Burpees, whether you love them or hate them, they’re an integral part of many workout programs. I’ve often been asked where in the world we came up with the name “burpee”. My husband often says it’s a gross name for a gross exercise. But burpees actually didn’t start out as the dreaded high-intensity exercise they are today.
Dr. Royal H. Burpee, whom burpees are named after, invented the “squat thrust” as a way to test the fitness of the average population. The exercise was split into four counts – squat down and put both hands in front of you, jump feet back into a plank, jump feet forward, return to standing – and was only performed four times in a row (1).
But, as exercises often do, the burpee has gradually evolved until it now has a life of its own! Instead of just jumping your feet into a plank and back and then standing up, burpees now require a pushup in the plank position and a jump into the air at the end. Burpees are performed in sets of 50 or 100 or performed for 10 minutes straight. And it keeps getting more difficult with variations such as the box jump burpee, kettlebell deadlift burpee, pull-up burpee, and more (2).
The burpee is praised as a great exercise because it works almost all the major muscle groups. When performed correctly, it is a great exercise, but there are many precautions you need to take before starting in on a burpee challenge. With a deep squat at the beginning and the jarring force of hitting the ground as well as the strain of jumping out of the squat, burpees can be really hard on your knees, back, hips, ankles, and feet.
Make sure to keep your hips back, knees over your toes, and back straight like you’re doing a deadlift as you squat down to start the burpee. If you start to feel pain anywhere, take a break, don’t tough it out. And use common sense – if you have back or joint trouble to begin with, this is not the right exercise for you.
So if you do have back or joint problems or if you don’t feel comfortable performing burpees but you want a good total-body exercise, what can you do? There are plenty of other options. Exercises like mountain climbers, jumping jacks, bear crawls, and pushups all provide a workout for multiple major muscle groups without any equipment requirements. If you have access to equipment you can substitute in rowing, Turkish Get Ups, or jumping rope.
Burpees are here to stay (and get harder and harder!), but don’t feel like they’re the only option for your workouts. Substitute exercises that are safe for you and make sure you use proper form when performing your burpees.