It can feel like there’s always something harder waiting in the wings when it comes to bodyweight training. Even if you’ve mastered popular staples like the push-up, plank, or chin-up, there’s always a new way to challenge your body and keep you in fighting shape — enter the burpee.
Originally called the “squat thrust,” the modern burpee was utilized as early as World War II as a method of determining the fitness levels of enlisted troops. If you’ve ever seen burpees performed in a CrossFit class or done a burpee-heavy workout yourself, you know that they are one of the most grueling movements you can perform without using weights.
Fortunately, the benefits can be just as potent. In this article, we’ll go through everything you need to know about the burpee, including:
- How to Do the Burpee
- Benefits of the Burpee
- Muscles Worked By the Burpee
- Who Should Do the Burpee
- Burpee Programming Recommendations
- Burpee Variations
- Burpee Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
How to Do Burpees
Unlike other calisthenic movements that can be highly technical, the burpee is a fairly simplistic maneuver. Combining a push-up and jump squat can engage almost every muscle in the body to some degree. Let’s break the technique down one step at a time.
Step 1 — Crouch Into Plank
Be sure to perform burpees somewhere stable and flat — avoid working on surfaces that wobble or compress. Contrary to what you may hear, intentionally exercising on unstable surfaces or with equipment designed to challenge your balance may not improve muscular control or stability. (1)
From a standing position, descend into a crouch/squat. As you get low enough, plant your arms in front of you. Once you have stable contact with the ground, kick your legs out behind so you end up in a straight-arm plank position.
Coach’s Tip: People tend to think of bodyweight training as a warm-up on its own, but even unloaded exercises can be dangerous if you jump into them too fast. Hit a quick warm-up beforehand to raise your core temperature and increase blood circulation.
Step 2 — Push Up
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From the straight-arm plank position, take a breath, brace your core, and lower your torso to the floor like you would for a standard push-up.
Coach’s Tip: If you perform multiple burpees in quick succession, it can be tempting to let your lower back sag as you get into the bottom of the push-up. Pay extra attention to the rigidity of your spine the whole way.
Step 3 — Recover and Drive
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As you press your body off the floor, “jump” your legs back underneath your body and release your grip, such that you return to the crouching position you began with. In one fluid motion, drive upwards with the legs and perform a small vertical jump.
Coach’s Tip: Don’t try to jump as high as you can. The burpee is not a vertical power assessment, and recovering from multiple rapid high jumps places undue stress on your joints.
Benefits of the Burpee
Even though calisthenic movements won’t always build strength like a heavy deadlift or grow muscle like a brutal arm workout, the burpee affords some unique perks to supplement your overall training.
The simple, equipment-free setup and inherent customizability of the burpee make it a great option for getting your cardio in. If you want to use burpees as a warm up, you can take them nice and slow until you feel ready for your main workout. If you need to get a good sweat in on your lunch break, performing burpees in timed intervals will leave you drenched. The ability to easily turn the difficulty dial-up or down helps the burpee stand out from other bodyweight exercises.
Push-ups are great for getting a chest pump, and the air squat remains a go-to in group classes and CrossFit. By combining two multi-joint movements and adding a ballistic element, the burpee helps you engage almost all major muscle groups at once.
Fits In Anywhere
While you can alter the burpee to your liking to become the centerpiece of your training, it can also serve as a modifier to other workouts. It is common to see burpees woven between heavier movements in CrossFit WODs as a devilishly effective way of cranking up the intensity. As long as you don’t go too hard, burpees can have a place before, after, or between almost any other exercise.
Muscles Worked by the Burpee
No single movement will adequately target every muscle in the body at once, but the burpee comes close without being clumsy or time-consuming. If your primary goal is growing new muscle, calisthenics usually won’t work as a main course, but that doesn’t mean a few sets of burpees aren’t a good appetizer.
