Why So Many Trainers Hate Burpees
Trainers hate mindless exercise programming, and burpees are notoriously used by group instructors as their default tactic to make people tired. They have clients burpee themselves to exhaustion while buying time to figure out what they're going to do next in the workout.
But don't blame the exercise for its poor application. Misusing the squat doesn't make squatting a bad exercise. It just means we keep the blame on the individual for doing them wrong. Burpees are no different.
The research on burpees is actually pretty cool. Unfortunately, discussions about them are often full of strong opinions based on sloppy thinking, and they usually ignore the science. But a 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research did a comparison of responses to sprint interval cycling versus burpees and the findings were interesting.
The study was done on U.S. Army Reserve members who had at least one year of preplanned, supervised exercise a minimum of 3 days per week. The cycling group did "all-out" bursts against resistance for 30 seconds. During the 4-minute active recovery period after each sprint, they cycled against no resistance.
The burpee group performed as many burpees as possible for 30 seconds, followed by 4 minutes of active recovery involving stepping in place at a self-selected pace. Both groups repeated this cycle 3 times for a total of 4 sets.
The results of this study suggest that "the cardiovascular strain elicited by a single session of low-volume, high-intensity intermittent burpees may be sufficient to confer cardiorespiratory and metabolic adaptations equivalent to those reported in studies using sprint interval cycling." (1)
Another important finding: participant perceptions of exertion were significantly different. Although the self reports ranged from "hard" to "very hard" and the perceived exertion of both exercises was "vigorous," the subjects thought the burpees were easier.
The researchers said this may be because sprint-interval cycling primarily involves the leg flexor and extensor muscles, whereas a greater amount of whole-body musculature is active during burpees.
The researchers thought these findings should be of specific interest to strength & conditioning pros who want to provide clients with a vigorous whole-body aerobic and anaerobic conditioning alternative to traditional running, cycling, or swimming. Unlike cycling that requires specialized equipment or a running protocol that requires a place to run or a treadmill, burpees are free, accessible to all, and can be done anywhere.
This research demonstrates that burpees may be a more tolerable conditioning option (which can increase exercise adherence) based on perception of fatigue.
I recommend Gorilla Burpees:
Start with your feet slightly farther apart than shoulder-width. This is different than the standard way with feet closer together. Then, you're lowering and raising your torso by mainly bending and extending from your knees and your hips, which places more emphasis on the lower body.
Burpees are commonly performed by bending over mostly from your lower back and placing your hands on the floor in front of your feet, involving less contribution from the lower body and placing more stress on the lower back.
- Gist NH et al. Comparison of Responses to Two High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise Protocols. JJ Strength Cond Res. 2014 Nov;28(11):3033-40. PubMed.