It’s 2019, Why Are You Still Doing Burpees?
Written by Ben Lawson, ISSA certified PT
Humidity is in the air. Sweat can be smelled from a mile away. Iron is being pressed, pulled and thrown around. Cardio machines are occupied and drenched. Battle Ropes slap the floor. In the corner of the gym a trainer is hovering over an unconditioned client doing burpees. Why? It’s used as a standard marker of toughness. When I was in Army Basic Training, our Drill Sergeant (DS) challenged our platoon, by allowing anyone who thought they could do 50 consecutive burpees to raise their hand. There were 2 hands raised. A friend of mine thought he could do it and being a personal trainer and fitness enthusiast, I knew I could. He promised a fast food meal, which to anyone in Basic is like gold, to whoever could accomplish this feat. He even allowed a 30 second break at the 25-count mark. After the first 25, we were both out of breath. Doing that many burpees is tough but with issued combat boots and uniform, it felt like cinder blocks were attached to our feet. I think my friend knocked out about 8 more when his body gave out. I, with the cheering on of my platoon, accomplished all 50. I never saw the fast food meal, but I did gain the respect of that DS. But the question stands, why is the burpee the go to tough move in all of fitness? Most people I see doing them are not in very good shape and are more susceptible to injury. I believe this poor exercise selection is a result of a few distinct reasons.
Burpees require a lot of skill and concentration. They involve jumping, tightening, pressing, etc. The issue is, to maintain proper form and good mechanics the spine must remain neutral. This move is a full body workout. It causes fatigue quickly and is hard on the wrists. Performing only a few exhausts most, but for some reason these are often done in an allotted time period or for an unrealistic number. Over fatiguing DOES NOT translate to more progress, in fact the opposite is true. Usually the one’s performing them are those who have little to no exercise experience who have no business over-doing intensity like they do.
So, what are reasons we should ditch the move? Exercise can be measured by its effectiveness at delivering results. What are desired results? Weight loss, muscle gain, maintaining/improving functionality or therapeutic reasons are among the most common. Let’s take a look at each and explain why the burpee isn’t efficient at any of these.
1. Burpees for weight loss: Weight loss is a result of calories in vs. calories out (law of thermodynamics). For years of poor marketing and sheer laziness, cardio has been the most utilized form of exercise for weight loss for decades. It does a great job at burning calories, in the moment. Any cardio can be used to create a thermodynamic effect. So why would you pick such a complicated, high risk move? Lower impact moves such as running, cycling or rowing are much easier on the body and don’t require such a high skill to perform.
2. Burpees for muscle gain: The idea of using circuit or intense- style complex explosive moves should not be associated with gaining muscle. Strength, maybe, but not gaining muscle. Muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth) is achieved through proper nutrition, rest periods and basic compound or isolation moves. Moves, like the burpee, that incorporate so many body parts while causing the body to fatigue before hypertrophy are not effective muscle builders.
3. Burpees for maintaining or improving functionality: Functional moves are anything that translates into everyday life. Many argue burpees are a functional move. If you look at the burpee’s purpose, it causes the body to relocate very quickly. The only time that would be functional is if you are in a dodge ball tournament or dodging bullets, (maybe Neo was a Crossfitter?). In any sport requiring relocation, there are much simpler, safer moves.
4. Burpees for therapy: Typically therapeutic exercises are done for rehab. Rehabilitating requires low impact moves that start at the lowest possible progression. For example, if you can’t squat, you should start with assisted stand-ups from a chair, working your way up. Burpees are not only too intense they have no therapeutic carry over. No rehab should use such an intense move.
I believe there is two main reasons people do Burpees. The first being lack of knowledge or understand of exercise physiology. This counts for trainers too. Something intensity makes you or your client feel like they had a really great workout. They don’t see how horrific of a move it is, only the selling point. The second reason is our easy life. Our lives are getting easier and easier from a physical standpoint. We sit at desks all day only to rush home and sit in front of the TV. Our body crazes cortisol being released and an intense workout is the easiest way to do it. Burpees are a mindless answer to a complex issue. If you want to get better conditioned or any of the other goals’ discussed, skip the burpee and do something that’s actually effective.