Most bodyweight exercises make for a killer ab workout, and while the burpee isn’t as challenging as a front lever or dragon flag, it can still stimulate your core effectively if you perform it well. Forcefully tucking the legs back under the torso roughly mimics a hollow body position, engaging the lower abs and hip flexors, while the obliques and rectus abdominis (aka your six-pack muscles) work overtime to keep your spine stable while you press yourself up.
Chest & Shoulders
It is common knowledge that the push-up is a fantastic exercise for the chest, shoulders, and triceps, so dedicating one-half of the burpee to that movement will obviously reap the same benefits. While push-ups themselves are still better for hypertrophy and strength, burpees are a decent stimulus in their own right.
Quads & Glutes
Many people head right to the squat rack when they want to grow their legs. They’re right to do so, but sleeping on the burpee as a lower-body finisher is a mistake. The dynamic power output required to launch the body into the air from an ass-to-grass squat position is more than enough to fry your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t neglect cardio — the heart is a muscle too. While any exercise can have heart-related benefits, research suggests that a combination of resistance training and aerobics is best for reducing long-term health risks. (2)
[Related: Are Deep Squats Bad For Your Knees?]
Who Should Do Burpees
The beauty of the burpee is that anyone can do it, even rank beginners, if it is taught and supervised properly. There are more scalable exercises out there if you’re worried the burpee might be too easy or too hard, but the odds are that you’ll get something out of the exercise if you put the work in.
Athletes on the Go
Staying in shape while traveling can be hard, especially if you don’t have easy access to something like a hotel gym. Fortunately, you can do burpees basically anywhere (as long as your ceilings aren’t too low!). This makes them a great option if you want to get a quick cardio session while also ensuring you hold on to your hard-earned muscle.
CrossFit Enthusiasts (or Masochists)
Burpees were first included in CrossFit way back in 2004 but have become a staple in boxes since — as well as being included in the Open or Games almost every year for the last decade. This comes as no surprise since the burpee is the ideal tool for packing in a dense amount of work in a short amount of time. This obviously earns the burpee a bit of a nefarious reputation with CrossFitters, some even ranking it among the dreaded assault bike or muscle-up. If you’re a CrossFit loyalist, you probably have a love-hate relationship with the burpee.
Powerlifters, Weightlifters, & Strength Athletes
It’s no secret that many people get into the iron game precisely because they hate doing cardio. While that is an understandable notion, even dedicated strength athletes shouldn’t neglect cardiovascular training. A low-impact option like swimming is probably best for full-time strength athletes, but not everyone has easy access to a pool — or even a treadmill — in their warehouse gym.
Burpees offer unparalleled convenience for anyone who understands the importance of getting a good sweat in and can be tacked on to the end of a weight-centric workout with ease.
Burpee Programming Recommendations
One of the major draws of the burpee is its versatility. It can be tuned up or down at will according to your needs or goals, making it a valuable inclusion into a training plan.
For General Fitness
If you aren’t training for the Open or interested in seeing how hard you can go before passing out, you can still implement burpees as an easy way to stay in shape. Moderate your rest intervals or eschew portions of the movement to ensure you aren’t overworked.
Perform three to four sets of burpees twice a week without a timed interval or repetition target. Your body will tell you clearly when you’re approaching your limit, so listen to the feedback. You can also opt-out of the jump squat and simply return to a standing position to reduce joint stress.
If you’re into CrossFit, your box probably includes burpees in the class or individual WODs regularly. But if you design programming for yourself or a gym, it is best not to try to make the burpee into something it’s not. Burpees work well as a finisher when prescribed AMRAP (as many reps as possible) style under a time cap.
They also fit nicely into a superset or cluster directly following a heavy movement with a low cardio demand — think back squats or close-grip bench. However, be sure to modulate your effort on the lifting to account for the extra energy you’ll expend performing burpees.
For Strength & Power
If you’re a strength athlete who wants to burn some calories after your primary training is complete, throwing burpees at the end of your session works wonders.
