I try to refrain from groaning aloud in group fitness classes. Grunting, cheering, gasping for breath—all of those I do regularly. But I’ve never been the type to outwardly “boo” when an instructor announces what’s coming up next in the workout. Except, that is, when I’m asked to do burpees.
The notoriously difficult move can be done in a bunch of different ways, but the most common involves the following steps: squatting down, kicking your legs behind you so you’re in a plank, a push-up, jumping your feet back in, and jumping explosively up. But burpees don’t come in sets of just one. I’ve been asked to do 30 burpees in a row, work through a ladder count of burpees, and, somehow hardest of all, do burpees for the entire length of Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry.”
Even though I’ve never exactly enjoyed flinging myself onto the ground only to jump back up, I’ve always justified the move with the fact that it’s a favorite of so many trainers. Burpees just feel hardcore. But Ben Bruno, celebrity trainer who works with clients like Kate Upton and Chelsea Handler, is here to change my (and hopefully some of my trainers’) minds. In fact, he recently shared an anti-burpee manifesto on Insta.
In an all-text Instagram post titled “Why I Don’t Like Burpees,” Bruno shared some of the downsides of the popular exercise. Some of his qualms lie within the move itself: “High-impact exercise puts undo stress on the wrists, shoulders, knees, and lower back,” he writes. But importantly, he stresses that burpee form is often too difficult for beginner clients to nail. He calls it an advanced move “masquerading” as a beginner move.
“Most people lack the required strength to do them properly at all, let alone for high reps,” he writes. Since burpees are used so often in group fitness classes, it’s harder for trainers to make sure each participant is using proper form. And with different fitness levels in the room, such an advanced, finicky exercise may do more harm than good.
So, this means I never have to do another burpee for as long as I live, right? I mean, yeah. You do you. But it turns out not everyone is on the same anti-burpee bandwagon, so long as modifications allow you to do them correctly.
Bradford Shreve, certified personal trainer at Daily Burn, isn’t anti-burpee per se, but is very pro doing the kind of burpee each individual is able to safely do. Shreve says that the key to including burpees in your workout is knowing your fitness level, as well as any mobility limitations you might have, and modifying the move as needed. “The burpee requires some advanced athletic control when you do it safely. But at its most basic form it is simply a way to get from the floor to standing in the most efficient way possible,” says Shreve. “It’s how you get from all fours to standing upright that determines your fitness level.”
Instead of throwing out the burpee completely, Shreve advocates for individualizing the burpee to your fitness level. “Treat the burpee as an advanced move and approach it with focused attention and control,” says Shreve. As Bruno points out, it can be difficult to find your personal best modification when an instructor is shouting out instructions in a group fitness class. Instead of following a one-size-fits-all model, Shreve recommends thinking of a burpee as a composite of foundational moves done one by one.
Once you’re confident in each move and can do them in succession while maintaining proper form, you can then add in advanced options like a push-up after the plank or a jump squat to come back up to standing and perhaps try doing them for reps. Until you can burn through burpees like a Bruno-approved pro, Bruno offers alternative exercises that can help you build your way to the burpee. He suggests breaking the move down into its parts and working through separate sets of push-ups, squats, or jump squats.
Trainer Amanda Murdock, director of fitness at Daily Burn, offers her clients gentler options. “Instead of jumping back to a plank pose, land with bent arms in a push-up position,” she says. This modification is lower impact for the wrists, shoulders, and even feet. An even simpler option is not jumping back at all. “You’ll receive the same cardiovascular benefits of jumping if you step forward and back,” says Murdock. The key, as with other advanced exercises, is choosing the modification that works best for your body.
While it may require a little bit of practice and patience, I have faith that one day I’ll be asked to do a burpee without groaning out loud. Eventually.
If you’re in the I’m-never-doing-these-things-again camp, here are alternatives to doing them at all and here are some more modifications from Kayla Itsines.
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