It’s not surprising that “Burpees Suck” has become a common phrase in fitness. It’s rare that burpees grace the top of people’s favorite exercises, but there’s no debating that the full-body, strength-training movement is one of the few do-anywhere exercises that hits everything from your arms and quads to your hamstrings and abs. Plus, there are modifications to make burpees work for you.
So, why do burpees get a bad rap? The combination of strength, balance, and aerobic training can be challenging. Essentially, you’re jumping back into a plank and lowering yourself into a push-up. Then, you’re jumping forward before explosively jumping up—all in record time. Burpees are especially difficult if you’re performing reps for time. Or, if you’re using burpees as a bodyweight finisher (or burn-out movement) at the end of a workout. But, that doesn’t mean that the total-body toning movement isn’t worth doing.
Before you cross them off of your list of go-to movements, try to make burpees work for you with tips from Shaun Zetlin, personal trainer, author of Push-Up Progression, and owner of Zetlin Fitness in New York City.
Change the tempo.
Instead of attempting to perform each phase of the burpee as fast as possible, take a step back and regroup. “Break down each movement and go at a slower pace,” Zetlin says. “While this change of tempo might lower your heart rate downward, it will provide an excellent opportunity to concentrate on form and to be mindful of where the challenging parts are to improve your burpee,” he adds. When it comes to fitness, form always comes first.
Skip the push-ups.
There’s no question that push-ups are a beneficial exercise. They target the chest and shoulders, and, when done properly, can even engage the core and lower back. However, when integrated into the burpee, push-ups can be incredibly challenging.
Break down each movement and go at a slower pace. This will provide an excellent opportunity to concentrate on form.
“The push-up can complicate the movement, especially when it’s done for multiple repetitions,” Zetlin says. “Instead, hold a plank in its place.” That doesn’t mean that you can get sloppy. Zetlin’s advice: be mindful. “A beginner should be sure to engage their glutes, brace their stomach muscles, push downward on their palms (not wrists), and squeeze their scapula inward before going into the next stage of the burpee,” he says.
“Burpees are already such a powerful exercise that eliminating the act of jumping will make it easier for a beginner, without sacrificing the benefit of the movement,” Zetlin says. Instead, step backward with both feet (one at a time). Make sure that you feel grounded in your heels before standing upward. Stepping back also has an added benefit. “Eliminating the jumping portion of the movement means [that] you can be kinder to your joints, especially if you lack mobility,” he explains.
Use an incline bench.
If you’re in a gym, using the equipment around you can help make burpees more bearable. “The incline bench can serve as a useful tool to create more stability and balance with less power while performing the burpee,” Zetlin says. “The beginner will want to be mindful to gently place their hands on the bench with their shoulders positioned above their hands. Then, using the bench, they’ll step back (with no jumping) while maintaining the neutral spine and finish standing up with arms positioned overhead.”
Omit the squat.
The components of the burpee can be challenging on their own. Some movements, including the squat, may be too difficult for beginners to perform. The solution: make smart modifications. “Instead of lowering downward with your knees flexed towards 90-degrees into the squat position, the beginner should attempt to lower down into the pronated position (chest facing the floor) with both palms and knees firmly secured on the floor,” Zetlin says. “Then, rise upward into a high plank position before stepping or jumping forward and standing (or exploding up) to complete the burpee,” he adds.
Burpees aren’t easy—but they are an incredible challenge for your full body. Don’t skip them altogether if you can avoid it. Customize the move and make burpees work for you the next time you need a powerful full-body burnout.