Perform three to five sets of burpees on a moderate interval (30 seconds on, 30 seconds off) two to three times per week before leaving the gym.
[Related: 4 Awesome Cardio Finishers for Your Next Strength Workout]
When it comes to variation, the inherent minimalism of the burpee means it isn’t the most customizable movement out there. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t make some quick adjustments to make it easier or harder.
Box Jump Burpee
A quick way to scale up the challenge of the burpee is jumping to a box instead of straight up into the air. By adding a minimum height threshold to the squat jump, you can increase more than the difficulty. Incorporating plyo work alongside regular training has augmented speed, coordination, and even muscular strength. (3)
If you’re truly into punishment, wearing a weight vest during burpees will dramatically increase the difficulty. The added resistance will slow you down as you attempt to move through different planes of motion, taxing your muscles to a higher degree rapidly.
Burpee to Stand
If you’re new to burpees or HIIT training generally, there’s no shame in toning down the difficulty. The burpee can be easily scaled down by omitting the vertical jump at the top and simply standing up from the squat portion. This will reduce stress on the knees and hips while still providing some work for the leg musculature.
Note: the same effect can be achieved to spare the upper body by excluding the push-up portion and simply squatting to a straight arm plank.
If you’re intimidated by the burpee or have a personal vendetta against the exercise after seeing them in one too many WODs, but still want to reap some of the benefits it affords, you can look to other movements that provide a comparable stimulus.
A single movement that works both the lower and upper body is appealing for obvious reasons, but some athletes avoid cardio at all costs. If you want to get in a full-body workout that won’t leave you wheezing, consider trying thrusters. The barbell thruster works many of the same muscle groups while also being loadable, making it great for packing on muscle.
At a glance, the sled push might seem like it strays too far to be a sufficient replacement for the burpee. It does lose massive points for convenience, but a good round of sled pushing will provide similar benefits, particularly full-body muscle engagement. The legs and shoulders work in tandem to drive the resistance, and you can perform sled pushes both under a time cap or for maximum endurance.
Can burpees be a main movement in my workout routine?
Yes, although they do not adequately train every aspect of fitness. If you’re trying to build a balanced routine, make sure you have all your bases covered. That said, if you’re in need of a single movement that efficiently targets most major muscle groups and will have you breaking a sweat, you can’t go wrong with the burpee.
Are burpees safe for beginners?
Yes. The burpee is like any other exercise — it can be dangerous if overdone or performed without attention to technique, but is perfectly safe otherwise. The lack of heavy external load coupled with a relatively low stability demand makes the burpee a good choice for anyone getting started in the gym.
Can I do burpees every day?
As long as you account for total volume, there’s no reason why you couldn’t perform burpees every single day. Doing so would ensure that your weekly activity level is above bar, but make sure you consider the impact it may have on your resistance training or other cardio sessions.
Hopefully, if you’ve been on the fence about the burpee, this article pushes you over the edge. When it comes to training, getting the most bang for your buck in the gym is an important factor that cannot be overlooked. Fortunately, the burpee has a lot going for it in terms of both convenience and efficacy.
- Lehman G., Gilas D., Patel U. (2008) An unstable support surface does not increase scapulothoracic stabilizing muscle activity during push up and push up plus exercises. Manual Therapy 13(6), 500-506.
- Schroeder, E. C., Franke, W. D., Sharp, R. L., & Lee, D. C. (2019). Comparative effectiveness of aerobic, resistance, and combined training on cardiovascular disease risk factors: A randomized controlled trial. PloS one, 14(1), e0210292.
- Ramirez-Campillo, R., Garcia-Hermoso, A., Moran, J., Chaabene, H., Negra, Y., & Scanlan, A. T. (2020). The effects of plyometric jump training on physical fitness attributes in basketball players: A meta-analysis. Journal of sport and health science, S2095-2546(20)30169-1.
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