The Psychology of Burpees | Fit Futures

Eight weeks ago came the news that New Zealand was going into lockdown, as a method of managing the spread of Covid-19 through our communities and country. It was soon obvious that this lockdown was not going to be brief, but instead last for weeks or possibly months. My gym had to close, and I was restricted to travel within a few kilometres of my home. The government highlighted that getting out and exercising was beneficial to our health and wellbeing, so a long walk was initiated with the family for the first few days of lockdown.

I have never been a walker, runner, or cyclist, so with these options not taken into consideration, what could I do as a form of exercise that would push, challenge and motivate me during the lockdown period? I went scurrying through YouTube to see if there was anything online that was gaining traction and interest. I knew I wanted to be tested physically, but I was also looking for something that would challenge me psychologically. After ten minutes I had found it: one hundred burpees a day, 3,000 for a month! The person I had found was Chase Barron, who has a following of 31k subscribers to his YouTube account. He, like me, hates burpees as an exercise but saw this as an opportunity to test himself physically and psychologically.

Why are burpees so disliked – and so beneficial?

Back in the day our P.E. teachers gave burpees out as a punishment for turning up late, or forgetting gym gear. Burpees were horrible then, as they are now. But 35 years later, I know a lot more about the dreaded burpee.  In fact many Crossfitters look out for this exercise first when they see a Workout of the Day. So why does this exercise polarise so many? There are many variations of the burpees in recent years, with the spectacular popularity of Crossfit, and burpee variances have become regular in gyms. For my lockdown challenge I decided I would complete the more traditional push-up burpee.

I did a little research into the history of the burpee and the proposed physical benefits. The inventor of the burpee was Royal H. Burpee. As part of his PhD thesis in Applied Physiology (1939), Royal designed the burpee as part of a fitness test. I wanted to equip myself with as much knowledge and information as I could about burpees. I found:

  1. Burpees engage the entire body. The burpee movement requires many muscles and joints to work together from the upper and lower body. Functional movements in the burpee include press-up, plank, squat and jump.
  2. Burpees are a full-body exercise, and burn a high amount of calories. As many muscles are used during this high intensity exercise, typically more calories are burned, which can lead to faster weight loss.
  3. No equipment is required – a major reason why I decided to take on the burpee lockdown challenge! Your garden, local park, garage or living room floor are all suitable places.
  4. Burpees are a fantastic exercise to get the heart rate pumping. Just a few burpees gets the heart and lungs working in a short space of time, providing a cardiovascular workout.

 

The Burpee Challenge

Thursday March 26th, 2020 was my start date. I was working from home and decided to schedule my burpees during my lunch hour, where I would walk around the corner to the local park.  In my research, Chase Barron identified that he completed his 100 burpees a day in sets and reps of 10, taking his time and using correct technique. Barron’s burpees were also spread out across the day due to time or availability – but I decided that I would complete my 100 burpees all at once, no matter how long it took.

Many negative or disparaging remarks are associated with burpees. Revulsion, disgust, fear and “love to hate” were comments I had come across as I researched the topic. As an all-round body weight exercise, the burpee is in a league of its own. There’s a reason for this, of course – it’s hard! If it wasn’t, all fitness enthusiasts would be using it in their exercise regime. ‘Love to hate’ I thought was an interesting comment. The love must come from the completion of achieving something difficult, the joy and euphoria of this, and knowing the health and fitness consequences of completing a series of burpees. The hate must come from what we are about to physically receive.

A full body weight workout means exactly what it says: from a standing start to a downward sprawl, a push up, jump back into the squat position and then a vertical jump to conclude the movement. Sounds easy on paper, but I’d have to complete 100 of these, each day for a month! The repetitive nature of the exercise is boring, technical yes, but with a little time and thought I decided I could make the movement effective and efficient for 100 attempts. I was expecting to “hate” to experience my respiratory and circulatory systems working extra hard to compensate for the lack of oxygen in my muscles. But of course, I expected to “love” the feeling of completing something which to me is more psychologically difficult in its nature than physiological in its execution. So this was my standpoint: this was how I was going to approach a month of 3,000 burpees. Obviously an efficient technique is important, but to me the psychological aspect of completing this monthly task was far harder. I would have to be mentally strong to be successful in achieving my goal.

