Burpees are one of the most useful movements in fitness. Against the grain of a trend-based industry, this movement has been a fixture for decades.
The simple four-count burpee is the creation of Royal H. Burpee. Royal was an American physiologist. He first wrote about his famed exercise in his Columbia University thesis.
As the United States entered World War Two, American armed forces adopted and popularized the burpee. They used it as a method of assessing the physical preparedness of their recruits.
Today, burpees have grown to somewhat of a pop sensation. Tee shirts boasting “Burpees? I thought you said Slurpees!” fly off the shelves. At the same time, a “burpees suck” hashtag is never far from trending on Instagram and Twitter.
So, here’s the big question: How do you get good at burpees?
You Have to Start Somewhere
Before you start Googling something like, “what are the best shoes for burpees,” consider this:
There is no magic pill for burpees. There is no magic fix for fitness. The best way to get better at burpees is to start doing them.
This is why I decided to write this guide. I’m going to help you find a starting point, and set goals for how you can grow. Ready? Go!
Burpees for Beginners
When Royal Burpee first conceptualized the exercise, he broke it down into a simple four-count movement. This became known as the four-count burpee, or basic burpees.
1. From a standing position, lower your upper body into a squat position. Your hands should lead your downward-motion, planting themselves on the ground. COUNT 1.
2. Kick your feet back, moving your body into into a plank position. Your arms should stay extended, with your hands supporting your upper body. COUNT 2.
3. Pull your feet back into your squatting position. Count 1 and Count 2 should be a quick, seamless motion. COUNT 3.
4. Return to your standing position, rising out of your hands-down squat. COUNT 4.
There are over eighty variations of the traditional burpee. Some of these burpee modifications scale it to make it easier, and some enhance it to find additional difficulty.
This is my burpee. There are many exercises like burpees, but these burpees are mine.
My burpee is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.
My burpee, without me, is useless. Without my burpee, I am useless.
My Burpee: The Creed of a CrossFitter
Modified Burpees (Scaled)
Are you looking to complete your first burpee? Well then, this section is for you. I’ll introduce you to a few burpee scales, which will help you with anything from a heavier body type to working around bad wrists or knees.
Modified Burpees for Bad Knees
There are two points in a burpee which put extra stress on your knees:
The downward (squat) movement
The jump to and from the plank position
Your goal should always be to push yourself to complete as close to the correct movement as possible, but be smart.
The Squat: Knee pain during the downward motion of the burpee results from bad squat form. The usual suspect is when you don’t hinge from your hips as you lower your body.
In simple terms? Stick your butt out as your first motion. One of the best indicators that this is a problem is if you feel your body weight in your toes. Your weight should be in your heels.
SOLUTION: Practice air squats before you start your burpees. As you build muscle memory, it will transfer into your burpee movement.
The Plank: Your knee houses a complex system of ligaments. Sometimes, injuries or neglect can add up to a not-so-simple case of knee pain. If you feel pain when you’re jumping into and out of the burpee plank:
SOLUTION: Remove the hop from the movement. Without the hop, you can walk your feet back to the plank position, walk them back up to your hands, and stand up. This will reduce most of the pressure on your knees.
Modified Burpees for Bad Wrists
The most common form of burpee wrist pain comes from the impact of landing on your hands during each rep. Because of this, you can ease the impact by reducing the distance you’re dropping your body. Try doing bench burpees. These involve keeping your body elevated (somewhat) on a bench, instead of dropping to the ground. This is a more wrist-friendly angle, but still takes you through the majority of the movement.
Half-burpees are much like a mountain climber. Picture the four-step burpee with the standing part removed. Keeping your hands planted on the ground, jump your feet and knees under your body, then back out into a plank. Repeat.
These can also help with knee pain, as you’re removing the squat from the movement.
Doing burpees while carrying some extra weight around can be tough. The most common scenario is difficulty bringing your knees to your chest for a transition to and from the standing position. You’re not the only one to have this frustration. The first step is JUST that: the stepping burpee. This is the same scale we recommend for individuals struggling with knee pain.
Don’t drop down, jump your feet out and back, and pop back up. Slow down, and make more decisive movements:
Lower yourself down in any method you feel comfortable. You can use a box, bench, or chair to assist you. COUNT 1.
