Burpees — the one year review

December 21, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Fitness

[This post is part of a series on my daily exercise and starting and keeping challenging habits. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Today, December 21, 2012, marks the 365th day of my exercise regiment of daily burpees. They began with me talking to a friend about exercise, then deciding to do ten a day for thirty days, then expanded to a consistent long-term daily routine.

I now do two sets of twenty per day — one just after getting up and one just before going to bed — and four stretches before the morning set. Do I claim doing only burpees is the best exercise I could? No. But you’ll be hard pressed to find an exercise with such great characteristics:

  • No equipment needed
  • No gym needed
  • No other people needed
  • Simple
  • Free
  • Negligible risk of injury
  • Can be done in any weather at any time
  • Builds heart and lungs
  • Works several major muscle groups

Besides, I don’t only do burpees. I also stretch. This year I played ultimate frisbee twice a week for a few months. I run when the weather inspires me. I row sometimes. And I do random other things, like walking a few miles sometimes or walking up stairs to nineteenth floor offices. Even if I did only do burpees, the New York Times reported on a fitness expert suggesting burpees as the best single exercise.

What’s a burpee?

My burpees

burpee form animation

Here’s what my burpees look like, which means with a push-up in the middle and a jump at the end.My style of burpees My style of burpees

Easier burpees

If you want to do some and haven’t done them before you can start with ones without the push-ups or jumping. Or you can do push-ups with your knees on the ground. Easier burpees Easier burpees You know, I shouldn’t call them easier burpees. One burpee without push-ups or jumping may be easier than one with them, but you can always just do more of them to make a work out burn as many calories.

I think the ones I do work more muscle groups — in particular the push-ups doing something with your arms and chest. Still, if anything gives out first, my legs do in the jump when I have a high target to reach for when I jump.

Daily routine

They have become one of my core daily routine elements, like brushing my teeth. I plan to do them until my body gives out doing them.

Things you do daily help define you. What does this one say about me? Most of all, it says I value health, physical activity, and consistency. Since I check in on doing it with my friend it says I value my friendship with him, friendship in general, and accountability. I value convenience and not making excuses.

Ten burpees will get most people winded. I did sixteen in a minute the first I timed myself in January so I presume my total burpee exercise started at under one minute per day, rising to maybe three minutes per day now.

Emotions

These are the emotions my routine starts and finishes my day with. Can you think of anything better? Other exercises and routines may do better, but the ease of doing these and garnering the following emotions every day makes them attractive.

Doing them at all makes me feel friendly and healthy.

Having started the program and continuing it makes me feel responsible.

The physical effort makes me feel accomplished and exhausted.

Feeling healthy makes me not crave unhealthy food, which makes me feel free. Being able to eat and drink whatever I want, knowing my health is covered, makes me feel more free.

Sharing the exercises with others is fun.

Sharing them publicly makes me feel accountable.

Successfully maintaining the program makes me feel accomplished and capable to do other projects, especially challenging long-term ones.

Knowing no matter what my mood, stretching and burpees will improve it makes me feel resilient, calm, and stable.

Not needing equipment, weather, or a gym makes me feel independent.

Not accepting excuses makes me feel capable and optimistic. Learning not to come up with excuses makes me feel confident.

I can’t think of punishing or painful emotions or feelings burpees bring me. Before I do them I often feel like I don’t want to do them — maybe feelings of futility and laziness — but once I do the first one I always finish the set, which creates many of the above emotions and overrides the punishing and painful ones.

Application to the rest of life

I can’t tell you how much it helps to know intellectually that I have something so simple and mechanical that can overcome and override punishing and painful feelings. If I feel lethargic or in some way bad, I can do my burpees and I feel revitalized. I long ago realized I could manage my emotions in general and knew exercise helped, but until burpees didn’t have something so accessible and effective — more so, even, than running or walking.

This mechanical way to manage your emotions with merely modest willpower applies to all areas of life. Once you know you can do it for some emotions, you know you can do it with all emotions.

When I had some multiple-month gut-wrenching challenges earlier this year I made sure not to give up the burpees. I knew that the routine would keep me resilient, calm, and stable, and it did.

Consistency

I haven’t missed a burpee this year. I don’t expect to miss any more. If you communicate with me, feel free to ask how my burpees went that morning, because I will have done them.

I’ve done them alone, with people, in public, indoors, outdoors, drunk, sober, hungry, full, early, late, happy, frustrated, and every way you can imagine feeling and being every day for a year. I’ve done them in New York City, Hollywood, North Korea, South Korea, China, Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines.

