To burpee or not to burpee – what you need to know

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in a burpee challenge with fellow MN-dweller, Leah Fontaine. The goal was 150 burpees throughout the day, ideally at least 15 every hour from 9am onward.

I decided to jump in for a couple of reasons – 1. I do most of my fitness stuff on my own. Knowing this would be a community effort felt good. And 2. I have a body and movement awareness that I can trust so doing a challenge at home without someone watching me isn’t dangerous — I modified when I sensed higher fatigue, stayed mindful of how my body felt, and employed recovery techniques to sore muscles.

Maybe that second reason sounds dramatic. Burpees, after all, are all the rage in at-home workouts and huge group classes. Why would a person need supervision? That’s why I decided to write this post.

Burpees are no doubt popular for getting your heart rate up but the complexity of this movement makes it easy to do incorrectly. Read more to see what you need to know to make the burpee work for you. More at http://alisanelson.co/blog

 

A little disclaimer:

I am not the burpee police. I don’t smirk at your group fitness class just because I’d rather powerlift or do pull ups. I have concerns about efficacy and safety based on my understanding of the body + what’s required for body change. Fitness classes are no exception to the “up the ante” rule of entertainment. It can be seen as entertainment as much (if not more) as it’s for fitness – often increasing risk to the user simply to attract new people…or including superfluous movement for similar reasons. In instances where someone is asking my opinion, I offer what I can in that context. This is largely why I have refrained from writing on movement in the past. In the end, if you ask me about your chosen fitness activity I’m going to ask “How’s that working for you?” And probably talk about how you can maximize results while minimizing risk. My preference for women is that we focus on quality before quantity of movement – choosing the movement + style that is most effective  for the given goal, not just assuming that if we move more we are guaranteed to get skinnier.

I joined this challenge knowing it meant I was agreeing that 150 burpees in a day is a fun idea. Here’s why: 1. The challenge itself is a small number in a given time frame, spread throughout the day. If it were “see how many you can do in 20 minutes and whoever loses has to walk outside naked” – I woulda been out of there quick and possibly sent a message to the organizer to talk about their proposal. 2. This challenge took out the push up at the bottom of the movement, a major cause of movement fault for beginners and fatigued intermediates. 3. There were no other movements involved – 15 burpees then rest for an hour.

 

Ok so what makes burpees so intense?

  1. Multiple movements in one
  2. Require Mobility + Stability
  3. Speed.

The unstable transitions the body passes through fast before achieving a new stable position make this a category 3 movement (most complex) according to Kelly Starrett. I actually didn’t include burpees in my later programs when I was a personal trainer because of these characteristics. Doing a single movement (with proper mechanics) fast takes skill let alone 3 movements done rapidly.

 

But since you’re doing them anyway, why not talk about it a bit and point you to good resources for scaling according to your skill level.

 

  1. Multiple movements in one

Not everyone includes the push up in the burpee but from start to finish here are the movements included:

  • Squat
  • Plank
  • Push up
  • Squat
  • Vertical jump

 

When I was teaching women in my home I taught them 1-2 movements at a time. Yup, that’s right. We would spend about 60 minutes drilling a couple of new ones and reviewing past movements. Movements like squats, push ups, overhead presses, and deadlifts require deep practice because our everyday life tends to result in decreased mobility and poor movement patterns, inhibiting our ability to achieve and maintain a stable position under load.

When you combine multiple movements into a single, fluid movement it’s important to start and finish each piece in a highly stable position. This sets up the next element until a single rep is complete.

If you do not know how to set up each movement, you perpetuate poor mechanics throughout. One effect of this is a loss of force output. You might not be thinking about that when doing burpees in your group fitness class. But a second effect is the cost of a compromised spinal position rep after rep after rep. Flexion and extension of the lumbar spine is a painful habit. [Trust me]

  1. Hip Mobility and Core Strength

The lumbar spine is made for stability. The muscles surrounding it are designed for isometric tension rather than the flexion or extension that we experience in the glute muscles or the thoracic spine. If we lack sufficient mobility in our hips or our T spine, the low back can round and the erectors are bearing load in an unstable position.

The burpee requires a person to get into a deep hip flexion position…fast. If the hamstring or glute muscles are unable to stretch sufficiently, the low back will flex in the squat. If you are unable to achieve a stable plank position due to a weak / poorly trained core, your hips will sag and your low back will extend in the push up position and hop back.

