The burpee. The much maligned, often neglected burpee. No matter what fitness regime you subscribe to you’re probably familiar with them. In most cases, burpees are one of the first movements you tackle when starting CrossFit. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s relatively “easy” compared to movements like a snatch or a muscle up. If fitness were a university, this would be CrossFit 101.
And what better movement to introduce people to CrossFit than the burpee? To me, burpees are the perfect metaphor for what CrossFit is — deceivingly hard! All you have to do is lay down and get back up. Sure, the same way Fran is just a couple sets of thrusters and pull ups. You get where I’m going with this. Simply put, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to burpees. (Hmm, maybe Optimus Prime would’ve been a better metaphor for CrossFit.)
How to do Burpees
Building Good Habits
Most people look at burpees as a one dimensional movement used to make any workout they’re inserted into that much more miserable. Think about any non-burpee workout you’ve ever done. Now insert burpees — instantly worse. But aside from being a simple yet effective cardiovascular blaster, there’s another purpose burpees serve that most people overlook. Namely using them as a tool to build good muscle memory and movement patterns.
Rather than just throwing yourself on the floor like a child throwing a temper tantrum at Toys “R” Us, we can use a dynamic movement like the burpee to help develop better pressing and squatting positions through our hand and foot placement. This is where one of the hallmarks of CrossFit comes into play — virtuosity — doing the common uncommonly well. Do every movement, burpees included, with an intent or purpose.
Hand And Shoulder Position
Hand positioning in the burpee is relatively easy to grasp once you stop looking at it solely as a fitness torture device rather than a legitimate movement. What I’m talking about is the alignment and relationship between the wrist, elbow and shoulder.
Any trainer worth his or her weight in salt makes this abundantly clear during movements like bench press and push ups, but the burpee is often overlooked. Whether you’re benching or doing burpees we want to use both as an opportunity to develop similar movement patterns. This way, as my max bench press goes up, so does my max number of push ups and vice versa. By developing similar movement patterns our body can more easily transfer the power gained in one movement and apply it to another. This is how we build strength across multiple movements without necessarily doing those movements.
More specifically, when talking about the wrist and elbow, we want to see the elbow stacked up directly over the wrist. This “bone-over-bone” position is the safest and strongest position to press from. Hand position becomes important, especially when doing variations such as a wide-grip bench or close-grip push, to make sure that proper alignment is maintained.
Asking someone to maintain proper position during a more controlled movement like a bench press or push up is relatively easy compared to a more dynamic movement like a burpee where you’re essentially jumping into the proper position. Yet, both are important for developing sound muscle memory and strength when pressing in the horizontal plane.
Lastly, when it comes to shoulder positioning we want to avoid any unnecessary movement, especially under load, of the shoulder capsule. We like to say keep your shoulders back and stacked. This problem, more often than not, rears its head during push ups where athletes almost reach toward the floor with their shoulders (internally rotate) for the sake of completing the rep.
For the sake of brevity (I mean, how long can one person honestly talk about burpees), I’ll say this when it comes to foot positioning during a burpee: Basically all the points I mentioned regarding your hand position ring true for your foot position as well, the most important takeaway being that we can use burpees to further develop better squatting mechanics and movement patterns.
Essentially, our foot position should remain identical no matter what squat we are preforming. We shouldn’t have a different stance based on whether we’re doing a back squat, front squat, or catching a clean. If you do, you won’t be nearly as powerful using different squat stances as you could be with one unified stance.
Without belaboring the point, during the pop-up portion of the burpee, we want our foot/leg position to mimic that of our squat position. If you wouldn’t squat 400 pounds on your toes with your knees tracking forward then why would you jump up from a burpee in that position?
I think this lends itself to a bigger question in CrossFit and movement in general: Why is it that when we reach the point of failure we are so willing to let gymnastics movements fall apart but not barbell movements? People are willing to contort their bodies for the sake of one extra rep during a bodyweight movement but understand the necessity of proper mechanics when moving a load. Both require an attention to detail and both should be done with an unyielding commitment to sound mechanics.
Don’t Stop Moving — EVER!
I guess you can really say this about every movement in CrossFit, but moving slowly is always a better option than not moving at all. You can really only do burpees so fast. So the time difference between someone doing “fast” burpees verses someone doing “slow” burpees, in reality, isn’t all that different. Like Dory said, just keep swimming.
The Skip Step Up
Not jumping up with two feet off the ground used to almost be considered a taboo in CrossFit — it meant you weren’t working hard enough. Nowadays, you’ll see even a lot of elite level athletes skip their front foot forward before meeting it with their other foot. The benefit of this is it allows you to be able to keep your heart rate down and, most importantly, keeps you moving albeit slightly slower.
Don’t Double Squat
Work smarter, not harder, meaning don’t do any unnecessary work. Rather than initiating the burpee by squatting down to the ground, you would be better served by hinging at the hips, placing your hands on the ground and shooting your legs back, thus eliminating that extra squat all together. FYI: Squatting is tiring. Not just from a muscular standpoint but squatting also condenses your abdomen making it harder to breathe. And the last thing you need is to make it harder to breathe during burpees!