At 1pm on March 26th I started my first 100 burpees. I was very apprehensive, yet excited to start what would be a month of pain and success. I am one of these people who sets themselves achievable and realistic goals, and only injury would stop me from reaching 3,000 burpees. But through my pain, there would have to be small amounts of pleasure to fight back and use as medicine, so I was in control of the pain.

My ‘medicine’ was:

  1. I made a playlist of Calvin Harris and Swedish House Mafia to accompany my lonely foray into the burpee wilderness.
  2. I needed a focal point to look at in the distance when I came up from the squat to vertical jump. I had to have something to concentrate my mind on.

My first week of burpees consisted of sets and reps of 10 at a time to reach 100 per day, 700 for the week. The first 4-5 days were pretty tough. I was inhaling large volumes of air into my lungs to compensate for my haste in completing the exercise movements quickly. I soon realised that my 52-year-old body was not as well acclimatised to the burpee as I had originally thought! Something had to change, and this was my mentality. I took a different approach by the end of the first week. Firstly, I slowed down my technique and spent more emphasis on the press up, squat and vertical jump. This allowed my whole burpee movement to become more efficient, and consequently I got into a rhythm and routine so the burpees became enjoyable. This was a key moment for me.

Halfway into Week Two I changed my reps per set. I wanted to push myself physiologically but also wanted to change my mindset. I went to 20 reps of 5 sets to complete my hundred burpees. I was now conscious of the need to pace myself, there was no rush, and to my surprise after 3-4 days I found my body was adapting well to this too. But more important for me was the sense of euphoria I felt on completion of the second week of the burpee challenge. The endorphins in my body were reducing the perception of pain but more importantly, they were triggering positive feelings. These feelings at the end of Week Two saw me reschedule the monthly plan. Week Three, I was now going to complete 150 a day! Burpees were now becoming behaviourally addictive. This was not something I had planned for psychologically.

A change of schedule also saw a change of music playlist, as this was now becoming repetitive. A Spotify burpee search came across plenty of high tempo music at 130-150 beats per minute. The music was a great motivational tool for what is a very repetitive exercise movement. With an increase in burpees to 150 per day, I now looked at completing 30 reps of 5 sets. The first day or two of this was considerably harder, but I wanted to do this as it pushed me well outside my comfort zone. Completing the reps was no issue, but what I did realise was the rest time in between sets was taking longer to recover. This was expected, though 25 years ago I would have pushed myself harder during recovery time. That said, the objective for me at this time was to complete 150 burpees at a time irrelevant of how long it would take me. By the end of Week Three I had completed 2,450 burpees, I was well ahead of schedule and looking forward to the final week. I still had high levels of motivation to complete the task, but more rewarding was the fact that I felt really good and positive. I had to remind myself that burpees are not “everyone’s cup of tea” and there is a very good reason for this. They are hard and repetitive. But I was still mentally feeling very strong. I could now see the horizon, the end of the month was coming around. I wanted to make a final change to my approach as I started Week Four.

Two hundred burpees a day! Even my wife thought this was a little crazy. But my mindset had changed. I was doubling my original target from the beginning of the month, but I had the energy and fitness to complete this. Once again, more important than my fitness, my mentality I believe was greater or stronger than my fitness. Progressive weeks of steady increments had shown me what was possible with the right mindset. Thursday April 23rd saw me complete the first of the 200 a day burpees. The first hundred went by pretty quickly. At the halfway mark I took a 90-second rest and took some water. I felt good. However, starting the last 100 burpees was a different matter. I struggled to get back into a rhythm, consequently the final 100 burpees were torture; it was the worst I had felt over the entire month. It was the first time I had thought of deliberately miscalculating my count. Finally, after reaching 200, I walked off to cool down both physically and mentally. I was annoyed. I was so disappointed with myself. Had I been unrealistic in wanting to achieve 200 burpees with only three weeks of training behind me?

