Why This Dreaded Move Is Called A Burpee

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The other day, in the CrossFit gym where I willingly pay good money to be tortured on a regular basis, the workout started with 70 Burpees, followed by other cardio exercises in descending order — 60 sit-ups, 50 pull-ups, and so forth. I won’t go into detail about the workout. One of the standing jokes about CrossFit athletes goes like this. First rule of CrossFit: Always talk about CrossFit. Second rule of CrossFit: Always talk about CrossFit.

So I don’t want to do that. But Burpees are on my mind. Because after doing 70 Burpees the other day followed by all that other stuff, I wanted to know who invented this infernal exercise. And where I could locate the inventor so as to exact revenge. Not really, but if after reading this piece you are compelled to try out a few Burpees, quickly you will understand how the movement uniquely forces heart rates to soar and lungs to catch fire — the latter, metaphorically speaking.

But first to explain to the uninitiated exactly what a Burpee consists of and why the word is capitalized. To do a Burpee, you stand tall, squat down, jump into a push-up position. Chest and thighs hit the ground, then you immediately hop up onto your feet — flatfooted — quickly stand up, jump a few inches and clap your hands above your head. That is a single Burpee. How hard can it be?

That is what I thought when I embarked on this fitness voyage nearly 3 ½ years ago. I had never done a Burpee and only had a vague idea what it was. After my first five or so, my heart rate was approaching stress-test levels. I understood the universal truth voiced to me that first day and repeated many times since by fellow box rats: Burpees suck. Nothing one does in a gym creates the intensity of doing a bunch of Burpees. Who invented such a diabolical move? Burpees are so breath-stealing that if given the choice of running a mile — and I have hated running my entire life — and doing 70 Burpees, my feet are out the door in a flash.

It was easy enough to find the culprit. Sheryl Duglinski published a piece online in 2013. She described herself as a “personal trainer and holistic fitness fanatic.” She is also the granddaughter of Royal Huddleston Burpee, who in 1939 created this movement for what she describes as the centerpiece of his PhD dissertation in applied physiology from Columbia Teacher’s College. She claims to have the only existing copy of the 150-page dissertation. Goog, as her grandfather was known, got his wife to type the piece and create the charts and tables — no easy task on a manual typewriter, Duglinski notes.

Goog was a pioneer in assessing the effectiveness of exercises such as the one that bears his name. He invented the Burpee as a quick and simple way to measure fitness levels, and the U.S. Army adopted it after entering World War II to test recruits. Recruits had to do Burpees for a minute after which their vital signs were checked. I would have been thrilled to only do a minute’s worth of Burpees the other day. It took me about 6 ½ minutes to complete 70 of them, after which I was slightly dizzy. But I slogged through the rest of the workout, somehow. My goal is always to walk out of the gym unassisted, nothing more.

As it turns out, my research indicates Goog’s original Burpee was somewhat easier to do. Instead of doing a pushup in the middle of the Burpee, his participants just assumed a plank – as if they were about to do a pushup. Then they hopped up. And there was no jumping and clapping at the end.

Heck, if that was the case today, I could have knocked out those 70 Burpees in less than five minutes.

Like the T-shirt slogan says, “I love to hate Burpees.”

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