Updated: Jan 12, 2022
It’s not up for discussion, burpees are the best bodyweight exercise. As well as working almost every muscle in your body, including your cardiovascular system (more on that in a moment), burpees are extremely versatile. They can be included in every workout, and they are especially complimentary in circuits and HIIT sessions.
In addition to providing a whole-body workout, and possessing the versatility of a Swiss army knife, burpees are eminently modifiable. Meaning, you can extend the ‘core’ movement by bolting on a press-up – which is called a bastod – or including a plyometric jump.
These two simple modifications, and there are many more, increase both the range of muscles groups engaged and the intensity of the exercise.
This article is all about burpees – as you’ve undoubtedly realised. From the benefits of this brilliant bodyweight exercise to the technical application, we cover it all. Furthermore, we outline a range of modification options, including ‘added intensifiers’, as well as answering frequently asked questions.
The benefits of burpees
Burpees are brilliant for building whole-body fitness. Because of the multiple biomechanical manoeuvres involved in performing a burpee, many different muscle groups are engaged.
This one exercise activates all the muscles of the leg, including those of the core, shoulders, and triceps. Quite an impressive range considering how simple burpees are to perform.
But the range of muscles recruited further increase when you include one (or more) of the modifications outlined below.
Burpees improve muscle endurance
Muscle endurance refers to the ability to exert force against a resistance or sustain output for protracted periods of time. Developing muscular endurance is beneficial because, as a component of fitness, is more reflective of the type of activities we do day-to-day.
For example, rarely during the average day are we required to perform a maximal lift – which of course is the remit of strength. But we do a lot of whole-body functional muscular endurance activities: such as walking up a flight of stairs, general household chores, carting the shopping home, gardening, and engaging in sport.
Burpees are one of the best muscular endurance exercises. When burpeeing, which are often bundled into multiple sets of 20-plus repetitions, you will develop the physical capacity to move your entire bodyweight repeatedly and with relative ease. Something a lot of people cannot do.
Burpees build a stronger heart
Few bodyweight exercises elevate heart rate like burpees. A set of 20 will make you feel as though you’ve just run 200-metres flat out. And completing a series of sets is the bodyweight exercise equivalent of fartlek training.
Burpees engage the heart so well for the fact that it is a big, full-body exercise that’s driven by two of the largest muscle groups: the glutes and quadriceps. Thus, to sustain output the heart has to work harder to fuel the working muscles.
How to include burpees in your workouts
So now we’ve briefly reviewed the benefits of burpees, the question you’re probably now asking is: so how do I include them in my workouts?
It’s worth pointing out initially that there is no right or wrong way to use burpees in a workout. For example, they can be organised in the structure of your training session like any other exercise. After those heavy squat sets you could throw in a cardio kick by completing 5 sets of 10 to 20 reps of burpees.
Burpees are best used in circuit training and HIIT workouts
However, burpees are best incorporated in circuits or HIIT workouts. You could, when organising a circuit, set one station aside for burpees or, my favourite method of application, use them as a ‘motivational tool’ (aka punishment) to encourage participation.
A similar method can be applied when incorporating burpees in a HIIT session. The burpee could be used as its own interval component or thrown in as a workout intensifier.
For more examples of how to create circuits and HIIT workouts, follow the links below:
How to modify burpees
At some point, if you do them often enough, burpees will start to get easier. Initially, a set of 20 will cause a nasty burn in the quads and have you gasping for breath. But soon enough, you’ll be burpeeing until the cows come home.
When that day comes, you’ll no doubt want to know how to increase the intensity so that you can feel the burn again. There’s two simple ways of modifying burpees.
Add press-ups to your burpees
Adding a press-up compounds the effectiveness and intensity of the burpee. As well as making the exercise harder, this minor modification also increases the range of muscle groups activated.
Burpees certainly target a wide array of muscles. However, they do neglect those of the chest – pectorals. Popping a press-up in the middle of your burpee – or even a plyometric clap-hand press-up – will ensure that no anterior muscle escapes unscathed.
Try a plyometric box jump
Another great way to increase the intensity of burpees is by bolting on a plyometric box jump. Plyometric exercises help build explosive power and increase muscle elasticity.
In addition, because plyometric movements require greater exertion to perform, they place greater demands on the cardiovascular system. Thus, by bounding out of your burpee onto – or over – a box, you’ll enhance the explosivity of an already fiery exercise.
Related: follow the link for more plyometric training ideas
Two ways to intensify burpees
In addition to the modification options outlined above, both of which expand the range of muscles engaged, there are a number of simple ways to increase the intensity of burpees. By adding resistance to burpees, you will transform a muscle endurance exercise into one that builds strength and muscle.
Hold an Olympic barbell
The first of the two simple ways to increase the intensity of burpees is by holding a loaded barbell. Basically, you’re performing a deadlift but when you touch the bar down, you pop the legs out and back as you would when burpeeing.
