It's one of the most effective and most feared moves in all of fitness—the burpee. A punishing full-body exercise that everyone from pro athletes and CrossFit addicts to elite military forces swear by. And here's why: the high-intensity move combines strength training, endurance building and fat burning in one relatively simple move.
Best of all, it requires nothing but your will and determination. Invented in 1939 by physiologist Royal H. Burpee as a way of testing one's fitness levels, he used the exercise as his thesis for a doctorate from Columbia University. The military adopted it a few years later as part of its fitness test for men enlisting during World War II.
Over the past eight decades, the burpee has evolved into an intense multi-move exercise that delivers three times the benefits of standard moves like jumping jacks or pushups. But you could also say that this move is a victim of its own success. Because even people who work out regularly, the gym rats who push themselves on the regular, and who pride themselves on being fit tend to avoid doing burpees.
Why? Well, who wants or needs to be humbled by a humble bodyweight exercise? You might think that you don’t need to do them. But the thing is, if you leave them out of your routine, you’re missing out on big benefits. Especially this time of year, when you’re looking to tone up, lean down and look your best. Think of the burpee like those other dreaded moves like weighted dips, heavy squats and that rolling ab wheel. Yes, they feel awful while you're doing them but generate serious (and noticeable) returns on your effort.
Besides, what other total body movement will consistently drive up your heart rate while strengthening your core? This combo not only provides high calorie burn, but other important health benefits, from mobility and body awareness to cardiovascular endurance. Convinced? Good. Now let’s talk about proper form and a few variations to keep things interesting.
You’ve probably seen the burpee performed a handful of different ways. And while there are a handful of modifications and variations (more on that below), there’s really only one way to properly perform the traditional burpee exercise.
- Bend at the knees, getting into a squat position with your hands on the floor in front of you, just outside of your feet.
- Kick both feet back, assuming a pushup position. (What to boost it? Do a push-up after kicking your feet back.)
- Immediately jump your feet back to the starting, crouched squat position.
- Explosively leap into the air, reaching your arms straight overhead.
It should come as no surprise that mistakes tend to center around form rather than the number of reps or the order you perform the variations. The most common issue trainers run into is when clients “do the worm” after kicking those legs back. The hips dip and the back arches, instead of maintaining a tight core throughout the push pattern. The second most common pitfall is jumping your feet inside of your hands rather than outside. This is common when you’ve got limited hip mobility but it actually puts more pressure on your knee joints and can trip you up before you leap.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t have some wiggle room when it comes to form. The best exercises to do are the ones you’re comfortable with, so there are some variations you could try to keep things interesting or add some extra pay-off. Find the burpee style that works for your body and mobility.
- Skip the Jump: If you’re just starting out, rehabbing an injury or have joint issues, taking the jump out at the end may ensure that you can keep doing burpees until you get up to speed.
- Add a Pull-Up: Get your arms in the game by grabbing a pull-up bar at the top of your jump, then perform one pull-up before dropping down and starting again.
- Try a Tuck Jump: Instead of doing a regular hop at the end of the movement, turn it into a tuck jump. Explode up, tucking your knees up towards your chest as you jump.
- Superman Pose: After assuming push-up position, lower yourself down and lay prone on your chest, spreading your arms straight in front of you. Keep your neck neutral and lift your legs above the ground until you feel a slight rounding and contracting on your lower back. Engage your core by contracting your abs. Pull your shoulder blades together, squeeze your glutes and hold for two seconds and resume.
* The Descending Burpee Ladder: This effective and easy-to-follow workout starts with a set of 10 burpees. Rest for a full 60 seconds. Then do a set of nine. Rest one minute. Work your way down, lowering reps by one until you reach just one final burpee.