Sunday, May 28, 2017

Stop Vilifying This Exercise

People love to hate on burpees. Their complaints typically go something like this:

  • “They’re horrible for your low back and wrists.”
  • “They’re not functional.”
  • “They make you senselessly tired.”
  • “If your personal trainer makes you do burpees, find a new trainer.”

Yeah, yeah. I get it. Vilifying exercises is all the rage these days, and black-and-white thinking is easier than deliberating in shades of gray. (By the way, has anyone seen the new movie?) Heck, talking down trainers who have their clients do said vilified exercises suddenly makes us feel a lot better about our own personal and professional limitations.

I bet Christian Grey does burpees.

Are you ready for the honest-to-goodness, naked truth, though? I bet you didn’t expect anything to get naked on this blog post, but here it comes.

There’s nothing wrong with burpees.

Now before you report me to the personal trainer Most Wanted List, hear me out. Like any maligned exercise, it's just another instance of having the appropriate prerequisites for the movement, performing the correct variation, and having a reason for doing it that matches your goals.

(If this spiel is starting to sound familiar, then you get an A+ for reading comprehension. I wrote all about how to determine if an exercise is a good choice earlier this year.)

Let’s go ahead and deconstruct the above points further.

Movement Prerequisites

Several individual movements comprise a strict burpee: a squat or hip hinge (depending on how you choose to perform it), a backward thrust of the legs, a push-up (optional), and a squat jump (also optional).

Below is a side-by-side comparison of a hinge-y burpee (left) and a squatty burpee (right). Clearly, both variations require large ranges of motion and control at the ankles, knees, hips, and wrists.

So guess what. If you lack the range of motion or control at any of these joints to perform any of the component movements, then you either shouldn’t be doing burpees or you need to perform them with some modification (e.g. omitting the push-up and/or jump). Duh!

The question is, do people’s limitations in the squat, hip hinge, push-up, and jump make the burpee a “bad” exercise? Or is doing an exercise you have no business doing merely a poor application of a fine exercise?

Clearly, it’s the latter. The former would be tantamount to saying squat cleans are a bad exercise. Sure, plenty of people look like shit when they do them. But when done well, they’re one of the best full body power developers known to man.

Suppose you have all of the aforementioned prerequisites, though. What about all that back rounding in the squatty burpee? Isn’t that dangerous? Won't your spine explode?!

Actually, probably not. Unloaded spinal flexion is A-okay. If it weren’t, there would be an epidemic of back pain in areas of the world where people squat to eat and poo. Our spines are robust; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Of course, if spinal flexion does cause an individual pain, they can simply elevate their hands on a plyometric box, bench, or paralletes to avoid the painful range of motion, as shown below by yours truly.

The CrossFit Burpee

If cornered in a dark alley, I think most trainers would agree that the burpee variations depicted above aren’t the devil, and they’re unlikely to cause injury. Why all the hate towards burpees, then?

It could be because of the growing popularity of the "CrossFit burpee." Those same trainers might be less inclined to agree on the safety of this variation.

In an effort to standardize the movement as well as speed it up, CrossFitters have a lot fewer stipulations for their burpee. As such, the squat, thrust, and push-up components are far less defined. It basically amounts to throwing yourself onto the floor any which way, as long as your chest touches the ground, and jumping back up into full extension with hands clapping overhead.

When speed of movement and fatigue factor in, we tend to see wrist impact increase (although probably no more than a clap push-up) and low back hyperextension to spare the arms from doing the work.

This type of burpee may not be appropriate for large cross sections of the general population. However, competitive CrossFitters and any individuals with the prerequisite strength and mobility in their wrists and core should feel free to go to town on them.

Of course, this stipulation shouldn't doom burpees to eternal damnation. It just necessitates that we choose the burpee variation that's most appropriate.

Functionality of the Burpee

The other popular argument against the burpee is its lack of “functionality.” The truth is, functionality is case-dependent: what’s functional for one person may or may not be for another.

With that said, when I look at a burpee I see a person getting up and down off the ground. Most people need to be able to do that. Some athletes (e.g. wrestlers) even need to be able to do it for their sport.

Is the burpee the best choice for training that skill? If we're in need of a simple conditioning tool that requires no equipment and minimal space, then it can be a perfectly fine choice. There are certainly other options (like a Turkish get-up, for example). But the burpee can have its time and place both in the training of general population clients and certain athletes.

Specificity of the Burpee

Of course, if we do decide to program in some burpees, we absolutely need to ask ourselves why we’re doing them. Most of the time, that answer should be because we’re trying to accomplish a particular goal, be it fat loss, improved power, or increased stamina. But it doesn’t always have to be.

The burpee often gets a bad rap because of trainers' tendency to deploy them in bunches (e.g. 50 burpees for time). In the case of high-repetition burpees, unless completing 50 burpees for time is your goal, then you may be making yourself senselessly tired for little reason. If that's your norm, then yes, that's lazy programming and you should re-think your workouts.

But hey, maybe there’s nothing you love more than making yourself senselessly tired. Trainers often get on a high horse about “training” (towards particular goals), and in the process they mock people who enjoy simply “exercising.”

Personally, I prefer to train the majority of the time. Heck, I trained towards the Paralympics for swimming for seven straight years. Nowadays, though, since I’m not working towards anything big like that, I’m not opposed to exercising from time to time to test myself and have some fun.

I’ll even throw in burpees every now and then. Sometimes for low reps and maximum height on each jump, sometimes for high reps and maximum wind sucking. I’m not stupid, though. I don’t burpee through pain. I have the appropriate prerequisite ranges of motion and control. I go at a pace I can handle. And I keep my form in check.

Plus, I look great doing them with my shirt off. #InstagramWorthy

Bottom Line on Burpees

It’s easy to see how an exercise with as many potential red flags as the burpee has gotten demonized. There’s no doubt that bad burpees are bad. But so are bad deadlifts, squats, push-ups, and so on.

Basically, it all boils down to whether we’re better off saying that no one should ever do burpees OR if we can safely empower people (and their trainers) to decide intelligently and responsibly for themselves.

I choose to educate and empower.

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