest I have claimed numerous times that I am retired from thrusters…well at least from barbell thrusters. The barbell forces you into a fixed position where if you have any mobility constraints, and most of us do, the utilization of a barbell and adhering to the movement standards can be problematic and lead to injury. 

If you take the barbell out of the equation and throw out the dogmatic movement standards, we can maximise the thruster as a tool and minimize the injury rate. Besides, doing 21-15-9 Thrusters with two 45lb dumbbells is much more of a challenge than 95lbs loaded on a bar anyway…Feel free to try and change my mind 🙂

Single-Arm Kettlebell Thruster

Salute to the single-arm kettlebell thruster! You can actually use either a dumbbell or a kettlebell for these. I like how the kettlebell grants you the ability to maintain pec engagement due to how it is loaded; you can really curl it into you as the weight is distributed differently than a dumbbell and rests on the forearm. I feel the athlete has to be more connected with the kettlebell and can be a bit sloppier with the dumbbell.

If you have a hard time maintaining tension throughout the movement, find that you shift when unilaterally loaded, or if going overhead with a single kettlebell strikes fear or causes shoulder pain, some “Mind Muscle” may be what you need…Check out: Creating Mind-Body Connection for Shoulder Internal Rotation for an example of what I’m talking about. 

The single-arm thruster is a great customization to the standard thruster for a few different reasons and these reasons hold true no matter what movement you are customizing. 

Unilateral Work

The majority of the movements that we do in CrossFit are bilateral in nature, and it feels like it’s almost a downgrade, or a modification for someone with a shoulder issue to have to use a single arm or leg. This is pretty short-sighted. Perhaps if prescribed more unilateral work there would not be an injury. Only using a bilateral, and fixed movements, with a barbell allows or forces the athlete to go into compensation patterns. The utilization of the kettlebell in this situation provides for more natural rotation and movement of the joints involved.

Midline Work

This goes along with the idea of unilateral work, but I feel that it deserves it’s own bullet point because it is so important. When utilizing unilateral movements or when you load the body unevenly, you give your body the opportunity to utilize the obliques and other tissues that need to be engaged for anti-rotation and actually to create rotation.

Deficiencies Exposed

Truth Teller. The single-arm kettlebell thruster will expose your mobility or lack thereof. Weak midline? Exposed! Weak shoulder structure? Exposed! Poor Thoracic mobility? Exposed! You are just weak? Exposed! The ability of this movement to show you where your deficiencies are is uncanny.

We are functional beings that need to be able to navigate a diverse landscape and ever changing environment. Choosing to utilize unilateral movements like the kettlebell thruster will help prepare you for unbalanced obstacles outside of the gym and in real life.

Single-Arm Kettlebell Workout

Playing with kettlebells…Want a fun workout that can be done with a single kettlebell? 

Every 60 seconds (right arm on odd minutes & left arm on even minutes) complete:
Single-Arm Power Cleans x 4
Single-Arm Thrusters x 8
Single-Arm Overhead Walking Lunge x 12 steps

Go until you can not complete the required work in the 60 seconds or you just quit. If you want to really test your mobility, switch the lunges to overhead squats. Try it out and let us know how far you make it!

Drop us your name to be notified when the online Mind Muscle Class is open for registration!


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RJ Niewoehner
RJ Niewoehner
September 26, 2020 7:01 am

Great article! That video doesn’t show the one-arm thrusters, though… its too short, I think the demo got cut out…