The idea is to keep a hold of the bar to maintain fluidity. You’re not doing a deadlift then performing a burpee to the side. That constitutes as two separate movements. Barbell burpees is an amalgamation of two exercises which are to be executed as one.
Also, when practicing this burpee variation, you should start off with a light barbell. Preferably a pair of spacers either side. When you get use to the slight change in technical application, consider increasing the load.
Related: Check out the 5 Best Olympic Barbells
Wear a weighted vest
The second way to increase the intensity of burpees is a whole lot less complicated. Just strap on a weighted vest and begin your set of burpees!
Related: if you need a weighted vest, we review a range of the best products
How to perform the perfect burpee
Now we’ve reached that point in the article where we dispense with theory and start getting practical. Other than a few FAQs (see below), we’ve covered every angle of burpees – the benefits, training methodologies, modifications, etc., etc.
What follows is a concise outline of the main movements and techniques of the burpee. From the teachings and resources below, and with a little practice, you’ll master the king of calisthenics in no time.
Start by standing nice and erect like the good soldier on parade.
Squat all the way down until the palms of your hands are firmly planted on the floor.
Shifting your body weight forward shoot both feet back simultaneously. If you’ve followed the aforementioned teaching points correctly, you should be in the press-up position. This is half the burpee completed.
To complete the movement push off the floor with your feet springing them back level with your hands.
Stand up ensuring to jump at the top position.
When completing multiple repetitions, as you only ever should do with burpees, as you land after the jump sink straight into the next rep. This saves energy and helps to keep the momentum going.
Watch the burpee video tutorial!
5 tips when performing burpees
Tip1: Keep the body composed – limbs shouldn’t be popping and pinging out all over the place: when burpeeing the movement must be smooth and sleek like a Bolshoi Ballet performer.
Tip 2: Don’t be lazy and bend at the waist – ensure to squat all the way down.
Tip 3: Relax during the movement.
Tip 4: Don’t perform partial burpees: failing to fully extend the legs from crouched into the press-up position constitutes as a partial rep.
Tip 5: Make sure that your legs go out and come in together – a common mistake is to shoot out one leg first followed, of course, by the other. Don’t do this!
How to perform the half burpee
A half burpee is that bit of the full burpee where, in the high plank or press-up position, we jump our feet out and back. When performing a half burpee, you do not stand up but remain in the all-fours position.
The half burpee is a simplified modification of its big brother and thus makes for an ideal practice exercise for beginners.
But, just because the half burpee transitions through only 50% of the range of movement as the full burpee, do not underestimate its effectiveness. The half burpee is still a beast of an exercise and one that is widely used in circuits, HIIT workouts, and in military fitness training.
Half burpee teaching points
Begin on all-fours – in Yoga this is the start position of the cat stretch. Your hands are placed directly under your shoulders, palms flat to improve stability.
When you’re ready to perform the exercise, raise up off the knees and extend both feet back.
Now you should be in the high plank – or the start of the press-up – position.
Spring the feet forward until your knees brush the sides of your elbows. (If the full range of movement is a bit much in the early stages, simply jump the feet halfway.)
Before jumping the feet back to the start position, tip forward slightly shifting your bodyweight over your arms. This should make it easier to unravel your legs.
Are burpees good for weight loss?
Yes, burpees are good for weight loss for the simple reason that they engage a wide range of muscle groups. Also, as discussed above, burpees activate the cardiovascular system. To fuel these muscles the body must burn lots of calories. In addition, burpees tap into the aerobic energy system. This is the energy system that is powered by the metabolism of fat stores.
Are burpees bad for your back?
Burpees are bad for your back if they are performed incorrectly – but then any exercise poses injury risk if poorly executed.
Hinging – or folding – at the hips can cause lower back pain. However, this problem is easily remedied. By bending at the knees, and not the hips, burpee-induced back pain should not occur.
Where do burpees target?
Burpees target a wider range of muscle groups than any other single bodyweight exercise.
So which muscles do burpees target?
Primarily those of the lower body: glutes, quadriceps, but also the hamstrings and calves. Burpees also engage the upper-body muscles, such as the core – because, at the halfway position, you momentarily hold a high plank – the chest, shoulders and triceps.
Let’s not forget that, when doing burpees in bunches, the heart (cardiac muscle) is engaged.
Arguably, this is a poor answer to the question because, in truth, burpees do not target any one muscle. They target every muscle.
Will burpees build muscle?
Because burpees are a muscular endurance exercise, they are great for developing functional fitness and improving muscle definition. This characteristic of burpees means they are not best suited to building bigger muscles.
But that’s not to say that they can’t build muscle. By adopting the modification suggestions outlined above – burpeeing with a loaded barbell or wearing a weighted vest – burpees could help increase muscle size as well as definition.