Burpees are a super-effective full-body exercise. So why do we hate them so much? This three-step plan will make you love (or at least tolerate) burpees and other tough exercises.
I talk about the phenomenon of doing too much too soon quite often in my articles, videos, and podcast episodes. But the problem with going from zero to pushing yourself as hard as your body will allow is that it's not enjoyable. It also leaves you feeling exhausted and depressed about your current physical fitness.
Of course, if you do persist, and you put yourself through these brutal workouts a few more times over weeks and months, you'll undoubtedly feel improvements in your fitness. But you'll also develop aches and pains (or maybe even an injury) and eventually need to take a break. Or, worse, you might deem the experiment a failure and go back to your previously scheduled sedentary lifestyle.
But what if I told you there's another way? There's a way to ease yourself into challenging exercises (like burpees) and fitness routines. Would you be willing to give it a try?
Good! I thought you might.
Slow down your burpees
The first thing I usually have to convince a new fitness client to do is slow the heck down.
We often refer to the too-fast pace as being “comfortably uncomfortable.” It's a pace that gives us the feeling of getting a good workout because it causes suffering. Yet it's also something we can actually do because the suffering isn’t unbearable. But there are a few problems with this pace.
- It deceives you into believing you're getting greater benefits than you would if you slowed down
- Intensity isn't the best way to maximize your fitness time
- It isn’t fun (at least not at first) unless you're a masochist
- It leads to injury and burnout
Let’s look at the difference between walking briskly (not a mosey) and running at a comfortably uncomfortable pace (not an all-out sprint).
- You can take a brisk walk without changing clothes
- You can stack brisk walking with other activities like running errands
- Brisk walking burns only slightly fewer calories per minute than moderate-intensity running does
Let’s apply the same idea to burpees.
If you watch someone doing burpees (or attend a boot camp workout that includes them), you might assume this exercise is all about speed. That's often because we're more focused on getting our workout done and over with than getting the most benefit out of it. Another factor is AMRAP.
You write that number on the chalkboard in the gym, post it on social media, and silently calculate whether you deserve a maple-mocha-frappe-latte or not.
AMRAP stands for “as many reps as possible” in a given amount of time. For example, in some CrossFit workouts, you set a timer (let's say for three minutes) and are given a set of exercises like 10 push-ups, 10 pull-ups, and 10 squats. When the timer starts, you repeat that sequence as many times as possible until time expires. Then you write that number on the chalkboard at the gym, post it on social media, and silently calculate whether you deserve a maple-mocha-frappe-latte or not.
Now don’t get me wrong, doing AMRAP workouts can certainly challenge you and help you track your fitness progress over time. But it's not a great way to approach your workouts as a daily tactic, and it's certainly not for beginners.
So, slow down. Focus on the movements of your exercises. Do them at a pace appropriate to your fitness and mobility level. You'll not only enjoy the workout more, but it will give you greater fitness gains. And when you protect yourself against the all-too-common "too much, too soon" problem, you'll also be more likely to enjoy your workouts and stick to your fitness program.
Break down the burpee movements
One of my episodes a while back was called 8 Steps to Doing a Burpee. In the accompanying video, I showed you how to take each one of the component movements that make up a burpee and master it.
In that article, we looked at each step in the burpee as its own discreet movement. Like eating the proverbial elephant (one bite at a time), I also suggested you avoid trying to learn all the steps to do a burpee at once. Some steps may take longer to master than others. To be safe and smart about this, I encourage you to focus on each movement, practice it, and perfect it before moving on to the next, even if that takes weeks.
The same idea can be applied to any exercise, even our good friend running. The truth is, running was something humans were born to do (thanks, Bruce Springsteen). But we lost that birthright a while ago when we centered our lives around sitting in chairs rather than hunting, gathering, farming, and otherwise toiling to stay alive. These days, we need to apply this same “break it down” approach to running.
Before we take off running on a regular basis, we need to create flexibility in our hips to allow our legs to trail behind us. We need to build spring and strength in our calves. We need to shore up weaknesses in our glute muscles and core. We often need to increase mobility in our ankles ... and so on. Skipping these steps is exactly why, according to Yale Medicine, more than 50% of runners get injured each year.
Modify the burpee movement
Not all bodies are created equal, and that's even more apparent as we age. Some of us are born with externally rotated hips, some of us are born with genu valgum (knock knees) or in-toeing (pigeon-toed). Most of us experience some type of physical setback in our adult lives as well, but that doesn’t mean we have to throw out the idea of ever doing a particular movement again. It's often just a matter of identifying the limitation and working with it rather than avoiding it.
Let’s say, like me, you had an accident playing hockey and broke your wrist and also smooshed some cartilage (requiring surgical repair) in your 30s. As you get closer to age 50, that wrist may not be as content to support your weight in the somewhat ballistic manner required for a traditional burpee. No problem!
Aside from making sure that I do my physiotherapist-recommended exercises to keep my wrist strong and supple, I can do protective things like planting my fist on the mat (instead of my palm) to keep my wrist straight and in line with my forearm. I can also use a platform to raise my hands off the ground, which effectively reduces the weight supported by my wrist. Or I can do all three.
Modifications are not a cheat and they do not indicate that you're weak or wimpy.
Just because you can’t do a burpee that will win you awards in the CrossFit Games doesn’t mean you have to abandon the movement forever. Modifications are smart and show that you have grit, creativity, and determination. Those qualities will serve you well as you move forward through life!
Slow, methodical, and modified
I hope you see that applying these modalities and mindsets to the dreaded burpee can truly help you learn to love them ... or at least tolerate them. Imagine how you'll feel when you learn to appreciate an exercise most people hate!
I also hope I've shown you that extending these ideas to other areas of your fitness life can open up a whole world of exercise possibilities you might have thought were closed. Slow down, break exercises into movements you perfect before moving on, and make modifications when you need to. You've got this!