I thought long and hard about my approach for the following day. I had some options:

  1. 8 sets x 25 reps
  2. 4 sets x 50 reps
  3. 2 sets x 100 reps (completed this once, surely it could not be as bad again?)
  4. 1 set x 200 reps

The plan for Day Two of the last week of the burpee challenge was to choose option 4. Looking back to the previous day, the first 100 burpees went relatively smoothly, then I had a short break and then struggled to find any form or rhythm for the final 100. For the second day, I planned not to stop at 100 but to continue in my slow, rhythmic, and methodical manner to 200 burpees. This I did, and it felt fantastic. The key was to pace myself, get my breathing right, and get into a rhythm. The endorphins in my body were going crazy, I felt incredible on completion, I walked away with hands on my hips and inhaling/exhaling very deeply – but this was offset by my sense of accomplishment. Deciding to complete the 200 burpees in one swoop was fundamentally the difference between today and yesterday. The remainder of the week was completed. I also mixed it up, using options 1, 2 and 4.

After the challenge

At the end of the 4-week challenge I had completed 3,850 burpees and had surpassed a target that Chase Barron had set himself to physically challenge him. For me, it was not about the physical aspects of completing the burpee challenge over a month. It was the psychological challenge of a daily repetitive exercise movement which exercise practitioners generally stayed clear of. Was it hard? Yes, there were days I did not want to do it, many of them in fact. But this was the reason why I wanted to take this challenge on. I wanted to test my willpower, perseverance, and determination.

What gave me more satisfaction was the fact I did not miss a day of burpees. The schedule was relentless, and each lunchtime was consumed by the burpee challenge. On reflection, the one-month challenge answered my objective of finding something physiological and psychological to complete while the gym was closed. This was very satisfying. The burpees themselves provided me a great daily workout; this was a bonus, as I am not a runner or cyclist. I believe that my slow rhythmical manner of completing the burpees was fundamental to my success, as it allowed me to concentrate on my form and technique. Over the one-month challenge I had no issues with any sprains or injuries.

Another attribute to my competition of the challenge was my choice of music. My music choice may not be enjoyed by everyone, but the songs with high beats per minute helped to alleviate the repetitiveness of the exercise movement. Having a focal point to look at in the distance also contributed to my completion of the challenge. At the top of the vertical jump, I looked ahead to something specific in the foreground. This was generally a tree; it provided me with the cue to breathe/inhale at the start of the burpee movement. It was this cue in the environment which provided a rhythm and routine to the movement.

So, what now, as the gyms are back open? Well, I’ve decided to use burpees in my weekly workouts. Admittedly I’ve cut back on the number. But 50 burpees I consider a good part of a workout. My fitness base I built up during the month of burpees, means that I can complete 50 burpees effectively. I don’t want to lose this burpee fitness base, in fact I quite enjoy completing them two to three times a week!

In summary, burpees provide a good cardiovascular workout, when time or space is restricted. The reason for this is because it is a thorough whole-body workout. The burpee movement is made up of continual exercises, which over 15-20 minutes will result in a surge in your heart rate and leave your lungs gasping for air and muscles starved of oxygen. There is a reason why the burpee polarises gym-goers. But if you can get yourself into the right mindset and see past the physical hurt then burpees, with good form and technique, can be slightly addictive.

Bibliography

https://edition.cnn.com/2016/01/13/health/endorphins-exercise-cause-happiness/index.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burpee_(exercise)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvin_Harrishttps://www.spotify.com/nz/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swedish_House_Mafia

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnqO8sh7ztc

 


MikeAbout the Author:
My name is Mike Clayton, I am the Head of Education at Fit Futures Academy. I was born and raised in York in the United Kingdom (UK). I am of mixed race, my mother is Chinese and my father, English. I have a younger sister who lives in the UK with her family. My education was based at Liverpool University & Chester University College. I have a BSc Hons in Sports & Biological Sciences, where I majored in Sport Psychology. I presented at the 1998 BASES conference at Portsmouth University “What is the advantage in home advantage”. I also have a Postgraduate Diploma in Sport & Exercise Psychology & a Post Graduate Certificate in Teaching Adult Education. Alongside my loving and supportive wife, I have two young lovely daughters who remind me every day of how lucky I am. My educational areas of interest include Contemporary Issues in Sport & Habitual Exercising. 


Disclaimer: The exercises and information provided by Fit Futures Learning Institute (T/A Fit Futures Academy) (www.fitfutures.co.nz) are for educational and entertainment purposes only, and are not to be interpreted as a recommendation for a specific treatment plan, product or course of action. Read the full content disclaimer.