The three rules of real estate may be location, location, location, but the three rules of fitness are form, form, form. And that's especially true when it comes to doing a complex exercise like burpees. Perfecting your form is essential for getting the most out of the exercise and preventing injury.
But as the saying goes, you don't know what you don't know, and you could be making a few crucial errors while doing burpees and not even know it. To help you evaluate your performance, here are six common mistakes you might be making, along with how to fix them.
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1. Doing Them 'Cold'
Even though a burpee is a full-body, body-weight exercise, you shouldn't do them in a warm-up or while your muscles are still stiff. So, if you're doing your burpees first thing in the morning or after sitting for a long time, get your muscles warmed up first.
Walk around for a bit, jog in place or take your body through a series of dynamic stretches like the exercises below — anything that gets your muscles moving, takes your joints through their range of motion and elevates your heart rate.
Move 1: Full-Body Extensions
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Hinge your hips and bend your knees into a squat as you swing your arms behind you.
- Swing your arms up over your head as you stand up and raise onto your tiptoes, squeezing your glutes and keeping your core tight.
- Gradually increase your speed once you master the form.
Move 2: Butt Kicks
- Run in place, alternating kicking your right foot toward your right butt cheek, then your left foot.
Move 3: High Knees
- March in place at a quick pace, lifting your right knee up toward your chest, then your left knee.
Move 4: Swimmer's Hugs
- Swing your arms out to your sides in a T shape.
- Swing them across your chest so that you're giving yourself a hug and repeat.
Move 5: Arm Circles
- Hold your arms out to the sides in a T shape.
- Circle your arms forward 10 times.
- Then circle your arms backward 10 times.
2. Rushing Through Them
"If you're doing a 30-second sprint to get as many burpees as possible with an instructor cheering you on, the last thing you're thinking about is form," says Henry Halse, personal trainer and found of Vici Virtual.
"The tricky thing about a burpee is that they tire you out quickly. When you get tired, your form naturally gets worse." And speeding through them so that they're over sooner is a recipe for injury.
"Do your reps one at a time," Halse says. "Slowing down will give you space to focus on your form, rather than making a mad dash to get as many reps as possible."
You don't need to move like you're sinking in quicksand, but you should take your time with the exercise.
3. Letting Your Lower Back Arch
D'Annette Stephens, ISSA-CPT, certified personal trainer and founder of Fitness Professionals Black Alliance, sees many mistakes in the push-up and/or plank part of a burpee. "In this position, most will loosen their core and their hips will drop," she says.
Though you may have seen CrossFitters doing burpees with an arched back at the bottom of their plank, this can be dangerous if you're a beginner. In general, letting your lower back arch like that puts you at greater risk for injury.
When you’re in the plank, pause and make sure your abs are engaged. If you concentrate on tightening your abs, your lower back likely won’t arch.
"Remember to keep the lower and transverse abdominals contracted to keep this from happening," Stephens says. To contract your transverse abdominals, imagine you're wearing something form fitting and need to "suck it in."
4. Landing Too Hard
"Instead of squatting or stepping back to get low to the ground, [some people] kick their legs back and smack the ground," Halse says. "Going down too fast creates high-impact forces on your wrists, elbows and shoulders."
Similarly, it can be tempting to collapse back to the ground after your jump, but landing with your legs straight and your knees locked is another way you risk injuring yourself while doing burpees.
"Think of the first part of a burpee as either a reverse lunge or reverse squat," Halse says. "You can step back and lean forward simultaneously to get closer to the ground. Or, you can squat down low while reaching down to the ground, using your legs to slowly lower yourself."
And when you land your jump, protect your knees by keeping them slightly bent.
5. Not Knowing When to Modify or Rest
Sure, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" might make for a great motivational poster, but when it comes to complex exercises like burpees, it's best not to push yourself past the point of exhaustion. And if you're new to the exercise, it's totally acceptable (and actually encouraged) to modify your burpees.
For example, not everyone has the core strength to do a full push-up, Halse says. "Instead, they inchworm by leaving their hips on the ground and pushing their upper body off the ground (similar to an upward-facing dog). This can put stress on the lower back."
"Burpees are hard enough, don't be afraid to modify!" Halse says. "If you can't do full push-ups with flawless technique, chances are you should modify that portion of the burpee. I recommend doing the push-up portion with your knees on the ground."
And listen to your body: Are you in pain (not just discomfort)? Stop. Do you feel lightheaded or like you can’t catch your breath? Take a pause. Doing burpees isn’t about who can do the most the fastest, it’s about pushing yourself in a smart and sane way to get stronger.
6. Holding Your Breath
Just like with any other exercise, when you're doing burpees, you need to remember to breathe. Forgetting to breathe shortchanges your efforts and deprives your muscles of the oxygen they need to function.
"Take a breath between each one and pause for a second to reset," Halse says. And if you find yourself holding your breath mid-rep, stop for a second, get your breathing under control, then resume.