How to Do Burpees the Right Way
There are few things that strike fear in the average gym-goer as quickly and deeply as when they look at the day’s workout program and see round after round of the most dreaded exercise in the trainer’s repertoire: burpees.
Before your knees start shaking and you think back through possible excuses to skip out on learning more about the burpee, take a moment to read up on the exercise’s origins and the right way to perform the move. Then, you can decide if you want to skip out on your next burpee session.
The History of the Burpee
The movement itself, a brutally efficient bodyweight exercise that demands you to get down on the ground, then back up again as quickly as physically possible, has taken on an outsized reputation as a grueling conditioning tool used in everything from CrossFit WODs to group fitness classes. That’s slightly surprising given its origin—the exercise was named after its creator, physiologist Royal H. Burpee, as a protocol to test fitness and physical capacity. Later on, burpees were used by the US military as a benchmark test for incoming recruits.
Now, the burpee has taken on an outsized reputation as one of the toughest moves you can include into your workout, in part because of the deviations from its creator’s original template. Most common burpee variants consist of a jump and pushup, a much more active exercise than the four-part standard laid down in the late 1930s that didn’t include those two powerful movements.
Why Some Trainers Don’t Like Burpees
Now, most people think of burpees as a high-capacity conditioning drill instead of a fitness test, one that exercisers perform for a long string of reps in order to ramp up the heart rate and cause exhaustion. The more explosive elements have also helped to make the burpee controversial among some fitness pros, who contend that the burpee is often programmed dangerously—or that it is an inherently dangerous movement—especially for beginners.
The issue many trainers have with burpees stems from breakdowns in form and intent. If the exerciser isn’t experienced or if they’re too tired from the accumulation of reps, they might be at risk of injuring their wrists or elbows if they’re not able to control the way they hit the ground during the first part of the movement, which can become especially dangerous if there’s a time-cap to the workout. If a trainer teaches the burpee as an exercise that is more focused on throwing oneself on the ground and getting up again as quickly as possible instead of a multiple-part maneuver, there’s even more risk. Avoid these workouts if you find yourself working with such a trainer.
How to Do Burpees Safely
Let Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. and associate fitness editor Brett Williams guide you through the move’s subtleties, saving you from the bad habits that are keeping you from unlocking your fitness potential.
Eb says: When you’re doing burpees, think of getting off the ground as “efficiently” as possible. Note that I didn’t say “quickly.” If you focus only on quickness, but you’re not hitting efficient positions, you’re going to leak and waste energy. By default, you won’t get up as quickly as you want to. And if you’re wasting a ton of energy on each rep, it’ll slow you down and fatigue you faster as you pile up reps and work time.
Hit the Ground Strong
Eb says: Never be a jellyfish on the ground when doing burpees. Remember that that straight-body position, which you hit once when you put your hands and feet on the ground and then again when you lower your chest to the ground from there, is meant to be a plank. That means your abs are fired up and your glutes are contracted. You’ll be much faster through both phases if you keep your core fired up, and you’ll be protecting your spine and staving off any lower back injuries, too.
Keep a Wide Base
Eb says: Always think “feet wide” when doing burpees—as in, at least shoulder-width apart at all times. Essentially, you want your feet constantly at a width from which you can jump. So when you lower your torso to the ground, and you’re in that plank, they’re wide. When you leap your feet back towards your hands, they’re wide, too. Do this, and when it’s time to jump, you won’t have to waste any time getting into optimal position to jump — because you’re already there.
Own Your Jump
Eb says: Own the jump on the burpee. That doesn’t necessarily mean jumping sky-high, but it does mean really jumping (as opposed to the bunny hops I see too many people doing. Explode from your ankles, knees, and hips on every jump. A burpee is a valuable opportunity to train triple extension (the same thing that athletes train, and the same thing you train when you’re doing a power clean), so don’t waste that in the quest to do zounds of reps faster than everyone else.
6 Killer Burpee Variations
Once you master the basic form, try these variations for another challenge.
Tuck Jump Burpee
This variation is all about the jump. Start as you would for a standard burpee—squat down with your hands on the ground inside your feet, kick back into a pushup position with your feet wide and hit the deck. Then leap your feet forward, but focus even more on exploding upwards out of the hole than you typically would in a normal rep. As you leap, bend your knees and bring them to your chest, tucking at the top, before extending your legs to land safely.
Hand Release Burpee
You’ll slow down and focus more on your time on the floor with this variation—which can be a great tendency-breaker if you’re rushing through your standard reps. You’ll also add some back work to the burpee, engaging lats and rhomboids when you lift your hands off the ground and squeeze your shoulder blades. If there’s a criticism with the burpee, it’s that the move can batter your shoulders, but the hand-release moment helps offset that. Move through the first steps of the standard burpee, but pause once your chest hits the deck. Raise both hands off the floor for a full beat, then press back down into the floor to raise up through the jump.
Burpee to Jump Lunge
Swap out the pure explosiveness of the standard burpee for a more controlled jump lunge. Go through all the first steps of the exercise, but once you’re back on your feet, hop and cycle one leg forward, the other back, allowing your knee to lightly tap the ground (for your own sake, avoid slamming the floor). Immediately jump and switch your legs to the opposite side and repeat.
This one is a toughie. You’ll do the entire exercise on one leg, challenging your balance and unilateral strength. Understandably, you might not squat as low as you would in a standard rep to get into position. Make sure to move more slowly and deliberately here to stay steady on that one foot and focus on control; don’t let your knee cave inwards at any point.
The Switch will put your coordination to the test, especially when you string several reps together in a set. Go through all of the movements of the standard burpee—but instead of jumping straight up, jump to turn around 180 degrees, land cleanly, and jump straight back to face the front.
Lateral Jump Burpee
You’ll need even more floor space to take on this variation, but you’ll be doing something people don’t do often enough and incorporating lateral work into your training. You’ll perform a standard rep, until you get to the jump. Instead of leaping upwards, spring laterally to the side. Immediately squat down into the next rep—but then, instead of using your jumps to travel even further around your gym, leap back to the starting spot.
Want to master even more moves? Check out our entire Form Check series.
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