Ask a Trainer: Why Burpees Suck

The exercise that inspired it’s own T-shirt at VENT Fitness. Why this complex exercise is the one thing we all love to hate.

Recently during our Fall ReinVENT Challenge Team Event, Challenge participants were given the choice to have their Team Captain (Personal Trainer) perform either 40 reps of all of the exercises that made up the event (box jumps, sit-ups, push-ups, burpees and shuttle runs) or… 50 burpees. What do you think they chose?

What makes burpees so hard?

The answer I was given by Mike Finlay, Personal Training Manager at VENT Fitness Guilderland, “Burpees engage your entire body in a force movement that requires a total body cardio exercise that uses power movements.”

Image credit: Demand Media Studios

If that doesn’t make you want to hide, how about when you breakdown the exercise itself? Squat. Sprawl. Pushup (optional). Jump back up to the squat position. Execute a vertical jump. Repeat. What makes them hard? “Burpees engage your entire body,” adds Finlay. Think about that… how many other full-body exercises can you name?

Why am I out of breath after a set of burpees?

No exercise makes you wish for your own personal oxygen tank than a set of burpees. Why? Since burpees are a full-body exercise meaning that your entire body is being engaged, your brain is focused on giving commands to your hands to catch you, your arms to drop as your legs kick out, do a push-up, bring in those feet, okay now JUMP! The auto-pilot button is disengaged making you are responsible for breathing in and out.

For those of us who hold our breath while we work out, STOP! This is very bad habit that could lead to fainting or blacking out. A trainer will tell you that the best time to breathe is when your muscles are relaxed. The challenge with burpees is that the only time you feel relaxed is when the exercise is over! Your muscles are contracting at each of the five points of the workout: before you reach the ground, on the ground, the push up, the leg kick out and the jump up. Add that it takes about six seconds for the average person to perform a burpee, to complete a set of ten is one minute.

The best time to breathe is before every other position in the exercise. Breath in before you hit the ground, out when you land. Breathe in before pushing your arms, out when you have pushed them. Breath in when getting to your feet, out when you jump in the air. Land and start breathing in as your finish the set.

If you feel like your heart is going to jump out of your chest, that’s normal too. As Finlay points out, “Your heart rate elevates during burpees which improves your anaerobic threshold, strengthening your heart to beat slower so that you can work harder.” Hey, maybe that should be our new t-shirt, “Heartbeats by Burpee.”

Why do we do burpees?

From BOOTCAMP to BODY ATTACK, in our small-group NXT sessions or group exercise classes – you’ll hear “BURPEES” called out. Why? “We do them because they are difficult. They are one of the hardest exercises on the chart. I’d say they would be ahead of jump squats,” Finlay shared. There you have it, Burpees are the New England Patriots of the exercise world: you love to hate them and you feel like you’ve won the Super Bowl when your team beats them. (Sorry Pat’s fans but its true.)

We do Burpees because they are hard. They engage our entire body. And we sweat a ton! According to Harvard University, a 125-pound person can burn 240 calories in 30 minutes doing “vigorous calisthenics”, like burpees. At 155-pound person can burn almost 300 calories and up to 355 calories if you are at 185-pounds.

Burpees burn calories. For one minute of basic burpees done correctly (most people do between 10 and 20), you will burn an average of 10 calories. What does that mean?

Slice of pepperoni pizza (298 calories): 30 minutes of burpees
Cheeseburger (423 calories): 42 minutes and 20 seconds of burpees
Medium-sized McDonald’s french fries (380 calories): 38 minutes of burpees
Grilled cheese (580 calories): 58 minutes of burpees
Homemade chocolate chip cookie (89 calories): 9 minutes of burpees
Red velvet cupcake (496 calories): 50 minutes of burpees
Half a cup of vanilla ice cream (230 calories): 23 minutes of burpees
Half a bar of dark chocolate (300 calories): 30 minutes of burpees
5-ounce glass of red wine (115 calories): 11 minutes and 30 seconds of burpees
12-ounce bottle of beer (150 calories): 15 minutes of burpees
12-ounce can of Coca-Cola (143 calories): 14 minutes and 20 seconds of burpees

Maybe instead of hating burpees we should be hating on calories?

Written by: Michael Arce, VENT Fitness, Marketing Manager