The burpee is a bad exercise. Burpees require you to throw yourself to the ground, do a quick push up, then jump back up again. Your wrist gets jammed into extension and you put a huge amount of stress on the anterior part of the shoulder, which is the weakest part of the shoulder joint. Doing any exercise with speed and high repetitions is never a good idea. Especially one that puts the joints at risk.
"The burpee is trying to be three things at once, and it’s not very good at any one of them."
People do burpees because they are hard, intense and get you out of breath – so they must be good. But as with any exercise, we must ask ourselves WHY are you doing this? We know we do squats to work the legs – and it’s a functional exercise. Doing burpees because they are “hard” is not a good enough reason. If you want to do cardio, do cardio. If you want to do strength, do strength. Let’s go into more detail…
People like the idea of the burpee because they think it’s a total-body exercise—that it works their upper body, their lower body, and their cardiovascular strength. But there’s no one exercise that does that. And the reality is that the risk far outweighs the benefit of this exercise. As with all exercises, if it’s high risk, then the exercise isn’t a good one. Choose a safer one!
The burpee is trying to be three things at once, and it’s not very good at any one of them. Ask yourself why do a burpee? What is this exercise doing for you? If you’re doing it because you want the lower-body plyometric challenge from jumping back up at the end, then just do plyometric exercises like jump squats (which are much safer). If you’re doing it for the upper-body challenge of the push-up, just do push-ups (or chest press with a cable or barbell)! If you’re doing it for the cardiovascular challenge, there are tons of interval training exercises that are much better and safer and more effective than burpees.
So, why shouldn't you do burpees?
- They are a high-impact exercise that puts undue stress on the wrists, shoulders, knees, and lower back. You can achieve a similar training effect in safer ways, so the risk isn’t worth the reward.
- Advanced exercise masquerading as a beginner exercise. Most people lack the requisite strength and mobility to do them properly, let alone for high reps, which is how they are programmed since the goal is metabolic conditioning. Fatigue exacerbates form faults. In other words the faster you go the more chance your form falters!
- Burpees are fast, which means that there isn’t as much TUT (Time Under Tension). The longer a muscle is under tension the quicker the muscle will break down – and the greater gains you will get. Slow down and get the benefits of strength/resistance training.
- A burpee doesn’t allow you to go slow, so you aren’t really overloading when you do the squat or the push up phase.
- Many people who attend boot camp or other classes, where the burpee is given as an exercise, lack the core strength to safely and effectively throw yourself to the ground and keep the core neutral. When you go into the plank/push up position and the core isn’t strong, the back will hyperextend causing trauma to the lumbar spine.
- Many people who do a regular push up can’t go through a full range of motion – even if it’s done slowly and from their knees. So, they certainly won’t be able to do a full push up (from the toes) during the down phase of a burpee – especially since it’s done with speed.
- Burpees are often done repeatedly or with several sets. High reps + poor form = Recipe for injury!
- Most people are bad at them, making it a bad choice for that person. I've never seen a group of general population clients doing burpees well, with good form.
- Strong athletes and advanced participants with excellent form, posture and mobility can probably get away with doing them, but have you ever seen a pro strength coach prescribe burpees?
Good Alternatives to Burpees:
- Break the movement down into its constituent parts:
- Do a squat or jump squats
- Do push ups with good form. And until someone can master a perfect push up and has good core stability there is no way they should be doing a burpee.
- Combine a push up and a squat (but do it slowly). Or combine a squat and a burpee in a circuit.
- Limit the reps of push ups and squats to what you would normally do – 8- 10 reps or 10-12 reps.
- Do jump squats if you really want to do plyometrics. BUT limit the number of reps to fewer than 10 per set. High rep plyos are disaster waiting to happen.
- SLOW DOWN. Remember: TUT = Time Under Tension. The slower you go – the faster you will build those muscles.
- Do just about any other cardio exercise. The bike, ski erg, elliptical trainer, Versa Climber, rower, sleds, Stair-master, jumping jacks, sprints, running with intervals (should I go on?).
And if nothing else, think about the safety of your clients. You have a legal and ethical obligation to keep your clients safe.
If you do burpees and someone gets injured, your insurance may not cover you. Continuing to teach an exercise that is considered unsafe is called negligence.
References: Upton, K-2021; Boyle, M, CFSC 2018; Dagher, G 2019