Burpees are one of the cornerstones of bodyweight training. Taking little space and no equipment, they can be performed just about anywhere and can be modified so that they provide an appropriate challenge for beginner, intermediates and advanced exercisers alike. There is no doubting their effectiveness but are they suitable for building muscle mass? Good question! Before we get into that discussion, let’s revisit the burpee so that everyone knows how to do one properly…
Proper Burpee Performance
- Stand with your feet together and your hands by your sides
- Squat down and place your hands flat on the floor either side of your feet. Make sure you drop your hips down below shoulder-height
- Jump your legs back and into the push-up position. Your feet, knees, hips and shoulders should form a perfectly straight line
- Bend your arms and lower your chest to lightly touch the floor
- Extend your arms and push back up
- Jump your feet back up to your hands. Keep your hips down and try not to round your lower back too much
- Leap up and into the air
- Land on slightly bent knees and repeat
You can make burpees less demanding by omitting the push-up and/or jump. With practice, you should be able to merge some of the phases together i.e. lower yourself down into the push-up while simultaneously jumping your legs to the rear.
Burpee Variations Include…
- Travelling burpees – jump for distance instead of height
- Double push-up burpees – two push-ups instead of one
- Lateral jump burpees – jump sideways over a low hurdle
- 180 degree burpees – do a half turn jump
- Single-limb burpees – do a single arm push-up or squat
Burpee Benefits and Drawbacks
Burpees work virtually every muscle in your body, which means they are a very efficient way to get your workout. Your body has to work in a coordinated way, which make burpees a very athletic movement. The inclusion of a jump means that your legs get a great workout and may improve your general jumping ability and working so many muscles simultaneously means that your heart and breathing rate will rocket, delivering a terrific cardiovascular workouts while burning a lots of calories.
But, do all of these benefits add up to a great muscle building exercise? Sadly, they do not. While burpees will improve your muscular endurance, help you burn fat and develop a high level of fitness, they are not a good way to develop serious muscle mass – a process properly called hypertrophy.
There are a couple of reasons why burpees are not effective muscle builders…
- Too Little Overload – there is no denying that burpees are hard but their demand comes from the cumulative volume of movement rather than the direct overload placed on your muscles. To make your muscles bigger, they need to be exposed to a significant overload – usually in the form of a heavy weight. Insufficient overload means to stimulus for muscle growth.
- No Sustained Muscle Tension – when you do burpees, your muscles are only under load for a very short time – even if you do a lot of reps. Each push-up is punctuated with a period where the legs are doing all the work and each squat and squat jump is punctuated with a period where the upper body is more dominant. Sustained tension is an essential part of building muscle and most experts agree that muscles need to be under tension for 40 to 60 seconds for best hypertrophy results.
Better Mass Building Exercises
Let me reiterate; burpees are brilliant but they are a conditioning exercise rather than a serious mass builder. If you want to build mass using bodyweight exercises, there are better choices than burpees. The following exercises, for example, will expose your muscles to sufficient overload and sustained time under tension – the prerequisites for muscle growth.
Push-Ups – targeting your chest, triceps and shoulders, push-ups are the bodyweight equivalent of that champion barbell exercise, the bench press. Elevate your feet or strap on a weighted vest to make this exercise more demanding or, for the hard-core exerciser, perform one-handed or even handstand push-ups.
Squats – squats are the king of exercises but bodyweight squats do not generally provide enough overload to trigger muscle hypertrophy. Remedy this by wearing a weighted vest or backpack, holding a heavy object to your chest or even doing them with your training partner on your back. Advanced exercisers can really crank up the intensity by performing one-legged squats, which are sometimes called pistols.
Pull-Ups – targeting your lats and biceps, pull-ups are an excellent mass building exercise. Perform them in a variety of ways to maximize muscle growth i.e. overhand, underhand, with a narrow grip, wide grip or neutral grip.
Body Rows – body rows also work your lats but horizontally rather than vertically which means they replicate exercises like barbell bent over rows, seated cable machine rows and dumbbell single-arm rows. Easier than pull-ups, body rows are a viable alternative if you are unable to lift your bodyweight using just your arms.
Lunges – bridging the gap between regular and single-leg squats, lunges place an emphasis on one leg at a time and are a great way to work your butt as well as your quads and hamstrings. Use a slow and deliberate tempo to maximize the muscle building potential of this exercise and add some extra weight by holding a heavy object in your hands.
Dips – targeting the chest, shoulders and triceps, dips are a great mass building exercise. Leaning forward into the dip will emphasize your chest while a more upright position emphasizes your triceps. Hold a weight between your knees, tie a weight around your waist, and wear a weighted vest or a backpack to make this exercise more demanding. Parallel bar dips are generally more effective than bench dips.
If you are serious about building mass, you need to choose exercises that overload specific target muscles rather than work your whole body simultaneously. You only have to compare the muscular development of a top class bodybuilder to a top class Olympic lifter to see how true this is. By all means include some burpees in your workout but use them as a conditioning finisher after you have completed your mass building exercises.
Patrick Dale is an ex-Royal Marine and owner and lecturer for fitness qualifications company Solar Fitness Qualifications Ltd. In addition to training prospective personal trainers, Patrick has also authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles and several Internet fitness videos. Patrick practices what he preaches and has competed at a high level in several sports including rugby, triathlon, rock climbing, diving and trampolining and, most recently, powerlifting. He is also an active personal trainer with a wide number of clients ranging from athletes to average Joes and Joanne’s. When not lecturing, training, researching or writing, Patrick is busy enjoying the sunny climate of Cyprus where he has lived for the last 12-years.