Because burpees are an all-around holistic exercise and engage multiple muscles, people naturally wonder whether one could do these exercises instead of traditional strength training—but are they a suitable replacement?
Burpees will never replace strength training because the body will eventually get used to the resistance created by doing the exercise. Burpees are also mainly a cardio exercise, so their capacity to build strength, particularly in beginners, is inherently limited.
It’s worth noting burpees can help you grow stronger from the resistance if you’re fairly new to exercising. However, it’s important to understand that the body needs to experience progressive overload to continuously get stronger. Below, we’ll cover how burpees compare to traditional strength training and whether it is a suitable replacement for it.
Can Burpees Replace Strength Training?
The truth is that burpees rely on very rudimentary exercises that don’t end up requiring a whole lot of effort from your body. That’s not to say that your body won’t get tired or physically exhausted while doing burpees, because obviously, they will, but it’s generally not going to be from the demands on strength the exercise(s) will have on you.
Burpees won’t replace strength training, but they can have the effect of building strength if you’re relatively new to physical exercise. Because burpees at its core can be condensed into four fundamental exercises, i.e., push-ups, planks, squats, and jumps, your body can experience temporary muscle gain and strength increases to the following muscles:
Triceps or arms
Pectoral muscles or chest
Shoulders or deltoids
Hamstrings (back of the thigh)
Quadriceps (front of the thigh)
Gluteus maximus, minimus, and medius (buttocks)
When new to strength training of any kind, the first two months provide a host of interesting changes, causing many physiological adaptations to occur within the body. During this phase, nervous system adaptations to the sudden introduction of stress to the body will cause rapid increases in strength.
During the first two months of resistance training, it’s not uncommon to see 20-30% gains in strength, which is normally very difficult to accomplish with regular exercise. This can be further extended when taking supplements and eating the correct macronutrients for your body.
Burpees and Strength Training
Burpees fall under a category of exercise called calisthenics, which is a form of strength training that uses one’s own body as a form of resistance. Burpees are a highly intensive form of calisthenics exercise that practically uses every major muscle group in your body to perform it.
In its most traditional form, burpees consist of getting into a squat position, hopping down into a plank, doing a push-up, followed by a quick leap in the air. Despite sounding simple, it can be very effective for gaining a baseline of strength in the legs, hips, buttocks, abs, chest, arms, and shoulders.
However, unless you increase the demand for the strength needed to perform these exercises, burpees can never indefinitely provide ample strength training on their own.
Burpees for Strength vs. Cardio
Burpees can be more considered a HIIT exercise, otherwise known as High-Intensity Interval Training. While HIIT exercises can look very different, they all share a similar goal at the end of the day, and that’s losing weight and specifically burning fat through cardio.
While HIIT workouts can help certain individuals who are already less physically inclined gain muscle, in general, HIIT focuses on the calories burned, with any increases in strength being a beneficial side-effect. Therefore, most of the exhaustion that burpees produce comes from the exercise’s cardio component—not strength.
Burpees Can Hinder Strength Training Gains
After a while, burpees will actually lose their effectiveness in generating more strength. The pressing, continuous repetition of an exercise without added difficulty can result in diminished strength gains, especially if your former strength training involved lifting weights.
According to a 2012 issue of the Strength and Conditioning Journal, push-ups require you to support at most 70% of your own body weight, whereas you have to support 100% of the weight from a weight-related counterpart such as the bench-press.
Therefore, if you were previously lifting large weights and are now doing burpees instead, you’re decreasing the amount of resistance your body has been accustomed to. Your muscles won’t get the same stimulation they were used to, thus resulting in a loss of strength, at worse, and a complete plateau at best.
Can You Modify Burpees for Better Strength Training?
Everyone has different goals when doing strength training. Generally, people like getting stronger because of the benefits it offers to the person. Outside of looking better and healthier, strength training increases muscle mass, moderates weight gain, creates stronger bones, and more. The problem with burpees is that eventually, your body will get used to the level of stress you’re providing it.
Without progressive overload, or continuously increasing your musculoskeletal system’s demands, your muscles will stop getting bigger and stronger, both of which are common goals in strength training. There are many different ways to achieve progressive overload outside of performing burpees:
By adding resistance in the form of weights to an exercise, it’ll be easy for you to progressively overload your body. You can gradually get stronger at your own rate. Once your body gets used to the weight, you can easily add more to achieve a greater difficulty.
For example, you can do burpees with a weight vest. By simply adding 12-20 lbs. of weight to your body, that’s literally an additional 12-20 lbs. of resistance being added to each component of the exercise. You’ll find that push-ups will require significantly more strength, as will lifting yourself up, squatting, and jumping.
Try Different Exercises
It never hurts to work out your body in different ways. If you’re not interested in adding weight to your workout regime, achieving progressive overload in calisthenics typically requires a bit of creativity. The difficulty of exercise can be increased by simply changing joint angles, gripping positions, and even body positions.
If you’re more invested in calisthenics, you could always supplement your training by getting started with various fitness equipment. For example, parallette bars can make your burpees more challenging by essentially modifying the exercise. You can try doing planks and push-ups on the bars instead of on the floor. This will give your body the challenge it needs to get stronger while doing burpees.
Alternatively, you can always increase reps if you’re interested in progressive overload. In this case, you would keep doing the burpees until you can no longer do them with proper form.
It’s important to note that you don’t want to increase your reps indefinitely. You’ll quickly find yourself out of strength training and in the category of improving muscle endurance. Research and anecdotal reports suggest that to maximize your strength training and muscle-building goals, falling between 8-12 reps per set is optimal.
Burpees aren’t intended to replace strength training, and it can really only be called strength training if you’re an absolute beginner at working out. Rather, burpees are a supplement to traditional strength training.
Granted, your goals in strength training might stop at being able to do burpees, which is perfectly valid. Still, if you intend to get stronger beyond fundamental exercises, you’ll find yourself quickly outgrowing burpees.
The body gets “used to” doing the same exercise over and over again with little to no changes in difficulty. After you establish your fundamentals, you’re meant to build off them and either move onto more challenging exercises, increase the reps, or add resistance.