Stop hating on Burpees

One of my biggest pet peeves is to hate on an exercise - not jokingly, but genuinely say an exercise is bad across the board. This happens for a lot of exercises, but recently burpees have been getting an extra level of hate.

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I get it, many of the people who are making these claims think that burpees aren’t the most effective option for what most people use burpees for. At face value, that seems reasonable to express distaste for their selection, but where things go astray is when people start to make statements about it being a bad exercise.

A few of the more recent comments on burpees are (these are paraphrases):

“However you do it, it’s a stupid idea”

“Throwing yourself on the ground repeatedly is idiotic”

“You jam your wrist in extension”

“They put a huge stress on the anterior shoulder”

“The risk outweighs the benefit”

Let’s talk about some of these complaints.

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I’ll express that I have a huge bias against hating on exercises as for the most part, I’ll always recommend people do something over nothing. If I can convince an inactive person to start doing something - whether that be burpees or not - I’d be stoked.

Burpees require someone to move from standing, to the floor (facing down), and back up. This is a pretty essential activity for a wide range of sports and activities. Whether you are a wrestler needing to sprawl out, a basketball player needing to pop up after falling, or just someone getting up after busting out a set of push ups, the general movement is very common. While most of these things don’t require someone to do them repeatedly, that argument is pretty limited when you extrapolate it and compare it any other activity we train. When is the last time you saw someone do a rear foot elevated split squat in a sport for multiple reps? Yeah didn’t think so. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them, it just means that point in the argument sucks.

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The funny thing about this is that most coaches who hate on burpees, think turkish get ups are great - which require someone to go from standing, to the floor (facing up), and back down. Comparing these two, obviously there are a lot of differences, but at the global view they train getting up and down off the floor fluidly - I will say that generally sports don’t favor people who end up on their back.

In regards to the points about the dangers of the movement, this is one to which I truly want to make sure to address well. First and foremost, any exercise has risk, but the relative degree of risk is very important. Something like a burpee for one rep is not very likely to cause injury; doing more burpees than your body can handle does pose more risk though. HOWEVER, this can be stated for literally any exercise/activity. Each person has a unique level of tolerance to stress, which can be overloaded through physical exercises and possibly cause some form of injury. This is more of a global factor and a programming choice than a specific exercise issue.

To say that burpees jam your wrist into extension is like saying pull ups jam your shoulders into flexion - it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. These movements UTILIZE the range of motion and do have the POTENTIAL to challenge someone into more range then the person has or has control of. Again though, this statement can be made about any exercise. For example, if someone doesn’t have full knee extension but you are going to try and have them do leg curls, you could challenge the knee to a greater degree by forcing it into extension. However, on the flip side of this argument, if you simply altered the way someone placed their hand on the ground - turning the hand or providing a slightly elevated surface for the palm to go on - we wouldn’t have to worry about this and we could even use it as a means of graded exposure to build towards gaining more range of motion.

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This prior paragraph also helps to address the “huge amount of stress on the anterior shoulder” argument as well, but let’s talk more on this.

Is stress bad? No, stress is necessary for adaptation. Is a “huge amount” bad? Possibly but possibly not. What exactly does it mean to be a huge amount of stress on the anterior shoulder? Is the anterior shoulder fragile and not meant to be loaded? These are serious questions people should consider when statements like this are made.

If you say that a burpees is bad for the stress on the anterior shoulder, do you advocate push ups? Pretty sure it’s nearly identical. Similarly, do you not allow bench press then? Or are all pressing movements dangerous?

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I think burpees are an alright exercise to utilize as for helping someone burn calories, work their whole body, train the skill of moving from standing, to the floor, and back up, and many more things. The burpee might not be the perfect exercise for any of these things, but that same argument can be made about most exercises. If you choose to program burpees in for your clients or in your own program, cool, just have a good reason behind it.

One particular population that burpees are very important to train are for crossfit athletes. The burpee is an essential exercise in their programming and very critical to program for them to be able to hone their skill set with, and also be comfortable doing high volumes of.

Hopefully this article helps to spur some thought in those who hate on burpees - or any exercise. The burpee is an easy target for hate - you rarely find people who “love” them. However, if you are a coach or rehab professional, you have an obligation to be more critical and use good thought process behind your comments.

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