February 19, 2021
Some see them as their go-to workout. Others see them as a form of torture. But either way you see them, burpees are a killer, full-body workout.
This dynamic exercise has an interesting and unexpected history. Over time, modifications have been made and variations have been dreamed up all over the world. Now, it’s a popular part of a ton of HIIT and circuit training routines.
So what makes burpees so great anyway? And how can you add them to your routine? Here, we’ll go over everything you need to know to use burpees as a tool to smash your fitness goals.
Shockingly, burpees weren’t born in a gym, but at one of the country’s premier colleges. And they weren’t the brainchild of some iron-pumping personal trainer. They were dreamed up in the 30s by a Columbia University grad student as part of his doctoral research.
The young Royal Burpee (yes, that’s why they are called burpees) was on a mission to accurately measure physical fitness. He wanted a simple and standardized way to assess fitness levels across the board. This would allow a customized approach to fitness, scaling it to each person’s unique skill level.
So, the physiology student came up with the exercise we all know to this day. It was slightly easier in its original form, sans the push-up and jump. Combining it with tracking heart rate changes, Burpee was able to fully assess the fitness level’s of his study participants. All of this data was compiled into his doctoral thesis.
And Royal’s timing was pretty spot on. Just a few years later, the US found itself being pulled into the conflict of World War II. So how was America’s Armed Services supposed to ensure that they were sending the best and strongest soldiers into battle? The burpee of course!
This is when the exercise got bumped up a notch and the jump and push up were added. Recruits were to complete as many as possible in a timeframe to see if they made the cut. The intense exercise was the perfect way to divide those with the physical abilities for battle and those that were more suited for behind-the-scenes roles.
Over the years, the burpee has evolved and grown. Variations are everywhere and they can be modified for beginners or amped up for experts. It’s adaptable to many skill levels, proving that Royal Burpee’s theory of individualized training rings true to this day.
So, even with all of these variations, there is a consistent basis for this exercise. So let’s strip it down and go over the basic burpee steps. It’s important to have a basic understanding of the movement before diving into all of the fancy variations.
These basic steps are the foundations for all burpees. However, later we’ll go over how many trainers have modified these to make them easier for beginners or more challenging for more advanced fitness levels.
Burpees have some amazing benefits. They are great for your cardiovascular health and getting your heart rate up to burn calories. This also pays off with a surge of endorphins and that feel-good feeling. Plus, you can burn some fat in the process.
They are also an excellent calisthenic exercise, using your bodyweight and movement to build strength and even muscle as they work multiple major muscle groups throughout the body.
They are also awesome for balance, agility and overall athleticism. Any time you add a new movement to your routine, you improve your coordination.
Finally, burpees are very safe for most people. It's low risk, high reward. The only concern would be if you have existing joint issues, as you will be jumping and putting pressure on your joints.
That said, even if you have joint problems or back pain, you can do burpees as there are regression movements, or in other words, easier variations. Below, we’ll cover some super simple modifications that can burpees less impactful and doable for a wide range of fitness levels. We will also show you some more advanced burpee variations for when you master the standard version.
When you think about the muscles you work during burpees, it’s helpful to break the movement down into parts. After all, its components are what come together to make it such an awesome exercise. This way, it builds muscle and strength in several key areas of the body.
First, The Squat
Squats are amazing for activating the lower body muscle groups. That first movement in a burpee, as well as the upward last movement, can help you create some killer legs.
Even though the movement is typically quick, the repetition gives your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, a great workout. Adding a jump at the end will help you work those calves too. Weighted burpees can take this strength training to the next level.
Then, The Plank
As you move into your plank position, not only are your shoulders and your chest going to be activated, but your abs have to put in some serious work too. The same is true as you drive your feet back to the squat position. Keep your core engaged to give it a great workout and keep your form on point.
The Optional Push-Up
Some burpee modifications add an additional push-up during the plank stop. This gives your triceps and pecs a chance to get in on the action. You’ll also feel it in your deltoids as you return to plank before getting back into that squat position. This optional push-up makes your burpees the ultimate head-to-toe exercise.
