The Burpee, which is essentially a combination of a squat and a squat thrust, is the ultimate full body exercise, with just four simple steps testing both your strength and aerobic capacities.
This is the reason why the armed forces, fitness boot camps, CrossFit practitioners, martial arts classes and personal trainers around the world incorporate it into their training regimens.
The combined feelings of breathless, elevation of the chest wall, forced expiration, high heart rate, and legs feeling like lead and the associated lactic acid burn sensation will become rapidly familiar after just a minute of Burpees.
The benefits of the Burpee are plentiful. The Burpee will improve aerobic endurance, strengthen both muscles and bones, create lean muscle mass that raises your metabolism and, of course, help keep you fit and healthy.
The burpee, and its variations, is a core exercise in any fitness professional’s arsenal.
History of the Burpee
In 1940, Royal Huddleston Burpee, ‘Royal’, published his thesis titled ‘Seven quickly administered tests of physical capacity and their use in detecting physical incapacity for motor activity in men and boys’ as part of his PhD in Applied Physiology at the Columbia University, USA.
As part of his research, Royal attempted to narrow down some 300 tests of physical capacity to a short list of tests that could be easily administered to large groups, in minimal time and with little equipment. One test that rose to the top was the Front Leaning Rest (FLR), from the standing position. The FLR is otherwise known as the press-up position. Royal modified the FLR to accommodate his discerning criteria for a physical capacity test and thus was born the Burpee.
The exercise was popularised in 1944 when it was adopted as one of seven exercises used by the US Army in its new toughening up programme (Raymond, 1944).
What is a Burpee?
The Burpee is a great full body exercise used in strength training and as an aerobic exercise.
Why the Burpee?
The Burpee is a functional, multi-joint, multi-muscle movement that develops strength and aerobic capacity in a time efficient manner.
The Burpee in the Military
The Burpee is an integral part of military physical fitness and many military systems around the world train daily with this classic exercise. All branches of the British armed forces, Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Royal Marines, routinely incorporate the Burpee into their training programmes.
The Muscles behind the Movement
One of the greatest benefits of Burpees (and conditioning training in general) is that of injury prevention. Nothing aids the skeletal structure more than strengthening the muscles and connective tissue around a specific area.
This strengthening naturally occurs through regular training and from an aerobic standpoint performing moderate to high sets of Burpees will provide an effective cardiovascular workout too. As an additional benefit, bone density is also improved, which vastly decreases the potential risk of injury in the specific body areas.
With each repetition, you will work your chest, arms, front deltoids, thighs, hamstrings, and abs
There are a number of muscles involved in a Burpee:
The pectoralis major (commonly referred to as ‘pecs’) is the fan-shaped muscle at the top-front area of the chest. Impressive chest development is usually the result of having well-defined pectoral muscles. The pectoralis major is responsible for three major actions – medially rotating the humerous (as in arm wrestling), flexing the humerous (as in lifting or throwing) and adducting the humerous (as in raising your arms to the sides of your body).
The triceps brachii (commonly referred to as ‘triceps’), the large muscle located on the back of the upper arm, is responsible for the action of straightening the arm. The triceps muscle makes up approximately 60% of the upper arm’s muscle mass.
The biceps brachii (commonly referred to as ‘biceps’), the muscle located on the front of the upper arm, is responsible for forearm rotation and elbow flexion. However, biceps are not developed to any significant degree while performing traditional Burpees.
The deltoid muscle is responsible for the much-coveted curved contour of the shoulder and is made up of three sections: front, side and rear. The Burpee, although not a major contributor to deltoid development, is still an ancillary benefit to this muscle. The deltoid muscles take part in all movements of the upper arm, including lifting and rotating.
The rectus abdominis muscle (commonly referred to as ‘abs’) is the large, straight muscle at the front of the abdomen that supports the muscles of the spine. When performing Burpees, the lower back muscles contract to stabilise your body (at ‘count’ two, see below); this has a secondary benefit of stretching the abdominal muscles and developing core strength.
The gluteus maximus (commonly referred to as ‘glutes’) is the coarse muscle that makes up a large portion of the buttocks area and is largely responsible for maintaining the trunk in the erect posture.
The Quadriceps is a group of four muscles that sit on the anterior or front aspect of the thigh. They are the Vastus Medialis, Intermedius and Lateralis and finally the Rectus Femoris. The Quadriceps attach to the front of the tibia and originate at the top of the femur. The exception to this rule is the Rectus Femoris which actually crosses the hip joint and originates on the pelvis.
