Burpee? What the...

Amongst many of the common reactions to my predilection for burpees, the best is a variation on the "what the heck is a burpee?" theme.

I can't pinpoint when I first became aware of them. There's a pretty good chance it was a PE teacher. If not, certainly one of the former bootnecks who I seem to have gravitated towards at various points. Certainly a couple of books in my pt library (which, barring a few older titles spans the last 30 years) mention them.

But what are they? They are a slice of exercise fried-gold served on a bed of awesomeness with a side order of cardio effect! Ok, enough with the hyperbole! I have seen them called squat thrusts, although not often, as those represent a different exercise in their own right, similar, but different. A squat thrust begins and ends in a squat position with your hands on the floor. You then extend your legs out backwards until you have a straight line from your ankles to your shoulders, and return to the starting position. Done repeatedly and at pace, this is reasonably challenging.

A simple burpee ramps up the stimulus a little by having you start from and end the movement in a standing position. So,
1)Standing up, chest proud, hips engaged.
2) Squat down, place your hands on the floor
3) Extend your legs out straight behind you until you are in the leaning rest (top press-up position)
4) Pull your legs back in to the squat position.
5) Stand up, chest up, shoulders back, hips engaged.

[As an aside at this point, you may find it easier to adopt the sumo squat position through this movement i.e. squatting down with your legs wide and thus outside your arms when you put your hands on the floor. This offers those with mobility issues a little more protection to the spine as it keeps the chest a little more upright, and reduces the impact of a lack of ankle mobility on the safety of the knees.]

But why such a silly name? I mean, it sounds like a child's description of the effects of swigging too much fizzy drink. Well, according to the OED, it seems likely that we owe that one to a gentleman by the name of Royal Huddleston Burpee. [Great name!]. The burpee squat thrust was one of a number of proposed tests of physical incapacity in motor activity which he proposed in his doctoral thesis. I have always been uncomfortable citing references without having read the original material but while I can find cross-references to it in academic papers from the 1950s, I have not been able to find the original thesis itself. Yet.

Be that as it may, his recommendations seemed to have gained some traction


Whatever the etymology, and no matter what it is called, a rose by any other name...

Interestingly, while R H Burpee has long since passed, my sister shares a birthday with him (4th June, but she wasn't born in 1897!). One of those coincidences which are inanely pleasing!

The variations of the burpee are legion. My preferred method of choice is to insert a press-up between stages 3 and 4 above, and finish with a jump. In fact, that is potentially two different variations but is the one I adopted for the 100-day ladder.

Riding on the train, I very quickly scribbled down another 13 variations without breaking a mental sweat (although a couple did make me feel a little queasy!). However, before selecting variations, it is important to think about what you're trying to achieve. The original burpee is swift and clinical. Or, as I'd love to think my rugby playing epitaph would say (but sadly, doesn't!) - short, quick and brutal. And, like the erg, that is what makes it a good conditioning tool. It tires people out but while you have fuel, it enables you to cycle through the movements rapidly...which challenges your fuel efficiency! By layering on the variations, you run the risk of altering the stimulus. Now, in it's place, an extended grind of your muscular endurance (as opposed to your anaerobic capacity) is a useful tool. But it is very different. To illustrate the point, let's have a look at me trying pull-ups.

Yep, it's not pretty! I can do 7 or 8 strict reps (depending on how many pies I have eaten lately). A couple of good friends bang them out for kicks. So, we get together and decide on a workout which will take less than 10 minutes to do. Nice, we can beat ourselves up, hose off and get out for a brew and a catch-up. Wait, one of these sick swine has thrown in pull-ups, and with three sets I am now staring at a total of 45. Bugger. I will be grinding to a halt in the pull-ups, breaking it into 2 chunks (the first time of asking) and more besides. While Geoff and Ronan are now kicking back and giggling while I dangle from the bar twitching like an insect impaled by a schoolboy, I am no longer challenging my anaerobic or aerobic systems. I have an upfront, but localised, war going on with a small group of intransigent and underdeveloped muscles. 15 to 20 minutes later I get it done. True, I haven't quit but what have I trained?

So you see, even in burpees you need to have an idea of where you are headed when you set out. Or, if not, then at least why you're taking that path.

The burpee year is your challenge though. So, make it yours. When you throw your hat in the ring and stake your claim to one of the staging posts, name your variation too. Or at least, name your minimum variation. That way you have both your line in the sand and the chance to experiment with something new. Now we're talking!



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