The ‘burpee’ is perhaps one of the most popular exercises used in training programs and group fitness settings alike. If you are unfamiliar with this movement, however, it is typically broken into the following phases:
- Begin in a standing position
- Squat and place your hands on the floor
- Kick your feet back while simultaneously keeping your arms extended so that you are in a plank position
- Perform a push-up
- Drive both of your knees back underneath you into a squat position
- Lift your hands off the ground, stand up, and jump with your arms above your head
- Land and repeat for the prescribed number of of repetitions.
Despite the relative simplicity of this movement, it packs a punch in its ability to spike the heart rate and quite literally bring you to your knees. A case can be made, however, that this exercise may not be the best use of one’s time and is, in fact, quite overrated. Breaking the movement down into smaller, more simple exercises could prove more effective.
What Wrong With the Burpee?
Before the burpee mob comes at me with torches and pitchforks for slandering their favorite exercise name, I should clarify one important thing about movements in general. There are not inherently ‘bad’ movements per se, only poorly executed movements, except kipping pull-ups. Those are just dumb.
Any movement can become dangerous if executed with poor technique. Thus I dislike labeling exercises as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I prefer scaling exercises based on their relative risk versus reward and deem them appropriate for somebody based on their own unique training history. Each and every movement in a program should serve a purpose that positively contributes to a larger goal. Arbitrarily selecting movements based on their popularity is a recipe for disaster because what works for one individual does not mean it will run automatically for somebody else.
Why The Burpee Is Not The Best Exercise
The burpee is an advanced movement in that it requires adequate strength and mobility. Yet somehow it has made its way into every boot camp and group exercise fitness class across America at some point or another. Rarely do I see individuals perform a perfect push-up or squat for one repetition, let alone multiple without some issue (knee collapse inward, elevating heels, forward chest), yet the burpee is often programmed as a metabolic conditioning exercise which layers fatigue on already dysfunctional movement.
Potentially High Impact:
If somebody doesn’t have the strength to squat or perform a push up properly, then they more than likely won’t have the strength to make a quick transition from their feet to a low plank position without handing a great deal of stress to their wrists, shoulders, elbows, and back.
Plyometrics and fatigue are like oil and water:
Jumping and landing with proper technique is a skill a number of recreational gym-goers are not conditioned for. Unless they have gone through the proper plyometric progressions (snap downs, drop squats, etc.) to demonstrate their ability to withstand the impact of jumping and landing, then they probably shouldn’t be doing burpees. Not only that, but the volume with which plyometrics are programmed should be carefully monitored, and when endless rounds of burpees are prescribed, these tend to add up quickly.
It is easy to take issue with different training methods as a coach, poking holes in nearly everything we see. Conversely, it is much more difficult to find and offer useful alternatives to the same issues. Something that frustrates me is when I see others tearing down a particular subject without offering any helpful advice in return. A rant followed by a mic drop does nothing to resolve an issue, it simply shines a negative light on something that needs help.
In the case of the burpee, endless exercise alternatives are available. Understanding why some individuals use the burpee in their programs or what they are trying to get out of it will ultimately determine what exercises are chosen instead. Whether it’s metabolic conditioning, muscular endurance, power, or strength you are after, here are some alternatives to the burpee that break the move down into more digestible pieces and can help with all of the components the burpee aims to address.
1) Pause Push Up:
The pause push-up emphasizes slowly lowering yourself to the floor with a 3-5 second pause at the bottom. This movement helps create greater strength in the weakest point of the push up (the bottom) and promotes greater posture/execution of the movement altogether, versus the push in the burpee, which often prioritizes speed of execution
As previously mentioned, the vertical jump and land is a movement some individuals may not be entirely ready to execute. Jumping is rarely the issue for most. It’s actually the landing the creates the greatest problems. That is exactly why taking a step back and working on the snap-down exercise can help tremendously. This movement teaches the individual how to absorb force and land with good posture so that when they start jumping, they have a lower likelihood of injuring or putting unnecessary stress on their joints.
3) Sumo Squat and Reach:
The sumo squat and reach addresses the squat portion of the burpee in that forces one to sit into the bottom position with upright posture, heels down, and knees over the toes. When somebody can effectively execute this movement, then they will be more likely to squat normally with good posture across multiple repetitions.
4) Physio-ball Mountain Climber:
This exercise is a great substitute for the bottom position of the burpee where the individual is trying to return to their feet in a quick jumping knee tuck because the added instability of the ball helps to ensure they keep their hips down and hands under the shoulders.
5) Kettlebell Swing:
The kettlebell (KB) swing is a fantastic option to work on both metabolic conditioning and a dose of power or speed over the burpee. It removes the impact on the shoulders, wrists, and knees seen in the burpee and is a great addition to any program.
While the burpee may be a staple for some, it is worth taking a closer look at whether the juice is worth the squeeze by including it in your program. Some individuals can get away with doing this movement and never have issues, and if that is the case, more power to you! For everybody else, consider breaking down the burpee into more focused and effective movements appropriate for you. Select exercises wisely, plan your program intelligently, and execute with intensity!