Pertinent background info
Not too long ago I came across an article entitled something along the lines of “Top 10 Worst Fitness Exercises”. Burpees were at the top of the list. The article’s author referred to the move as “ineffective” and even “masochistic”. I let Google auto-fill a search for me and the results spoke likewise.
I don’t know about the “masochistic” labeling of the burpee. There is absolutely a difference between masochism and stoicism. In the mind of the do-er, at least. More on that later…
But there is some truth to these health concerns. Burpees, like any other repetition-based exercise, can cause problems over time, especially with beginners. To avoid problems I planned on not locking out at any portion of the movement, and keeping my weight square over my shoulders and away from my knees and ankles during the kick-back portion of the move.
That and a proper warm-up should in theory keep the do-er healthy while attempting them. Joe De Sena, the god-father of the burpee, practices as much, and from what I’ve seen also lays on his belly at the bottom of the movement. He once did 4,000 burpees continuously, so if the movement works for him physically, well, you and I should be okay in moderation.
Why Burpees/My background with burpees.
I had never heard of, let alone thought about doing a burpee until my first Spartan Race back in 2011. Robert Coble, head referee of the money heats, showed the racers how to do them prior to the start of the Super.
That practice burpee actually went pretty smoothly! Nothing to fear, right?
Well, it was followed by 90 more during the race, each more difficult than the last, when I was penalized 30 each for: falling off of a slippery balance obstacle, missing my spear throw, and losing my grip on the rock-climbing holds of the horizontal “Z-Wall.” All 90 burpees happened within sight of the finish line. I was passed on burpee 85 but held on for 4th. I took a few years off from burpees after that.
Nonetheless, when I decided to start the “30 days to a…” series, the burpee was one of the first things on my list. Hopefully I’d be able to make those dreadful memories disappear. There were definitely negative associations and I wanted to change that thought process toward them.
Fast forward to week 1 and my testing.
I’m not a fan of the bench press. In my opinion, it’s far too static a movement to show sport-specific strength and can quite easily lead to imbalances. But I do have a recorded attempt on record from one of the few times I wandered into a weight room 5 or 6 years ago, and the bench press is a universally-known benchmark, so why not?
I didn’t go very in-depth here- no chest or arm measurements, regrettably. I originally planned on testing my burpee and bench before heading out on a final fall road-trip before heading to Europe. That fell through, but while passing through Cripple Creek I managed to snag a free room for a couple nights at the Wildwood hotel. They had a pretty nice weight room there and I was able to use it to test out. I benched 215 for one rep, which, I recall correctly, was the same weight I had benched back in the day.
The bench testing went well enough, but when it came time to do the burpees I ran into trouble. Burpees on their own are tough enough, but doing them at 9500 feet is pure jello-legged, scorched-lungs misery. I quit after only 40 burpees.
Laying there on my stomach in the hotel’s gravel parking lot, wheezing in the thin, chilly mountain air while elderly couples strolling toward the casino stopped and stared… This wasn’t exactly the fitness homecoming I had been dreaming of.
I decided I’d wait until flying out to Europe 10 days later to do the full 100.
Testing them at a sea-level Budapest seemed to help a bit, but I still struggled as I put up a mediocre (or so it felt) jet-lagged time of 6:14. I made a note to myself on my phone immediately after doing them: “[My] Cardio is Shit.”
100 burpees- 6:14.
Bench press (max 1x)– 215
The Training Plan:
In keeping up with the aforementioned ideals (minimum necessary for maximum effect) I decided to cap my time spent practicing burpees to a maximum of 5 minutes total per week. This number ballooned a bit as time went on and I began to become more efficient at the movement. I think I topped out at 10 minutes of burpees in my final weeks.
I did not enter a gym other than for testing and did no other strength exercises during the challenge.
Weeks 1-3: 4 minutes of burpees/week
30 burpees 2x per week
3×7 burpees 1x per week as active recovery between sets during a running workout
Weeks 4-6: 7 minutes
50 burpees 2x per week
5×7 burpees 1x per week as active recovery while running
Weeks 7-10: 10 minutes
50 burpees 2x per week
30 burpees for time 1x per week
2×8 burpees as active recovery 1x per week
I hit my 30th burpee session during week 10.
Week 11: The goal was to test out this week but we ended up flying to Malta, so I took the 6 days to rest before re-testing of initial w/o day 7.
My final results, after 30 sessions/90 days:
100 Burpees- 5:23
Bench Press- 255
My burpee time dropped drastically, from 6:14 to 5:23, for a 13.6% decrease.
As early as week 2 I felt stronger and more efficient doing my sets of 30 burpees. Other than a few days of extreme fatigue, this improvement seemed almost linear during the challenges. The worst area of fatigue for me was probably toward the top of my quads, at least at first. As time went by it became my biceps/triceps and chest.
When I do the occasional dip or pull-up these days I also feel a noticeable increase in strength.
For the max strength test, my bench press improved from 215 to 255, an increase of 18.6%(!!!)
The burpee improvement I was expecting, the bench I was not, or at least not to that extent. Had I used a spotter when I first tested my numbers on the bench press, I could have realistically added another 5 or 10 pounds on my base max. Using that higher initial value causes our bench growth calculations to show a more modest 11-13% increase, putting them right in line with the 13% sliced from my 100 burpee time. The new bench PR also puts me at 1.5x body weight, a nice benchmark for an endurance athlete.
The biggest change of all? Aesthetics. Medium shirts are now uncomfortably tight on me around the chest area. I’ve also noticed some tangible changes in my chest, core, and shoulders in terms of definition.
Its awfully difficult to notice changes when you see yourself in the mirror every day, and I’d venture that body dismorphia might have as much to do with it as anything, so the ultimate litmus test for change often comes from people who haven’t seen you in some time. Since returning to the US family and friends have upon meeting me commented on the difference in my arms.
Running still feels comfortable for me in terms of arm carriage/swing and posture. Similar to how basketball players shoot after spending time in the gym, I made sure to run immediately after doing burpees all 30 sessions. This may have helped to overcome some of the movement issues that seem to accompany heavy repetitive movements.
This challenge was a success. It was just one more reminder that small amounts of work pay off in huge dividends over time. I never spent more than 3 minutes a day doing burpees, but over time (70 minutes total) that minuscule investment netted me substantial gains.
I’ve experimented with different morning routines over the past year, and burpees have become a really nice addition and jumpstarter to my day. Right now my morning, on average, looks like this:
30-50 slow burpees
Light Rocker Board Squats
Anyway, burpees are game changers. Do them, do them smartly, do them often, ignore the naysayers, and you’ll see fantastic changes. And who knows- maybe, just maybe, you’ll actually begin to enjoy them.
More reading: Doing 100 burpees a day for a month.