What Muscles Do Burpees Work? Here's How to Do Them for Max Benefits

What muscles do burpees work? Most of them! The burpee is a total-body exercise that trains muscles through your lower body, upper body and core.
Image Credit: Jun/iStock/GettyImages

Burpees leave virtually no muscle untapped — working your legs, hips, core, chest, shoulders and arms.

One of the hardest body-weight exercises out there, burpees are essentially any movement that involves laying stomach-down on the ground and then coming back up to standing, says exercise physiologist and strength coach Pete McCall, CSCS, CPT, host of the All About Fitness Podcast.

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"There ​is​ a prescribed way of moving through those positions — standing to squat to push-up back to squat then to standing — but the gist is going from standing, to lying, to back to standing," he says.

When doing burpees, it's important to stick with the variations that work best with your body. So dismiss the notion that there's only one way to get off the ground.

How to Do a Burpee

That said, to best understand what muscles burpees can work, it's helpful to first check out what a ​traditional​ burpee looks like.

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Burpee

JW Player placeholder image
Skill Level Advanced
  1. Start in an athletic position with your feet hips-width apart.
  2. Sit your hips back into an air squat, then lean forward and plant your hands flat on the ground directly under your shoulders.
  3. Press your hands into the ground, then kick your feet back behind you to get into a high plank position.
  4. Brace your core and and lower to the ground.
  5. Press through your chest and arms to come back into a high plank position.
  6. Jump your feet forward to land on either side of your hands.
  7. Raise your hands and torso, then jump up.
  8. Land with your feet hips-width apart and repeat.

Scroll down for tips on how to modify the exercise to fit your needs.

Muscles Worked in Burpees

What muscles do burpees work? More or less, all of them.

"This is a true full-body exercise that engages and strengthens almost every muscle from head to toe" says McCall.

In short, that's because the movement combines a series of exercises — an air squat, high plank, push-up and jump squat — into one single movement.

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Phase 1: Quads, Glutes, Hamstrings

"At the start of the rep, when you initially squat down, you engage your quads, glutes, and hamstrings," says Connecticut-based personal trainer Nika Shelby, CPT. Your quads and glutes work eccentrically, lengthening to control your motion.Your hamstrings contract to bend your knees.

Phase 2: Core, Shoulders

When you shift from the bottom of the squat into a high plank, your core muscles (transverse abdominis) and shoulders (deltoids and rotator cuffs) get called into action. Together, they stabilize your lower back and shoulders, both of which can be prone to injury.

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Phase 3: Chest, Triceps

If you incorporate a push-up into the exercise, your chest and triceps put in work. (And if you focus on lowering slowly into each push-up, you can also work your lats, traps and biceps eccentrically.)

Phase 4: Glutes, Quads, Calves

Finally, when you jump your feet back up to your hands — and then launch your body into the air, your calves, quads and glutes work hard to extend your ankles, knees and hips.

4 Burpee Benefits

1. Increased Power Output

The burpee is plyometric exercise, which basically means it's explosive. "Plyometric exercises help activate and strengthen your fast-twitch fiber muscles, which are the muscle fibers we primarily lean on for explosive, power-based movements," says Shelby.

While plyometrics are especially important for professional athletes, they're great for anyone who wants to build a little oomph in their sport, be it swimming, skiing, running, soccer, tennis, climbing or anything else.

"Training those fast twitch fiber muscles is never going to hurt a person's athletic performance and training," Shelby says. Noted!

2. Muscular Endurance

Oftentimes, people do this exercise back-to-back with the goal of hitting a certain rep count or time duration. As your reps increase, you transition from building power to building muscular endurance.

Muscular endurance is how long your muscles can work before tuckering out, and is largely controlled by your slow-twitch aerobic muscle fibers.

3. Functional Strength

The ability to get yourself up off the floor is an important skill for overall health and function, Shelby says. That's true if you want to get play on the floor with your kids, scrub the baseboards or have an accidental fall.

"Someone who has been working their pushing muscles, as they do in this move, is going to be much more likely to get up off the ground when they fall than someone who has not been working those muscles," she says.

4. Improved Cardio

Burpees don't just work your arm, leg, and core muscles, they also work your ticker. Indeed, getting a great cardio workout is one of the great benefits of burpees.

"Your heart is responsible for moving blood around your body, when we strengthen the heart through exercises like this one, you're helping the heart become more efficient at pumping blood around the body," says McCall.

Bonus: Unlike other types of cardiovascular exercises, it requires absolutely no equipment and only a few square feet of floor space. That means it's available for people without a gym membership, as well as those on the go.

Burpee Variations: How to Fit Them to Your Body

Thanks to their presence in CrossFit WODs and boutique studio HIIT classes, burpees have earned a repetition of being hardcore.

While the exercise can be quite intense, it doesn't have to be. The best burpee variations for you have the level of intensity and impact that works for you.

Are Burpees Right for You?

Traditional burpees aren't appropriate for every person or body. They are high-impact and can place a lot of stress on the wrist joints. Also, if you have high or low blood pressure, burpees could worsen your symptoms. Listen to your body.

How to Make Burpees Easier

Eager to jump on the ballistic bandwagon? Shelby recommends breaking down the compound exercise into its individual components — squat, high plank, push-up and squat jump — and getting proficient at each as an individual exercise.

To strengthen your core and lower-body for the squat and squat jump, you can try squatting to a medicine ball or box, she says. And to become proficient with the push-ups, she recommends push-up variations including the wall push-up or incline push-up.

Another option is to replace the exercise with a squat to high plank, which takes the push-up out of the equation. With it, you will still work most of the same burpee muscles, but instead of vying for speed, you can focus more on the quality of each movement.

Squat to Plank Burpee

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Skill Level All Levels
  1. Start in an athletic position with your feet hips-width apart.
  2. Sit your hips back into an air squat, then lean forward and plant your hands flat on the ground directly under your shoulders.
  3. Press your hands into the ground, then step your feet back behind you to get into a high plank position. Brace your core.
  4. Step your feet forward on either side of your hands.
  5. Raise your hands and torso, then stand up tall.
  6. Repeat.

How to Make Burpees Harder

Ultimately, the way you choose to progress the movement will depend on your personal fitness goals.

"If you're interested in improving your cardiovascular output, the best way to make the exercise harder is by doing them faster," says McCall. You might, for example, see how many reps you can do in 30 seconds or even 7 minutes. Or, you might do ladder workout, doing one additional rep per minute of your workout until you can no longer complete the prescribed number of reps.

If you're interested in increasing power or explosiveness, Shelby recommends adding a tuck jump to the end of every rep. This will jack up your heart rate while also forcing your calves, glutes, quads and hamstrings to work that much harder.

Tuck-Jump Burpee

JW Player placeholder image
Skill Level Advanced
  1. Start in an athletic position with your feet hips-width apart.
  2. Sit your hips back into an air squat, then lean forward and plant your hands flat on the ground directly under your shoulders.
  3. Press your hands into the ground, then kick your feet back behind you to get into a high plank position.
  4. Brace your core and and lower to the ground.
  5. Press through your chest and arms to come back into a high plank position.
  6. Jump your feet forward to land on either side of your hands.
  7. Raise your hands and torso, then jump up, drawing your knees toward your chest in mid-air.
  8. Land with your feet hips-width apart and repeat.

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