Kettlebell squats, zigzag sprints, those forearm planks you’re forced to endure until you’ve chewed the inside of your cheek to a pulp—I like to think I welcome these fitness challenges with grace. But the burpee, that unkindest of moves that incorporates squats, jumps, and a push-up into one sequence, is my bête noire. And I’m not alone in feeling this way.
“It’s one of the most taxing body weight exercises you can do; it requires so many muscle groups—your glutes, quads, core, shoulders, and on,” says Mark Zarubi, a Reno, Nevada–based trainer who is the Guinness World Record holder for most burpees executed in a day. Last September, to celebrate his 42nd birthday (or “burp-day,” as he calls it) and raise funds for a local animal shelter, he stayed awake for 24 hours and performed 18,896 burpees. “It was miserable,” he recalls. “I couldn’t move for a week afterward.”
The only person I can find who likes the burpee is my 4-year-old son, who has grasped the humor inherent in the name. I, too, was entertained the first time I heard the word, at an interval-training class a few years ago. My amusement turned to confusion as I stood still and watched my fellow classmates drop to the floor and perform what looked like a break-dancer’s version of a push-up (an exercise I don’t like to begin with).
The punishing burpee goes like this: Start in standing position. Drop into a squat with your hands on the ground. Kick your legs out into a plank. Lower your body to the ground. Jump your feet back up to the squat position, and pop up to stand. It often looks like this: a blur of horizontal and vertical, with push-ups in between.
Whom do we have to thank for this torture? Royal H. Burpee, a New York City physiologist who designed it in the 1930s as a way to measure people’s fitness. At the burpee’s inception, it was a four-count, push-up-free movement. Now it appears in all manner of souped-up versions (dumbbell burpee, anyone?), and some CrossFit gyms enforce a burpee penalty for those who arrive late to class.
Chronic lateness isn’t my problem, yet I still need to overcome my burpee fear and loathing. So I book an appointment with Shaun Jenkins, a head coach at Tone House, a Union Square fitness studio reputed to host New York’s fiercest (and one of its most burpee-heavy) workouts.
When I arrive at the gym, I feel as if I have walked into a bloodthirsty video game, with the barely there lighting and foreboding synthesizer effects thundering from the speakers. Jenkins is tall, with a mohawk bun and tattoos I can’t make out in the darkness. “There’s a reason most people hate the burpee,” he tells me. “It’s cardio and strength, and it puts the majority of your body on the line.”
I demonstrate my “skills,” and can barely manage two burpees before my push-ups turn to porridge. Jenkins tells me I need to take the pressure out of my chest and triceps and put my core to work. “It should be explosive when you come up,” he tells me. “Power through your hips.” I try springing up in an upside-down V. Jenkins tells me it looks better.
He proceeds to put me through an array of exercises aimed at making me a better . . . burper? He makes me run in breath-stopping circles around the gym. He straps me into a harness and has me sprint across the space in order to work on my core, glutes, and “explosive” skills. We play a grown-up version of Simon Says in which, depending on his instructions, I am to run in place, hold a squat, or drop down and perform a few burpees.
“You’ve got the fundamentals,” he assures me at the end of our session. “Remember to power through your hips—whatever you do, don’t just do a push-up.”
“And this technique will make it easier over time?” I ask wishfully.
He shakes his head and laughs. “It will make it harder. But your core will tighten.”
Nobody ever said love was easy.
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