Why I Hate Burpees (And You Should Too!)

 Whenever someone plans burpees in a workout, they are definitely making this face.

Whenever someone plans burpees in a workout, they are definitely making this face.

Walk into most bootcamps, Crossfit boxes, and "cardio" classes, and you'll likely see someone, somewhere doing burpees.  Now, the funny part is that no one actually LIKES burpees.  In fact, I'm pretty sure no one in the history of mankind has ever said, "Damn, I wish there were more burpees."  And if someone did, I would make sure I'm nowhere near that masochistic animal.  

Burpees are terrible - this we know.  But, there's a lil' sumpin' sumpin' I need to get off my chest: anytime I see a workout filled with a ton of burpees, it makes me want to bash my face in with a rake....because it gives "training" a bad name.

Why?  Plain and simple, burpees are a waste of time, and they'll likely do more harm than good.  I can't remember the last time I had anyone do a burpee, and frankly, can't see any reason why I'd have someone do them again.  

Now, before you use this post as an excuse to never to burpees again, it's probably best for a quick history lesson.

The burpee is actually named after its inventor (and no, I'm not kidding) Royal H. Burpee.  A physiologist with a PhD, Dr. Burpee invented the exercise in the 1930's as a simple way to test someone's conditioning.  The burpee was much more basic than it is today - going from standing into a squat, kicking your feet out into a pushup position, coming back into a squat, and standing up.  No jumping, no pushups, and definitely not for high reps.  

 The original, unadulterated burpee.

The original, unadulterated burpee.

It's important to point out that I don't dislike burpees because they're hard - far from it!  In fact, I probably have a few clients that would rather do burpees over riding the AirDyne or pushing a heavy sled.  My dislike stems from all exercises coming down to balancing the risk vs. reward....and the positions in a burpee offer more risk than reward.

What do I mean?  I think we've all seen someone do a burpee that looks pretty athletic - they move well, doing a few makes them hardly out of breath, and it just seems effortless (i.e. we hate these people).  On the other side of the coin, we've all seen burpees that look like someone's throwing a bag of dirt out of a truck.  Most of us will start as the former....but quickly head towards the latter once fatigue starts to set in.  And, that's where people get hurt.

(Sidenote: if someone starts out as the latter, it's safe to say there are plenty of other issues that need to be addressed prior to them throwing themselves on the floor, and jumping up as quickly as possible.)

The other part of my argument against the burpee has to do with the fact that burpees were only meant to be performed in a short set.  Depending on the source, as few as 4 or as many as 8, were to be done in a row....and only as part of a conditioning test.

Fast forward to today, and burpees are used completely differently than they were intended.  Instead of being a conditioning test - they ARE the conditioning.  30 burpees for time is more common than you think, and one Crossfit box near me recently posted a WOD of "3 minutes Max Burpees."  I'm glad I don't have to clean their floors..

Now, why is an excessive amount of burpees a bad thing?  Other than injury concerns, it all has to do with exercise specificity - meaning that when you train one activity like running, biking, or burpees, you tend to only get better at that specific activity.  So, getting really good at burpees means you'll be very good at burpees, torturing yourself, and repeating the phrase, "Milk was a bad choice!"

....but that's about it.  Doing hundreds of burpees won't make you better at running, losing weight, etc.  There are better options - those that can make you tired AND help you reach your goals.

So, what should you do instead?  If your goal is strength, my favorites are:

  • Heavy Farmers Carries
  • Kettlebell Swings
  • Short sprints
  • Sled Pushes
  • Pullup/Pushup ladders

If your goal is to simply get better at cardio/conditioning, they can be:

  • Short sprints with short rest times
  • Biking (the airdyne if you really want to be aggressive)
  • Kettlebell Swings
  • Running hills/stairs, etc.

The only limiting factors in conditioning are equipment and creativity.  There's always a way to build in something that's a) safe and B) will help you reach your goals.  After all, friends don't let friends do burpees..

Or fly American Airlines.