While building muscle is great, we can’t ignore the burpee’s original intended purpose. It’s an awesome cardio tool. These give you the chance to combine strength training with some heart-healthy cardio.
While the form is super important here, speed can make your burpees incredibly effective. So take the time to get the movement down correctly and gradually speed up your reps. You’ll find that burpees are a great way to raise that heart rate and burn some calories.
Even without focusing on speed, you’ll still probably find that with burpees, you break a sweat. Burpees are a big movement, and big movements take a lot of energy. So even at a tamed-down pace, you’ll still likely reap the cardio perks of expelling all that energy.
Related: Non-Running Cardio Workouts
Like we said, burpees can be doable at any fitness level. So don’t let their intense reputation scare you off. Check out these modifications so even as a beginner, you can still get the benefits of burpees.
Maybe you simply don’t have the strength yet to do a traditional burpee. Don’t worry, you’ll get there. But in the meantime, you can modify burpees and work your way towards the traditional version.
Use a bench, gym box, or even a flight of stairs as the base for your hands. Then, follow the same steps as you would with a traditional burpee. Place your hands on the inclined surface as you squat down, brace your arms, and push your feet back. Then, return to squatting and then standing.
This can be done by either stepping or jumping your feet in and out of the plank position. As you get stronger, try using lower surfaces to reduce the incline. This will allow you to gradually increase your load as your upper body muscles get stronger.
The step-back burpee is great for beginners or for those that can’t handle the intensity of full-scale burpees. By slowing down the motion you can still get the benefits of burpees at a less intense pace.
For a step-back burpee, you’ll go through the same motion as a typical burpee. Begin standing and slowly lower to the floor in a squat position. Slowly step your feet back into a plank one foot at a time until you are in an extended plank. Then, stop back forward one foot at a time and return to standing.
As you become more comfortable with the movement, try to speed up your burpees while still maintaining your form. Try stepping back and up more quickly each time. You can also alternate step back with traditional burpees to vary the intensity or when you need a slight break.
Maybe you are a beginner but still want to focus on developing your arms on top of learning burpees. It might seem intense to add a push-up, but combined with a less intense step-back burpee, you can still get a full-body workout at a slower pace.
To do this, start in a standing position and squat towards the floor and place your hands in front of you. Step your feet into a plank position, one at a time. Then lower your knees to the floor and lower into a push-up position. You can go as deep into the push-up as you feel comfortable. Then, raise back up to your toes and step your feet forward, one at a time, and return to standing.
Half burpees remove both the jump and push up from the burpee. In fact, with these, you don’t even go into the full extended plank. You just bring your feet back as much as you are comfortable with. The rest of the motion stays the same.
Note: You can do these with a hop back or step-back.
Squat down, hope your feet backward (you won’t fully extend them away from your body), then jump your feet back towards your hands and push up from the squat. Repeat.
As you get better at half burpees, try moving your feet into a full extended plank so your back is straight and legs are fully extended. After that, you can add the jump from the squat and you then you will be doing a full fledged burpee!
Always make sure to keep your form well-maintained to avoid injury to your lower back.
When the burpee beginner variations become easy for you, it’s time to do the standard burpee. And although the standard burpee is quite difficult itself, at some point, the standard burpee will be come easier and easier as our bodies adapt to the stimulus.
Even if the standard burpee is still a challenge for you, which it likely will be for most people throughout their fitness journey, you can do progressions and variations that are more difficult just to switch things up!
So, once you have mastered the art of the standard burpee, make it more challenging with harder variations as to ensure you are getting the most out your workouts and to keep your body guessing. Simply adding weights or changing your positioning can make this workout even more intense. Here are some examples...
One of the simplest and most popular ways to make your burpees more challenging is to add a push-up at the bottom of the movement. This change seems small but it really ups the ante on this full body exercise.
Start in a standing position and squat down with your hands on the floor in front of you. Consider varying your hand positioning to target different muscles in your arms. Closer together, they will target your triceps while wide-set hands will better hone in on your pecs.
