- The burpee is one of the most hated exercises due to its high degree of challenge.
- At the same time, it's come under fire in recent years because it's not nearly as useful of an exercise as people expect.
- The goal of this post is to identify the relative strengths and weaknesses of this exercise, so you can decide for yourself if burpees are a useful tool for you.
- ~700 words, a 5 minute read.
The burpee is easily one of the most hated exercises in the fitness community.
As a coach, writing burpees into programs is sure to cause groans and sighs in your clients. As an exerciser, they just plain suck - they’re hard, your heart rate soars, and you feel like an idiot as you awkwardly gyrate your body up and down. They often make me quite a bit lightheaded. At the same time, I see coaches and trainers constantly arguing online about whether or not the burpee is actually useful for anything.
Burpees have always existed as a “metabolic” exercise. We burpee because it uses a lot of muscle at once - both upper body and lower - making it a solid example of an exercise that will burn more calories, work more muscle, and just generally help us get in shape.
Burpees also implement jumping motions, which are notoriously good for cranking up your heart rate. This is due to the explosive nature of these movements: jumps require very fast contractions to get your body weight moving, and the faster your muscle contractions are, the more muscle your body is recruiting to move the weight.
If you were forced to pick just one exercise to be the only exercise you’re going to use for the rest of your life, the burpee would be a solid choice. I would say that the clean and jerk would be a winner in that department, but clean and jerks are also a much more technical and complex movement that requires a lot of practice to master.
In recent years, burpees have been enthroned further thanks to the influence of CrossFit, which has implemented burpees as an actual competition movement. Before, burpees were an annoyance that trainers forced on their clients - now, they’re a necessary competitive movement that some athletes need to practice and master.
I personally don't have much against burpees. I use them occasionally in programming with general fitness clients who have no competitive goals, and enjoy the challenge and difficulty that they present. However, I don't use them a lot - because there's not a lot that they're specific to.
Here’s some of the arguments for and against burpees:
Burpees are cool because they:
Use a lot of muscle at once.
Save time, getting in a full body workout with just one movement.
Burn a lot of calories quickly.
As a necessity when training for CrossFit.
Are simple and easily teachable, minimal issue of injury due to improper form or bad technique, provided appropriate progressions are used.
Require no equipment, making it particularly useful when training at home or in group classes where you may not have endless floor space.
Burpees suck because they:
Aren't a very specific exercise, and don’t have a ton of specific carryover to most sports. This makes them often a waste of time compared to more specific movements.
Place high stress on metabolic systems. Combined with the large number of muscles used, this means that energy production will probably be the weakest link, so you’ll tire from that before you actually fatigue muscles maximally - making it not a great exercise for building muscular strength or size.
May be difficult for some beginners, who will need easier variations to ease into the movement.
Are high impact due to the jumps involved, which means problems for those with pre-existing joint issues.
Can't be as efficient at cardiovascular training as traditional cardio, making traditional cardio a more efficient way to tax the metabolic systems.
Are a sort of “jack of all trades, master of none” exercise, excelling in no particular area.
Are not very scalable on their own after a certain point - you can only do so many burpees. You can advance them by adding in advanced variations or a weight vest, but since a weight vest is a relatively specialized piece of equipment, they're not very common.
Are not nearly as scalable/effective as Olympic lifts, if the goal is to have a good full body exercise. At the same time, Olympic lifts also require a much greater amount of practice to master, so they're not a perfect solution either.
Ultimately, the burpee does have more downsides than upsides, in this strict sense. I think that the burpee can be used effectively by certain exercisers to build general fitness. If the goal is an elite physique or high levels of performance in any sport (except CrossFit), there are probably much better tools in the toolkit. What the burpee does, can often be done more effectively with other exercises.
That being said, I think that the burpee’s challenge relative to the amount of equipment that it requires (none) combined with its high degree of overall challenge, will make it continue to be a staple in group classes for many years to come.
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