Burpees

It’s not your imagination — they don’t really like you, either. So why not get better at them and make friends? Here’s how.
By Bob LeFavi, Ph.D., CSCS, USAW,

You walk in the box and casually glance at the whiteboard to check out the WOD. Your eyes land on that word — you know the one — and it immediately causes your heart rate to jump 30 beats per minute while small amounts of stomach contents begin to make their way back up your esophagus.

“Yay, burpees!” said no one, ever.

And while you grind through them, flopping to the floor, pressing back up and somehow mustering the power to get your feet to leave the floor, you wonder why, pray tell, would anyone invent a burpee, and just who is the masochistic psychopath responsible for them?

Royal Huddleston Burpee (yes, we’re serious) came up with the movement as he was working on his doctoral dissertation in applied physiology at Columbia University. Burpee was looking for a simple way to administer a test for agility, strength and coordination in prospective soldiers. And what he came up with makes perfect sense. The year was 1939. The use of guns was standard in warfare, so Burpee was looking for a way to test how fast a prospective soldier could hit the ground, presumably to fire a gun, and then quickly bounce back up to a safe position. The burpee was born.

What were the performance standards Burpee looked for? He administered, in CrossFit terms, a 20-second AMRAP to prospective recruits. Eight burpees or less was poor, nine to 12 was acceptable and more than 13 was excellent. One trial. Twenty seconds. That was it. No seven-minute AMRAP, ever. Just sayin’.

The Burpee Defined

Athletes who come to CrossFit from other sports may have trouble distinguishing the burpee from a squat thrust because the latter movement looks similar to a burpee and is occasionally performed in conditioning regimens. The squat thrust, however, is a four-point movement that does not include a push-up.

The five-point burpee, meanwhile, is classically defined as follows:

  1. From a standing position, squat down and place your hands on the floor.
  2. Kick your feet behind you, landing in plank position.
  3. Perform a push-up, lowering your chest all the way to the floor.
  4. From the post-push-up plank position, flex at the knees and jump your feet back to the squat position.
  5. Return to the standing position and jump.

Those five movements may be completely ingrained in your muscle memory by now, but there are several hallmarks of proper technique — and a handful of technique mistakes — that it pays to be aware of.

Good Technique and Common Errors

Foot Placement

Exactly where you place your feet in a burpee affects how efficient you are at performing them. When descending to the squat position, your feet should be just behind and slightly outside your hands. This foot position is most closely associated with standard squat position, which optimizes strength in the descent.

However, it is in the return that your foot position becomes more important and intentional. When you jump back to the squat from the plank position, try to keep your feet wide, landing outside your hands. The advantages of a wide return are many.

First, your legs are functionally shorter with your feet wide, meaning you do not have to get much air returning to the squat. Second, with your feet landing in a wider position, you are at a mechanical advantage to land flat and solidly instead of on your toes.

It’s a common error to bring your feet in next to each other. Biomechanically, with your feet close to each other, the jump required to return the feet to a squat position is higher and longer than necessary. Usually, you’ll wind up landing short and on your toes. Such a landing position places stress on the knees and the connective tissue surrounding them. In addition, a short, narrow landing makes your quadriceps perform more muscular work, leading to the possibility of early fatigue.

The only disadvantage to a wide return is that it may not be optimal for the subsequent jump. If you’re jumping onto a plate, it could be mechanically difficult to go from a wide-foot landing and ascent to a plate, in which both feet need to be relatively close. However, if the jump is a standard 3-inch jump, you’re better off keeping your feet wide. Even though a jump from a wider stance is slightly more difficult than one from a narrow stance, you’re still better off because of the significantly greater efficiency of the wide-feet return.

The “Sprawl”

To speed up your burpees, try two modifications that are sure to take critical seconds off your next set. First, on the descent, extend your legs back before your hands make contact with the floor. Former wrestlers have an advantage here. They have learned to “sprawl,” to shoot their hips and legs back quickly when an opponent tries to gain control of their legs.