Driving your feet back into a plank, lower down until your chest is nearly touching the floor then push yourself back to a straight plank. Hop your feet forward and return to standing.
Obviously adding weights can take any exercise up a notch. The same is true for burpees. A pair of dumbbells can take your burpee session to the next level.
Start lighter than you think you should as the repetition will make the weight feel heavier in no time. With a dumbbell in each hand, squat down and place them in front of you on the floor, gripped with palms facing each other. Jump your feet back to a plank and quickly return to the squatting position.
Then, drive up to standing lifting your feet off the floor and landing softly. This added weight will make your squat and jump motion more intense, giving your legs a killer workout. Slowly increase weight over time, but not so much that you compromise your form.
Related: Steel Mace Burpees
Related: What weight dumbbell should I buy?
If you are looking for more upper body intensity, adding a dumbbell press to your burpee can work out those shoulders and back muscles. Grab two dumbbells at shoulder height and start in a standing position.
Then, lower to squatting with your dumbbells grasped in front of you and push your feet back to a plank. Jump back up and return to standing lifting the dumbbells as you go. Once you are standing straight, slowly push them up over your head with your core engaged.
Lower them back to shoulder height and repeat the motion again. Make sure to keep your core engaged and your spine neutral throughout the motion to protect your back.
Adding a jump to the end of your burpee can work your lower body and amp up the cardio intensity. Plus, playing with the types of jumps you add can give you an exciting variety of burpees to add to your routine.
i.e. Star Jumps, Tuck Jumps, Box Jumps.
When you add jumps, you lower into the squat and drive your feet back into the plank and back forward as usual. Then when standing, drive back up from the squat with intensity, lifting your feet as much as possible from the ground. Land softly, or in a squat to really work your quads and glutes.
Adding a tuck jump can also help boost the cardio intensity. When coming out of the squat, jump off the ground with as much power as possible, pulling your knees towards your chest. This not only works your legs but gives your abs a great workout as they pull your knees upward.
If these become too easy, some added height can make it a bigger challenge. Place a gym box in front of you and use it to jump on when you are coming out of your burpee. This is an intense challenge so take your time in executing these.
If you really want to challenge yourself and get the most fat-burning intensity out of your burpees, try a speed test. Set a timer and blast out those burpees. Focus on form as well as getting as many reps done as possible. See how many you can do in two or three minutes and jot it down. This kind of workout is the perfect example of how a standard burpee can be extremely challenging for even the fittest of people.
Try doing this a few times a week, attempting to beat your previous record each time. Or, challenge a friend to see who makes the most progress. A little friendly competition might give you the motivation you need to earn yourself some impressive results.
Other Popular Burpee Variations:
6. Burpee to Pull Up or Chin Up (this one is as total body as it gets!)
7. Burpee to Mountain Climbers
8. Burpee to Plank Jack
Being great at burpees doesn’t just happen overnight. And to get the most benefit out of these, you need to do them correctly. Here are some tips to keep in mind when adding burpees to your routine or working to improve your form.
So now, you might be wondering the best way to add burpees to your routine. And the short answer is, however you’d like! Burpees are awesome because they are great on their own but they can also be seamlessly added to a wide variety of routines.
One advantage of burpees is that they can be done anywhere without any equipment. So if you are working from home, take a few minutes after your regular workout to bust out a bunch of burpee reps to get your blood flowing.
Feeling that afternoon slump coming on while trying to get through weekend projects? A set of burpees can give you just the surge of energy you need to keep pushing.
Adding them to your circuit training is another awesome idea. Try working in a set between kettlebell swings and snow skiers. Or add them in between less intense exercises like bicep curls and sumo squats to keep your heart rate up.
Your body can benefit from burpees from head to toe. You’ll work multiple muscle groups and improve your balance and coordination. You can also do great things for your heart and mental health with this cardio tool.
Try some variations and modifications when adding burpees to your routine. The same burpee might not be right for everyone. But with the ways to mix it up, there is a burpee variation out there for nearly anyone. So get moving and enjoy this full-body blast!
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