The answer to whether burpees are bad for your back or knees depends entirely on the subject and whom you ask. If you ask someone that has no idea how to perform the movement safely then the answer will be “Yes, they’re bad!”, and if you ask someone who has had a bad experience with burpees then the answer will be “Yes, they’re bad!”.
But, if you ask someone that understands the movement, knows the points of safety, has done 500 in one session, then the answer will be “Burpees are safe when you program them right and progress properly”.
IMHO everyone should be doing burpees, the movement is functional for the majority of people at least once a week when they drop the remote under the couch, or are reading a book on their belly and need to get up quickly. But seriously, the movement involves so much and it’s a full-body exercise, great for cardio as they quickly get your heart pumping fast. There are more benefits you get from the exercise and there is some strength component depending on how you perform or program it, but that’s for another topic. First, let’s talk about some variations that are often confused and then talk about safety points.
Real original burpee
A real burpee is from standing into plank position and back up.
The CrossFit burpee includes a triceps push up and jump.
The burpee, CrossFit burpee (variation), and sprawl are quite often confused or mixed up due to their similarity or popularity. The burpee is from standing position into plank and back up, the CrossFit burpee adds a triceps push up and jump with hands above the head, and the sprawl is a burpee where the hips go to the ground, commonly used by fighters to stop takedowns.
Back to the CrossFit burpee. The way this variation of the burpee is performed also depends on how you program it, but in CrossFit it will usually be for high fast reps, meaning to perform it as fast and efficient as possible. Which is flopping down flat to the ground (preserve triceps and quadriceps), and rolling up (distribute effort between the back and triceps). All great for speed and cardio, if you want more from the strength component then you slow it down and perform it strict, which will work the triceps, core, and quadriceps much more.
How to stay safe with the burpee?
Because there are so many ways to perform a burpee, I will cover the main safety points and some options to meet those and I will intermix the normal burpee and CF burpee.
Pressure on the lower back and/or knees
You want to avoid pressure on the lower back (lumbar) and knees at all times. You create pressure on either of those areas when coming down into position and coming up, especially when the legs end up between the arms while posted on the ground.
The best way to avoid pressure in both areas is to lower the shoulders to the ground while at the same time kicking the legs out to the back. This means you’re totally disconnected and flopping down to the ground. When you land everything is already straight.
Coming back up is a similar concept, you explode up, hands come off the ground and you pull your legs under you. Although this is the best way to avoid pressure on the lumbar and knee joints, it’s a technique that is not sustainable over high reps due to the anaerobic qualities, i.e. you run out of breath quite quickly due to the explosiveness required.
The following is a great example of how not to do a burpee.
The subject posts her hands on the ground and then kicks the legs/knees in between her arms which creates unneeded stress in the lumbar and knee joints. The same happens with coming back up which is even more cause for concern as the action is followed by hip extension (coming up).
The second option and safer alternative is with the legs positioned outside of the arms which also provides a better base to jump from when performing the jump or CrossFit burpee.
If we look at what could be early demonstrations of the burpee (see photo below) then we can see that the knees are on the outside and the heels are lifted off the ground, all to reduce pressure. It should be noted that the burpee was not invented/named by Royal H. Burpee to be performed in high reps, hence, the burpee has since then progressed.
There is so much more that can be said about the burpee, but as a summary:
- Burpees are not bad when programmed and progressed appropriately
- Burpees are great for cardio
- Burpees are great for strength when programmed at the right pace and variation
- Burpees are great for the back or knees when performed correctly
- Burpees can be performed in high reps by conditioned people
- Burpees should be part of almost everyone’s program
A quick basic progression to the CrossFit burpee:
- burpee walkout
- burpee triceps push up
- burpee triceps push up and jump
- high reps
Want to know if your burpee technique is safe? Join our free Facebook group and post your video for a form check.
Some great Cavemantraining workouts with a variation of the burpee in it:
- CTCF100 Challenge
- Drax The Chipper
- Burpee deadlift
- WOD Jean Doe
- Kettlebell workout NOVA
- Kettlebell swing and burpees
And here’s what flurpees look like.