The function of the Quadriceps as a whole is to extend the knee (straighten the knee). The Rectus Femoris functions to extend the knee but also acts as a hip flexor because it crosses the hip joint.
The Hamstrings are comprised of three separate muscles: the Biceps Femoris, Semitendinosus and Semimembranosus. These muscles originate just underneath the Gluteus Maximus on the pelvic bone and attach on the tibia. The Hamstrings are primarily fast-twitch muscles, responding to low repetitions and powerful movements.
The Gastrocnemius is the calf muscle that is visible from the outside of the body. It attaches to the heel with the Achilles Tendon and originates behind the knee on the femur, crossing two joints. The Gastrocnemius has two heads: the medial and the lateral. When fully developed, these two heads appear to form a diamond shape. The Soleus is not visible when looking at the body from the outside as it lies underneath the Gastrocnemius on the rear of the lower leg. The Soleus is most active when doing calf exercises where the knee is bent, such as seated calf raises.
The function of the Gastrocnemius is to elevate the heel (known as plantar flexion). The function is the Soleus is exactly the same as the Gastrocnemius: to raise the heel. The only difference is that it works in a different position: with the knee bent.
Performing a Burpee
The classic version of the US Army Burpee (which mimics the Royal Burpee) is performed in four steps or ‘counts’ (Raymond, 1944):
- Begin in a standing position, with arms at the sides, and feet a couple of inches apart.
- At the count of ‘one’, go down to a squatting position, with hands flat on the ground, and arms inside the knees.
- At ‘two’, throw both feet to the rear, fully extending the legs with knees off the floor, weight resting on hands and toes.
- At ‘three’ jump back to the squatting position.
- At ‘four’ stand up.
Building-up to a Classic Burpee
For some people going straight into a classic Burpee may be too much for a variety of reasons. However, there are exercises that can be used to prepare the mind and body for the classic Burpee.
Although there is a vast range of Burpee variations, the basic framework is always the same and brings similar bodily benefits: going from a vertical position to a horizontal one and pulling yourself back again.
This means that even the newest exercisers can comfortably perform a modified version:
- Start by squatting and putting your hands on a bench or chair;
- Now stick one leg out behind you, followed by the other leg;
- Hold that position briefly and then return to the squatting position; and
- Finally stand up.
Alternatively, new exercisers can just perform either squats (to build confidence and leg strength) or squat thrusts.
- Burpee press-up: the exerciser performs a press-up after assuming the plank position.
- Knee press-up Burpee: the exerciser bends their knees and rests them on the ground before performing the press-up.
- Jump up Burpee: the exerciser jumps up as high as they can in at the end of the movement and before beginning the next Burpee.
- Long-jump Burpee: the exerciser jumps forward, not upward.
- Tuck-jump Burpee: the exerciser pulls their knees to their chest (tucks) at the peak of the jump.
- Jump-over Burpee: the exerciser jumps over an obstacle between each Burpee.
- Box-jump Burpee: the exerciser jumps onto a box, rather than straight up and down.
- One-armed Burpee: the exerciser uses only one arm for the whole exercise including the press-up.
- Dumbbell Burpee: the exerciser holds a pair of dumbbells while performing the exercise.
- Parkour Burpee: following one Burpee on the ground, the exerciser jumps upon a table and performs the second Burpee on the table, then jumps back to the initial position.
- Pull-up Burpee: combine a press-up with the jump or do a press-up instead of the jump.
- Muscle-up Burpee: combine a muscle-up with the jump or do a muscle-up instead of the jump.
- Double Burpee: instead of one press-up, do two in a row. This cancels the drive from landing after the jump and makes the next jump harder. Each part of the Burpee might be repeated to make it even harder.
- One-Leg Burpee: the exerciser stands on one leg, bends at the waist and puts hands on ground so they are aligned with the shoulders. Next, jump back with the standing leg to assume the plank position. Jump forward with the one leg that was extended, and do a one-leg jump. Repeat on opposite side.
- Side Burpee: the exerciser bends at waist and places hand shoulder-width apart to the side of right or left foot. Jump both legs out to side and land on the outer and inner sides of your feet. Jump back in, jump up, and repeat on opposite side.
- Shitee: starting in plank position perform a press-up, then with hands maintaining position on the floor quickly bring feet forward so that the toes are even with the hands, then return to plank position.
