Burpees: A “Love” Story

Burpees. The suck. Whatever you call them, if you have ever done them, this topic probably makes you a bit uneasy, perhaps because you fear we are going to encourage you to bang out 100.

Burpees. The suck. Whatever you call them, if you have ever done them, this topic probably makes you a bit uneasy, perhaps because you fear that you have unknowingly stumbled onto a feature that’s going to encourage you to get up RIGHT NOW and bang out 100 of these bad boys. Never fear. I, too, have had the best intentions of learning to love burpees, but even after performing literally thousands of them over the years, I have failed. Miserably.

CrossFit aficionados participate in the “fun” tradition of yelling “Yay, Burpees!” when their coach says the word and/or they appear in a workout. However, this is meant to be ironic (at least, I think it is—the Alanis Morissette song has confused me and an entire generation about the actual definition of that word). Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be a single exercise that inspires in athletes the kind of invective and old-fashioned cussin’ that burpees do.

To wit, the very same CrossFit community described above recently posted the following prompt on its Facebook page : “If burpee had an alternate name, it would be _____” .

Out of the 885 comments people posted, note the following sample of responses:

  • Hell
  • Torture
  • Burpee! Thy name is DEATH
  • Vomits
  • Kill-mes
  • Suck jumps
  • T.T.I.M.M = taste throw-up in my mouth
  • The devil
  • Satan’s idea of fun
  • Poop!
  • Awful!!!
  • My ex-wife
  • Skunks ‘cause they stink

There were many more in the same vein, far outstripping the number of responses that actually had something positive to say about burpees. And these don’t even include any of the many R-rated suggestions.

Why all the fuss about burpees? What is it about them that strikes fear and revulsion in our hearts? Descriptions of how to perform burpees don’t sound that bad, and they are legion (simply conduct a Youtube or Google search and you’ll see what I mean). Individual descriptions are vary somewhat, but they are all variations on the same theme; all you have to do is squat, sprawl, execute a pushup, jump back to the squat position, and execute a vertical jump. How bad can it be?
Well, anyone who has ever read a CrossFit workout on the whiteboard and thought those famous last words has also experienced the phlegmmy, dry-heaving, days-of-recovery aftermath of such workouts. So let’s investigate a bit further. When you read the above description, can you identify a major muscle group that *isn’t* implicated in the execution of a burpee? No, they are full-body exercises—no part of you is immune. Also, their explosive nature ups the intensity; not one, not two, but THREE jumps are required to complete a single burpee. (Yes, one and possibly two of the jumps is executed when your hands are on the ground, but after a workout that incorporates burpees, ask your hindquarters and shoulders whether that was a difference that made a difference.) This means that both your muscles and your lungs will be making their displeasure known before too long.

Burpees are also known as a staple of “prison workouts,” workouts that require very little equipment and space, ostensibly because they can be performed by people who have space and equipment restrictions placed on them, including those who are incarcerated. With all due respect, most of us probably wouldn’t choose to associate our workouts with a prison sentence. Having that as a bit of context, let’s break down the burpee into its component parts. Perhaps this will provide additional insight into why it inspires such intensely negative reactions among the initiated.

The squat: According to legendary strength coach Mark Rippetoe, “There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that produces the level of central nervous system activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning than the correctly performed full squat.”

Coach Rip was likely referring here to the back squat, which is commonly referred to simply as “squat.” In a back squat, the practitioner executes a squat while supporting a barbell on the shoulders. (Where, exactly, on the shoulders is a matter of some discussion and preference.) The barbell is loaded to a weight that produces the desired training effect in that specific practitioner, and this will obviously vary depending on the strength and experience of the lifter. The back squat is not to be confused with the air squat, however, which is also routinely referred to as “squat”. The important point, however, is that there is no back squat without a solid air squat, so even if the air squat doesn’t confer all of the benefits Coach Rip describes, there’s still a lot going on.

The sprawl: Fling yourself face-first at the ground. Repeatedly. See how many times you can do this before you want to rip your own face off from frustration and fatigue. Chances are you will start to breathe heavily after the first 2 or 3, and if you’re like me, the full training effect won’t set in until after you have stopped. That’s when the effects of the exertion catch up and grab hold like a boa constrictor. Sprawling is what wrestlers do (except for the face ripping), over and over and over, to practice removing their hips and legs from the reach of an opponent who might be trying to close the distance and take them down. And any of you who know a wrestler have probably marveled at that person’s “cardio,” explosiveness, and just plain focus and intensity. Complete ten sprawls in rapid succession, and you will probably see why this might follow.

The pushup: Based on my observations of accomplished burpeeists (both ones I have seen in person and watched in videos), it appears that the most efficient way to hit the pushup seems to be to sprawl to the bottom of it, so that when you fling yourself at the ground, you land in a plank position with your chest almost to the deck and your arms bent just enough to catch yourself before you slam into the earth. I know people who even take flinging themselves at the ground a step further and let their chests break their falls. This may be the most efficient way, but the self-preserving among us might find it difficult psychologically as well as coordination-wise. It’s also difficult to maintain over multiple reps because of the intensity, explosiveness, and control required.

Then, once you’ve made yourself one with the ground, you have to push yourself away from it, in direct opposition to the substantial energy you have expended getting there in the first place. Not to mention in direct opposition to gravity.

The jump: Finally, there’s the jump. You gather your feet back under you into another squat by jumping them forward between your hands, and then you jump as high as you can, achieving triple extension and throwing your hands in the air (like you just don’t care) or clapping overhead. Starting from the squat position increases the intensity of the jump, as does the fact that you must execute it after you have already executed steps 1-3 at least once. And if this is anything other than your first rep, you have executed steps 1-4 multiple times.

Perhaps after this synopsis it’s a bit easier to see where the burpee vitriol comes from. Any one of these elements of the burpee is going to challenge us physically, mentally, and neurologically. Put it all together, and it’s a veritable cornucopia of physiological challenges. Also, keep in mind that the descriptions above are the ideal way to perform burpees, but that it doesn’t usually take long for form to break down once fatigue sets in. As we tire, our squats become less squatty. Our sprawls become unholy alliances of donkey kicks and inchworms. Our pushups resemble nothing so much as bad break dancing. And our jumps barely clear the ground. The tendency for these things to happen increases as the number of reps increases. And the knowledge that we are falling short of the standard for performance adds to the mental challenge.

All this being said about how we hate burpees, I suspect we actually LOVE to hate them. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the strong reactions we do; remember that the opposite of love is indifference. This means we do love burpees, on some level; it’s the very things about the burpee that we hate that are the things that are good for us. Burpees are the spinach of the physical fitness world. Think about it: How good do we feel when we’re done burpeeing? It’s not just because the immediate discomfort has stopped. We feel good because we know we have accomplished something.

So, I guess I lied. This IS a feature that will encourage you to go forth and squat, sprawl, pushup, and jump. Maybe you don’t have to do 100, but go, and then go again, with feeling! Yay, burpees!