July 26, 2022 7 min read
When you see burpees in your workout, you may rethink going to the gym. You groan, knowing they can be good for you, but they challenge just about every aspect of fitness — cardio, strength, power, and stamina.
Burpees are a full-body exercise, and there are little to no exercises that can work as many muscles as they can.
A burpee combines a squat, plank, push-up, and a jump into one movement, so it’s no wonder they recruit so many muscles and are notorious for burning calories.
Whether you love them or hate them, burpees can help you build a stronger, more powerful, more conditioned body.
You can thank, or scold, U.S. psychologist Royal Huddleston Burpee Sr. for inventing burpees.
In 1939, Royal was Executive Director at the YMCA in New York City, and he was a PhD candidate in applied physiology at Columbia University Teachers College.
His granddaughter, Sheryl Burpee Dluginski, tells in an interview with Men’s Fitness,“I remember him extolling the virtues of bodyweight exercises like gymnastics and wrestling as the most efficient and effective forms of exercise.”
While conducting research for his PhD program, Burpee Sr. was trying to find one exercise that could test a person’s fitness.
From there, the burpee was born.
His standard burpee didn’t include the push-up or the jump like we do today, but his version still proved to get heart rates racing.
Burpee used this exercise in his thesis as part of his main seven “Tests of Physical Capacity”.
First, he would measure a person’s resting heart rate, then again after performing four burpees, then when they’d recovered.
Around this time, World War II hit, and the military needed a way to test their soldiers’ physical fitness. There were ten exercises the military used to test their fitness, and one of them was how many burpees a person could do in 20 seconds.
This eventually stuck and evolved into the burpee we know and love to hate today.
It’s popular in the military, CrossFit, HIIT, sports conditioning, and recreational exercise.
You may dread burpees, but they can be extremely beneficial in multiple aspects of your fitness and overall health.
However, performing regular physical activity that involves aerobic exercise and high-intensity interval training in your workout routine can have positive effects on cardiovascular health and blood pressure.
All branches of the military still use burpees to help test a person’s fitness, and the three-minute burpee test is used to develop standards for cardio endurance and strength abilities.
Burpees can burn more calories compared to strength training, and this type of exercise elicits EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption), meaning you continue to burn calories at a higher rate even after you’re done exercising.
A burpee workout can build strength in almost all the major muscle groups in your lower and upper body. So, not only will you get your heart rate up and burn that stubborn fat, but you can get a full-body workout in.
You can modify the burpee to match your fitness level, so beginners to advanced athletes can all challenge themselves.
Since it is a calisthenics exercise, you only need your own body and some room, so you can do them from home, work, or anywhere else.
To make them more challenging, you can add dumbbells or a tuck jump, or to make them less intense, you can eliminate the jumping movements.
With so many moving parts, a burpee can seem overwhelming for a beginner. There are so many burpee variations out there, but we’ll break down the most commonly used one.
This exercise is meant to be done quickly, so once you get the form down, start to speed it up.
How to Do a Burpee:
During the various moving parts of the burpee, it works different muscles in your body. You can target just about every major muscle group while getting a cardio workout in.
The very first part of the burpee is the part where you squat down. Squats are great for strengthening your quadriceps and building an overall stronger lower body. They’re responsible for extending the knee and helping flex the hips.
During the final part of the burpee where you explode out from the squat, the quads also play a big role in the knee extension and jumping.
The hamstrings are also involved during the first part of the burpee as you squat down because they help control your hips. Anytime you flex your knee or extend your hip, your hamstrings are working.
Since this muscle group helps to extend your hips, they play a role in the final portion of a burpee where you stand up and jump.
The biggest muscle on your body is the one you’re likely sitting on right now. Like the quads and hamstrings, the glutes are involved in the initial and final part of the burpee. Your glutes lengthen as you first squat down and are responsible for helping extend the hip.
It’s important to keep this muscle group strong because it helps stabilize the hip, and during the final jump of the burpee, stronger glutes can make for a better jump.
From the squat position of the burpee, you jump your feet back to land in a plank position. This requires strength and stability from your shoulders, specifically from your deltoids and rotator cuff.
Shoulder injuries are common in sports and everyday life, which could be due to a lack of stabilization, so keeping this muscle group strong is crucial for performance and function.
When you land in the plank position, your shoulders aren’t the only muscle group providing stability. Your abdominal muscles play an important role in protecting your lower back and stabilizing your body while in this position, but also throughout the entirety of the burpee.
The core needs to be engaged throughout the entire exercise in order to perform it properly and safely. If your abdominals aren’t strong enough, your burpee form could suffer, and you may increase your risk of an injury.
Royal H. Burpee may not have incorporated the push-up into his burpee, but many burpee variations now include it. It’s the standard for CrossFit workouts and can be great to build muscle and strength.
During the push-up portion of the burpee, your pectoral muscles are recruited and are the main muscles targeted during this part.
Although the chest plays an important role in the push-up of the burpee, your triceps are also used to help push your body up. Your triceps are responsible for extending the elbow, so any pushing movement recruits this muscle.
During the final push of the push-up, where your arms extend and you’re back in a plank position, the triceps are working hard.
The hip flexors are important for stabilizing the hips and the spine, and they assist in powerful movements like running and jumping. When you jump your feet in towards your hands after the push-up position, your hip flexors are recruited. This movement is similar to mountain climbers which also help target your hip flexors.
When you perform the final jump of the burpee, your hip flexors also play a role in the power.
An often neglected muscle group is the calf muscle. They can be difficult to target and stubborn to grow, but they’re important for jumping and landing. The jump wasn’t in the first burpee ever invented, but it’s a popular addition nowadays and can be great for really getting your heart racing.
During the very final part of the burpee where you’re standing all the way up, and you’re starting to jump, the calves help flex your foot and propel you up.
Whether you love or hate burpees, there’s enough science behind them to prove their value and effectiveness. They work just about every major muscle group of the body and can help burn fat, build strength, and test your fitness.
You might do burpees in your HIIT class or during the burpee mile, but however you do them, know that you can reap the benefits.