I haven’t done them sick. This year hasn’t seen even had a headache to stop me. Are the burpees contributing to my health? I imagine so. Lack of exercise would probably make me unhealthy so, as most of my exercise, I think they must. I’ve fallen asleep before doing burpees, then woken back up (there tends to be alcohol involved with falling asleep first, which also leads to waking up to have to go to the bathroom) and done my evening set at 4am. I don’t ask myself if I want to do them or think about how maybe I can skip this one set or something like that. I just do my burpees. The mental effort I save not dwelling of if I should do them or not actually feels greater than the calories I burn doing them.

Benefits of consistency

By making them a routine, I’ve taken choice out of the equation, so I just do them. My friend’s advice

If you miss one day you can miss two. If you miss two it’s all over.

has kept me consistent. My success with burpees has led me to apply that principle to many places — notably stretching and finally starting to floss daily without exception. Now I can’t imagine going to sleep without flossing — I’ve become too accustomed to clean teeth to skip.

I wouldn’t have expected to learn how much such a solid routine of something so challenging helps. I don’t pretend twenty burpees is anything grueling, but they’re serious exercise. Ten will get you winded.

Since your mind and body make excuses to avoid doing them, you learn just to do things. You don’t necessarily ignore those excuses. You just don’t succumb to them. You don’t need willpower. You develop the mental skills to do what you consciously want over the inevitable and incessant objections and distractions of your lazier parts. Anyone knows the value of that.

Progress

I started with ten a day, any time. My friend and I increased the number a few times in the first thirty days as well as one doubling when we added an extra set per day.

In the eleven months since I increased a burpee per set every now and then. I also added stretches. By November 3 I had been doing sixteen every morning and fifteen every evening with four stretches before the morning set for a few months. Periodically I would do more if I ate or drank more empty calories than usual.

On November 4th I took my dad out for his birthday and had a rich, cheesy meal. That night I did twenty burpees and then continued to do two sets of twenty burpees a day from then on, my biggest jump — from 31 to 40 per day — since doubling last January.

I expect to stay at two sets of twenty per day for a long time. I might increase if I feel like it, but this number works well for me.

Numbers

I’ve done about nine to ten thousand burpees this year. If I remember right, that roughly follows a year of 500,000 meters on the rowing machine. This year I believe I have a guaranteed entry to the New York City Marathon, so I’ll have a few years of consistent exercise.

I don’t try to persuade anyone, but people around me do burpees with me — from my mother and stepfather, approaching 70 years old, to my nieces and nephews, down to five years old. Friends have done them too.

I think I’ll do a hundred burpee day soon (EDIT: done!). They keep me warm in these cold, unheated Shanghai buildings. If I like it I’ll do more hundred burpee days. One year down. A few dozen years to go.

Learn to make Meaningful Connections

with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.

Including

  • Step by step instructions
  • Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
  • An excerpt from my book

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13 responses on “Burpees — the one year review

  1. You mentioned a lot of benefits of doing burpees, but you didn’t say a word about how your body changed. Have you experienced any visible improvement such as more muscle mass, or less fat? Are your muscles toned? Is your chest bigger..?

    I’d love to hear more details…

    • Good question.

      There’s a picture of me here — http://joshuaspodek.com/boracay-2 — on a boat in a bathing suit. Burpees give fitness, not bulk. If I wanted bulk I’d lift too. I think of them not as exercise, but a basic part of regular living. I was probably doing two sets of about fifteen burpees a day then and nothing else… maybe playing a couple games of ultimate a week, but inconsistently. I’ve never been able to put on much muscle, even when I lifted weights regularly in my 20s, but I always put on fat in a spare tire pattern within a few days if I don’t exercise, so the lack of fat I attribute to burpees.

      Note burpees don’t help with back and biceps, as you can see in my lack of biceps. When I have access to my rowing machine it builds up my lats, biceps, and shoulders. I could probably get the same from doing pull-ups.

      Now that I’m doing two sets of twenty-five burpees daily I’m seeing some pec development and my stomach has less fat than ever.

      • I see. My main goal is to lose fat.
        I went from 117 kg to 105 kg by only restricting carbohodrates, until my weight loss stalled.
        At this point, I began lifting weights and after 5 months I had only lost 4 kg more.
        However, I got notoriously stronger in my upper body (chest, shoulders, back…).

        But I really got to a point where I can’t lose more weight nor gain more muscle, since doing both things at the same time is extremely hard.

        My ideal weight would be 85 kg. I’m a little bit tired of my gym routine, so I was considering following a bodyweight only routine from now on, being burpees the main excersise.

        Surprisingly, I’m in pretty good shape.
        I can perform 50 or 55 burpees broken down in four or five sets, resting a minute between sets.

        I spent a few days on holidays doing burpees and pull ups and I feel this could be definetly a good workout, and better suited to my needs.

        I really feel my chest, deltoids, triceps and legs pumped and exhausted after a few repetitions, and my lungs sucking air like an airplane’s turbine…

        So starting tomorrow, this will be my workout.
        I’ll try doing it every other day, only burpees and pull ups. I will probably add a box jump to the burpees to make it more complete.

