Updated September 17, 2023
Burpees – the dreaded and infamous bodyweight movement all CrossFit athletes despise. However, despite this aversion, burpees are arguably one of the most crucial exercises for building cardio, strength, and muscular endurance. When unable to attend the gym or complete a workout of the day, air squats, push-ups, sit-ups, and even running are viable options. However, the effectiveness of burpees is indisputable, which incorporates all five movements in one exercise, thus improving lifting and metcon performance. The sheer efficiency of burpees highlights why they are disliked, as they can bring about pain and exhaustion.
To make burpees less of an arduous mental task and more efficient in their movement mechanics, let’s take a closer look at how to perform burpees correctly.
Here’s what I’ve got for you today…
5 Steps to More Efficient (Better) Burpees
1.) Push-up, not flop down
What is a burpee supposed to be? Simple, it’s a push-up to plank to jumping air squat, then do it all over again.
What do we usually make it? Something akin to a fish out of water, slowly flopping around on the ground, gasping for water as it ponders its short existence right before dying. At least, that’s what’s going through my head when I do burpees. And that’s what I look like more often than not.
One thing to remember about being efficient with the burpee is to keep a tight core. The best way is to maintain the push-up motion as you come down to the ground. As the feet are kicked back, you should be tight in the core and pushing off the ground as if you are doing a push-up (I know, I know, this is going to get old fast. Maybe around burpee 34…you know, but not quite to 35. I dunno…that number always sucks for me. Watch, next time you enter burpee hell, see how you feel at the 34 mark).
2.) Plank, not knee-crawl-step-up
Now you’re pushing off the ground, where do you go from there? Into a hollow body plank position. This will set your hips (think booty people!) in the right place to create torque (force), which will carry you through the rest of the motion and on into the glorious air. What you want to do is lead with your butt/hips (I like saying butt) and not your knees! Most of us think about bringing our knees up to our chest and then standing up. Don’t do this. Lead with the butt through the plank position; your feet will naturally follow suit.
As your feet come up, bring them right behind your wrists. Most people do that sort of push-up to the knee crawl position, then bring one foot up so you’re now on a knee, and finally push off of the other knee until you’re in the standing position. That was exhausting to write here and, I’m sure, exhausting to read. Now, think about how exhausting it is to do over and over and over again in burpee heaven. Don’t do this. You are expending precious energy. Use the torque from the hip drive to bring your feet up naturally ’til they are flat on the ground, right behind your wrists. As Carl Paoli, Gymnast extraordinaire and San Francisco CrossFit coach reminds us, “It’s your hips that drive you up and down. You never pull your legs in. It’s the hips that drive you into that good foot placement.” Remember, the knees don’t drive the movement. The power and thrust of the movement come from the hip drive. So concentrate your efforts there. Don’t think about tucking those knees to your chest; instead, think about sending that butt straight into the sky to say, “hi”!
3.) Toes forward
With those feet flat on the ground right behind the wrists you are now in the perfect position to do your jumping air squat. But wait a minute…let me take a #selfie! That’s right… take a look at yourself. Where are your feet, and more importantly, your toes pointing? If they are not pointing straight ahead (well, with a natural turn out to it) then you will not be able to create further torque for the final movement of the burpee, the jumping air squat. How do you know if your toe is correctly pointing forward (because of course we do not want to over compensate with our toe position and actually become pigeon-toed in our stance)? Again, Coach Paoli is helpful here: “What I like to do is this… I take a line [say a mat seam on the floor]… I put the mid-part of my heel on it and I put my big toe on it.” This way you have an approximation of “toes straight forward” with a little natural turn out to it.
Why is your toe position important? Well, if you haven’t guessed yet, torque is the name of the game when it comes to efficient burpee movement. Your toe forward position will cause your knees to go out (rather than buckle in, which is a big no-no), which in turn will create force to fuel a more efficient movement throughout your burpees.
And while we’re here covering toe position, we can say a word about foot position. Your stance (and some will argue with me on this) doesn’t matter so much, as long as the toes are pointing forward. You can have a narrow, a squat, or a wide stance for burpees. For myself, I go about squat stance, lining up my feet fairly close to the width of my hand placement.
4.) The jump
Yes. The jump. It can be so tiny (if there’s no standard distance), or so huge (or seemingly so if you’re in the middle of burpee 7min amrap hell)… no matter what it is, it’s always going to suck. As you jump in the air you need to raise your arms above your head and clap. Sounds easy, right? Well, let’s think about it. If we raise our hands over our heads with our arms slightly bent forward, then we will come up and into a nice pike position in the air. This in turn will transfer (there’s that word, again!) to us being in a ready and proper position to come back down to that plank/push-up position on the ground. It’s almost as if we are prepping our bodies to recognize the next movement in the motion…and yes, that’s exactly what we do. Sure, it looks cool to do the short hop and clap behind the neck you see some people doing… different is always cool (well, sort of, sometimes). But it isn’t efficient. Think about the shoulder placement in relation to the next stage of the movement (coming back down to plank/push-up). Are you more prepared with the arms slightly forward and ahead of you, or back and behind your neck? Well, you tell me around, let’s say… burpee number 34.
5.) Pace, Pace, Pace!
Finally, burpees are really about picking the proper pace. There is no other movement that will gas you out faster than a burpee. If you go slamming out of the gate and start racing through reps, you will look cool…for about 15 reps. But after rep 15 things may start to slow for you. It might not be a noticeable slowing, but you’ll feel it. You’ll feel it as you find yourself rolling down and onto and then off of the ground. That very pretty and efficient plank position will be gone, and soon after everything else will break down. Burpees are more about pacing…that doesn’t mean you can’t go fast. It just means that if you do, you better be able to keep that pace.
So what can you do? Well, you can start off by doing 30 burpees daily after every WOD (after a short break, of course). Keep an eye on the clock, push yourself, and build up your stamina. In the very beginning pay very close attention to that pike position, hip drive, toe placement, and arm/shoulder positioning in the jump. As you begin to feel that natural torque (no, not twerk for some of you out there!), let the rhythm take over and drive your body. The endurance will come, and fast. Record your time daily… try to beat it daily… and watch as you improve exponentially.
At the end of the day, an efficient burpee will save you the embarrassment of looking like a floundering fish out of water, or worse yet, one of those weird flying fish wiggling in the air as you do your jump portion of the burpee. Just remember to maintain that hollow body position and to drive with your hips. Soon you’ll come to see that, yes… burpees will always suck. But… at least now they suck a tad bit less.
Well, let’s go flounder…