Step your feet back and extend your body. Keep your hands planted on the box/bench if needed. COUNT 2.
Walk your feet back under your body, using the box/bench/chair as support. COUNT 3.
Work yourself back up to a standing position. COUNT 4.
If this is your first experience with burpees, it’s important you embrace that it is a process. Nothing will come overnight, but being consistent will get you the results you want.
Jumping Burpee Modifications
There are many modifications to the burpee which involve an added jump at the end. Most commonly, CrossFit burpees require both feet to clear the ground for a burpee to be counted as a rep.
Also known as barbell-facing burpees (or “bf burpees”), the bar-facing modification involves a jump over a barbell:
Facing the bar, squat until you can plant your hands on the ground. COUNT 1.
Kick your feet out, landing in a plank position. COUNT 2.
Hop your feet back to your hands. COUNT 3.
Pop up and over the bar. COUNT 4.
Bar-facing burpees typically require you to jump forward over the bar, without any lateral (side-to-side) motion. You’d then rotate your body to face the bar and complete another repetition to return back over the bar.
The burpee pull-up is a modification to the traditional burpee which adds a fifth motion for pulling. As you stand up, out of your burpee, you jump to a pull-up bar and complete a pull up, before dropping down and returning to Count 1 of a basic burpee.
Other Common Jumping Modifications
Burpee Broad Jump
Lateral Barbell Burpees
Lateral Erg Burpees
Burpee Box Jump
Burpees with Weights (Weighted Burpees)
If you’re finding burpees to be a little too easy, one of the best modifications you can make is to start doing burpees with weights.
The two most popular (and safest) forms of weighted burpees involve a weight vest or dumbbells:
Adding dumbbells to your burpee is a simple modification. In this, you’re going to grab two dumbbells.
In Count 1 of a dumbbell burpee, you place the dumbbells on the ground and rest your weight on them. After kicking out to the plank and back, deadlift the dumbbells back up to your standing position. This modification adds a degree of difficulty without adding weight to the plank or push-up.
Weight Vest Burpees
The only thing that changes in a classic four-count burpee when adding a weight vest is the vest itself. You’re still going to follow the full burpee process, but do so with the extra weight of the vest. Doing this adds weight to both the up and the down part of the movement.
Other Common Weighted Modifications
Medicine Ball Burpee
Burpee Workout Options
Here are three common burpee workouts. Just be glad I’m not suggesting the CrossFit Open 12.1 workout. It was seven minutes of burpees, for as many reps as possible.
Burpee Workout for Beginners
The Roxanne CrossFit workout is often used by gyms as a warmup, but is a great way to get you started down your burpee path.
The idea is simple: do jumping jacks while listening to Roxanne, the classic hit by The Police, and do a burpee every time Sting croons, “Roxanne.”
If the jumping jacks catch up to you, there are a few scaling options, which include high knees, running in place, and butt kicks.
There isn’t much strategy to this, but complete 100 burpees for time. Many high-intensity challenge-seekers turn this into a thirty-day challenge. Can you complete 100 burpees per day for 30 days?
Best Burpee Workout
If you’re looking to push yourself and feel like you have burpees under control, here’s a workout for you. The Burpee Mile takes the burpee broad jump to the next level. For time, complete burpee broad jumps the entire length of a quarter-mile track. Four times.
This movement is a special add-on to a four-count burpee. As you pop into the fourth portion of your burpee, launch yourself forward in a two-footed hop as far as you can. This “broad jump” helps your explosiveness and should earn you as much forward distance as possible. When you land, you can start directly into your next burpee.
Effective programming is represented by an increase in overall fitness, not just gains in a single area. As athletes, we are greedy. We don’t just want to be strong, fast, good at gymnastics or weightlifting, or short or long tasks, but we want to be good at everything. Programming for general physical preparedness means that as athletes, we are ready for whatever task life can possibly throw at us. All of our capacities should be on the rise together. Therefore finding the right balance, and hitting all sides of the spectrum can be a daunting task for a programmer. The best way to make sure we are spreading out the love so to speak, and chasing “fitness”, is by playing with the stressors (workouts) that we are exposing people to. The adaptations (results) correlate to the type of stress you are putting on the body. Here are some absolutes for getting the most “bang for your buck” out of G.P.P. programing.
