Where Did Burpees Come From?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Burpees were invented as a fitness test and were used to assess physical fitness in the military
  • The original burpee included just four steps and was sometimes called a squat thrust
  • The modern-day burpee has six steps, including the addition of a push-up and explosive jump

By Dr. Mercola

If you ever tried CrossFit or circuit workouts, you’ve probably done your fair share of burpees. They’re so effective they were used as a fitness test for men enlisting in the military during the 1940s.1

If you could perform 41 burpees in a minute, you were considered to be in excellent shape, although the burpee at that time was less taxing than the burpee you may know today.

In fact, in 1939 the inventor of the burpee, physiologist Royal H. Burpee, created what was then a four-count movement designed to evaluate fitness. Also known as the squat thrust, four-count burpee and military burpee, the movement was performed as follows:

  1. Start in a standing position and drop into a squat position (as if you're sitting back into a chair) with your hands on the ground.
  2. Bring your palms to the floor and extend your feet back in one quick motion to assume the front plank position.
  3. Return to the squat position in one quick motion.
  4. Return to an upright standing position.

Try it, and you'll see that it really packs a punch, targeting your legs, glutes, arms, and core, all at the same time. The fitness test that Burpee administered involved taking heart-rate measurements at five points before and after just four burpees were performed.

Ironically, as reported in the Huffington Post, Burpee believed the military’s modification of the burpee fitness test was too strenuous, and he suggested high reps of the movement could be damaging to your knees and back, particularly in people without core strength.

Modern-day burpees, however, are even more challenging, incorporating two additional movements, and they’re often performed during high-intensity interval training (HIIT) circuits, which ramps up the intensity even more.

As long as your form is correct and you give your body enough time for recovery, burpees are not only safe to perform intensely… they’re one of the best exercises there is.

The Six-Step Burpees You Love to Hate

The reason why the burpee is "the one" end-all, be-all exercise: It is a full body exercise used in strength training and as aerobic and anaerobic exercise.

  • It pounds your entire body, working out your legs, arms, chest, back, abs, and glutes.
  • It is a phenomenal strength trainer because you are pushing and lifting your own weight, and building serious muscle.
  • The burpee burns 50% more fat than conventional strength training. In other words, you can work out half the time and burn just as much fat. Burpees, like other strength training moves, also give your metabolism a boost. This is largely because it is a powerful anaerobic stimulus and falls into the Peak Fitness type of high-intensity exercise training.
  • The burpee can be performed anywhere and anytime for free; no special equipment is needed.
  • It is also a cardio-respiratory workout. If you do burpees, you can effectively raise your heart rate to target levels by doing a brief set of burpees.

A recent study looked at the effects of performing burpees as a high-intensity interval exercise compared to sprint interval cycling. The participants did burpees or cycling for 30 seconds at maximum intensity (they went “all out”), recovered for four minutes, then repeated the session three more times.

Both exercises elicited similar heart rates and VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen you can take in while exercising. According to the researchers:2

“These results suggest that in addition to the benefit of reduced time commitment, a high-intensity interval protocol of calisthenics [burpees] elicits vigorous cardiorespiratory and perceptual responses and may confer physiological adaptations and performance improvements similar to those reported for SIC [sprint interval cycling].

The potential efficacy of this alternative interval training method provides support for its application by athletes, coaches, and strength and conditioning professionals.”

The good news is that all the hard work you put into doing burpees is fairly rewarded. Research shows, for instance, that performing burpees elicits relatively higher acute metabolic demands than traditional resistance exercises.3

How to Perform a Burpee

If you want to try a six-step burpee now, here’s how it works. Keep in mind that there are many variations of this exercise. If you’re a beginner, start with the less-intense version demonstrated by Jill Rodriguez, Mercola.com personal trainer, in the video above. The description that follows is the advanced version. You can start by doing one to 10 burpees in a row (listen to your body) and increasing the number slightly at each workout. You can also try burpees in “Peak Fitness” mode by simply warming up with walking for three minutes then doing 30 seconds of burpees followed by 90 seconds of walking. Repeat that 7 times, then cool down for 3 to 6 minutes. You can even do burpees using a BOSU ball.

  1. Start in a standing position and drop into a squat position (as if you're sitting back into a chair) with your hands on the ground.
  2. Bring your palms to the floor and extend your feet back in one quick motion to assume the front plank position.
  3. Drop into a push-up position.
  4. Push up to return to plank position.
  5. Jump your feet back into the squat position in one quick motion.
  6. In one explosive movement, jump into the air and reach your arms straight overhead.

