I had a lot of people weigh in with their opinion on my instagram poll the other day. I re-posted a Jeopardy meme which said "A useless exercise seen across the globe", with the answer being "What is the burpee". While most people totally agreed with my sentiment and wanted to know why they were justified in nixing the exercise, others were skeptical and stuck to their guns. It's a controversial exercise which you either hate to love or you love to hate, and I have to say, I am one of the "haters"!
So here you go. My full opinion and reasoning for why I don’t program this high impact, injury-prone exercise (anymore). Full disclosure: I used to. I'm sorry. Live and learn.
THE PROS of the Burpee:
The #1 and only reason people do burpees? They’re HARD, meaning they are effective at getting you tired. As a fitness professional, I have to look beyond that as a sole reason to program an exercise for my clients and athletes. Surely there are other (read: better) exercises out there that are hard and will deliver just as good, if not better results!
This brings me to the main part of this article...
THE CONS of the Burpee:
1. IS IT SAFE FOR YOUR BODY?
Sure you can likely get away with doing some burpees if you’re fresh, or a very strong athlete, but if the whole point is to get tired, then your burpee “form” likely isn’t going to hold up well. (Form is in quotation marks, because there are so many variations as to what a burpee is/can/should be).
Here are the things you’re risking:
Wrist injury: Ever complain of wrist pain in planks or pushups? Ok, now try doing that at speed where your whole body weight is landing on and pushing off your wrists.
Shoulder injury: The front part of your shoulder also has to bear the brunt of this impact. Fun fact- the front of your rotator cuff has one muscle- the subscapularis. The posterior (back) side has 3- the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and teres minor. You can do the math as to which side is weaker, and probably doesn't want to be repeatedly put in a such compromising position.
Back injury: Now let’s talk about that worm motion. The cobra-like body roll you do to lurch yourself off the ground to a crouched position before you jump up. If you want to compare this part of the burpee to a cobra (yoga pose), keep in mind that it is done slowly. When you get tired (which is the whole point, right?), your lower back is going to be forced into a backward curve which… it doesn’t want. to. do.
Knee injury: Last but not least- to pick yourself off the ground, you will undoubtedly use your kneecaps to pop you up. I’ll save my knees, thanks!
Now, if you're going to play devil's advocate and say: "Nicole, why don't we just do burpees to a plank position (no body roll) or with a pushup? "
First off, you're still putting your wrist at risk (heh, say that 10 times fast). I also think that you could still throw your back out by jumping your feet in and back repeatedly.
Secondly- how many people do you know who are going to be able to maintain excellent pushup form at pace and through fatigue? If you're in that good shape, I'd recommend doing something much more useful! (Keep reading to find out...).
2. HOW DO YOU PROGRESS?
The main reason we train is to improve. Improve our health, our general fitness, our strength. The way in which we improve is by a term called "progressive overload". Progressive overload means increasing load, intensity, or volume to stress the body and force an adaptation. For instance, when you get sore (#DOMS), it is literally your muscle fibers that have been torn and are in the process of rebuilding to come back stronger.
So let's get back to burpees. How shall we progress burpees to create this desired effect?
Option 1) Add weight?
There are two options here and they both pose problems. The first option is that you wear a weight vest, further overloading your core & arms in unfavourable positions. If you don't understand why this is an issue, go back and read the first 3 injuries I listed above. The second way to potentially add weight would be to hold KBs or DBs and balance your hands on them as you plank/pushup, and clean them on the way up. I believe this exercises is called a "man-maker", a name which gives me even further reason not to do them! Anyway, you are still risking wrist injury on the way down, and a potential back injury if you try to clean the weights with a rounded back. And this is just assuming you're doing it at a reasonable pace!
Option 2) Do them faster?
The likelihood that your form will uphold at pace is low, no matter which burpee version you're doing (chest to floor, pushup, plank). It'll require a lot of strength, even for a well-trained athlete.
Option 3) Do them for longer?
Again, the more you fatigue, the higher the likelihood that your form is going to fail you. One bad slip or movement and you're off to the doctor's office.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO INSTEAD?
If you want to get tired (I think what most people will call "build stamina"), do anything else. Speed squats, jump squats, star jumps. Lift weights faster, run faster, and don't take any rest in between exercises.
If you want to build strength, do pushups and squats. Lots of them. Or add weight.
Finally, If you’re trying to develop power, I think a clean, squat, and press is a much safer, effective, and progressive exercise. Try that instead if you can. A clean-squat-press can be done with dumbbells, kettlebells, barbell, or my favourite, an ultimate sandbag.
I know a lot of people will have turned to the burpee because of lockdown and limited space and equipment. However, I think you are better off not trying to use this exercise as a one-for-all (it's a Master of None), and instead separate what you are trying to achieve. Either break down the exercise into its components (squat/jump, plank/pushup), or just do something else entirely.
If you still don't believe me, check out the sources I consulted to confirm my opinions below. I get quite a kick out of Mike Boyle's (renowned Strength & Conditioning coach) video. It's worth a quick watch.
Disclaimer: I am a certified personal trainer, however you should use always use at your own risk and consult your physician before implementing any of my advice, information or suggestions.
PS. Looking to improve your squash fitness (without burpees?!). Click here to learn more about the Squashletic Training Membership, which gives you all of the strength, conditioning, ghosting, solo hitting, and mobility sessions to help you raise your game!