Pair Complementary Movements Together in Workouts in the Form of Couplets or Triplets
Pairing two or three movements that do not contain the same movement functions (ie. hip mediated movements with shoulder mediated movements, or pushing with pulling) allow the athlete not to be limited by the localized muscle fatigue in workouts (ie. “my arms just can’t do another pushup”), but rather it are taxes metabolic engine that fuels the activity( ie. “I can’t breath, my whole body is aching”). The point is to develop theses energy systems that create a molecule in the body called ATP, that fuels life’s efforts. Athletes that continue to move, transition, and do work will express higher intensities. For example it is not so much that the athlete lacks the muscle stamina to perform another rep, but it is the ability to effectively utilize oxygen or sugars at such an intensity that causes the overall “awfulness”. It is the high intensity efforts that allow athletes to develop a more efficient metabolic engine, yielding positive systemic adaptations.
Keep Most Workout to 15 minutes or Less, Alternate Weights and Modalities
Keeping most workouts between 5 and 15 minutes and alternating loads allows athletes to get results on both sides of the fence, both aerobically and anaerobically. Aerobic work is that which requires oxygen as the primary source of fuel. It usually means longer efforts with lesser power output and load ie. 5k run. This results in increased endurance, reduced body fat etc.. Anaerobic work doesn’t require oxygen as fuel but rather uses sugars, lactate, or phosphogen to provide energy. These efforts are usually shorter with higher loads ie. barbells or explosive efforts. This results in good stuff like increased muscle mass, bone density and strength and muscle stamina. By utilizing strategies that alternate modes and efforts through the application of high intensity intervals, athletes can get stressors both aerobic and anaerobic in the same workout.
In 2003, coach Greg Glassman wrote the article titled: “A Better Warm up” in the CrossFit Journal. This article drew conclusions on the potential benefits of practicing functional movement patterns as an alternative to traditional cardio warm ups in a steady state. The increased benefits of this warm up includes the following:
Raising the core temperature of the body and increasing the heart rate
Added stretching of the major joints
Developing functionality and capacity in some of the basic movements
Working the entire body
Preparing the systems of the body for the rigors of the workout
The Original CrossFit Warm up Includes:
The Sampson strength (opening the hip flexor in a lunge)
The Overhead Squat (done with a PVC or empty barbell)
Sit-ups (on an ab-mat)
Back extensions (On a GHD)
Pull ups (strict/kipping or banded)
Dips (on a dip bar or rings)
You may re-call some old CrossFit tee shirts that say “our warm up is your workout” and to many people who are new to functional training the statement might be true, but this is not meant to be the case. This warm up is instructed to be done “Challenging, but not unduly taxing” By picking appropriate scales for the movements that fit this criteria, both in assisting the movements or lowering the reps, anyone should be able to do this without an issue. Originally this warm up was prescribed for 3 sets through of 10 reps each movement with parameters that it should take no longer than 15 minutes under low-moderate intensity, the same heart rate you might jog on a treadmill with.
The beauty in this warm up is its simplicity and effectiveness. It works hip with leg functions, trunk with hip functions, as well as flexion and extension of the joints. By practicing the very basics daily athletes can expect to improve positions and efficiency of the foundations. One of the more impressive benefits is the neurological “greasing of the groove” in the motor pathways. This is also a great way to silently build capacity with intensity or muscular damage you might encounter from the workout, an added bonus.
As athletes build capacity it may be appropriate to add some volume or increase the difficulty of some of the movements. Below is a graded progression for beginner, intermediate, and advanced level athletes:
Done for 3 rounds (as capacity increases, raise all reps to 10, no scales)
Samson stretch 1 minute
10 PVC overhead squat
10 ab-mat sit-ups
10 back extensions
5 pull ups (with or without bands)
5 Dips (with or without bands)
(Done for 3 rounds)
15 pvc overhead squat
15 sit ups
15 back extensions
15 pull ups
15 ring dips
(Done for 3 rounds)
15 PVC overhead squat
15 GHD sit ups
15 Barbell good morinings
3 rope climbs
10 handstand push ups
5 muscle ups
All of this is very individual and ply-able. Balance the capacity of the athlete with a somewhat challenging volume and movement difficulty that allows them to get something out of the warm up without going nuts. From a macro perspective, if athletes are moving better, progressing in skill, and slowly adding capacity to the warm ups, you are headed in the right direction. This is a garnish to your program, an added value in an unlikely place that can accelerate athletes’ progress to their goals, and beyond.
