Beyond the Burpee Exercise

Beyond the Burpee Exercise
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The Burpee Exercise


I think the fitness industry has gone burpee-mad! I would never denounce the burpee as an exercise since I prescribe them myself in classes and private training sessions.  But the burpee is not all I have up my trainer sleeve.  In fact, burpees do not even make my top 25 favorite exercises.  Despite their low ranking, they are a challenging movement with some sport-specific value for those training in MMA, the combat sports and Krav Maga, because of the need to learn how to sprawl.  But I am aware of the contraindicated aspects of a burpee, prefer the modified versions and know so many other body weight exercises.

Like every other intense exercise and even some of my own sport specific movements, I cycle off of them, and find other ways to accomplish the same total body conditioning.  I believe that many trainers/instructors are becoming lazy – constantly defaulting to burpee blasts.   Instead, burpees should rotate in and out of routines in an organized manner, while always offering an alternative for those with bad knees and backs.  When on a burpee cycle, it is important to create an alternative exercise for less fit individuals or those with injuries.  ‘Killing’ our clients with burpees does not keep the long-term health of their body in mind.  Furthermore, it sends a message that exercise is also some form of punishment.  I understand the need to fulfill our client’s desire to feel pushed and worked after leaving a workout session, but it cannot be at the expense of their body.

Royal H. Burpee is the man that created this dreaded movement that is over-performed in so many modern fitness classes.   The burpee was used to test the strength and agility of soldiers in the 1930s.  Certainly appropriate when evaluating whether a soldier could quickly get down when encountering enemy fire and then get back up.  Its original format was performed as one set of 20 seconds.  Some references say that less than 13 reps was considered poor physical shape, whereas 13 or more was considered ideal.   But even Mr Burpee himself thought the 4-count movement should not be performed at high volume.  In the foreword of Burpee’s book (Seven Quickly Administered Tests of Physical Capacity and Their Use in Detecting Physical Incapacity for Motor Activity in Men and Boys), he writes that the burpee exercise is strenuous and most appropriate for those already in good cardiovascular shape.  He even pointed out that when performed at high reps, it could cause problems with the knees and back, particularly if the user has poor core strength.  Bernie Lecocq, Owner of Rivernorth Gym in the Merchandise Mart is in sync with Mr Burpee’s POV, “ Burpees are great for young athletes for a quick total body exercise, but for older athletes it will expose every ache and pain they have.” Sounds smart and dead on to me!

So why is it that the burpee seems to be the only movement many trainers can think of to create an intense total body interval?  Despite the fact that the burpee involves a large number of muscles and joints, truth is it is hardly a perfect exercise.  It does not involve the frontal (vertical) or transverse (horizontal) planes of the body.  Despite that the burpee is not a perfect exercise, it still seems to be the most popular exercise right now.  The goal with movements like burpees is to use them periodically and remember that that are not superior to other exercises.  Ryan Hoover, Owner of Fit to Fight® points out that, “Burpees are great, but burpees have no greater value than any of the hundreds of other body weight exercises that any qualified trainer should have filed away in his/her mental database. The burpee has somehow become the “go to” or the standard, which I’m not sure I get.“  Clearly I have colleagues that use the burpee, but responsible trainers are aware of the burpee’s shortcomings.  My friend Carsten Beckmann, Owner of FitPro West in the Loop isn’t a fan of burpees at all. “I think they should only be performed by people with good hip and hamstring flexibility and after performing several hamstring, lower back and hip stretches.”

So if you have been taking boot camp style classes and feel that you loved the work out but feel you could live without the constant tributes to the burpee, tell your instructor and ask for a modified movement that helps you get closer to your goals.

Here are some general Burpee Guidelines I have created for both trainers and participants.

  • Make sure you speak up to your trainer.  If 80% of your workouts in the last 3 months have included burpees, you need to ask for an alternative exercise.
  • I would personally skip them altogether if the burpee is part of the warm up and the body has not experienced a proper activation period with flexibility.
  • Since the intensity of the burpee is derived from a combination of the multi-joint movements and the speed, slow the movement down to enhance the quality of the movement particularly when you are changing levels and lowering down to the ground to avoid injuries.
  • You can also isolate one aspect of the 4-count burpee movement and repeat that segment at a control pace, like the wide squat.  This way you are involved in the drill, but not sacrificing your knees and back.
  • Take an inventory of the exercises you have been over-prescribing as a trainer or performing as a client. Then be proactive to modify or perform an alternative exercises for a period of time so that you are cycling off the movement.
  • If you are an instructor, take an inventory of what other instructors are doing in their classes (by watching or conversation).  For example, if you teach the Monday 6pm Boot Camp and someone else teaches the Wednesday 6pm session, ask them what they are doing, so you do not over train your clientele.  The goal is to comprehensively train the body and design programming that reaches that goal without causing overuse injuries.
  • Take a break from burpees altogether for a period of time and use other movements to accomplish an explosive interval workout like: jump squats, broad jumps, side lunges, lunges at various angles, etc…
  • When performing the burpee, I prefer the feet being placed in a  wide position.  This way when you lower down to the ground your hands comfortably fit between the feet.  This places the movement more in the legs (hamstrings), than the lower back.  Make sure your hands are placed under your shoulder joint.

History of the Burpee Video

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