Are Burpees Really the World's Worst Exercise?

When they're done with sloppy form and programmed poorly, Burpees are definitely a bad choice.

I'm a big believer in context. I think it's important to really look into something before writing it off. This extends to movement: I believe we should never judge a movement by its abuse. When you do, everything seems dangerous. Simply typing this article could cause an overuse injury in my fingers!

The Burpee is one of the most controversial movements in fitness. Some have even dubbed it "The World's Worst Exercise." It was invented in the 1930s by a physiologist named Royal Huddleston Burpee. Burpee needed a way to assess the fitness of non-active adults for his Ph.D. thesis at Columbia University, so he utilized a four-part move he deemed the "Squat Thrust." It consisted of, in sequence:

Royal H. Burpee made his participants perform only four "Squat Thrusts" at a time, and he specifically warned against unfit individuals performing the exercise for high repetitions, as a lack of core strength could lead to knee and back pain.

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I'm a big believer in context. I think it's important to really look into something before writing it off. This extends to movement: I believe we should never judge a movement by its abuse. When you do, everything seems dangerous. Simply typing this article could cause an overuse injury in my fingers!

The Burpee is one of the most controversial movements in fitness. Some have even dubbed it "The World's Worst Exercise." It was invented in the 1930s by a physiologist named Royal Huddleston Burpee. Burpee needed a way to assess the fitness of non-active adults for his Ph.D. thesis at Columbia University, so he utilized a four-part move he deemed the "Squat Thrust." It consisted of, in sequence:

  • Squatting down and placing your hands on the ground
  • Jumping your feet back to assume a Plank position
  • Jumping your feet forward to return to position one
  • Standing back up out of the squat

Royal H. Burpee made his participants perform only four "Squat Thrusts" at a time, and he specifically warned against unfit individuals performing the exercise for high repetitions, as a lack of core strength could lead to knee and back pain.

His methodology was to measure heart rate before, during and after those four reps. It was a simple, inexpensive way to quickly assess someone's cardiovascular capacity. Over time, the movement was adopted as a fitness test by the U.S. Military and came to be known simply as the "Burpee." In the decades since, doing a ridiculous number of Burpees in a short span has become normalized, and the inventor's original standard for form has been largely forgotten.

What was once a fitness test is now mostly used as fitness torture. It isn't revolutionary to say that repeating a movement over and over again despite pain and fatigue isn't the wisest thing you can do. Abusing any movement is a bad idea, and Burpees are one of the most abused movements in existence. The original Burpee is now commonly called a "Half Burpee," while a move that often leads people to flail themselves onto the ground and jump between each rep is deemed the real Burpee.

However, I think the validity of Burpees all comes down to programming. If you're programming high repetitions in a competitive environment (like CrossFit), the odds that form will degrade and pain will occur increases exponentially. But done for a more manageable number of repetitions at a smooth (but not rushed) pace, the exercise becomes a much safer full-body movement that can build upper-body and core strength and get your heart rate up--even if you do touch your chest to the ground:

The Burpee is a multifaceted movement that should have multiple transitional points. One major issue people run into is one they think of the Burpee as one movement and simply look to get themselves on the ground and then up off their feet into the air as quickly as possible with no regards for what happens in between. I believe owning the following movements is the key to owning the Burpee:

  • Squat
  • Quad Hover Walk Out
  • Tall Plank
  • Push-Up

If you're not able to perform any of those movements correctly or your transitions between them are sloppy even when done at a slow pace, you probably shouldn't be doing Burpees!

When you are moving deliberately and owning the checkpoints of the Burpee, higher reps become much less of an issue. This is purely anecdotal, but when I participated in a SEALfit event last year, I performed thousands of Burpees in one week. During my six months of preparation for this "Hell Week"-esque training, I didn't do a single Burpee. Yet I survived. Now, obviously this is way too many Burpees for anyone to be doing on a regular basis, but the point of such an event is to push you mentally and physically. That being said, there are a couple key reasons I believe I was able to do all those Burpees and escape relatively unscathed.

One, I had owned the movements that make up the Burpee. Two, the way the SEALs had us doing them challenged not only our fitness, but our communication, timing, coordination, listening skills and ability to function as a team. At any given time, only one person was leading the team through the movement. Everyone else had to follow their cadence. This leader needed to exercise judgement and humility. If they went at a pace that left someone behind, the whole team suffered. They needed to go as fast as the slowest person could adequately handle so that no one got left behind.

For someone who may be leading a group workout, this is wise advice. For what some of these Burpees looked like in action, here's myself performing an 8-point Burpee with a sandbag somewhere between the hours of 3-5 a.m.:

Do I think Burpees are really the world's worst exercise? No, I don't. When they're done with sloppy form and programmed poorly, they're inarguably a bad choice. But I think that Burpees have plenty of value when done right. Are they something that should be a staple of a team sport athletes' routine? No, there are likely more efficient ways to spend their training time. But for those generally pursuing greater fitness, some deliberate, well-executed Burpees can be a valuable exercise and/or warm-up.

Instead of using the movement as a form of punishment, let's get back closer to how the original inventor envisioned the exercise.

Photo Credit: FluxFactory/iStock

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Topics: BURPEES