Burpees are one of the most intimidating body-weight exercises in the fitness universe. Unsurprisingly, they're also a go-to CrossFit exercise and make regular appearances in HIIT workouts. But they give you a quick cardio and strength boost, so they're perfect for when you're crunched for time or short on workout equipment.
However, if you've ever attempted a burpee — or tried to do several reps in a row — you understand why it's considered an advanced exercise. After all, the movement is complex and requires a higher level of fitness, strength and mobility than other body-weight exercises. If you fall a bit short in one or more of these areas, your body will clue you in pretty quickly.
To do a standard burpee, you squat low from a standing position, place your hands on the floor to hop both feet back, perform a push-up, hop back into a low squat and jump up to finish. Oh, and you're supposed to link these segments together into one fluid movement.
If this just isn't happening for you, pay attention to where you're struggling during the burpee. "We all have limitations, and our bodies give us signs when it's time to slow down or modify our movement," McMatthews says.
Once you know what your limitations are, you can take steps to fix them. Here are some of the most common signs to watch out for, plus tips to get you knocking out full burpees like a pro.
If You: Get Out of Breath Easily
You Might: Need to Build Aerobic Capacity
Burpees are an intense cardiovascular movement, and it's not uncommon for burpee newbies to feel breathless after just a few reps — especially if you're not doing any other form of cardio exercise.
If this is you, don't get discouraged. And don't let your ego convince you to suffer through a bunch of sloppy reps. Instead, modify the exercise to fit your current fitness level and increase the challenge as your aerobic capacity improves.
"Working on a modified burpee will allow you to complete the task, increase cardio at your own pace and not feel completely awful in the process," says Dani Almeyda, corrective exercise specialist and co-owner of Original Strength Institute in North Carolina.
"I always tell my clients that taking modifications doesn't mean they're taking the easy way out, because there's a big difference between being lazy and being smart when it comes to exercise and results," McMatthews says.
Modified burpee options include slowing the tempo, taking breaks, stepping your feet back into plank instead of jumping back, taking out the jump at the end and elevating your hands on a chair or exercise bench. You could also simply practice getting up and down off the floor. Do whichever version of the burpee feels best for you.
If You: Feel Pain In Your Joints or Lower Back
You Might: Need to Work on Strength and Form
If you feel joint or lower back pain or discomfort at any point during burpees, it may be an issue of body control. For example, many people feel pain in their lower back because they allow their hips to collapse in the plank position instead of controlling them and keeping them up, Almeyda says.
Another tell-tale sign that you lack body control is if you make a ton of noise during burpees. If you make loud thuds when you land, you're likely putting more stress on your joints and lower back than you should. "Try to be ninja or cat-like when doing burpees," Almeyda says, "not a rhinoceros."
If you can't do quiet, cat-like burpees, modify the movement until you build greater body control. Try slowing down the movement and/or removing or modifying certain elements (see above for modification options). Modify the movement as much as you need to be able to perform it with full control.
That said, joint and low back pain is very individual, and there could be other issues at play. For example, joint or lower back pain could also signal a pre-existing injury, and in this case, doing any kind of burpee may only make your injury worse. It's always smart to check with your doctor or physical therapist to rule out the possibility of an injury or underlying condition before jumping into high-intensity exercise.
If You: Get Dizzy
You Might: Have Low Blood Pressure
Sometimes, the quick up-and-down motion of burpees can throw people off, making them feel light-headed and dizzy. "This seems to be more prevalent in people with low blood pressure," Almeyda says.
Keeping your eyes and head up during the exercise — as opposed to letting your head dip below your heart — may help reduce dizziness, but you may still be sensitive to the ups and downs, Almeyda says. Take breaks as needed, and/or modify the burpee by slowing your pace, elevating your hands on a chair or exercise bench or removing any jumping movements.
If that still doesn't help, you may want to swap out burpees for separate sets of squat jumps and push-ups or another full-body exercise like squat and press.
If You: Are Intimidated by the Exercise
You Might: Need to Take Things Slow
Sometimes, the issue with performing a full burpee is a mental one: "Burpees are just flat-out intimidating for some people," McMatthews says, and even if you build up your fitness, strength and mobility, you may still doubt your ability to do a traditional burpee. But chances are, you can, McMatthews says.
If you struggle with self-doubt, start by modifying the burpee. Once you feel comfortable with the modified versions, break the full version down step-by-step and work through it slowly. Focus on owning each component of the movement and gradually pick up the pace. Ask a fitness professional for advice on form and technique if needed.
And if you discover that you really, truly dislike them, there's nothing wrong with taking a break from them. Who knows? You may come back to them in a few weeks or months and realize they're not as bad as you thought.