What’s the exercise you love to hate? For a number of people, it’s burpees. If you’re not familiar with what this exercise entails, here’s how to do one. From a standing position, squat down and place one or both hands on the floor in front of you. Kick your feet behind you until you’re in a push-up position. Now quickly move your feet back to the starting position and stand up. More advanced versions include a push-up when your hands are on the floor and a plyometric jump when you stand back up.
So why are burpees, or squat thrusts as they’re called, so hated? Partly because they’re so challenging. This kick-butt exercise was dreamed up in the 1940s by Royal Huddleston Burpee, a physiologist, and self-professed fitness fanatic. His goal was to find a way to measure an individual’s fitness level quickly and he succeeded. He devised a formula whereby he could assess an individual’s fitness level by measuring their heart rate after doing a measly four burpees in a row. Interestingly, Mr. Burpee himself never intended for people to do this exercise in volume – ten or fifteen at a time.
The burpee Royal Huddleston Burpee invented is easier than the way most people do burpees today – it didn’t include a push-up in the middle of the movement or a jump at the end. So, the way most people do a burpees today is harder than the one the developer intended.
Squat Thrusts: A Measure of Fitness?
Burpees did succeed in catching on. During World War 2, the military used squat thrusts as a fitness test to see if an enlistee was physically fit enough to enter the armed services. So, this challenging exercise has been around for more than 70 years and is still helping people get into shape today.
Does the burpee or squat thrust really live up to its reputation of being tough? You betcha. In one study involving ROTC cadets, researchers asked participants to do 30 seconds of non-stop burpees or “sprints” on a stationary bike for 30 seconds for four cycles with four minutes of rest between each cycle. Burpees were comparable to stationary bike sprints in terms of elevated heart rate and its metabolic effects. Interestingly, perceived exertion, how hard the participants felt like they were working, was greater for cycling sprints than for squat thrusts.
A Whole-Body Exercise
What other advantages do burpees offer? Unlike sprints that mostly work your legs, burpees are a dynamic, whole body exercise. Add a push-up and you’re getting upper body action. You’re even working your glutes and hamstrings as you squat down and kick your feet behind you. If you add a push-up, your core muscles are engaged. So, burpees are a total body workout and one that requires no equipment. When you do a burpee, you’re squatting, doing a push-up, and jumping, all in a single exercise. How time efficient is that?
As you’ve probably noticed, a burpee gets your heart rate up – big time. Burpees not only improve cardiovascular fitness – they enhance your anaerobic capacity as your body has to tap into glycolytic pathways to supply energy demands for this intense exercise. As a result, you get the “after-burn” effect. Your body has to work harder after you finish to make up for the oxygen debt it incurred. That means more calories burned post-workout. The faster and longer you “burpee,” the greater the post-exercise calorie burn you’ll get.
Burpees also challenge your balance skills and help develop coordination. Unlike many other forms of cardiovascular exercise like running where you’re doing the same movement over and over, burpees are a multi-step exercise that requires agility. The plyometric jump at the end is an explosive movement and one that enhances your power capabilities. What a versatile exercise!
How to Make Burpees More Challenging
As with any exercise, your body adapts to burpees and they get easier over time. You can always increase the challenge by doing them faster or doing more of them, but that’s not the only way. For a supreme challenge, instead of doing a plyometric jump at the end, do a tuck jump or star jump instead. Challenge yourself by seeing how many burpees you can do in 30 seconds or a minute. Try to increase the number over time. Another advanced version is burpees with box jumps. Rather than doing a plyometric jump into the air at the end, jump onto a platform. Keep in mind, this is advanced and not something to try until you’re a squat thrust pro. If you’re in for serious punishment, strap on a weight vest and do a set of burpees.
How about making them easier? When you first start out, burpees may be too challenging. You can make it more manageable by removing the push-up and plyometric jump from the exercise, but even that may be too difficult at first. When you first start, do them by placing your hands on a platform, the higher the platform the easier it will be. If you don’t feel comfortable with the explosiveness of the move, in the beginning, extend one leg back at a time rather than jumping both feet behind you in the beginning. If you’re becoming winded quickly, slow down the pace with which you do burpees and gradually increase the speed over time.
Think doing 10 burpees in a row is challenging? That’s nothing compared to the burpee world record. A fella in ship shape named Paddy Doyle did 1,840 burpees in an hour, earning him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Think about THAT when you’re struggling to do 20 seconds of burpees.
The Bottom Line
By now, you’ve probably found some reasons NOT to hate burpees. As a total body exercise that gets your heart rate up, they combine lots of benefits into a single exercise. Take advantage of this versatile and effective exercise.
HuffPost Healthy Living “A Brief History of The Burpee”
Men’s Health. “Why Burpees Are the Most Badass Exercise”
Men’s Fitness. “The One-Minute Workout”
The Washington Post. “The Burpee (or Squat Thrust): What This Exercise is and How to Do It”
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000522.
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