Segmented Training produces segmented results. Separating cardio, from strength, from gymnastics training doesn’t provide nearly the same type of results as mixed modal workouts under intensity. If you think you can get your cardio in the morning, then do your strength work in the afternoon and truly be prepared for life, you are mistaken. Just think about it, in life is it usually one or the other for all that can be thrown at you? Consider a first responder, athlete, fighter, or military operator…they need to be strong and fast simultaneously. If a fire fighter can pick you up, but is too gassed to take you anywhere that’s not effective, nor is the firefighter who has all the cardio in the world but is not strong enough to lift his victim. Life and sport require multiple skills at once, so segmenting them is not practicing how you play or live. So why do athletes like to segment stuff?…Because it just doesn’t hurt as much or require as much neurological demand. Practicing thrusters then practicing pull-ups will never pack the same punch as the workout “Fran” (21,15,9 thrusters and pull ups). When the skills are mixed, when your are expected to lift heavy and be coordinated under a high heart rate there are adaptations that take place that we don’t understand. But the result is capacity, and a level of fitness and adaptability that is hard to recreate any other way. Consider these three CrossFit name benchmark workouts and the different skills they require. They are fantastic tool for training and evaluation:
4 Rounds for time of:
Run 400 meters
21 Kettlebell swings
Skills Required: Cardiorespiratory endurance, Muscle stamina, Upper body and grip strength, basic gymnastic competency
Virtually any method of strength training will illicit a response in a novice, detrained or untrained lifter. A program with any significant level of intensity, weather it be lifting soup cans, P-90-X, INSANITY, CrossFit, or Westside Barbell’s conjugate method, will enhance the strength of an individual in just a few months. For this reason it can be very deceiving or misleading to interpret the data shown by the exposure of training protocols on novice athletes as a qualification of a programs efficacy and efficiency. We see this all the time on TV in the form of the Shaker Weight, Tony Little’s Gazelle training, The Perfect Pushup and Zumba. Something is always better than nothing but what does this breed?… relatively inexperienced coaches with a minimal amount of knowledge or development having initial success with clients, attracting more people to programs that requires minimal coaching. So how do you differentiate yourself and your program from others? Here is the best suggestion I can give you:
Take the Time to set a Good Foundation of the Basics
When dealing with a new athletes take the time to restore the range and correct pattern of basic movements. Anyone can slap weight on a barbell. It takes skill to teach someone how to move with virtuosity. Setting this foundation will raise your athletes ceiling in the long run…increasing their potential, decreasing the risk of injury and ensuring them a more fruitful and productive athletic life. Here are some basic concepts of movement.
The ability to support and maintain a neutral position of the spine as you move about the hips, knees, shoulders and elbows. This position evenly loads the vertebral discs of the spine…reducing shear and creating a safe and effective transmission of forces.
Posterior Chain Engagement
Teach athletes to access the biggest most powerful muscle groups in the body…the glutes, hamstrings and spinal erectors. This can be done by initiating movement with the hips, balancing weight in the heels, turning over the pelvis to stretch the hamstrings and maintaining a strong lumbar curve of the back.
Move in Proximal to Distal Patterns
High levels of power are generated from the center out. This happens in a wave of contractions from the high force low velocity muscles of the core to the low force high velocity muscles of the extremities.
Restore Full Range of Motion
Athletes should be moving through their anatomical full range of motion. Partial range of motion results in partial strength and partial flexibility. To ensure good muscular balance and enhance muscular recruitment require full range exercises. This should be the first plan of attack…DO NOT WAIT!! Your athletes won’t learn to go full range once they develop a 400lb quarter squat.
Anyone can use intensity to get people in shape. It is the knowledge of movement and mastering an appropriate prescription in strategic doses that will ensure the continued athletic development of clients. Use these principles to differentiate yourself and your program from others.