Now, this can be somewhat against your natural tendencies. You have probably learned the burpee in steps, so you may think that you must come to a full squat before extending your legs behind you. Not really. A CrossFit judge will want to see some knee flexion on the descent, but no one is looking for a completely full squat. Bend your knees as you descend, but also shoot your legs behind you quickly so you are in knee extension before your hands hit.

Second, don’t pause in the plank position at all. That is, drop right into the push-up as soon as your legs extend. In fact, if you’re fast, your chest will hit the floor at the same time or even before your toes make contact. While this modification enables a very fast burpee, be careful as you work into it because it can be tough on the chest. Make sure the surface under you is not excessively hard.

Powerful Hips

Another key aspect of good technique is the emphasis on hip movement during the return to the squat position. The hip joint, which has powerful muscles driving it, can facilitate the burpee at two points in the return. Think of both movements as a “snap” of the hips.

From the post-push-up position, use your hips to snap your legs forward. (Remember, the feet should be as wide as is comfortably possible, outside and just behind the hands.) This hip-flexion “snap” should be followed by a quick, almost reflexive opening of the hips. It’s as if the hip flexion loads the hips and the hips are then primed to immediately pop open in a whipping action.

Pace!

Use a steady rhythm. There are two ways to do this. First, use your breathing to pace yourself. Get into a solid rhythm with your breathing so it’s as steady as possible. Not only does that ensure that you’re inhaling and exhaling sufficiently, but it also helps you maintain a pace that is commensurate with your physiological response.

Second, use your mind to keep yourself going. One way to do this is to think of yourself as a machine, a robot. Keep repeating in your mind: “Steady. Even. Pace.” Get in that machine mode and just keep going. Another way to use your mind is to pick a reasonable number that will challenge you, hit that number, take three breaths and hit it again. That way, you are focusing on this set of five burpees, not the 90 you have left, while at the same time accomplishing small goals and keeping a pace.

Fatigue

A burpee is a challenge of physiology, neurology and psychology. When you fatigue — and fatigue you will — your efficiency will be compromised. Soon, your form will break down.

Maintain a focus on technique, as difficult as it is. When form breaks down, not only do you begin to practice poor technique (which over time can become your default and normal technique for that movement), but you are also at greater risk of injury.

For example, when you fatigue, how do you come up from the floor? You begin arching your lower back; the hips come up after the chest. This arching can be dangerous when performed repeatedly. In addition, your feet don’t make it all the way back to the start, placing stress on the knees as you struggle to keep from falling forward.

Conditioning Considerations

Make friends with burpees. Visit them often; don’t just do them when the WOD calls for them. Remember, they’re an excellent conditioning tool.

Consider that one burpee is the close equivalent of 20 air squats, 20 push-ups and 20 jumping jacks. Consider that that one burpee calls on just about every major muscle to be active. This is precisely why no one really likes burpees. The metabolic cost is high — they hurt!

But it gets better. Burpees also require a measure of agility in that you move through multiple planes of movement. You move up and down (sagittal plane) and back and front (frontal plane). That is, your body moves through many anatomical movements and puts the active joints through full ranges of motion, all while taxing your metabolic conditioning.

So here’s a suggestion. While Burpee never intended for his movement to be performed as a seven-minute AMRAP, why not make that an occasional workout? That way, you master this foe while at the same time establishing another benchmark of your aerobic capacity. In fact, take it on the road. Burpees require no special equipment, so that makes our AMRAP the perfect WOD when you’re away from the box.

And then consider this: Maybe we all owe Burpee a debt of gratitude for giving us a bodyweight exercise that works many muscles in multiple planes of movement, all while challenging our metabolic conditioning. Yes, we love to hate it, but when push comes to shove, we make good ol’ Burpee proud. We hit the floor and bounce back quickly, because in the end, although we may complain on occasion, that is what we do.

Photography by Robert Reiff

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