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Fitness Wisdom: The Burpee

By BethesdaNow.com Sponsor

Thursday - 6/5/2014, 1:05pm  ET

Fitness Wisdom

Editor’s Note: This column is sponsored by FitnessWise (4801-B Montgomery Lane). Visit their Facebook page for more.

With the rise of P90X, Insanity, Crossfit and a slew of other workout routines that involve bodyweight movements, everyone is talking about Burpees. So how do you do them? What’s the benefit? Who would want to do them? And who the heck is Royal H. Burpee anyway?

Well, as history has it, Royal H. Burpee was an Applied Physiology doctoral student at Columbia Teacher’s College in 1939. In his thesis, he devised an exercise to quickly test the fitness level of the average person walking into the gym (he was also the executive director at a YMCA in New York).

The original movement in the assessment involved starting from a standing position, squatting down, placing your hands on the ground, shifting your weight to your hands while jumping your feet back to a plank position (top of a push-up), then jumping your feet forward again between your hands and standing up. In the assessment, the person’s heart rate was measured before and after doing four Burpees.

The Burpee in action, via Popular ScienceShortly after his thesis, Royal’s assessment was adopted by the U.S. Military as a way to test a soldier’s readiness as we were entering World War II. In a “Popular Science” article written in 1944 titled, “Can We Make Our Soldiers Tough Enough”, the Burpee is explained in detail.  According to the article, “the Army doesn’t consider [a soldier] fit for war until he can do it 40 or 50 times, in easy rhythm, without pausing for rest.”

So you would think that Royal H. Burpee would be a rockstar of exercise lore.  If he were alive today, his exercise DVD sales would rival Shaun T., Tony Horton, and Richard Simmons combined.

Or at least he would have a patent on the exercise named after him and his grandchildren would be collecting royalties. But that is not the case, mainly because it is very hard to patent a functional human movement. It would be like patenting walking.  And therein lies the power of the Burpee.

It is a universal, functional movement that most people can do at some level.

It is basically lifting your body from a horizontal position to a standing position. We all had to do it at some point in our lives (usually very early in our lives) to be able to stand up and walk. On the other end of the life spectrum, one of the main physical abilities that people lose as they age is the ability to get down to the floor and then get back up (remember the commercials, “I’ve fallen. . . and I can’t get up!”).

So being able to do Burpees becomes important as we age. Some of the more challenging versions of the exercise have no match in terms of overall cardiovascular conditioning and total body physical capacity. And from a psychological perspective, being able to “get up” and keep going when you’re tired is a triumphant thing.

Today, there are dozens of variations of Burpees. Here are a couple options (with video demonstration links):

The Slow Burpee

These are great as a mobility exercise or as part of a warm up. They are also a safer version if you have weakness in your core or are not ready for the full Burpee yet.

The Modern Burpee

This is Royal H. Burpee’s version with two additions, the push-up at the bottom and the jump at the top.

The Lateral Jump Burpee

This kicks things up a notch by adding movement in another plane.  A lot of exercise that we do is in one plane (front to back).  So moving sideways will challenge different muscles and improve your stability.  And you don’t have to jump to get some benefit from moving sideways; you can simply step over whatever object you decide to use.

The 1-Legged Burpee

This one will really challenge your balance and stability.

So incorporate Burpees into your fitness routine to improve your functional capacity, total body strength and power, plus your cardiovascular fitness. You can mix them in in many ways. Here are some suggestions:

- A few slow burpees as part of a warm-up

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