How to (finally) master a burpee

The exercise is loved and hated in equal measure. Here’s how to safely work up to doing one.

A woman and her daughter do burpees at home during the coronavirus lockdown. (iStock)

There is perhaps no exercise as feared or recommended as a burpee. A full burpee combines a squat, jump-back, plank, push-up and a jump in the air into one continuous movement.

“Burpees are a fully functional exercise,” said Ben Walker, a personal trainer and owner of Anywhere Fitness, based in Dublin. Different body parts have to work together, while also developing a fuller range of movement. “This promotes better movement and flexibility in our everyday life,” Walker said.

The burpee was invented in the 1930s by a physiologist named Royal H. Burpee Sr., as a way to test a person’s fitness. It was later adapted by the U.S. Army to evaluate recruits’ fitness levels.

Given how hard each of these separate exercises can be, combining them into a single exercise is a tough task, but one that develops and shows flexibility, and improves range of motion, strength and cardiovascular conditioning.

“One of the biggest benefits is that burpees challenge the cardiovascular system as well as the muscular system in one catchall movement,” said Jacque Crockford, a personal trainer and senior product manager with the American Council on Exercise. “When done appropriately, the burpee can be a high-reward exercise.”

If you’d like to access some of the benefits of burpees, but don’t know where to start, these are some ways to safely and gradually work your way up to doing them.

When it comes to learning to do a full burpee, think of it as an end-goal, rather than the beginning. “You’re much better off building up slowly and steadily, rather than overdoing it on day one and potentially hurting yourself,” said Vijay Jotwani, a sports physician at Houston Methodist Hospital.

The risk of pushing yourself too hard, too fast is that burpees require a high degree of flexion in the wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips and knees, which can increase the risk of straining or injuring a muscle or ligament.

To build up slowly, focus first on the individual components or modified burpees. “Just because someone does something one way doesn’t mean that it is incorrect to do it another way, especially if you have particular needs in your own body that you have to be managing,” Crockford said. “Giving yourself a little bit of grace is important.”

A gradual approach can help avoid overtraining and injury. “As long as someone is listening to their body and slowly advancing the intensity of their exercise, the risk of injury is low,” Jotwani said.

If you are recovering from an injury or have any concern, talk with your doctor and work with a certified fitness professional who can suggest additional modifications. One of the challenges of burpees is the quick transition from a prone to an upright position. If you are dehydrated or recovering from an illness, this can cause dizziness. Be sure to hydrate well, and if the dizziness persists, be sure to talk with your doctor.

If you are struggling with one or several of the burpee’s components, work on them separately until you are comfortable doing each one. “The whole burpee can be broken down and workshopped,” said Cat Kom, a personal trainer and the founder of Studio SWEAT onDemand in San Diego.

Starting with individual movements gives you the space to focus on developing the necessary strength. Combining them into a single continuous movement has the added benefit of getting your heart rate up, which helps with cardiovascular conditioning.

Moving from repetitions of a single body weight exercise to the combined movement of a burpee, however, means adding in transitions, most notably the jump into and out of the plank position. “In my experience, the jump-back is usually the most fearful part of a burpee,” Walker said.

Step-back burpees

One way of getting used to the transition from a plank to an upright position is to do a step-back burpee. For this modification, you step back into the plank position, and then step forward to return to an upright position. Kom recommends bringing your hands upward again, reaching toward the ceiling, to prepare yourself for doing the same during a full burpee.

A step-back burpee will also help with hip and ankle mobility, which is needed for the jump. “Because you are moving your body from a horizontal position back to a vertical one, there is some extreme hip flexibility that is necessary,” Crockford said.

Half-burpee

Once you have developed enough hip flexibility to do a step-back burpee, you can then progress to a half-burpee, where you assume a plank position, jumping your feet forward and then back again.

Half-burpee with squat

When you are comfortable with a half-burpee, one variation is to add in a half-squat after jumping your feet forward. Then, you’ll jump your feet back again, returning to a plank position.

Half-burpee with push-up

To get used to adding in a push-up, you can do a half-burpee, for which you’ll just be jumping your feet forward and back, adding in the push-up right after you return to a plank position.

Squat jumps

One of the final components of a burpee is to go from a squatting position to a jump in the air, a movement that can be practiced separately.

Once you are comfortable with all of these modified versions, you can combine them for a full burpee.

There are other ways to modify the different components of a burpee to suit your needs and goals. “Every part of the burpee can be modified,” Kom said. “There’s a burpee for everybody.”