A burpee sounds like something that should be silly. It isn’t.
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Burpees are brutally efficient as a workout tool, meshing cardio and strength training into an extremely high-intensity package. In seven simple movements, the exercise works your body from top to bottom.
It’s a continuous-movement activity that uses the full musculature of your body, says exercise physiologist Griffin Nykor, RKin, CPT.
“It’s not easy,” says Nykor. “But it is worth it.”
So, let’s get started.
The benefits of burpees
The toughest exercises check a lot of workout boxes. Burpees certainly do.
From an aerobic standpoint, burpees put your ticker to the test. The exercise offers the breath-stealing effect of running in a very condensed timeframe. (Nykor recommends keeping burpee sessions between 30 seconds to 90 seconds.)
“You’re going to feel huge peaks in heart rate — and it’s going to happen quickly, given the intensity of the exercise,” explains Nykor. “You’re asking your body to use a lot of energy and a lot of oxygen.”
But there’s also a strength, or anaerobic, side to burpees.
Movements within the exercise mesh resistance training with explosive muscle action. A burpee targets your arms, chest and shoulders. It’ll work your abs and tax your leg muscles, hips and gluteus maximus, too.
“It’s all-encompassing,” says Nykor. “You’re working everything below the top of your head.”
How to do burpees
Burpees require no equipment and a limited amount of space. Best of all, the exercise can be broken down into seven simple and familiar movements. “There’s nothing particularly tricky about it,” encourages Nykor.
Here are step-by-step instructions. (Warm-up before starting, too.)
- Begin in a standing position. Position your feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your back straight, your chest out and your arms at your sides.
- Drop into a squat. Bend your knees, driving them out slightly past your toes, while bringing your butt down. Keep your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on the floor (palms down) in front of your feet.
- Kick your legs back into a high plank position. Your body should be in a straight line from shoulders to heels. Lock your arms in place. Keep your head straight, eyes looking slightly ahead. (“You’re going to feel some core activation,” says Nykor.)
- Lower toward the ground. Bend your elbows and bring your body toward the floor. (Basically, the bottom part of a push-up.) Keep your body straight and your core tight.
- Rise back to high plank. Focus on keeping your body straight.
- Return to a squat position. Jump your legs forward. When you land, make sure your feet are flat on the floor. (Your positioning at the end of this move should be the same as in Step 2.)
- Jump! Reach your arms up as you launch toward the ceiling. “It should be an explosive jump,” says Nykor. Land in the original standing position and then go back to Step 1 and restart the process.
Key tips on burpee form
There are two positions — a squat and high plank — that you reach twice while doing burpees. That makes using proper form doubly important for those steps, stresses Nykor. Let’s look deeper at each.
- When in the high plank, make sure to stack your wrists, elbows and shoulders. Don’t put your hands too far forward. “Your bones are stronger than your muscles,” says Nykor. “Use the anatomy of your body to your advantage.”
- While squatting, keep your feet flat and resist the urge to come up on your toes. “If your feet are planted firmly, you’ll have a much more stable base,” says Nykor.
Burpee exercise variations
The instructions above outline your run-of-the-mill burpee. That’s not quite tough enough for some exercise innovators, though. “Modifications to the routine can help keep things fresh,” says Nykor.
Examples include using a weighted vest, which can put your muscles to an even greater test, or slipping another movement into the flow of the exercise.
Additions could include:
- Adding a “jumping jack” leg split as you do your pushup or to the jump.
- Sliding your body into a pike position while in high plank. (Your body will look like an upside-down V.)
- Doing a “mountain climber” move from high plank. (Do this by bringing your right knee to your right elbow, then your left knee toward your left elbow.)
Search online for a seemingly endless array of burpee variations, including some that utilize equipment such as a box or a pullup bar. (A quick note: Many of these modified exercises are more advanced.)
Can you make a burpee easier?
Absolutely, says Nykor. If doing a regular burpee is more demanding than your current fitness level, make adjustments. Maybe that means not doing the jump at the end. Or not doing the push-up.
“Do the exercise to your abilities,” advises Nykor. “It’s OK to make changes to burpees to make them more accessible.”
Should some people avoid burpees?
Given the intensity level of the exercise, burpees aren’t ideal for everyone, says Nykor.
The heart rate spike may be a concern if you have a heart condition. Nykor recommends getting approval from your doctor or cardiologist before trying the exercise if you’ve had a cardiac event.
People with back or hip injuries also may want to avoid the exercise. Ditto for those with shoulder issues, such as a torn rotator cuff.
Fun facts about burpees
A fitness innovator named Royal H. Burpee mapped out the exercise in 1939 as a quick-and-simple way to assess a person’s fitness. He developed it as part of his PhD thesis at Columbia University. (He passed, of course.)
A few years later, the U.S. military used Burpee’s exercise to assess new soldiers and gauge whether they could handle the physical rigors of combat.
And while the exercise is usually done in short bursts, some go for the long haul. The Guinness World Record for most burpees in 24 hours is 12,003 by an Australian woman named Eva Clarke. (The male record is 10,815.)