Whenever my campers or clients hear that burpees are on the agenda for a given workout, they take a deep breath, a heavy gulp, and seemingly pray for the courage to get through the punishment coming their way.
The burpee is the baddest exercise on the planet and an incredible whole body muscle-builder, fat-burner and metabolism-booster that will also make you more athletic for sport. The movement finds its roots through the work of American physiologist Royal H. Burpee in the 1930's, who developed the burpee test as a quick and easy way to assess total body fitness. The exercise continued to gain popularity through widespread military use and of course as the calisthenic of choice in gym classes and athletic practices worldwide.
The burpee basically describes a series of smooth and fluid movements that have you going from a full stand to a push-up position and back. It’s no wonder this whole body up and down movement is a metabolic nightmare involving nearly every muscle from head to toe. But, it's also the most bastardized exercise on the planet that can implode your knees and back like a stiff and solid Mike Tyson uppercut.
First of all, performing this exercise with close feet often results in a lot of extra pressure on the knees and back during the transitioning crouched position between the stand and the push-up. The lower back will tend to excessively flex leading to an increase risk of chronic lower back pain in the short run and herniated or bulging disks in the long run. Plus, squatting on your toes increases the sheer force on your knee caps leading to patella-femoral issues like patellar tendonitis (runner or jumper's knee) in the short run and arthritic knees that need to be replaced in the long run.
What's especially concerning is the fact that burpees are often improperly performed for a high number of reps with short, incomplete rest periods (resting less than you're working). Think about it -- multiply bad form by lots of reps by excessive fatigue and you've got an exercise that will break you, both literally and figuratively.
Luckily for you, I'm about to show you how to properly perform the burpee and make some instant modifications that will immediately boost performance and reduce the risk of injury from this classic total body builder. Plus, I've provided you with both a customized exercise selection and a companion 10-minute burpee bootcamp workout you can do anytime, anywhere based on your current fitness level. The result will be a more refined burpee routine that very well may break your heart, mind, and soul, but not your body. That we'll leave to Mr. Tyson.
Phase I -- Beginners: I haven't worked out in six months or more, I am more than 20 pounds above my ideal body weight, and I lack mobility in my ankles, hips and upper back.
Burpees are best performed by beginners, and on a regular basis in my opinion, with a wide sumo-style stance. This makes it easier to stay on your heels throughout the exercise which both takes pressure off of your knees and helps you better engage your powerful glute muscles. The wider stance also makes it easier to move at the hips without moving at your lumbar spine, something that will better engage your core stabilizers beyond alleviating nagging lower back pain.
That being said, the fact remains that the modern, mobile consumer spends the vast majority of the day as a desk jockey in rounded, hunched, almost fetal-like positions. This leads to poor posture and limited mobility of the ankles, hips, and upper back that requires further correction for optimal burpee performance. Here are two ways we can quickly do this:
1.) Use a stable box, bench, or aerobic step with adjustable risers to perform your wide stance sumo-style burpees as show in the video below:
This adjustable aerobic step set-up allows you to seamlessly adjust the range of motion as needed. Plus, I particularly like using an elevated surface for higher reps because it's easier to maintain form in a state of fatigue. Also notice the progression of moving from one leg to two legs at a time in the down position.
2.) Regularly perform the three stretches shown in the video below pre/post-workout to open up your ankles, hips and upper back:
Perform each stretch for 30-60 seconds at a time and doing them during your rest periods is smart way to save time and accelerate your flexibility gains.
Now that we covered all that, here's your beginner burpee bootcamp workout: Alternate between 60 seconds of work and 60 seconds of rest for five total rounds for a 10-minute total body workout.
Phase II- Intermediate: I have been working out regularly for the past 3-6 months and I’m about 10 pounds above my ideal body weight.
Once you can successfully complete the beginner burpee workout pain-free, we can safely get a little nasty with it. The great thing about the burpee is it offers an endless number of challenging exercise variations that keep your training fun and fresh. You can perform on one-arm or one-leg, integrate dumbbells, or even add jumps. The video below shows some great high-intensity exercise examples:
Choose one of the variations shown in the video above (or alternate between each of them from round to round) using a 60 seconds on, 30 seconds off interval sequence for up to six total rounds. The combination of a more advanced exercise selection plus reduced rest periods will drastically increase the calorie burn and will blow-torch belly fat fast.
Phase III- Advanced: I have been working out regularly for more than a year I'm within +/- 5 pounds of my ideal body weight.
Now it's time to get real. If you've never used the TRX Suspension Trainer before, then you're seriously missing out! It's the advanced body weight training tool of some of the best athletes around like Super Bowl MVP quarterback Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and it's basically a portable gym in a bag.
What's so unique about the TRX is that it places your body in a suspended environment which not only forces your body to engage and activate more muscles (particularly your core) but also activates your fight or flight response, something that's proven through research to accelerate metabolism and speed up fat loss.
What's the best part? The TRX also serves us up several ways to put the burpee on steroids as show in the video below:
For an incredible 10-minute TRX burpee bootcamp challenge workout, alternate between 60 seconds of work and 15 seconds of rest for each exercise in the order shown in the video above being sure to switch sides from round to round. Perform 8 total rounds.
Whether you're looking for a minimalist's approach to exercise or a cool way to mix up a stale training routine, look no further than the burpee. Just be sure to respect the process and do it right.
-- BJ Gaddour, CSCS, is the CEO of StreamFIT.com, which provides unlimited streaming follow-along workouts from top trainers. He is also a regular contributor to Men's Health.
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