You might be a fan of burpees. Awesome. I genuinely couldn’t care less. What you do in the gym is your business. Not mine. And if you like doing burpees because they make you feel good, then great. Context is always important. So if you do burpees because you think they’re fun, then rock on. We just have very different opinions of fun.
With that being said, I’d grab a tissue box or a stress ball because I’m about to tell you why they suck. But don’t worry, it’s just an exercise. I’m not talking shit about your sister.
After bashing burpees on my Instagram earlier this week, I received more death threats than usual. So I’m hoping this article will shed some light on my stance against this unnecessary ballistic movement and give some background as to why I don’t program them for my clients.
And for the record, I used to do a shit ton of burpees. I started Tae Kwon Do when I was 12, and our “warm-up” every session was 100 jumping jacks, 100 foot switches, 100 sit-ups, 100 burpees, then stretching. In hindsight, definitely not the smartest or most effective approach. But I wouldn’t take it back. It helped me develop some grit and mental toughness, so that’s a win.
But in the context of training purposes, I choose to do without burpees. And I’ll explain why.
1. EXERCISES ARE MADE UP THINGS
The thing about exercises (like burpees, or any exercise for that matter), is they are made up. Someone (probably while smoking crack) invented this exercise. Burpees aren’t something we just naturally get up and start doing when we’re a toddler. It isn’t one of those “fundamental movements” you hear about like squatting or gaited (walking) patterns that humans innately adapt to as we develop our motor skills. Someone, for better or for worse, decided it was a good idea to flop up and down like an asshole until you regurgitated last night’s taco spread.
This is important to note because any exercise or lift that is birthed from the brain of a human acts as an imaginary “box”. And when you recommend an exercise or lift to someone else, you attempt to fit this person into the box. By doing so, you assume that this individual meets all of the necessary prerequisites to perform said exercise. These prerequisites include:
- The mobility needed to get into an optimal position without compensating form or technique.
- Adequate strength and integrity in the supportive joints and ligaments used during the exercise.
- No current or pre-existing injuries that could be exacerbated by performing said exercise.
2. THE MOBILITY REQUIREMENTS
When it comes to burpees, most people don’t come close to meeting the required prerequisites, particularly from a mobility standpoint. Take the wrists for example.
Your wrists need to be able to move while maintaining enough strength and dexterity when holding weights, carrying groceries, or even typing on our computers. Your wrists can flex, extend, and rotate. And most people’s wrist mobility royally sucks. It’s not uncommon to hear about wrist issues when performing push-ups or crawling patterns due to the extended position used during these exercises.
So, if most people don’t have the mobility to extend their wrists without feeling pain, why on earth should they be doing burpees? They shouldn’t.
“But you can hold dumbbells while doing burpees to take care of the wrists.”
Yes, this may allow for a “safer” or more secured wrist position, but so what? That doesn’t necessarily solve the issue. One of the other major problems with burpees is spinal positioning.
3. SPINAL INTEGRITY COMES FIRST DURING ANY EXERCISE
Spine integrity and back health comes first during any lift or exercise. Period. End of story. The moment this is lost is the moment said exercise turns from beneficial to potentially dangerous.
When you imagine what a typical burpee looks like, spinal integrity isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But, to play devil’s advocate, let’s assume that someone does in fact keep their back in a healthy “neutral” position while hinging forward into the descent of a burpee while maintaining that secure position as they come back up. Not likely to happen, but anything is possible I guess.
Even if someone does accomplish this, the very nature of the burpee is to work until fatigue. And when you work to fatigue, it’s only a matter of time before form and technique get thrown out the window. This isn’t an ideal scenario for something that already puts the back in a vulnerable position.
For example, I would never have any of my clients perform deadlifts for as many reps as they can muster until they puked. Because that would be stupid. Same thing goes for burpees. Bending over while jumping up and down until you can’t feel your arms is fine I guess if you like paying for physio appointments. But I’d rather save my time and money.
4. HARD DOESN’T MEAN EFFECTIVE
Many people think that just because an exercise is challenging, it must be effective. This is simply not true. Any toddler can make up a hard workout. Does that mean it’s going to help you reach your goals? Probably not.
How much you sweat, how sore you are, and how exhausting an exercise is has virtually nothing to do with the effectiveness of your workout.
Every action has a reaction. And the goal or outcome of an exercise should be to bring you one step closer to your goals. Whether that’s increasing load to induce strength and hypertrophy benefits; or improving your anaerobic endurance.
The reason so many people attach burpees with these positive effects is based solely on the fact that they are challenging to execute. The fact of the matter is, there are several alternative paths you can take to build a stronger, leaner, and better conditioned body with exercises that offer much higher reward and much less risk.
5. THERE ARE BETTER OPTIONS FOR YOU
Since many people associate hard with effective, they attach positive training effects with burpees. Whether it’s “feeling a pump in their chest” or “working on their conditioning”, they think they’re doing more good than harm, when the opposite is actually true.
There’s an endless list of other exercises that offer a much higher return than burpees with significantly less risk on the body. Whether it’s squat, lunge, deadlift, pressing, push-up, or chin-up variations…the list is almost endless.
Context is important. If doing burpees makes you happy, great. I like it when people are happy. So you do you. But if you’re doing burpees because you attach it to positive training effects, take some of these considerations to heart next time you’re in the gym.
There are many other (safer) paths you can go down in the pursuit of a stronger, healthier body.