- Awkwards: begin in a standing position and then drop into a squat position with your hands on the ground. Now extend your feet back (together) in one quick motion to assume the front plank position. Return to the squat position in one quick motion. Again extend your feet back together in one quick motion to reassume the front plank position and perform a press-up. Again return to the squat position in one quick motion. Return to a standing position and immediately jump up as high as you can, raising your hands above your hand.
There are a number of practical tips that can be used to enhance performance and reduce the risk of injury.
- Frequency: it is very important to allow your body time to recover from your daily workouts. Muscle tissue is broken down during exercise but will rebuild itself during periods of rest and recovery. Working the muscles on consecutive days will hamper the rebuilding process. Current convention suggests the body needs 48 hours to recover and adapt to the stress of strength training.
- Breathing: it is important to breathe in during the descent and breathe out on the ascent. Make sure you do not hold your breath and make every effort to breathe rhythmically throughout the exercise.
- ‘Good’ Pain: can be the feeling of being ‘pumped’ as your muscles fill with blood during exercise, or it can be the mild feeling of fatigue as the lactic acid burn sets in. Recognise these sensations and learn to thrive on them.
- ‘Bad’ Pain: on the other hand, is any sharp pain or spasm, or pain that moves quickly into the shoulders, arms, hands, legs or hips – these are definite warning signs.
The Burpee Assessment
To perform the Burpee assessment:
- Measure resting heart rate lying down;
- Measure resting heart rate standing up;
- Perform four Burpees as fast as possible, record the time;
- Measure post exercise heart rate immediately upon stopping (palpate the wrist and count the number of pulses in 15 seconds and multiply by 4 to get beats per minute); and
- Measure heart rate every 15 seconds until heart rate has returned to normal (record the time it takes to return to normal).
Table 1 outlines the Burpee standards according to Royal’s thesis research.
Table 1: Burpee standards
100 BPM or more
Postural pulse rate change
16 BPM or more
Increase in pulse rate change
44 BPM or less
48 BPM or more
Time to return to normal
105 seconds or less
120 seconds or more
Breathless (elevation of chest wall, forced expiration)
Limited motor movement
Limited (cannot execute standard exercise)
Time to perform exercise
11.5 seconds or less
11.6 seconds or more
The US Army Assessment
In 1944 the Burpee was one of seven exercises used by the US Army in its new toughening up programme (Raymond, 1944). The US Army suggested that even the rawest recruit could do this exercise a few times slowly, but would not consider the soldier fit for the rigours of war until they could complete 40 or 50 in easy rhythm, without pausing for rest. With a time frame of 20 seconds: 8 or less was considered poor; 9-10 was fair; 11-12 was good; and 13 or more was excellent.
Record Breakers and Attempts
Paddy Doyle’s Burpee world records (Record Holders, 2011):
- 15 min: 470, 19 Feb 1992, Stocks, Birmingham
- 15 min: 490, 22 Feb 1993, Irish Centre, Birmingham
- 30 min: 860, 19 Feb 1992, Stocks, Birmingham
- 30 min: 930, 22 Feb 1993, Irish Centre, Birmingham
- 1-hour: 1,619, 21 June 1991, ICC Birmingham
- 1-hour: 1,649, 19 Feb 1992, Boys club Birmingham
- 1-hour: 1,822, 6 Feb 1993, Irish Centre, Birmingham
- 1-hour: 1,840, 6 Feb 1994, Bull Public House Polesworth
- 1-hour: 1,850, 25 Nov 1995, Dubliner, Digbeth, Birmingham
- 5 hours: 4,921, 25 Nov 1995, Dubliner Public House, Birmingham
- One week: 21,409, July 1999, Fairford Air Show, Gloucester
Raymond, A. (1944) Can We Make Our Soldiers Tough Enough? Popular Science. Feb 1944, pp.57-60 & 203. Available from World Wide Web: <http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=oiUDAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA203&ots=q3LvcPF_ry&pg=PA58#v=twopage&q&f=false> [Accessed: 03 April, 2013].
Burpee, R.H. (1940) Seven Quickly Administered Tests of Physical Capacity and Their Use in Detecting Physical Incapacity for Motor Activity in Men and Boys. Teachers College. Columbia University, Contributions to Education, No. 818.
Record Holders (2011) Paddy Doyle – One of the Most Prolific Record Breakers. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.recordholders.org/en/records/doyle.html> [Accessed: 05 April, 2013].
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