Knowledge of self is key here. When you hear a fitness instructor yell out “alright let’s see those burpees!” and you don’t realize you have poor hip mobility (or that it’s required for a successful burpee), you will blindly follow. However, if you know that your hips have limited flexion you can safely modify on the fly according to your skill + mobility level.

  1. Speed

When we are trying to force adaptation on the body we add stress. Increasing load or number of reps are two ways to increase stress. Speed is another.

When I was coaching clients we began with doing movements at a very slow rate. If a movement pattern is new to you (or you’ve never received coaching in it) it’s helpful to start with slow flexion and extension in order for build up the mind-muscle connection and look for points of fault in your mechanics. For example, when you perform the downward motion of a squat over the course of 5 seconds, you feel the pull of the hamstrings and glutes as you draw your hips into external rotation. On the upward path you can focus in on evenly distributing your weight on your foot and resisting the urge to let your hips internally rotate. This helps you form that mental image of what a successful squat feels like. This is deep practice [And in my opinion, this is mandatory].

In the burpee, you have multiple movements combined in a single “rep” typically strung together for a heart-pumping cardio-type workout.

Because of the speed requirement, it is likely that your form will break down over time unless you have a well-trained system (in which case the speed component is less of a stress and you’ll end up adding reps to tax the system).

 

I mentioned above that in this burpee challenge we weren’t doing any other movements, but that isn’t common practice. Usually the burpee is used throughout the course of a 30-45 (even 60) minute workout with minimal rest between circuits. This adds up to a lot of time under tension and therefore, a lot of stress on the body. Without a strong foundation, your burpee form is likely to break down pretty quickly leaving you looking (and feeling) like a floppy noodle. Then add in additional squats, push ups, lunges, etc and you find yourself less and less capable of establishing a stable core from which to move, putting your joints in jeopardy both during the workout and when you apply that movement to real life.

 

A workout has multiple purposes, one of which you likely don’t think about much: practice how to move. Because life isn’t about performing squats in a gym or your living room, right? It’s being able to hike the Grand Canyon simply because you’re there and you’re conditioned enough to do it safely (like we did last year). Burpees are a great functional fitness movement – which is all the more reason to practice them with knowledge of their complexity and attention to your movement patterns.

 

Conclusion:

Burpees are a more advanced movement than you might be led to believe based on their prevalence in large group fitness classes. The fitness requirement on the individual can easily exceed skill. So what’s a girl to do? Skip her fave class or start looking down on those burpee-doers? Of course not. Use your intuition, friend. Now that you have more information, you can better listen to your body and consider your skill level. There’s ZERO shame in opting out of the burpees, slowing them down, or modifying. They are great for conditioning and a fun challenge. But the ROI needs to be considered in the moment. Avoid any extreme “burpee or die” mindsets and you’ll slowly accumulate the skills you need to experience the full benefits of the burpee. Like when you’re wrestling with your husband and need to quickly get back on your feet before he gets you in an ankle lock.

 

Looking for a good alternative to the full burpee? Jen Sinkler has a great video for you.

If you’re curious about where I get my movement mechanics information, my go-to resources come from Kelly Starrett, Mark Rippetoe, and Bret Contreras. When asked for good workout information I also always direct women to Girls Gone Strong, Jen Sinkler, and Neghar Fonooni. All of which have youtube channels with good instruction videos.

  • Danielle

    I HATE burpees with a passion (as do most people) but part of my hatred because I haven’t taken the time to work up to doing them correctly. I did CrossFit for about a year (starting as a total beginner) and we’d jump right into doing hundreds of burpees in some workouts. My form was horrible, but I felt bad not finishing them. I’d end up with bruised knees and sore joints. I definitely agree that more thought should be put into them and making sure you have correct form!

    • I’m sorry that was your experience, Danielle! I’ve heard some horror stories when it comes to crossfit and poor coaching. I think, at times, too much responsibility is placed on the newbie…they haven’t developed the motor awareness or the understanding of movement mechanics to correctly assess their own skill and assign proper scaling. But coaches seem to assume they will just do what works for them and it will be fine. I think the first thing a new lifter should learn is the importance of respecting the complexity of movement…I agree with Kelly Starrett that we should be able to perform movement easily in a stable position but getting there requires first building awareness of all the ways you spend your time in a broken (unstable) position and working your way toward consistent stability. THEN add complexity/speed/higher weight/higher reps.

      Ohh boy, can you tell this subject gets me fired up? Hah, thanks for stopping by! And I have SO appreciated your comments on Instagram!

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