What are the Benefits of Burpees?
Today’s article is about the benefits of burpees. Burpees are an extremely popular exercises that are also often dismissed by many prominent strength coaches as being a waste of time. So, what are the benefits of burpees, if any?
Here’s my Youtube video on the same subject if you would rather watch than read:
I do not believe the burpee has any measurable benefit, beyond the fact that it is exercise. By virtue of being exercise, the burpee is going to provide some benefits, but we need to remember that we only have so much time and energy to train, and we choose what movements go into our programs. “It’s exercise” is not a sufficient justification for putting an exercise in a program. We can do better.
Although I have my preferences and beliefs about certain exercises, I generally avoid putting down a specific movement, but I do make an exception for the burpee. The burpee is particularly problematic because it is so often done poorly, and they are most often used in bootcamp or weight-loss type settings where they are done by beginners and other folks more vulnerable to injury.
And nobody likes them.
It’s fair to ask, what if they’re done properly? If a burpee is done well, then don’t it’s not going to leave a person vulnerable to injury. But what are the specific benefits of the burpee that justify putting it into the workout? That’s the root of the issue. Even if the burpee is coached and done perfectly, there’s nothing that the burpee gives you that you can’t get from other exercises that are safer, more enjoyable, or provide important benefits that the burpee doesn’t.
The fact that almost no one likes burpees is important too. I also don’t think Zumba is great exercise, but it’s very popular. Zumba gets a lot of people who might not otherwise exercise, up and moving. For that reason, Zumba has a lot of value.
I had to do some research to see what coaches who promote the burpee were identifying as its main benefits. I found four themes:
- Burpees are a total body workout
- Burpees get your heart rate up
- Burpees develop coordination
- Burpees burn calories.
Let’s go through each of these to see if we can justify including the burpee in a training program.
Burpee Benefit #1: Total Body Workout
“Total body workout” is one of those things that sounds great, but really doesn’t mean anything.
Is it important to train your whole body? Yes.
Is it important to train your whole body in one movement? No.
It’s also incorrect to say that a burpee is a total body workout. It’s not doing a lot for the adductors, glutes, tibialis anterior, lats, forearms, etc. There’s no one exercise that trains everything.
The next thing, and this is the most important thing, although the burpee involves movement of the whole body, HOW is it training the body? Is it a good way to increase strength, become more powerful, or add muscle? No, not particularly. Just because something is work, doesn’t mean it’s making you better – and that is always the point.
Rather than the burpee, you could train each of its components separately. A circuit of squats, push-ups and jumps is a total body workout, and by breaking the movement down into its components, people are able to execute each component with more, intent, focus, and better technique.
Burpee Benefit #2: Burpees Get Your Heart Rate Up
Yes. One hundred percent. Burpees absolutely and completely get your heart rate up. But so does running. Cycling. Jumping Jacks. Swimming. A strength training circuit. Any physical activity will increase your heart rate, so it’s worth choosing a movement that’s going to develop some other physical quality at the same time.
The examples I just mentioned are all great, but a personal favourite is track and field style drills because these drills help develop good gait (running and walking) patterns, a movement skill fundamental to human existence.
Burpee Benefit #3: Burpees Develop Coordination
Burpees certainly involve a coordinated action of the lower and upper body, but are they really developing coordination in a way that will help you in any context outside of the burpee?
If the goal is to develop coordination, I would prioritize the track and field drills referenced in the previous section. A coordinated efficient gait pattern improves athletic performance and reduces injury risk. That’s the sort of coordination that anyone can benefit from.
Burpee Benefit #4: Burpees Burn Calories
This is really just a different way of saying that burpees get your heart rate up. Anything that increases your heart rate will burn calories, and any physical activity can accomplish each.
It also doesn’t matter very much how many calories you burn in your workout, even if your principal goal is weight loss. A hard workout might burn 500 calories, but in the absence of a deliberate nutrition strategy, it is so easy to replace that through additional eating because intense workouts tend to make people hungrier. And since any exercise can burn calories, even if that’s your goal, we’re better off choosing exercises that develop other physical qualities at the same time. Which brings up the question:
What Should We Do Instead of Burpees?
There are probably hundreds of acceptable substitutes for the burpee that will provide greater benefit with less injury potential. One way to think about it is to break down the burpee into its various components, as referenced above.
People seem to do burpees in different ways. They may or may not include a jump, they definitely involve getting down into pushup position, and they may or may not involve a push-up.
Push-ups are an excellent exercise. They develop your upper body, core control, and can even promote shoulder health when done right. Most people would do well including some variation of a push-up in their program.
Jumps are great too. Lower body power is a really excellent physical quality that can help everyone from athletes to older adults. Instead of the jump we see in the burpee, which tends to be sloppy as the person comes up from the pushup position, we can do a version of standing two-foot jump.
By doing the jumps on their own, we can do them with more focus and intent and better technique. This leads to more improvements in strength and power, with less risk of injury.
If you aren’t interested in developing upper body strength or lower body power, ask yourself what physical quality you are trying to develop with the burpee so that you can choose movements and activities that specifically develop those qualities.
There are other exercises that aren’t particularly effective, but given the widespread use of the burpee, combined with the fact that most people do not like to do them, I thought it was important to explain why myself and many other coaches do not recommend them. Burpees: Just say no!
If you’re looking for a simple but effective training program that can be done at home, you will want to check out Strength at Home, my 12 week training program specifically for beginners designed to be done at home with minimal equipment. Get your copy today!