Want to Nail the Burpee Whatever Your Ability? Here's How
Few exercises have developed such a fearsome reputation as the ‘humble’ burpee. It’s a movement that requires no weights, no specialist equipment and very little in the way of skill, yet possesses the ability to strike fear into the heart of even the most hardcore gym-goer.
This deceptively simple full-body movement simply requires that you hit the deck, before standing back up again, and again, and again, which will jack up your heart-rate and sear your lungs helping you burn through calories like a furnace. It's the ultimate cardiovascular builder.
Love them, hate them, or utterly loathe them, if you’re going to be performing burpees on a regular basis it’s important that your burpee form is impeccable. Do them right and you'll avoid overuse injuries, build your fitness and optimise your workouts.
So let's get to it.
Muscles Worked in the Burpee
The burpee is not primarily viewed as a muscle-building movement and is geared more towards building stamina and cardiovascular fitness, working your heart and lungs. Although you may experience some initial muscle growth from performing regular sets, especially if you’re a beginner, this will quickly plateau.
That being said, it’s still muscles that get you from floor to ceiling and back again. Here’s which ones.
Shoulders: As you drop down into a plank position the majority of your bodyweight is supported by your shoulders. Rep after rep, this begins to take its toll on your deltoids.
Chest: If you decide to take your burpee all of the way down, you’ll effectively be performing a push-up, working the chest, shoulders and triceps in unison as you press the ground away.
Triceps: Working just as hard as they would in traditional press-ups. A narrower grip will result in more tricep recruitment.
Core: If you’re nailing your burpee form, the muscles of your core (including your abdominals) will be working overtime to stabilise your entire body, holding you in the rigid ‘plank’ position.
Legs: Your hamstrings, quads and glutes all come into play, supporting your full body weight down as you lower yourself to the ground before explosively driving you back up. The higher you jump, the more your lower body is called into play.
Benefits of The Burpee
Despite being labelled a ‘filler’ exercise by some coaches, its undeniable popularity is thanks in part to its accessibility. Burpees present a low skill, no frills, zero equipment required opportunity to elevate your heart rate, build your fitness and get your entire body moving. A compact and handy alternative when you don’t have the space or ability to perform other activities such as running or cycling.
The ability to tweak your workouts by performing your reps faster or slower, with more or less rest, for time, or in circuits with other movements, makes the burpee an incredibly versatile exercise to have in your arsenal. Moving your entire body through a massive range of motion also comes with a surprising amount of mobility benefits. In fact, a slowed down burpee closely resembles the popular yoga flow ‘the sun salutation’.
Perhaps, most importantly (although often overlooked), is the fact that when performing the burpee you’re effectively training your capacity to reach and get back up from the ground, a skill we can all agree is not only vital to possess, but becomes increasingly more important as we age.
Despite its detractors, you could make the argument that lower intensity burpee workouts, adapted and scaled to the skill and abilities of the trainee, are perfect for longevity.
How to Perform the Burpee
Most burpee haters zoom in on the fact that high rep sets of the movement, performed by undertrained (or overzealous) trainees, can quickly lead to form breakdown. Endless low quality reps are a recipe for injury, no matter what movement we’re discussing, but the popularity and easily accessible nature of the burpee makes it ripe for abuse.
Keep your form tight, avoid injury and make the burpee a move for life with our form guide.
From a standing start, hinge at the hips and bend at the knees to bring your hands to the ground. A wider stance will require less flexibility. Your back will round, this is inevitable and isn’t as bad as some trainers will have you believe, but try to get your hands to the ground as quickly as possible to support your bodyweight.
With hands on the ground, shoulder-width apart, explosively jump both feet backwards, finishing in a strong ‘plank’ position as if you’re about to perform a press-up.
As originally conceived by physiologist Royal H. Burpee (honestly, we’re not making that up), the burpee ended here by reversing the movement back to a standing position, however most modern trainees opt to continue down to the floor by bending at the elbows, lowering their chest to the ground and back up by performing a full press-up.
Don’t let your elbows flare out here, keep them at a 45-degree angle to your body, and don’t let your hips drop— maintain that rigid plank position throughout to protect your back.
