Burpees: you either love ‘em or hate ‘em. This full body movement, now more than 75 years old, is often considered one of the most efficient forms of exercise. And one that’ll put your fitness level to the test. We talked to Aaptiv trainer Sultan Malik about the true definition of a burpee, the importance of form to reduce injury, modifications to keep in mind, and ways burpees can help you perform at your best.
Burpees consist of six primary movements.
“The burpee is a movement comprised of six primary movements: squat, thrust, plank, push-up, crunch and stand,” explains Malik. To do a burpee, start with your feet shoulder-width apart, keeping your weight in your heels and your arms at your sides. Push your hips back, bend your knees and lower into a squat.
As you put your hands on the floor, jump your feet back to land in a plank position, keeping your body in a strong straight line. (Some people, as Malik described, add a push-up here) From there, jump your feet forward to land right outside of your hands, and then stand (or jump!) up. Sounds easy, but the objective is to keep the movement continuously going as you work your entire body.
Burpees can serve as a great conditioning tool.
“A burpee is a full body movement that produces muscular strength and cardiovascular adaptations. As your strength advances, that progresses onward into metabolic conditioning,” said Malik. “Burpees provide all sorts of benefits, as they are functional compound movements. They improve proprioception and coordination. They also increase cardiovascular-pulmonary functionality as well as power and muscular endurance.”
By repeatedly bringing your heart rate up and down, burpees can improve your cardio fitness. They also target every single muscle in your body while releasing endorphins at the same time.
The bad news: without proper form, burpees can easily lead to injury.
Despite the popular appeal of burpees, many cite them as a quick path to injury—and for good reason. Without proper form, burpees can easily cause stress to wrists, knees, hips, and most of all, the lower back.
“Science shows that there are a number of reasons for burpees not to be used as a mode of movement,” notes Malik. “There are many issues of concern that arise when determining if one should perform burpees—such as instances of injury within the joints and bones of the axel and peripheral skeleton, from the sacrum up the spinal column, the shoulder girdle and arms as well as the pelvic girdle and legs.”
Trainer Jen Sinkler outlines common form mistakes she’s seen over the years, and explains ways to modify. For example, if you’re prone to dropping your hips as you jump back, due to low core strength, Sinkler recommends taking a wider stance to maintain a neutral spine. No matter if you’re a beginner or an expert at burpees, form matters—particularly core stabilization—through each movement during a burpee to keep your body safe.
The good news: burpees can be customized to all fitness levels.
Malik says the beauty of burpees is that many modifications and variations can be made. “For instance, a great go-to modification would be when going into the push-up portion, crossing the ankles and balancing on the knees. Another variation would be to add a jump at the end. To make it a little bit more fun and increase the thrill of the movement, try adding a side-body roll following the plank, then continuing on to a push-up.”
Other options: you can make it easier by stepping back to the plank (versus jumping), or using an elevated box under your hands. You can also make it harder by doing one-armed burpees or exploring the movement with feet together instead of apart.
Think quality over quantity.
It may be tempting to do as many burpees as possible in a single workout. But, most trainers suggest being mindful about quality over quantity.
“I would consider two things when thinking about how many burpees to do in a session. First, is the client’s propensity to remain focused and challenged during a session. Second and, perhaps most important, the overall training goals. What purpose do burpees serve?” Malik says. “As a trainer, adding burpees to a workout all depends on what I’m trying to achieve. For instance, group training versus personal training. In either instance, if I decide to employ them, it’s to increase the heart rate and get all the benefits I already mentioned.”
Start slow and focus on your form as you incorporate burpees into everyday workouts, and be patient. Burpees are hard for a reason, but they can certainly be a powerful way to build overall body strength.