        I’ll work in a public playground. I just hope I don’t lose my hard earned muscles in the gym, but burpees are certainly not a “light” workout…

        • Sounds like you’ve come a long way. Congratulations, you started off with a big step toward your goal. I suspect it wasn’t easy at first, but sounds like it’s led to you feeling better.

          While I’m not a fitness expert, I predict burpees will help you lose fat, especially when what happened to me happens to you, which is that once I started, I found them so useful I couldn’t help increase my numbers and sets. What started as ten a day is now up to two sets of twenty-five a day. I love that feeling of not being able to breathe or talk for a couple minutes — a strong sense of accomplishment and of having overcome the excuses not to do them my mind filled itself with just before starting them. I also like feeling the muscles on my abs.

          That said, I suspect diet contributes to fat as much or more than exercise. You didn’t say what you changed your diet from to what you changed it to, so I can’t say. In any case, I think the mental aspect of burpees (or any SIDCHA) helps with diet a lot. The more I exercise, the more appetizing fruits and vegetables get and the less appetizing less-fresh food gets. It gets easier to push away that extra beer or piece of chocolate cake.

          I hope you keep us updated on your progress.

          • That’s right.
            One important thing I learned is that being constant, with moderate efforts on a daily basis, is more important than killing yourself once in a while.
            That goes for fitness as well as for life in general.
            It’s like the fable of the rabbit and the turtle…

            I was spending up to two hours on the gym, 3x a week, and I finally said to myself “am I going to spend the rest of my life this way?”. I wasn’t really enjoying it…

            I’ll see if I can incorporate a simple, equipment-less full body routine to my life, one I can keep for ever.

            At this point I’m pretty sure burpees are the way to go.
            I may not win Mr. Olympia, but I’ll surely look and feel good and healthier.

            Thanks for your kind words!
            Luis

          • I hope more than kind words what I wrote is useful and encouraging.

            I’ve written a bunch on starting habits and what I find works most is to start by identifying the emotions and reward they expect to get from their activity, not just to force themselves to do something. You don’t sound like you need them, but I’ll put some links to relevant posts for other readers. Let me know if you find them helpful. Someone who loves exercising will get farther than someone forcing themselves to exercise no matter how hard they exercise.

            Just because you work hard, though, doesn’t mean you can’t love it. Then you can have the best properties of the rabbit, who goes fast, and the turtle, who keeps at it, and none of the worst.

        • Luis,

          It’s been a year now since your post. Did you continue the burpee routine? If so, are you fit yet?

          Mark

          • Hi Mark,

            I did enough burpees to become a believer. They are an excellent workout.
            But I didn’t take it as a personal challenge, as a way to discipline myself, I did them simply as a workout.
            I’ve been doing them consistently for a couple of months; sometimes 3 days a week, sometimes everyday.

            It’s hard for me how much of the results should be attributed to burpees alone, since I’ve been working out at the gym before, but doing 3 or 4 sets of 20 burpees resting a little bit in between used to leave me gasping on the floor and totally exhausted.

            They’re a kickass workout on their own, and I’m convincedvthat as little as 5 minutes a day, but intense, of burpees can get you in optimal shape.

            Unfortunately, I’m not as disciplined with my eating habits and when I’m overweight, burpees cause a persistent pain on my wrists.
            I tried using my knuckles instead of the palms, and even boxing gloves, but I had no luck.

            So when I need to lose weight I usually run, until I’m not that overweight and then I resume my burpees but often I mix them with other exercises to avoid boredom

            That being said, I haven’t been really consistent after these months, because I’m lazy,vacations, etc, etc.

            But I’m right now trying to lose 4 or 5 kilos to resume burpees without risking my wrists.
            When I posted this one year ago, I also did pull ups and other exercises.
            My advice: take it easy. Consistency is the key. Don’t kill yourself.
            After a few weeks, you’ll see that doing 70 or 80 burpees is not difficult, and from this point, the sky is the limit.
            They work your chest, triceps, shoulders, flutes, core, legs… They’re a blast.
            Adding pull ups would work the only muscles that get neglected by burpees, the back. But without being obsessive, burpees alone are a great workout.
            Not only they work your muscles, but they give you an excellent cardio vascular training.

            I always hated running, but after a few weeks of burpees I could run 5 km or more without sweating. The benefits to your heart and lings are incredible.

            Go ahead. Do them well (with a push up at the bottom). Pace yourself and try to get to the point where you can do a 100 burpees. It may take a few weeks, but you’ll feel Superman. Guaranteed!

          • … Sorry for the typos above. I’m using my mobile phone and the corrector (and my bad English) is giving me trouble…

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