The first time gym-goers hear the word “burpee,” they laugh. Then they learn what that word means and they groan. Often used interchangeably with “squat thrust,” it refers to an exercise combining a squat with a push-up, two of the most effective body weight movements out there. Pair them together, and you have an overall strength builder guaranteed to leave you out of breath in seconds.
That’s why in the fitness world these days, the burpee is king. It’s raising heart rates at boot camps, martial arts classes, personal training sessions and, most of all, at CrossFit facilities. The international network of gyms that promote back-to-basics techniques for “forging elite fitness” have elevated the exercise into a must-do for its athletes.
“I’m a burpee connoisseur. I’ve done many in my life, tried numerous types, and I’m always awed by their power,” says Andrew Killion, owner of District CrossFit in Washington, who says that every time he wants to make a workout tougher, he just adds in a few burpees.
When Jen Ator, the fitness editor at Women’s Health magazine, was on her lacrosse team in college, the punishment for not showing up on time for practice was performing burpees continuously for each minute of tardiness. One morning, she slept through her alarm and was 20 minutes late, which led to a workout she’ll never forget. But although she cursed the exercise that morning, she’s become a believer, too. Ator uses 10 to 20 reps as a warm-up, as a cardio burst during circuit training or even as a stand-alone workout when she’s crunched for time.
With no equipment, and barely any space, anyone can follow her lead, regardless of fitness level.
History of the burpee
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term originated in the 1930s: “Named after Royal H. Burpee, American psychologist. The original usage was Burpee test, in which a series of burpees are executed in rapid succession, designed to measure agility and coordination.” But there’s a bit more to the story than that.
Burpee (1898-1987) was a physical education advocate who worked for the Greater New York YMCA for more than 50 years. It was in that context that he developed his test, which was used by the Navy and Army, according to a New York Times article from 1959.
“He was a physical fitness nut. Not only did he do them, my father also did them as part of an exercise routine daily,” says Royal H. Burpee III, a 57-year-old plastics salesman in Easton, Pa., who does not do them. But he had to in high school gym class. When his teacher wouldn’t believe that Burpee’s grandfather was responsible for the exercise, young Roy brought in a copy of his book “Seven Quickly Administered Tests of Physical Activity.”
Still, the idea that Burpee – or anyone we can pinpoint – “invented” the burpee seems dubious, because the exercise is based on such functional movements that all humans do. Think about a sun salutation, says Lance Breger, head private trainer at D.C.’s Mint Fitness. The yoga series involves going from a standing position into chaturanga (often called yoga push-ups) and getting back up again. “It’s the same thing,” he says.
Ask five people to describe a burpee, and you’re likely to hear five different answers. Some people decree that there’s always a push-up. Others say the real rule is to touch your chest to the ground. Some jump up at the end, while others just return to standing. But the basic framework is always the same and brings similar bodily benefits: Go from a vertical position to a horizontal one and pull yourself back again.
That means even the newest exercisers can comfortably perform a modified version, says Lance Breger of Mint Fitness. He has clients start by squatting and putting their hands on a bench. They can stick one leg out behind them, then the other, hold that position briefly and return to standing.
And, of course, there are lots of ways to make the exercise more challenging, work additional muscles and hone other skills, such as agility and balance. Here’s a list to try:
- Instead of a push-up, perform six mountain climbers (while your feet and hands are on the ground, alternate jumping each foot toward your chest).
- Grip dumbbells during the exercise. After the push-up, add in two rows before getting up.
- Hold a medicine ball or Bosu (curved side down). Instead of placing your hands directly on the ground, balance on the ball to introduce instability to your push-up.
- Balance on just one leg throughout the movement, so you’re doing a single-leg push-up and hop. “That’s an advanced move I break out when the time is right,” Breger says. Another option: Use just one arm.
- Perform the exercise next to a bar. When you jump up, grab it to do a pull-up.
- Put a box in front of you, and rather than jumping straight up, leap on top of it.
- Find a partner. Decide a total number of reps for both of you – say, 100. Do as many as you can, and when you need a break, tap your partner to start on his or her reps. Switch back and forth until you’ve hit your target. “It’ll keep your mind from focusing on how hard it is,” Ator promises.
As if a single burpee weren’t bad enough, some fitness geniuses have devised ways to make the exercise even more cruel. Dare to try one of these:
The 100-Day Burpee Challenge: On the first day, do one burpee. Not too bad. But each day you add a burpee, so by Day 100, you do 100. Miss a day? You need to make up the reps you skipped before completing the current day’s count.
Prison Burpee Workout: Even if you don’t have much space in your jail cell (or living room), you can attempt this series of descending sets. Start with 20 burpees, take a quick breather, then do 19, rest and continue until you reach zero.