The jump rope is a great tool for aerobic conditioning. It allows for a potent, sustained cardiovascular effort that will provide a challenge in any workout. Using the jump rope also requires and develops many neurological skills such as coordination, accuracy, agility, and balance. That is why fighters love using the jump rope as a tool to practice being coordinated under fatigue. In CrossFit the common use for a jump rope is the “double under” (two revolutions of the rope per jump). This movement takes a slightly higher jump than the single under, and adds increased coordination between the upper and lower body.
The jump rope can be taken anywhere. It is essential equipment for the fit traveler to use for “hotel wods”. Combine this exercise with dumbbells, Push-ups, or burpees for a quick burner after the plane ride. Here are some tips for developing the double under…
Double Under Tips
When starting skipping rope hold the hands at 10 and 2 o’clock at the waist height with the hands slightly in front of the hip. Revolve the rope from the wrists not the shoulders.
Practice single unders until you are smooth and efficient, then try throwing some doubles. Just jump a little higher and whip the wrists twice. Keep the jump smooth and soft on the ground. You can begin with 2 singles into 1 double to acquire the skill.
When picking a rope make sure to start with a length that allows the handles to reach just beneath the armpits with one foot holding the rope to the floor.
90% of people that come in the gym don’t need a specialized program. They need fitness. There is no magic formula or complex algorithm that is the key is success, in fact it is quite simple: practice full body high powered functional movements, push yourself to your mental and physical limits, and change up the duration, loading, and tasks your perform. This will give you big results in many different areas, setting a strong base of general physical preparedness. And it is likely that for most these results will continue to improve for a very long time, before they plateau as long as the consistency and intensity are there. But lets say that you reach that plateau and find that while many areas of your fitness are strong, you have identified some weak spots that are not congruent to your other capacities. It is possible to work on those weaknesses while maintaining your overall fitness within your program. Here are some ways to fix that chink in your armor.
Add extra work in this area in the warm-up or cool down of your workout. For example if you struggle with pull-ups you could warm up with some kipping pull-up skill, or you could cash out of your workout with a finisher of 2 sets of max strict pull-ups 3 times a week. If you struggle with the Olympic lift you could work on positions and skill with a barbell in the warm up or add some short extra lifting work after the workouts 3 times a week.
You could program the capacity you lack more frequently in your workouts. 3 days a week could be a workout focusing on this area. For instance if you need your strength, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays could be just dedicated strength days with your other two training days focusing on overall fitness, not just strength.
Whatever it is you choose to specialize in remember, the goal isn’t to be a specialist. Specialists are not fit. It is easy to fall in love with one area and loose site of the overall picture. After a period of time evaluate whether what your have chosen to focus on is better, and when it is time to become a generalist again…because generalists are freaking FIT!
Three factors that are in your control can have the most significant impact on the longevity and quality of your life, outside of genetics.
Choosing to be active and train possibly the biggest factor. Building capacity in your younger years can create a buffer and slow down the inevitable decline that comes later in life. It can also help you avoid many diseases that can cut life short. Diabetes, heart disease, and cancers are the three biggest killers in westernized civilizations, all of which can have their risk factors reduced through exercise. People who are active are generally happier, suffering less from depression, sleep, and digestive issues.
How you eat also has a significant impact on your health. Food fuels all of life’s activities and can cure, reduce, or help people completely prevent diseases. Food quality and quantity are the two most significant factors when eating. Whether you are concerned with maximizing your performance or just living a happy and healthy life, food is a widely under looked and under utilized piece of the puzzle. The same way you might approach your training and tracking performance in the gym, tracking nutrition is paramount for success.
Sleep is a widely under looked factor for health and performance. Sleep helps the body recover, reduces stress, and is important for hormonal recovery. Overtraining, work stress, and nutrition all can adversely affect the length and quality of sleep. We recommend 8-10 hours of sleep a night to keep you happy healthy and performing well. Looking at the sleep environment, and understand what you need to go into a steep REM state can help improve the quality of sleep. Creating a sleep log, just like a workout or nutrition log, can help you create a roadmap to success. So spend the extra bucks on that expensive mattress because over the long term it is totally WORTH IT!
