First off, what are burpees? Burpees have a dumb name, but they’re actually pretty awesome. They combine strength training and aerobic conditioning as few other bodyweight exercises ever could. And burpees also have a special place in the Spartan world. For a number of good reasons, it's one of the best exercises you can do.
See, the thing is, if you compete in a Spartan race, you’re going to have to do burpees. A lot of them. Every time you fail an obstacle, in fact. And you’ll probably fail a lot of obstacles—Spartan races are meant to be tough.
What are burpees?
First things first: why the hell is it called that? It turns out that burpees are named after their inventor, physician Royal H. Burpee. He invented them in the 1930s as a quick tool for testing physical fitness. The burpee was later popularized in World War II when the United States Army adopted it as part of the physical fitness assessment for new recruits.
Now, for real though—what is a burpee? The classic burpee is a four-count movement consisting of four steps:
- Begin in a standing position
- Move into a squat position with your hands on the ground (count 1)
- Kick your feet back into a hand plank position, while keeping your arms extended (count 2)
- Immediately return your feet into squat position (count 3)
- Stand up from the squat position (count 4)
Answering the question What are burpees? makes it sounds pretty simple—and it is, at least until you start building on it. But simple doesn’t mean easy—here’s why the burpee is one of the best exercises you can do.
One of the best exercises
Second to understanding what are burpees is understanding what they do. First, burpees work nearly every muscle in your body. The squatting and kicking back work your legs. The hand plank works your arms, chest, and shoulders. The combination of kicking back and planking works your lower back. And nearly every part of it, but particularly the plank, requires you to use your abdomen to brace yourself.
The only muscles the burpee doesn’t effectively fatigue are those involved in upper body pulling motions—the biceps, forearm, upper, and middle back. But that can be changed depending on how you build on the burpee.
The combination of upper- and lower-body strength and fast movement makes burpees very aerobically demanding, if you do enough of them. Since you’re alternating between upper- and lower-body movements, local muscular endurance is rarely a limiting factor—your overall stamina will usually give out before your arms and legs will. And that means burpees can get your heart rate up as few other exercises can.
In short, doing burpees is tougher than running, or traditional weight training, or even most circuit training workouts. And that means that beyond the physical benefits they offer, burpees are an excellent tool for developing mental toughness.
Finally, the burpee is a bodyweight exercise, which means it can be done any time, any place. You can do them at the gym—but you can also do them at home, at the office, in a hotel, or in the lobby of your local movie theater (maybe don’t do it there). Once you start doing burpees, you can start doing short whole-body workouts several times a day, wherever you are.
Since total training volume is the main driver of progression—both in strength and endurance—that means burpees are an invaluable addition to almost any training program. That said, the standard burpee can be improved on to provide even greater strength and endurance growth.
There are dozens of variants on the standard burpee, most of which make it harder by adding extra steps to the movement. That’s great, but most burpee progression schemes make the mistake of not separating the different body parts involved. For instance, a typical progression scheme might have you add a high jump at the top, then a push-up at the bottom, then kick your feet at the bottom, then replace the high jump with a box jump.
The problem here is that your weakest body part prevents your stronger body parts from being maximally challenged. Your legs might not have the endurance to add that high jump, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add the push-up if your arms can handle it.
A better strategy is to progress multiple body parts on parallel tracks. Here are several body part–specific burpee progressions you can use in combination with each other.
Burpee Leg Progression
- Replace the standing up step with a jump squat
- Replace the jump squat with two jump lunges—one on each side
- Add a pair of mountain climbers at the bottom
- Replace mountain climbers with Spiderman lunges
- Replace jump lunges with a box jump
Burpee Push-Up Progression
- Add a push-up at the bottom, after entering the hand plank position
- Add a half-second pause at the bottom of each push-up
- Extend the pause to one second
- Extend the pause to two seconds
- Replace the push-up with a plyometric push-up
- Clap your hands in midair on each plyometric push-up
Burpee Chin-Up Progression
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to optimally work your biceps, forearms, and upper and middle back without having something to grab onto—but if you have a chin-up bar handy, you can add chin-ups in order to make the burpee the most complete full-body exercise of them all.
- Two-second dead hang after standing/jumping up
- Chin-up without getting your chin over the bar
- Full chin-up, with your chin over the bar
- Full chin-up with slow eccentric—lower yourself over two to three seconds
The burpee is one of the best exercises you can do for whole-body strength and endurance—and with these progressions, it just got even better.
Related: How to Do a Burpee Like a Champion
And the best part about burpees? It's part and parcel to knowing what are burpees: You can do them right now. So what are you waiting for?
Burpees will get you fit fast. That's why they are part of this free Get Fit Fast program.