The Beauty of Burpees
By Nick Barringer
When it comes to calisthenics, there may not be an exercise both more loved and loathed than the burpee. But what some might not know is the burpee has a rich military history and based on some recent research, the burpee may very well be the military’s “new” fitness secret weapon…
A Brief History
Royal Huddleston Burpee, a Navy veteran of World War I, was an exercise physiologist who received his doctorate in applied physiology from Columbia University. His thesis, published in 1941, titled Seven Quickly Administered Tests of Physical Capacity is where the burpee was born. The burpee was originally a four count exercise of simply dropping to a front leaning rest position from standing and returning to the standing position. This is in contrast to the six count with a push-up at the bottom that most burpee aficionados do today. The burpee was such an effective exercise (for those of who may have read my earlier writing might remember) that it was used in the 1946 Army Physical Fitness test, except called the “squat thrust”. Which brings me to modern times…
Dr. Nicholas Gist, Director of the Department of Physical Education at West Point, recently put the old burpee to the test in a brilliant and simple study involving Army ROTC cadets. The study involved 26 (17 men, 9 women) cadets who were matched by Vo2 max and randomly assigned to either the high intensity group (HIT/burpee group) or the Typical PT group (TPT). Both groups completed baseline assessments for fitness to include an Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) followed by training 3 days a week for 4 weeks before retesting.
The training for the TPT group consisted of a moderate 3.5 mile run on Monday, a self-paced foot march for 3.1 miles under a load of 35lbs on Wednesday, and a 3.75 mile run at a moderate intensity followed by a mix of push-ups and sit-ups of Friday with each session lasting approximately 60 minutes. Sounds pretty typical. Nothing too interesting yet, until you look at the burpee group. The burpee group, after warming up, completed 30 seconds of “all out” burpees followed by 4 minutes of active recovery (participants walked at a self-selected pace). The burpee group did 4 sets of this protocol for week 1, 5 sets for week 2, 6 sets for week 3, and 7 sets for the fourth and final week.
The authors found no significant difference in push-up reps, sit-up reps, 2-mile run time, and total APFT points between the burpee and the typical PT group. At first glance, this might cause a knee-jerk “so what?” from someone who does not see the efficient exercise beauty that is right in front of their eyes. But when you consider that the burpee group only completed 33 total minutes of strenuous exercise for the entire 4 weeks with zero programmed running, yet their run time was not significantly slower than the group running over 7 miles per week, the results look pretty amazing. The results are even more amazing when you look at the efficiency of training time as the burpee group included a 5 minute warm-up only trained 69 minutes total in week 1 and the most of 109.5 minutes in week 4 versus the 180 minutes of the TPT group.
Bringing Burpees Back
So imagine if for you job, I told you I could get you the same results in productivity but with 40-60% less of your time required, I think you would take that deal. Burpees are a lower risk exercise in terms of injury compared to running as a recent analysis of 10,692 Service Members across all services (except Coast Guard) revealed running/jogging is responsible for the greatest number of injuries with 45.1% of all injuries attributed to it. Burpees also allow the PT leader greater control of exercise intensity because, unlike running, you do not need ability groups. Something else to consider is the participants in the study were in above average running condition with the burpee group having an average 2-mile run time of 14 min 25 sec, which might explain why the burpees did not improve their run time since they had already achieved a decent level of specific conditioning. However if you had a less conditioned population of trainees (in need of some General Physical Preparedness), it would be my hypothesis that Dr. Gist’s protocol might actually improve their run time. Now I’m not saying to quit running altogether but rather offering the concept of high intensity calisthenics as an effective supplement and alternative to another day of mindlessly pounding the pavement.
The Burpee Protocol
Now that you know the benefits of burpees, for the next 4 weeks give Dr. Gist’s protocol a try.
Start with a baseline APFT of 2 minutes of push-ups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and a 2-mile run.
Give yourself a 2 day break before starting the burpee protocol.
Week 1: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after warming-up for 5 minutes do as many burpees as you can for 30 seconds followed by 4 minutes of active recovery (walking), repeat 3 more times for 4 total sets.
Week 2: Add a 5th set to each session.
Week 3: Add a 6th set of burpees to each session.
Week 4: Add a 7th set of burpees to each session.
Give yourself another 2 day break after the last burpee session and repeat the APFT.
Post your results in the comment session and let us know how you did.
Now go make Mr. RH Burpee proud!