Fuck Burpees: A Critical Look at Exercise Selection
When I first got into fitness coaching I made myself a promise. I promised that I would never program Burpees for my clients if I could find a better exercise for their goals. So far, I have kept that promise, and never programmed burpees.
The Burpee is the most ubiquitous movement in the fitness world. It is the bread and butter of conditioning, and your just-deserts for that cheat meal you had, or for showing up late, or because you think you deserve them, or your trainer does, or because you didn’t finish your training fast enough, or just because. You know what? Just for thinking about bread and butter, give me 10-burpees!
There is a better way to do things. Exercise shouldn't be punishment! Exercise is a privilege. Exercise is a birth-right. Exercise is therapy. Exercise brings us health. We shouldn’t be treating it as punishment. Yes, we should push ourselves, and train hard, but not as punishment.
This style of ‘coaching’ is lazy. This style follows the idea that the harder you work, the better the individual will perform or meet their goals. I have nothing against hard work, but not all work is created equal. If you’re running a race, but take off in the wrong direction, it doesn’t matter how hard you run, you are not going to win. So, the work that we give our clients must be the right kind of work for their goals.
Whether you do your own programming, or hire a coach, when choosing which exercises to use you should always ask: why is this exercise here? Does the particular movement help you reach your goals, or is it just there to fill space and create ‘work?’ Then you need to decide on the duration of the movement: sets, reps, and rest.
What is a Burpee?
A burpee is a callisthenic movement that is performed from the standing position. The trainee then squats down, places their hands on either side of their feet, and shoots their legs back. From this plank position, they then pull their legs back between their hands, holding the squat position, and then stand up. This is the original Burpee. There are many variations used now. Common ones include: adding a push-up in the bottom position or jumping from the squat position.
Where Did Burpees Come From?
The Burpee exercise was invented by American physiologist Royal H. Burpee. Dr Burpee was prominent in the 1930’s and revolutionised much of what we know about exercise. The Burpee exercise was originally designed as a fitness test. A trainee’s resting heart-rate was recorded, then trainee would perform four, yes FOUR, Burpee exercises and the time for their heart to return to the resting heart-rate was recorded. The quicker this happened, the better their score on the fitness test. From here the Burpee was converted into a fitness-building exercise by the US military. It was used to assess mobility, strength, and cardiovascular fitness.
The Burpee was designed as a fitness test, and still is a good fitness test.
When choosing the exercise you will need to bear in mind the SAID principle: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. This means that your body will adapt in a specific manner based on the demands required of it for the movement. For example, if you want to get better at jumping, you will need to either jump, or mimic jumping, more. The hamstrings are used in jumping, but to strengthen them specific to jumping you are going to get better results using a kettlebell swing than a prone hamstring curl.
Some basic tenets of exercise selection include: limiting factors, compound/isolation movements, range of movement, loadability, and injury risk.
Limiting Factor: The element that may limit the performance of the exercise; e.g. a weak core will inhibit your ability to squat heavy.
Compound vs Isolation Movements: Is it a multi-joint movement or single joint movement? For example, for bicep development would you choose a chin up or a bicep curl? It all depends on your goals.
Range of Movement (ROM): Can you perform the needed range of movement, or is the exercise working through the range of movement necessary for your goals?
Loadability: Can you increase the resistance on the movement. A bench press can be loaded much easier than a push up.
Injury Risk: Is the risk of injury worth the returns. A deadlift has potential for injury, but few exercises can replace the benefits. High rep box jumps have a high risk of injury, but there are dozens of other options for conditioning.
How Burpees are Typically Used
Generally you will see a Burpee programmed as a high-repetition exercise. Often you will see it in ‘high-intensity’ classes. This is ironic because time and intensity have an inverse relationship. This means that the longer the duration the less intense your output will be. True intensity requires very short output duration, generally around 10-15 seconds, with a relatively long rest period before repeating. Depending on the individual’s conditioning, a ‘high-intensity’ session shouldn’t run more than 15-20 minutes. Intensity and duration are inversely related; the longer you do something the less intense you efforts will be.
If you watch most people perform Burpees for high-reps you will quickly see their form deteriorate. This is because of the highly-technical nature of the movement. When a movement is technical and done for high-reps, it will increase the chance of injury due to form breakdown.
Often people will program Burpees as a ‘strength’ exercise, but once you can perform a 5-10 full push-ups and bodyweight squats, then you are no longer building strength without increasing the load. Remember, strength is built by increasing the load moved and not by increasing the repetitions done, up to a point. In fact, the requisite strength is needed before learning the burpee to prevent injury.
Finally, the most common way I have seen Burpees programed is as punishment. This is my number one complaint about the Burpee. Exercise isn’t punishment. It is a privilege. As an industry, we need to step away from the idea that we need to punish ourselves in the gym. If an exercise doesn’t specifically relate to improving one’s goals, it shouldn’t be given out, especially if it is just there to punish the trainee.
How Should Burpees Be Used?
Burpees should be used when they are the best option for a trainee to reach their goals; which is usually never. There is almost always a better exercise choice. That said, if you have an affinity for Burpees, or are preparing for a Burpee challenge, below are a few options for programming. Just remember, keep the goal the goal. Unless you are aiming to master Burpees, they may not suit your goals. Don’t program them in, ‘just because.’
As with any high-risk, highly technical exercise, it is best done with small repetitions. The Burpee is a viable option for explosive or plyometric work. Another option for using the Burpee is as part of Alactic-Aerobic training. Program them similar to a kettlebell swing, 3-10 sets of 10 reps with adequate rest to prevent ‘the burn’ and form breakdown. If you are going to program Burpees in high reps, it is best used for testing fitness levels occasionally, as more exposure to high-risk movements increases the likelihood of training injury. Always focus on good technique and rest or stop when technique breaks down; just as you would with any power movement.
As I mentioned before, every exercise should aim toward the desired outcome. Unless your goal is to punish yourself or complete a Burpee challenge, then the Burpee Exercise is usually not the best option.
There are plenty of exercises that are better than the Burpee. Most in this list are going to be more sport specific, be less technical, have better loadability, and reduced chance of injury.
o Full squat to overhead press
• Squat jump
• Squat jump and push up superset
o Perform one set of squat jumps, a set of push ups, then rest.
• Humane Burpee Pyramid
o 10-Kettle bell swings, 10-goblet squats, 10-push ups
o Keep reducing reps from 9 to 8 to 7 all the way to 1 rep of each movement. Only take rest as needed.
The Final Say
As you can see, the Burpee has come a long way from its roots as a physical fitness test; performed four-times. It has become the go-to exercise when a trainer has run out of ideas, or when they feel like punishing people. If you’re going to prescribe an exercise, make sure it matches with the goals. I refuse to use exercise as punishment, and always look for the best exercise for the client. So, you won’t find me programming Burpees. Fuck Burpees.
Start the discussion below! What do you think about burpees?
Coach Josh Wood is a personal trainer and backpacking coach who lives in Hobart, Tasmania. Working as a Wilderness Guide in Tasmania, he noticed the amount of injuries received by guides and hikers that were completely preventable! Using his years of practical experience and knowledge he focuses on helping people have injury-free adventures that give them stories to last a lifetime.