In Defense Of The Burpee

Yesterday, my friend Kevin Dineen of Structure Personal Fitness wrote a great article about why he doesn’t program burpees for any clients at Structure.  Before we continue, I’d love it if you could read his article:

Why We Don’t Do Burpees (And You Probably Shouldn’t, Either)

As I read Coach Kev’s article yesterday, I found myself nodding in agreement to each of his points as well as to his burpee alternatives.  I then remembered to upload videos of two burpees to YouTube for our next class cycle at Mark Fisher Fitness.

You see, we use burpees a lot at MFF.  They’re likely in every group class that we teach, and it’s not uncommon to see them used at the beginning or end of our semi-private training sessions.  There are burpees almost everywhere you look, the burpee has become one of my most prized exercises as a program designer.  You should know that those are words I never thought I would write.

Just like Jon Snow, I know nothing.

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If you’ve ever done a set of burpees, you know they’re not the most fun move out there.  I feel confident in saying that most of us would agree, burpees suck.  When given the choice, most of us would opt out of doing burpees.  They’re not really the best exercise for anything.

Burpees are not the best move for increasing cardiac demands.  They are not the best for for force production / absorption.  They are not the best move for improving movement competency. They’re not really winning any contests, but they are pretty damn good at doing all of those things at the same time.*

In Coach Kevin’s article, he writes:

Because you’re doing burpees and changing positions, your heart rate comes up. [Omission.] Other forms of cardio (running, sprinting, cycling, jumping rope, slideboard, rowing) translate better and have less potential of aggravating joints (for most people) than burpees.  When you’re doing cardio, do that.  Doing strength training?  Do that.  If your heart rate goes up, that’s a side effect. Focus on cardio to train your cardiovascular system, and your strength training to train your musculoskeletal system.

YES. I so agree with where Coach Kev comes from here, and I am so in agreement that there are far better options for strength training and far better options for sustainable cardiovascular training. However, when you’re in an environment that is seeking to improve both of those qualities at the same time, I believe the burpee is a tool uniquely suited for the job.

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The strength and conditioning community has learned a great deal about cardiovascular training in the last few years, thanks to people like Joel Jamieson, Alex Viada, and Mike Robertson.  We’ve learned that to maximize the physical adaptations to training, it’s often necessary to delineate our exercise based on heart rate response, intensity, and duration.

While we’re learning about the most effective training systems possible, we’re also balancing the most efficient methods of improving fitness.  For many, this is finding a system where one can notice improvements in strength and improvements in cardiovascular fitness at the same time.  At MFF, this is our group exercise classes.

Here’s an example of what goes on at the Clubhouse:

When writing classes at MFF, we start by considering the foundational movement patterns.  We’ll program to improve these movement patterns, then make them stronger, more powerful, and more sustainable.  When combining multiple exercises with less rest than traditional strength training, we often see a related increase in heart rate response.

Let’s consider two foundational movements, the squat and the horizontal push.  In a traditional weight room setting, we might see a barbell back squat and a barbell bench press.  In a class setting, we’ll use a kettlebell goblet squat and a push-up.  If alternating between sets of squats and push-ups creates an additional metabolic demand, then alternating between reps of squats and push-ups increases that demand even further.  If you’re alternating reps, you’re doing burpees.  Here’s a demonstration from Nick Tumminello:

When transitioning from a squat to a push-up that quickly, we’ve left the land of strength training and moved to a different place.  I’m not sure I’d put it on the strength continuum, because burpees rarely serve that purpose, but if we consider the metabolic demand of any exercise, a burpee is a surefire way to elevate the heart rate.

Remember that omission I added to the quote from Kev’s blog? The sentence was this:

However, elevated heart rate is a side effect, not a goal of training.

If you’re doing strength training, do that.  If you’re doing cardio, do that.  If you’re seeking to combine aspects of each into an otherwise stark environment, the burpee can be the Hand of the King.

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When I first joined the team at MFF, I remember being taken aback by the question, “But what do you do for cardio?”  It’s a question that’s totally natural, if you were to consider the complete lack of equipment throughout the Clubhouse.  The only thing we have that’s even referred to as a machine is the cable station, and that’s it.  We’re an entirely movement based facility.

Seeing medicine balls on a stand, ropes resting on the floor, or a stack of sandbags doesn’t exactly say “cardio” to very many people.  Neatly organized kettlebells, waiting to be swung, doesn’t say, “cardio.”  If you’re accustomed to ellipticals, swimming pools, and spinning classes, a space without any big equipment doesn’t say “cardio.”

When you do burpees, however, they say “cardio.”  They say, “Look at how quickly I can elevate my heart rate without leaving this very small area!” They say, “Oh, you need to run in the cold to elevate your heart rate? You need to ride in the rain to elevate your heart rate? You need to watch The View to distract you from the monotony of counting how many calories you’re burning?”

As you can tell, the burpee is a sassy little bitch.

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Burpees are not sustainable.  Nobody has burpee’d a marathon or an Ironman.  Nobody has a world record in the burpee.  (And, I hope that never happens.) The burpee serves the unique purpose of allowing you to aggressively elevate your heart rate in a short period of time, with minimal space and equipment.  It’s for that reason that I love the burpee.

Here’s a sneak-peak at the newest variation of the burpee we’re using at MFF, starting on Monday.  This is a move that Kyle Langworthy and I worked on, specifically to maximize the heart rate response.  Your legs move a lot, your arms move a lot, and your heart has to keep up with all of that movement.  What I’m the most excited about is how little my feet move.

I believe the burpee is a profound tool that, when performed and coached well, is one of the best options we have to elevate our heart rate regardless of equipment or space.  It does not have the power to make us that much stronger, and on its own lacks what’s necessary for long-duration cardio.  However, it is more portable than a barbell or a treadmill, and for ease of implementation, there are few moves that can provide as rapid a response.

We use the burpee for these reasons at MFF. In a vacuum, it’s probably not my favorite exercise to use.  In our environment, it strikes a great balance between challenging how well we move and how fast we move, allowing us to create a potent response to each set.

That’s it.  A defense of the burpee.  Words I never thought I would write, and ones I’m glad I was able to.  Thank you for the inspiration, Kevin!

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2 Replies to “In Defense Of The Burpee”

  1. Really enjoyed this article. As a former bootcamp coach, it always troubled my conscious when we had programs for the larger populations with burpees in due to the high impact it places on their joints down due to excessive loading. But personally I have always liked to use them in conditioning circuits at the end of workouts. Big fan of your new version and will certainly be implementing it into some of my clients plans. Bet they can’t wait!

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