The burpee is a total-body move everyone loves to hate — and that includes trainers. It involves:
- Standing straight up
- Dropping into a squat
- Placing your hands on the floor and kicking your legs back
- Performing a pushup
- Standing back up
- And jumping for the sky …
- Only to do it all over again
It’s exhausting. It’s also one of the best ways to get your heart pumping.
But burpees, perhaps more than any other exercise, are loathed by a large percentage of exercisers. Chris Coggins, a personal trainer and running coach, believes burpees are a great conditioning workout, but he tries to avoid them whenever possible. “I’ll still have clients do burpees on occasion for cardio — and that gets more groans than any other exercise,” he says. “I understand because I don’t like them either, so lately I’ve been throwing in some different total-body conditioners that I think are equally effective.”
THE ANATOMY OF A BURPEE
When you break down the movement into its component parts, it’s easy to see why burpees are so taxing on the body. The first half of the move involves a squat, thruster and pushup, while the second half requires you to hop in, stand up and jump. So, while 10 burpees might not sound like much, consider that it’s actually 10 of each movement — 10 squats, 10 pushups, 10 thrusters and so on.
Like we said: exhausting.
Fortunately, there’s more than one way to burpee. Between modifications, variations and completely different moves that target the same muscle groups, you’ve got options. Below, trainers share a few of their favorite alternatives for mixing up or replacing the classic burpee.
BURPEE MODIFICATIONS + ALTERNATIVES
“I love to hate burpees,” says Morit Summers, owner of Form Fitness in Brooklyn, New York. “I hated burpees for so long because they were so hard for me, and I would get really stressed about doing them.” She notes that doing burpees caused her heart rate to spike more from the stress itself than the actual movement.
Summers recommends the incline burpee, in which you place your hands on a box instead of the floor. This puts your body at an angle, removes some of the weight from the pushup and thruster, and makes it easier to stand back up. “Use a box to help you get used to the movement,” says Summers. All of this means your heart rate isn’t as likely to spike as high.
Another way to modify a burpee is to do a burpee step-out. Summers recommends this simple burpee modification, which slows the movement down so you can focus on your form and mitigate some of the pounding on your body. Perform the standard burpee, but instead of thrusting your feet back and then jumping them forward, simply step out and back in one leg at a time.
“Mountain climbers are a natural swap for the burpee,” says Coggins. “You still work your chest, shoulders, core and legs, and it’s a great cardio burn.” Start in a high plank position. Drive one knee in toward your chest, then return it to the starting position and repeat with the other leg. Continue the movement by quickly alternating knees and bracing your core for the duration of the exercise.
For a total-body move that builds strength and explosiveness while improving your conditioning, Coggins also likes kettlebell swings. “Even though it’s a weighted move, as long as you’ve got the form down, I think it’s easier on your body and your joints,” he says.
Grip a kettlebell with both hands and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees and bring the kettlebell back and between your legs while keeping your back straight and shoulders down. Once the kettlebell can’t go any farther, forcefully extend your hips to propel the kettlebell upward. Keep your arms straight throughout the movement. When the kettlebell reaches chest-height, pull it back down between your legs.
Another Coggins favorite is the classic squat jump, which targets the legs and glutes and gets your heart racing. “This one’s more of a leg workout, but if you really drive your arms up when you jump, you’ll get the upper body involved, too,” he says. Stand tall. Push your hips back and bend at the knees to lower into a squat. Once your thighs are parallel to the floor, push through the ground to explode upward, driving your arms overhead. Land softly and repeat.
ACE trainer Jonathan Ross likes to employ crawling, specifically crawl-arounds, which test your core, upper body and legs. Start in a high plank position. Using small, quick steps, walk your feet in and to the left side, so that both feet are now outside your left hand. Return to the starting position, then repeat the movement to your right side.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Burpees are rough, but you’ve got options. “Now that I have continuously made myself do [burpees] and get better at them, I don’t hate them as much,” says Summers. “Burpees, no matter the variation, are an incredible exercise. So, I’m over it, and I embrace them now.”