Dumbbell Thrusters vs Barbell Thrusters vs Kettlebell Thrusters

Thrusters are a great exercise, regardless of what you use to do them. While many of us are highly familiar with the barbell variation, two other means (dumbbells and kettlebells) are making their way into fitness competitions, functional fitness workouts, and everyday training. To help you decide which variation is best depending on your goals we decided to compare and contrast dumbbell thrusters vs barbell thrusters vs kettlebell thrusters to determine which one is best for strength, power, conditioning, and more. 

Thruster Variations

Below are three main thruster variations that athletes and coaches can use to increase strength, muscular balance, and functional fitness. Each is briefly discussed and provided with an exercise demo as well.

Dumbbell Thrusters

In a previous article we discussed the dumbbell thruster and the unique unilateral benefits it offers athletes of various fitness levels. Below is a quick video demonstration on how to perform the dumbbell thruster.

Barbell Thrusters

The barbell thruster is the most widely known thruster variation, a staple in CrossFit programming and competitions. Additionally, this barbell movement can be seen in Olympic weightlifting, however is often referred to as a squat + press or even done after a clean variation (clean into press). Below is a brief video demonstration on how to perform the barbell thruster.

Kettlebell Thrusters

The kettlebell thruster (both single and double kettlebell) variations have been extensively covered in previous articles. For many athletes, kettlebell training can be a great way to increase functional fitness, correct movement asymmetries, and develop maximize strength and neurological control. Below is a brief video demonstration on how to perform the kettlebell thruster.

Which is Best for You?

Below are a few situations and/or reasons why a coach or athletes would opt to perform on thruster variation over another.

Strength and Power Development (Barbell)

While dumbbells and kettlebells do offer a wide array of benefits (see below) that play a significant role on strength development and performance, the barbell allows for the most amount of loading (strength) and/or has less of a limitation for unilateral balance and neurological control (while it still takes a good amount). Thee same reasons why dumbbells and kettlebells are beneficial to athletes (see below) are also a weakness when looking for maximal loading and/or speed of a movement, as one piece of equipment is often easier to control and can allow for heavier loads and faster repetitions (strength and power).

Metabolic Conditioning (All)

At the end of the day, metabolic conditioning comes down to work capacity, heart rate, ventilatory threshold training, and muscular endurance. For best results, I would suggest athletes use a variety means to train the cardiovascular systems and muscle outputs, with specific emphasis on the sporting movement (if there is one, such as kettlebells for kettlebell sport athletes, barbells for CrossFitters, etc). That said, diversifying your modality of training here and there can lead to some significant progress in the long run. The key is to not swap exercises simply for the fact of making it harder (although this will be a secondary outcome), but rather to think of it as another way to challenge the mind, muscles, and heart rate.

Functional Fitness (Dumbbell and Kettlebell)

Functional fitness is often a vague term, however I personally define it as “the ability to exemplify strength, power, coordination, balance, and movement with structural integrity in a wide array of human locomotion and movement patterns.”

“FUNCTIONAL fitness is the ability to exemplify strength, power, coordination, balance, and movement with structural integrity in a wide array of human locomotion and movement patterns.”

With this said, many athletes fail to do the little things that can have a large impact of such attributes. Dumbbell and kettlebell training (in this case, thrusters) offer athletes another channel to increase unilateral fitness, address asymmetries, and increase stabilization of the core and shoulder regions. In the event an athlete is deficient in the barbell movement, I highly urge them to include the barbell thruster to work on strength, power, and total body synchronization (as most sports and human movements are done with gross movement patterning).


Postural Strength and Stabilization (Kettlebell)

Kettlebells are slightly more challenging when it comes to postural control, strength, and total body stabilization. Unlike dumbbells and barbells, kettlebells are not symmetrically loaded, as the bell is offset from the handle, creating a downward line of force that may have a slight diagonal vector to it. The result is that in overhead movements (such as the thruster), the wrists, elbows, and shoulders must promote strength as well as integrity to not allow the bell to bend their elbows or rotate the shoulder capsule excessively (thick external rotation training and scapular stability). Due to such a design, the kettlebell reigns supreme ever so slightly over the dumbbell.

All About Thrusters

Take a look below at recent articles covering kettlebell training, thrusters, and more!

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