ATTN: For the bootcamp instructors or fitness enthusiasts out there that eat, sleep and breathe by the burpee - this article may prove to be blasphemous and you may want to stop reading here. If you wish to continue reading… proceed with a critical and open mind.
I can clearly remember the first time I was introduced to the burpee: my Phys. Ed. teacher many moons ago used it as punishment if we did not pay attention in class. At that time, I had what we can call “attentional difficulties.” By the end of the term, I may have amassed over 10000 burpees. Clearly, I just could not pay attention.
Now we are in the 21st century and the burpee just won’t go away! The burpee was supposed to be punishment for bad kids, now it’s being used as the most sought after exercise for bagging clients until they are left trying to stay afloat in their own pool of sweat! Listen everyone, the burpee is (and will always be) punishment for yourself or your clients – here’s why!
For many years, ignorance was bliss when it came to the legendary burpee; I didn’t know any better, I just did what I was told. Flash forward to years later, after attaining my kinesiology degree and furthering my knowledge base with athletic therapy and strength and conditioning - I now know better, and after breaking down the burpee and it’s effect on many of the body’s systems, it is NOT looking good. The classic burpee is a natural disaster for your low back, namely, your intervertebral (IV) discs.
*Not included here is a “how to perform a burpee” section. If you can’t conjure up an image, a simple Google or YouTube search will do.*
BURPEES AND THE BACK
Burpees are typically prescribed in high repetition or in timed fashion with the hope of fatiguing the client a la – HIIT. I’m going to be honest here; I have used the burpee on my clients many times over, but generally abstain from prescribing this particular exercise as there are many safer movements that have similar effect.
HIGH REPETITION WORK = FATIGUE
EPIDEMIOLOGY OF A DISC HERNIATION/PROTRUTION
Before we delve into the herniation, let’s quickly look at the basic anatomy of the lumbar spine.
We will pay particular attention to the intervertebral disc (in between the vertebrae) and what is, in fact, happening to the disc during the execution of the burpee.
The IV disc is made up of 2 parts, the outer most layer that is comprised of strong collagen fibers, the Annulus Fibrosus – (AF) that surround the soft, gel-like inner layer called the Nucleus Pulposus (NP) - imagine a jelly donut or a boston creampie.
HOW DO I INJURE MY DISC?
During repeated lumbar flexion, the NP gets pushed back towards the back of the disc. Over time, the AF will begin to wear away and the integrity of the disc will soon be compromised, allowing the NP to push further towards the posterior portion of the disc. Eventually, you will end up with a bulge, protrusion or a ruptured disc.
Keep in mind, in most cases, disc herniations happen over of a period of time, so in essence, the disc is like a ticking time bomb. The disc’s integrity will have been compromised long before you will ever feel discogenic pain.
You’ve all seen or felt it before, and can attest that as fatigue sets in, the burpee form is much different from the first to the very last rep. Thus, the IV disc will surely be taking the burnt of the punishment and not so much the person in training.
WHAT CAN I DO TO PREVENT THIS?
Simple! STOP DOING BURPEES! Although the anit-burpee movement won’t last or go anywhere, there is hope for burpee lovers out there and all will not be lost with this remedy.
As a trainer, you have to evaluate your client or clients and make the call as to whether or not they qualify to perform burpees. Sadly, many coaches use the burpee in “MET CON” or “FAT LOSS” classes when the client simply is just not ready for the burpee – nevermind burpees until fatigue.
Many clients performing the exercise will have to deal with either;
soft tissue restrictions or,
limited mobility issues – mainly the hip and lower body.
When your client has one or both of the restrictions listed, the client will find another way to execute the exercise. Unfortunately, the only other way to get the job done is to call on the lumbar spine to become more mobile to achieve the depths needed to get down and back up again.
While soft tissue restrictions may not always be the issue for some individuals, mobility issues can be the limiting factor for proper burpee execution. By improving your client’s mobility issues, you can minimize the amount of damage done to the IV disc/lumbar spine. Not only are you going to be improving your client’s movement patterns, you will be introducing them to a mobility exercises that will be challenging enough to bring their heart rate up to provide them the ‘workout’ they need and are looking for. This is especially true for clients that have remained sedentary for an extended period of time.
AN EFFECTIVE HIP MOBILITY TEMPLATE
The purpose of the warm up is to ‘grease’ the joints and elevate core body temperature. The mobility movements are based on fundamental human movements and sport movements. Here are the movements and the best order to do them in to prepare all your clients for lower body movements and exercise.
Sumo squats x 20 or squat to stand x 20
Reverse lunges (with rotation) x 10/leg
Drop lunges x 5-10/leg
Cossack squats x 10/leg
Straight Leg Raise x 10/leg
Fire hydrants 10 cw/10 ccw
Mountain climber 10/leg
Of course, it will take time for mobility to improve markedly and some clients or trainers may not have the patience to wait for the increased range of motion – what can be done to get one’s burpee fix? Modified burpees or elevated burpees.
Bringing the floor up to the client when perform this simple modification minimizes the amount of repeated lumber flexion thereby relieving the IV disc from a potential herniation. Using aerobic steps, a chair, or a bench will suffice for modifying the exercise.
Now that you all know the inherent risks of performing the burpee, perhaps it is best to look at the your client’s limitations before prescribing this particular exercise. If you look the other way, ignore the signs and carry on as per usual, be prepared for the storm that may follow – it’s not likely to be pretty.