- Chen Xiaomei/South China Morning Post via Getty Images
- The burpee was invented by the exercise physiologist Royal Burpee in the late 1930s while he was getting his Ph.D. at Columbia University.
- Burpee created his multipart move as physical fitness test.
- His granddaughter said he “would be rolling over in his grave if he saw the way it’s being done in a lot of places” today.
- Burpees are a great exercise when done correctly. Planks and jump squats are also good alternatives.
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Royal Burpee was a man who prized efficiency.
“He was not warm and fuzzy, but he was kind,” Burpee’s granddaughter, Sheryl Burpee Dluginski, told Business Insider. “Everything was about doing things the right way and working hard. He was very disciplined.”
Burpee, or “Goog” as Dluginski knew him as a child, was an exercise physiologist, avid camper, and bodybuilder who worked at the YMCA in New York. While conducting research for his Ph.D. at Columbia University in the 1930s, he wanted to find an efficient way to determine people’s physical fitness.
So he created his namesake move, the “burpee.”
Little did Burpee know at the time, his rapid-fire test would become a timeless global phenomenon.
Today, on what would be his 122nd birthday, people are still practicing it around the globe – though not always in the way he originally intended.
How to do a burpee
Here is Burpee’s official, original test, as it appeared in his book “Seven Tests of Physical Capacity”:
I want you to do a little exercise to get your heart working, so please do exactly as I say. Bend your knees, and place your hands flat on the floor in front of you. (Subject performs movement)
Jump your legs straight out to the rear, and leave them there. (Subject performs movement)
Jump your legs back. (Subject performs movement)
Stand up. (Subject performs movement)
You’ll notice that the original burpee fitness test didn’t include a jump up at the end, which is often part of workouts today. Instead, people simply completed the squat-plank-stand sequence as quickly as possible. Burpee’s test asked participants to do the move just four times in order to assess their physical ability.
The Burpee was created as a fitness test, not a workout
For his research in the 1930s, Burpee administered his test to score men and boys at the YMCA from “excellent condition” to “good” and “not good” using their pulse rates, ability to perform the exercise, quickness, and breathlessness afterward.
His granddaughter shares his interest in fitness – Dluginski works as personal trainer.
“Goog would be rolling over in his grave if he saw the way [the burpee] is being done in a lot of places,” she said. “I think he would be cringing and very unhappy to see trainers asking unfit clients to do 10 burpees in a row just to get their heart rate up, even if they don’t have the core strength and the mobility to do it properly.”
Other trainers have similar perspectives about burpees.
“Most people don’t have adequate mobility to get into a deep squat, so they’re going to flex their back,” the celebrity trainer Eric Johnson, who routinely trains stars like Scarlett Johansson, told INSIDER.
In his test, Burpee allowed for “minor variations in form” from participants but made sure a person’s legs were fully extended and their back straight when down in the plank. Burpee-doers should also be in a “deep knee bend” at the end of the first movement, he said, not leaning forward into a resting position.
For these reasons, Dluginski said the burpee should really be considered “an exercise for people who are already physically fit.”
“It’s really hard on the knees. It’s really hard on the back. And unless you have good core strength and good fitness to start out with, you’re not going to be able to do it correctly. That’s exactly why it makes such a good fitness assessment test, which is what it really is,” she added.
But because the burpee is a combo move, Dluginski said, all of its components are good to try on their own. You could first master the plank, maintaining a strong core, straight back, and stable shoulder girdle (without winging the shoulder blades out to the side). Then, eventually – if you have enough mobility and range of motion in your knees to jump from plank to squat – you could begin jumping in and out of that plank.
There are, of course, other perfectly suitable and safe ways to get your heart rate soaring besides burpees. Fitness experts often recommend using a punching bag or jump rope, or performing jump squats – tasks that don’t require the same fitness level as a burpee.
When done properly, however, burpees can be a great way to build strength and get your workout done in a hurry.
“You can’t beat the classic burp,” the trainer and exercise physiologist Tony Maloney from the National Institute for Fitness and Sport, previously told Business Insider. “As long as it includes a push-up and full extension in the hips at the top jump of the move.”
In the 1946 edition of his book, “Seven Quickly Administered Tests of Physical Capacity,” Burpee described a WWII military-level version of his test, in which burpee-doers would be asked to complete the move as many times as possible in 20 seconds and then in one minute.
But he said that test is only “suitable for men who have had a previous medical examination and are known to be free from cardiovascular disturbance.”
It’s a good reminder that burpees are no joke, even eight decades after the fitness test was invented.