The burpee is an inherently bad exercise. However you do it—chest to the ground, with a pushup, holding a plank—the bottom line is, throwing yourself to the ground and immediately getting back up again is a really stupid idea. Throwing yourself on the ground repeatedly goes from stupid to idiotic. Why would anyone do that?
In a burpee, you’re jamming your wrist into extension, then you’re putting a huge amount of stress on the anterior shoulder, which is the weakest part of the shoulder. Neither of those things is good in a singular sense, and they’re clearly not good in high repetitions. If someone said I’m going to do that 100 times and call it exercise, I’d be concerned.
The rationale behind burpees seems to be that they're hard, and they get you out of breath, so they must be good for you. I’ve always been a big “start with the why” guy. If the “why” with burpees is just that they’re hard and get you out breath, I'm here to tell you that there are better exercises for you.
People like the idea of the burpee because they think it’s a total-body exercise—that it works their upper body, their lower body, and their cardiovascular strength. But there’s no one exercise that does that. And the reality is that if the risk outweighs the benefit, then the exercise isn’t a good one.
The number-one thing I think people should be doing is asking themselves why do you do a burpee? What is this exercise doing for you? If you’re doing it because you want the lower-body plyometric challenge from jumping back up at the end, then just do plyometric exercises like squat jumps. If you’re doing it for the upper-body challenge of the pushup, just do pushups! If you’re doing it for the cardiovascular challenge, there are a million interval-training protocols a trainer can give you that can make you just as tired.
The burpee is trying to be three things at once, and it’s not very good at any one of the three. I look at the burpee and I think, why would anyone do that exercise? Why would anyone who calls themselves a fitness professional justify the burpee as being beneficial? You can do literally any other exercise and you'd be better off.
Michael Boyle is a certified functional strength coach, founder of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning, and author of Functional Training for Sports. He was formerly the head strength and conditioning coach at Boston University, a Boston Bruins and Boston Red Sox strength and conditioning coach, and the strength and conditioning coach for the 1998 US Women's Olympic Ice Hockey Team.