Burpees are the worst - why do we do them?

Burpees are the worst exercise – so do we really have to do them to get fit?

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It doesn’t matter how fit you are, burpees always feel hard. Maybe that’s their magic; like a tall flight of stairs, they’ll always push your cardiovascular fitness. The question is: are they any good for you or are they just painful for pain’s sake?

Burpees are the worst. There, I’ve said it. Burpees are the exercise that you’d never do yourself but that you’re made to do by PTs and class instructors who aren’t content unless there’s sweat all over your mat.

I’ve never been convinced that doing burpees does you any favours. It’s not just that they’re unpleasantly difficult; the complexity and explosive nature of the move seem fraught with injury potential. From the lower back to the shoulders and knees, a bad burpee can cause issues. So, just how good for you are burpees and is there any evidence to suggest that we’re better off swerving them?

Burpee benefits: the science

There’s not been a lot of scientific research on the subject but one 2014 paper, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, compared the benefits of sprint interval cycling to doing burpees. A small group of “moderately-trained” people did four training sessions across nine days, involving four bouts of going “all-out” for 30-seconds at a time.

Scientists found that burpees elicit a “vigorous cardiorespiratory response… and may confer physiological adaptations and performance improvements similar to those reported for [sprinting].” Throw into the mix the ease and speed at which you can start burpeeing (it requires no equipment or set-up), and the report concludes that athletes, coaches and strength and conditioning professionals are right to use burpees and other similar full-body calisthenic exercises in their programmes.

Another study, this time published in 2019 by the Journal of Human Kinetics, looked at whether the “3-Minute Burpee Test” (3-MBT) was an effective way to test strength endurance. Between 2004 and 2018, nearly 10,000 students across Europe were made to do the test (which simply requires you to do as many burpees as possible in three minutes). 

The study concluded that the 3-MBT was safe and effective enough to be recommended for use in “determining strength endurance of individuals from different age groups and different countries.” They also said that previous tests “have confirmed the validity of the 3-MBT and its usefulness for accurate assessments of strength endurance in young women.”

Burpees can hurt because form goes out of the window

So far, so convincing. But a few years ago, Zac Efron’s PT told Men’s Health that burpees “are awful for you” and that they “aren’t good for the human body.” He went on to claim that the exercise “originated in the military as a way of dodging bullets” and as such, they do no favours for the wrists or spine – especially if you do a load of burpees before sitting down at a desk all day.

That’s certainly music to my burpee-hating ears, but what do trainers say today?

“So many people groan when the word burpee is mentioned, and I’m not surprised to be honest,” admits Holly Grant, founder of Pilates PT and trainer after my own heart. “I’ve watched (and attended) so many classes where burpees are programmed with minimal instruction or regressions offered. Even strong, functional, mobile individuals find burpees hard – so imagine how tricky they are when you are a beginner, injured, or haven’t a great deal of mobility.”

That’s the thing; I’ve run marathons, done yoga for years and lifted double my weight before and I still find burpees horrible. I’m fit and functional but I don’t like overly complicated compound movements that have to be done at speed. Burpees involve doing a deep squat, a plank and a jump, all at speed and with explosive movement.

Planking properly is hard enough – let alone adding a jump in there.
Planking properly is hard enough – let alone adding a jump in there.

Grant continues: “Each of these is hard enough to perfect even at slower speeds, so there is no surprise I see people perform them wrong, feel it in the wrong places, and then dread them next time!”

Good plank technique can be tough to get right, and jumping out into a plank makes it harder still. Throw into the mix the potential exhaustion you might feel after 10 burpees and “we need to be aware our technique will suffer quite quickly as we will fatigue quickly,” says Grant. It’s the plank part of the move that most people get wrong, she explains: “Hips too low, lower back overextended, winging scapula (sinking into the arms)… it makes me cringe.”

Modify burpees to suit you

GymBox PT Katharina Maria Wienen says that burpees are great because “they can easily be tailored to different fitness levels by increasing the intensity or simplifying the movement.” If you’re struggling to do them, you can skip the push-up or the jump and do a half-standing burpee; if they’re too easy, you can transform them into a Devil’s Press by adding in dumbbells.

Wienen dismisses the idea that they’re dangerous: “Like any exercise, if performed incorrectly, the burpee can have negative effects on the body. Both strength and endurance have to be built up gradually.”

As a high-impact move, burpees “can be taxing on our joints,” admits Tash Lankester, PT at Flex Chelsea. Because of that, she doesn’t recommend them to anyone with “bad knees”, people who are at the very beginning of their fitness journey or those who tend to be at risk of fainting.

If you’re wondering why you keep getting bruised knees or a sore stomach from burpees, you may want to assess how well-honed your strength and endurance really are. Throwing yourself on the ground puts a lot of strain on the shoulders and lower back, Wienen explains, while poor core engagement results in flared elbows. Build up slowly and she guarantees that they’re “probably the best bodyweight movement to challenge the body.”

If you hate doing burpees, don’t do them

Lankester, however, believes that the burpee is “a relatively easy exercise to perform as it does not generally require much skill.” To her, the most common mistake is that most people’s burpee attempts are “simply not explosive enough” – something that might ring fear into the minds of anyone who’s tried going hard on a burpee finisher, only to be told to push more.

It’s that explosive nature, however, that makes burpees such an effective cardiovascular move. If you hate them, Lankester advises that there are many other ways to achieve the same end, like running, cycling and walking. You don’t have to burpee.

If you do want to improve your burpees, however, Grant suggests breaking them into two. “Burpees are not my favourite exercise when it comes to teaching a mixed ability class – but the elements that make it up are. Splitting the exercise into two can help, so practice squat jumps and then practice the half burpee (jumping out to a plank, then back to a squat).”

Am I convinced that burpees are the way forward? Not really – if I want a great cardio workout, I’ll head out for a speedy 5km or jump on my bike – but if anything, this has given me the confidence to rebel next time they’re included in a gym class to regress the move to a half burpee if I’m worried about my form. 

Want to nail your burpee form? Check out our how-to videos on Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty/Matt Christie

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

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