A quality-produced YouTube video that demonstrates the Burpee, but has very little warning about proper technique. The most harmful part of the Burpee is when your knees are hyperflexed (bottomed out) just before the thrust up from the squat position.
There is one basic premise to remember about all physical fitness exercises. Muscles tend to adapt and strengthen with exercise, but cartilage, ligaments and tendons tend to become damaged with overuse or improper exercise. Improper technique or the wrong choice of exercises can bring cartilage, ligament and tendons to the point of no return — as in no return to exercise, or no more normal functioning. Once you have a “blown knee” or wrecked back, you’re not likely to get back to 100 percent functional capacity — even with weeks or months of physical therapy and corrective exercise.
There is an exercise known as “The Burpee” that is popular in cross training, group exercise training, and boot camp training. The Burpee had a bad reputation back for wrecking knees in the 1980s, but somehow it returned after the turn of the century as a popular exercise. It’s sort of a crowd pleaser for the masochistic crowd, and is economical and relatively easy to manage by a personal trainer in a group exercise setting. But is it worth the risk?
Don’t do it. Just don’t do it.
But the Military Uses Burpees — WRONG
In news articles and personal training programs all over the United States, you might have heard about the military connection of the Burpee. Some claim it provides specificity for actual combat duties, but actually if bullets are flying, you’ll want to be flat on the ground like a pancake and crawling out of danger. You’re not likely to survive by bouncing up and down like a jackass with hyperflexed knees smashing your knee cartilage and tearing at your ligaments. And on the high side … well let’s just say you’re supposed to stay low.
You’re part of the “best of the best” if you can endure a series Burpees, right? Are you dreaming about being an Army Ranger, a Navy SEAL? If you can survive the Burpee you’re almost a real deal SEAL, right? Sensational. But wrong. There is this fuzzy sense that the military still uses the Burpee, but they don’t. The first version of the Burpee was concocted in 1939 by physiology Ph.D candidate Royal H. Burpee, who developed the Burpee test as a means to assess physical fitness. A long time ago Burpees were used in the military. Yes, Burpees were used prior to World War II to test soldiers for physical fitness, but there is a reason Burpees aren’t used in military testing anymore. They beat the Hell out of your knees, and they aren’t that great for your low back either.
— Cardinal News (@EarlyReport) January 14, 2015
The most harmful part of the Burpee is when your knees are hyperflexed (bottomed out) just before the thrust up from the squat position. The knee in a hyperflexed position acts like a fulcrum that squeezes meniscus and cartilage shock absorber tissues on the back side of the knee and extends and separates the medial and collateral ligament tissues on the front and sides of the knees — to the point of vulnerability.
The low back is also at risk because when a person is in a low squat position, the pelvis is locked in what is called a posterior position or posterior pelvic tilt. The bent knees and posterior position of the pelvis put the hamstrings in a relatively powerless, slack situation. The hamstrings are practically turned off the instant just before launch. The gluteus maximus muscles can help here, but they are also over stretched and less effective in the bottomed out position.The hamstrings are essential for extending the hips and giving upward power in normal squats, but in the Burpee, a person is bottomed out, so that most of the launch power that is lacking hamstring power has to come from the less effective low back muscles, which can put strain on the vertebral column and the intervertebral discs. Also, more power is diverted to the quadriceps (front thigh muscles) which puts highly compressive forces on the hyperflexed knees just before the launch. The knee tissues are already compressed with the hyperflexed knee joint position, then more compression is added by the very strong quadriceps contraction and pulling of the patellar tendon (patellar ligament) over the front of the knee and knee cap. That’s where the knees really take a beating. That’s when some people might hear or feel popping or clicking in the knee — nature’s little warning buzzer.
The US Army doesn’t use it, so why should you? U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) was working on revising APFT (the Army Physical Fitness Test), which didn’t include Burpees, to new more practical versions of the test. No plans for Burpees in the future version either.
“It’s time to break the culture of ‘training to the test’ and focus instead on preparing all Soldiers for the physical challenges of the current and future operating environment. Executing physical training in accordance with the doctrine [TC 3-22.20] will also reduce injuries and improve Soldier performance on the APFT,”
— TRADOC Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel A. Dailey
Just Don’t Do It
Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen counterparts of Navy SEAL personnel don’t use them for physical tests.
Navy SEAL screening tests don’t use them.
A Ranger School Preparation document from Fort Benning recommends Burpees, but the official Ranger Assessment & Selection Program doesn’t involve Burpees.
Requirements to successfully complete Ranger Assessment & Selection Program (RASP) are as follows:
Minimum score of 240 on the APFT (80 percent in each event) and ability to complete 6 chin-ups.
Must complete 5-mile run in 40 minutes or less.
Must complete 12-mile footmarch in 3 hours or less with a 35lb rucksack.
Must successfully complete the Ranger Swim Ability Evaluation (RSAE) while displaying confidence in the water.
Must conduct full psychological screening with no major psychological profiles identified by the Regimental Psychologist.
There are many other exercises that can substitute for the Burpee. Regular squats can be a substitute, and if you feel you need some stamina training, do more squats with lighter weight at higher speed.
The harm in the Burpee is the way it suddenly puts your pelvis in a posterior pelvic tilt just before you launch. Think of your butt and tailbone being wrapped underneath yourself just before you launch up from the squat. That is exactly the opposite of what the pelvic positioning should be before the launch. The pelvic tilt desired before the launch from a squat is the anterior pelvic tilt, which can provide an optimal length and readiness of the hamstring for contraction and extension of the hips. The launch involves extension of the hips and the knees simultaneously.
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