Once you’re back in the top of the press-up position, explosively jump your feet inwards, bringing your knees towards your chest. Landing in a wider stance will require less mobility, but will incorporate your quadriceps less.
Push the ground away with your hands and bring your hips through to quickly stand up upright. Some variations of the burpee finish here, but many gyms and training methodologies such as CrossFit will have you follow through with a slight jump, touching your hands together above your head to ‘get the rep’.
Land with soft knees and immediately squat down to move into your next rep.
How Many Reps, Sets and How Often Should I Burpee?
How often and how vigorously you perform burpees depends on a number of factors including your age, weight, training experience and injury history, as well as the other movements you include in your training programme. That being said, burpees, performed with impeccable form and scaled to your own ability (following the guidelines below), are far more difficult to overdose on than heavy weight moves such as the bench press.
Overuse injuries can still occur, even with perfect execution, but the lack of external load makes this less likely – as long as you are careful and controlled with your movements, avoiding red flags such as quickly dropping all of your bodyweight onto your wrists or losing tension in your midline and continuously dropping your hips to the ground.
Correctly adapted and executed burpees can be performed with a high frequency, even daily, but care must be taken, as with any other movement, to ensure you are allowing adequate recovery between training sessions and that you slowly build up the total volume (sets and reps) you are performing, giving your body a chance to adapt.
The Best Burpee Workouts
Now you know how to perform the burpee correctly, it's time to put them into workouts. Here's three of our favourite burpee workouts:
The 120-Rep Burpee Breathing Ladder That Works Your Body and Mind
Our Adapted Version of the CrossFit Open Workout '23.2' That Builds Full-body Fitness with No Kit
A Dumbbell 'Hero' WOD You Can Do at Home (If You Can Handle It)
Whether you’re a burpee virgin, a veteran down-upper, or coming back from injury, use our progression matrix to find a variation that’s suited to your skill level, abilities and goals.
The Step Down
Begin by hinging at the hips and bending at the knees bringing your hands towards the ground, but instead of explosively jumping your feet backwards, simply step back, one foot at a time, finishing in a strong plank position with arms locks out.
From here, step one leg back towards your chest followed by the other before returning to a standing position. Repeat.
MH says: This variation is great for conserving energy, avoiding injury or ensuring your form stays tight when coming back to training after a lay-off or injury.
Hinge, squat and drop your hands to the ground, shoulder-width apart. Explosively kick both legs backwards and assume a strong ‘plank’ position.
Quickly jump your feet back in and return to standing. Forego the CrossFit style jump and clap and simply repeat the movement from a standing start.
MH says: Far less energy intensive and explosive, the omission of the full press-up allows for more reps to be performed, but reduces the (small) muscle building effect than the more modern iteration has on your chest and triceps.
The CrossFit Burpee
Incorporating chest contact with the floor, as well as a small jump with hands touching above your head at the top of each rep, create greater demands on both the working muscles as well as the cardiovascular and respiratory system.
Although many Crossfitters have perfected the art of minimising the fatigue on their chest and triceps by dropping their hips to the ground to avoid performing a full press-up, it’s important to note that this is a specific skill that must be trained and adapted to in order to avoid issues, particularly with your lower back. This conservation of energy through skill is vital for performance in competitive functional fitness, but is not necessary for everyday gym goers simply looking to crank their heart rate up. For us mere morals, we’re best off keeping the full press-up intact and clean, or simply avoiding it altogether.
Burpee to Target/ Over Object
Adding a target that’s six to 12 inches out of your standing reach, or an object to jump over (such as a barbell, dumbbells or even a rowing machine), is a great way to up the demand, especially on your lower body.
Just take care to avoid tripping if you’re jumping over a high object, especially as fatigue begins to set in.
Performing full, CrossFit style burpees – holding dumbbells or in a weighted vest – majorly increases the demand on your working muscles, essentially incorporating a deadlift and weighted jump squat into each rep.
However, care must be taken to execute each rep with perfect form, as even a small additional load can pose a large additional injury risk when performed carelessly at high speeds. Try to break the each rep down into a series of individual movements, each performed with mindful attention to form.
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