by Geoff Rand
No other CrossFit exercise has anywhere near as many t-shirts or memes professing such universal hatred for a movement than the burpee. But where did the exercise and silly name come from? Surely there is someone we can all focus our anger on while we are slipping in a pool of our own sweat during a high rep burpee marathon.
There is. Well, sort of.
Royal H. Burpee was an American physiologist and director of the YMCA in New York City. For his thesis at Columbia University in 1940, Burpee developed a 4-count movement as a way to measure the fitness level of non-active adults. His exercise consisted of a standing start position, moving into a squat with hands inside the feet, transitioning to a plank, a hop back to the squat, and standing back up. There was no push up or jump as we see today.
Burpee was testing average, everyday individuals, and stressed that the movement should not be conducted with high repetitions, and in fact, he used only four repetitions and compared the heart rate taken after the four reps to a resting heart rate, among other measurements, as a way to gauge a person’s level of fitness.
Shortly after the start of World War II, the U.S. military adopted the burpee as a way to assess potential recruits’ fitness levels, and eventually incorporated it into their physical fitness tests. They called it the squat thrust and it is still in the physical training manual in use today. The Army initially administered it as a 20-second test with 8 reps considered poor, 10 reps fair, 12 reps good, and 13 or more reps considered excellent. Remember, this was the 4-count burpee. Don’t expect to hit these marks with a modern burpee. Later, the Army increased the time to a 60-second interval.
Who added the push up and jump to an already challenging movement? That secret seems lost to time, and it is doubtful that cruel, sadistic trainer will ever come forward for fear of becoming the most hated fitness professional in the world.
Today, we see tortuous applications of burpees in WODs such as 7 minute AMRAPs or 100 burpees for time. Burpees are also used as punishment for CrossFit “profanity”, being late, or failing to note times on the board.
As if it wasn't bad enough already, the burpee has evolved to ever more difficult manifestations, such as burpees over bar, burpee box jumps, and burpee pull-ups.
So, next time you are grinding out rep number 96, and words are coming out of your mouth that would offend a sailor, take comfort in the fact that Royal H. Burpee would protest such a high repetition count and question the need for the additional steps added to his exercise. Then, realize none of that is going to change didly squat right now, and reach down, suck it up, and finish the WOD buttercup.