The Olympic lifts are some of the most fun, challenging and rewarding movements one can do in the gym. The lifts are a beautiful and violent chorus of movement. The snatch (bringing the bar from the ground to overhead in a single movement) and the clean and jerk (bringing the bar from the ground to the shoulder and then overhead) require athlete to move weights fast under high loads. The moves develop tremendous flexibility, coordination, speed and balance as well as strength and power. That is why there is so much “bang for your buck” in training them. Practicing the Olympic lift will no doubt make you fitter and more athletic so everyone should be practicing them. Having said that, the complexity of these lifts, make them a love of passion and frustration. Much like a golf swing, when you hit that perfect shot, hitting that perfect snatch where the lift just feels right is an addictive experience. These are cerebral lifts that require concentration and focus. Most people struggle with the positioning and speed of these lifts before strength becomes a limiting factor, making knowledge and practice a vital piece in development.
The first pull of the Olympic lifts is probably the biggest issue for most novice and intermediate lifters. This is the initial pull off the floor to the middle of the thigh, before athletes aggressively open their hips to elevate the bar. In essence, the first pull is meant to set you up for success. When done properly, it will maximize your strongest position and keep the bar in an ideal spot for top leverage. It is a positioning pull, meaning that the emphasis is not on speed, but maintaining the proper position. Here are some mechanics of the first pull, that are different to the traditional deadlift.
Start with the feet hip width apart and the bar over the last laces of the shoe (right before your toes start). This is a bit farther forward than the traditional deadlift. With the hands outside the shoulders grab the bar with a hook grip (fingers wrapped over the thumb). Lower the hips until the shins touch the bar, this may be a bit lower than your deadlift setup. The weight in your feet should be distributed 60:40 between that heel and the ball of your foot.
The First Pull:
Keeping the back tight. Stand up while PUSHING THE KNEES BACK and KEEPING THE CHEST RISING. Go slowly and allow the bar path to drift back towards the heel. This is the major difference between an Olympic lifting pull and a deadlift. The bar path is not completely straight. This allows the bar to land in the proper position at the hip to maximize leverage when aggressively opening the hips. When done properly that bar should actually make contact with the hip or upper thigh.
Athletes have a tendency to rush the first pull or just pull it straight up like a deadlift. This will compromise the explosiveness and speed of the lift in the next phase. You may see a pull that look all like one speed without the rapid explosiveness we are looking for in the middle. Consider this video showing the bar path of Olympic Lifting champion Xiaojun Lu. Watch the height of his hips as he starts to pull and how he pushes his knees back creating a bar path that drifts from the front of his foot back towards the heel.
The Olympic lift are a ton of fun to tinker around with. Most people are limited not by strength but by skill, making technique practice vital. Sometimes a new tip or cue can totally change the game and lead to a new PR!
There is no substitution for the effectiveness of functional movements. Squatting, pulling, and pressing have proven to produce systemic results that are unparalleled. However, there are some accessory exercises, that when applied as a garnish to your program, can improve both the strength and awareness of the body to perform functional movements better. These exercises can serve to fortify and isolate specific areas and functions of the body that are known to be integral joints, highly stressed and susceptible to injury or break down.
Every high-powered movement you perform utilizes the core as a transmission. By isolating some of the muscles and function of the core and hip, athletes can build proper awareness of how to most effectively use them. This also can help create muscular balance on the front and back of the body. Here are 3 essential core accessory exercises, as well as progressions and variations on them.
This exercise builds strength of the lower back and hips as well as hamstring flexibility. It is also a great way to teach athletes how to keep the back straight and tight while flexing at the hip. In essence, athlete can learn how to properly use their back sides. Also try these variations:
Straight leg good morning
Good morning with bands
Good morning with chains on the bar
GHD Sit up
The GHD sit up is a unique and potent exercise that can develop tremendous strength, range of motion, and power through the front side of the abdominals, the flexors of the hips and obliques. In particular, it has tremendous application to gymnastics movements that involve total body flexion and extension such as kipping. Here are some variations on the GHD sit up:
GHD Sit up to parallel
GHD sit up with a med ball
The back extension isolates the vertebral muscles of the spine, specifically the erectors of the lower back and thoracic muscles of the upper back. In the movement, the athlete rounds the back and then work back up to extension of the spine. This is a great way to teach athletes how to re-claim a proper position as well as a tremendous strength builder of the back muscles. Here are some variations of the back extension:
To be fierce is to be both strong & powerful but also fiercely confident in your appearance and your capacity to do anything you set your mind to! If you don’t feel this way now, you will! That’s our promise.