Not a Fan of Burpees? Other Bodyweight Exercises Are Equally Important

If you’re not a fan of burpees, you’re not alone. They are intense, and if you have knee, shoulder or back issues, they may be too much. There are also some experts, like personal trainer Jamie Atlas, who believe -- like Burpee (the person) did – that burpees should be reserved for their original purpose – a limited fitness test in the military.4 To avoid the risk of injury, Atlas recommends stepping, rather than flinging, your feet back to reduce the load on your knees. He also suggests placing your hands on a platform to reduce the range of motion required.

You can also try doing a burpee by a wall. Squat down, stand up, and do a push-up against a wall. (This is especially important for anyone with knee or shoulder issues.) You can also try a different bodyweight exercise altogether, like squats. Squats work virtually every muscle in your body and prompt a beneficial hormonal response in your body due to their intensity.

When done properly, squats trigger the release of testosterone and human growth hormone in your body, which are vital for your muscle growth and will also help to increase testosterone, and improve muscle mass when you train other areas of your body aside from your legs. Squats actually promote body-wide muscle building by catalyzing an anabolic environment, which primes your muscles for growth. You can also try push-ups (traditional or reverse), lunges, mountain climbers, and box jumps. If you’re a fan of fitness technology, there are even apps for bodyweight workouts.

5 Reasons to Give Bodyweight Exercises Like Burpees a Try

In the Huffington Post, Dave Smith discussed some of the greatest benefits of bodyweight exercise:5

  1. Workouts are highly efficient. As Dave points out, the goal is fitness, not to look like "Arnold circa 1977." No equipment means that there's minimal time transitioning from one exercise in your self-defined set to the next, so your heart rate is boosted quickly and keeps pumping.
  2. You get both cardiovascular and strength training. It is not necessary to do two separate workouts to achieve both types of fitness. Simply alternating exercise sets from cardiovascular to strength training keeps your pulse up.
  3. Your core strength is improved. Twenty-nine muscle pairs located in the pelvis, abdomen and lower back form the core that's needed to support your body and maintain balance.6 Your athletic ability, posture, and all the little things you do every day—like just plain sitting or doing the laundry—will be improved when your core is strengthened and stabilized.
  4. You'll be more flexible. Increased strength without improved flexibility won't do you much good. Good posture and athletic performance require good flexibility. Inability to stretch and bend is related to lack of flexibility.
  5. Your balance will improve. As you progress into more difficult variations of exercises, your ability to balance is trained. Better balance helps you achieve better body control. Since age and infirmity do not usually hinder performance of bodyweight exercises, they may be a great way for the elderly to maintain and improve balance.

Recovery Is Crucial When Doing Burpees and Other Forms of High-Intensity Exercise

When you perform burpees and other forms of bodyweight exercise using the high-intensity interval training (HIIT) method (30 seconds at maximum intensity followed by 90 seconds of recovery, repeated eight times), recovery is crucial. Ideally, you'll only want to perform HIIT exercises two or three times a week for a total of four minutes of intense exertion. You do not need to do them more often than that, however. In fact, doing it more frequently than two or three times a week can be counterproductive, as your body needs to recover between sessions.

If you want to do more, focus on making sure you're really pushing yourself as hard as you can during those two or three weekly sessions, rather than increasing the frequency. I also encourage you to incorporate a wide variety of bodyweight exercises into your routine, not just burpees, to continue to challenge your body and work different muscle groups. Greatist has compiled 50 bodyweight exercises you can do anywhere, five of which are below:7

1. Inchworm

“Stand up tall with the legs straight, and do like Lil’ Jon and let those fingertips hit the floor. Keeping the legs straight (but not locked!), slowly lower the torso toward the floor, and then walk the hands forward. Once in a push-up position, start taking tiny steps so the feet meet the hands. Continue bugging out for 4-6 reps.”

2. Wall Sit

Slowly slide your back down a wall until the thighs are parallel to the ground. Make sure the knees are directly above the ankles and keep the back straight. Go for 60 seconds per set (or however long it takes to turn those legs to jelly).”

3. Superman

“Lie face down with arms and legs extended. Keeping the torso as still as possible, simultaneously raise the arms and legs to form a small curve in the body.”

4. Flutter Kick

“Start lying on your back with arms at your sides and palms facing down. With legs extended, lift the heels off the floor (about six inches). Make quick, small up-and-down pulses with the legs, while keeping the core engaged. Try to keep kickin’ it for a minute straight!”

5. Shoulder Bridge

Lie on your back with the knees bent and feet hip-width apart. Place arms at your side and lift up the spine and hips. Only the head, feet, arms, and shoulders should be on the ground. Then lift one leg upwards, keeping the core tight. Slowly bring the leg back down, then lift back up. Try to do 10 reps per leg, then bring the knee in place, and spine back on the floor.”

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