Photos by Ryan Murphy

Bodybuilding or backbreaking

After recovering from a painful back injury, Claudia Markowicz thought she was ready to get back into the gym.

“I went to an exercise class where the instructor had us do over 100 burpees throughout the hour,” said the 32-year-old from Lewis Center. “I ended up hurting my back again and barely able to walk the next day.”

If you’ve taken a group exercise class or boot camp you’ve probably seen or done a burpee.

The move combines a vertical jump, squat, pushup and a plank performed in one fluid motion, and often for multiple repetitions. Burpees have become increasingly popular in gyms, training sessions and classes, at times even used as a form of punishment by some instructors. Given its level of difficulty, the burpee is often performed incorrectly, and as Markowicz experienced, can even result in injury.

”Burpees are an advanced, full-body movement that requires strength, coordination and endurance,” explained Jack Mougin, president of Good Bodies Personal Fitness and Wellness. “Specifically, users must have adequate core and shoulder-girdle strength, as well as good hip mobility.”

Burpees place a lot of stress on the joints, specifically the knees and hips. The lower back is also at risk for injury if the person performing the exercise does not have adequate core strength. Doing multiple burpees at a time increases this risk, because as people get tired they are likely to get sloppy.

“Form can never suffer for the sake of more reps,” Mougin said.

The burpee was not originally intended to be performed in large numbers as we often see today. The creator, Royal H. Burpee, used them in sets of four to asses a person’s overall fitness. The move was then adopted as a test for members of the military. Troops were instructed to do as many as they could in one minute. The modern version is also more difficult than the original burpee, which did not include the pushup or the vertical jump at the beginning and end. 

To protect yourself from injury, Mougin stressed the importance of progressing slowly and working at your own pace.

“The risk of injury from burpees is no greater or less than any other exercise if taught correctly and progressively.”

Before attempting them, Mougin said that participants should first undergo an ability assessment, be taught the proper form and progress at their own rate.

It is a good idea to modify the burpee if you are not able to get your hips lower than your shoulders in the squat position, and/or you are unable to hold a plank without arching your lower back and letting your hips sag toward the floor.

The traditional burpee can be made safer by elevating the hands onto a bench or platform or lowering the impact of the movement by simply stepping the feet into and out of the plank position instead of jumping.

It’s important to remember that you should never perform an exercise you are not comfortable with or one that causes pain, even in a group class. A good instructor will always be able to provide modifications or alternate exercise options.