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Building Better Burpees

Is there one particular exercise that has gotten as popular as the burpee in the last decade? It has tormented most of us at one point or another in our lives. Maybe they were called squat thrusts when you were in physical education; for others, burpees. Some people would love to get into a heated debate upon the RIGHT name, but I think it isn't the biggest deal.

Burpees have gained such popularity because they were a minimal equipment and space exercise that could really fill the job of a lot of conditioning goals. Unfortunately, with their popularity came the misuse of burpees. So much so, that many coaches have questioned their value in real fitness coaching. Has the burpee become the exercise people use when they don't know what else to do?

A little history may help our disucssion. Royal H. Burpee invented the four step squat thrust test.

Burpee Dluginski says that the movement her grandfather invented has been known as a squat thrust, a four-count burpee, a front-leaning rest, and a military burpee over time. The original exercise was simple:

• Squat down and place both hands on teh floor infront of you.
• Jump feet back into plank position
• Jump feet forward
• Return to standing

To administer the fitness test, Burpee Dluginksi says that her grandfather took five different heart rate measurements before and after four burpees were performed and came up with an equation that accurately assessed the heart's efficiency at pumping blood—a good measure of overall fitness.

It may be nothing too new to you, but this from his granddaughter was pretty fascinating: "But Burpee never intended his movement to be performed in such high volumes." In fact, Burpee Dluginski says that her grandfather rewrote the foreword to the 1946 edition of his book to explain that he believed that the military's modification to his fitness test was strenuous and suitable only for those already in good cardiovascular health. According to Burpee Dluginski, her grandfather didn't like how burpees came to be used—he believed that high reps of the movement could be bad for knees or dangerous to the back, especially for anyone who lacked core strength.

In short, Burpee never intended his modest, four-count move to be used as a particularly hard-core way to get in shape.

I believe that the Burpee can be useful, but where so many have gone wrong is letting fatigue rather than the movement direct the training. What do I mean? The ability to squat down and place both hands on the floor by your feet is an incredible test of mobility. Being able to jump back and catching yourself in a strong plank is a wonderful measure of power, stability, and mobility. You see, there is much in the Burpee to like; unfortunately, when we don't place the movement ahead of the training we get poor performance of the exercise.

However, part of struggle is that many clients don't have the mobility, strength, stability, or power to do a Burpee well. So, it can be a great screening tool, but what do we do with the information? Today's Metabolic Stability is going to break down some great ways we can teach the concepts of the Burpee and watch our clients' overall fitness improve greatly!

TRX/Ultimate Sandbag Training Vaughn Plank

We know planking is great, but what our bodies learn by planking is even better. If we focus on creating specific tension in the lats, core, and glutes, if we learn to create force into the ground, we learn the valuable ideas of spinal stability. Yet, that can be challenging for many to teach, especially in larger group formats.

That is where this great drill developed by DVRT Master, Ian Vaughn, comes into play. We affectionately call it the Vaughn Plank. Using the TRX and Ultimate Sandbag together, we actually get two very different and important stimuli' to the movement. Using the TRX teaches the client that pressing DOWN into the ground creates some important body tension and stabilizes the shoulder blades. Pulling the Ultimate Sandbag apart ignites the lats and core to properly brace. Best of all, we can scale this exercise in very simple ways by manipulating leverage.

Body Saw Press Up

Once we build that plank to a high level and know how to create tension (which is related to strength and stability) we can add a layer of strength and stability by using the Valslide Body Saw Press Up. This great drill teaches us how to keep tension in the right parts of the body, the feet and lats, while we add leverage to our plank. Using these segments of the body correctly, we learn how to make proper transitions in movement and challenge whole body strength in all new ways.

Kettlebell Thruster

The Burpee is just as much about a demonstration of good core strength/stability as it is in building it. That is why sometimes we can use other movements to build the qualities the Burpee demands. The kettlebell thruster is a great example. One of the major reasons that people have poor hip mobility in the Burpee is that they do not create proper core tension. Holding the kettlebells in the rack position teaches similar concepts, but builds the core strength needed in the Burpee.

The more subtle benefits are using this core tension while we are squatting. This is very similar to what people need not only as they squat down in the Burpee, but as they jump their legs in and out as well. The pressing overhead portion of the kettlebell thruster also teaches how to continue to create force into the ground and stabilize the weight overhead by bracing properly through the core. This gives both core and shoulder stability at the same time.

Ultimate Sandbag Clean, Lunge, Press

Progressing movement can also mean using another implement to create a different response. Using the Ultimate Sandbag, due to its instability, challenges not just our strength and stability, but movement accuracy as well. The Clean of the Ultimate Sandbag brings in a power component to our progressions similar to kicking one's legs in and out of the Burpee. If you have flaws in your movement they will be exposed then!

The lunge with the Ultimate Sandbag upon the fists keeps us bracing our core so that our hips can move more freely and optimizing the concept of "proximal stability creates distal mobility". Driving UP from the lunge additionally gives us hip extension power, and the instability of the Ultimate Sandbag requires proper reaction and reflexive strength of the trunk. Not to mention, this drives up the heart rate like few other exercises.


Using these progressions will not only allow people to perform Burpees better, but help clients who are not ready to do so to build the inherent qualities needed for more complex movements. The goal of the coach should be to provide the proper exercise and tools to help learn how to create better movement.

Josh Henkin, CSCS, is the creator of the DVRT system and Ultimate Sandbag. Coach Henkin has taught his program to elite military, university programs, and top fitness facilities in over 13 countries worldwide. You can find out more about DVRT education HERE.