Why you don't need the gym to do the best equipment-free fat-burning exercise
Burpees are the best no-kit exercise for weight loss, building muscle and developing co-ordination
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What constitutes a really good weight loss exercise? It needs to be intense, using lots of different muscle groups at a high rate of work to get you really sweating. Ideally, it should also be able to be performed in or out of a gym setting, so you can get a great workout anywhere.
The best exercises for weight loss are compound movements, recruiting muscle from your whole body to execute the move. Lots of people would like a specific part of their body to look trimmer, whether it's your waistline, thighs, arms or chin. But it's almost impossible to "spot reduce", or trim fat from specific parts of your body. Instead, science tells us the best way to tone up is to do a demanding all-over body exercise, like the burpee, which will melt your fat, build up muscle and raise your metabolism all in one go.
The burpee is a very difficult bodyweight exercise because it incorporates our upper and lower body at the same time. It's an explosive movement, so it's designed to be performed very quickly, rather than a slower aerobic exercise like jogging.
This is what gives the burpee its edge. A study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (opens in new tab) found burpees worked your heart, respiratory system and elevated your metabolism much higher than cycling did, even when pedalling at high intensity. It's an "anaerobic" exercise, which means it uses your body's oxygen faster than you can replace it. This encourages your body to burn more fat.
In a study of 13 different gym exercises published in the ACMS Health and Fitness Journal (opens in new tab), the burpee was found to be second only to battling ropes when it comes to the amount of energy it uses up. Of course, the more energy required to perform the move, the harder your body works, making it a perfect move to use for fat loss even if you don't have any equipment to hand.
Burpees have even been found as superior to sprint training when it comes to "glycogenic load" (a technical term for energy used), upper-body conditioning and perceived effort, so everyone thinks they've worked harder after a few burpees – and rightly so. The combination of dynamic jumps, sprawls, squat-thrusts and press-ups make it a perfect fat-burner.
The intensity of burpees also make it an ideal candidate for HIIT, or high-intensity interval training. This popular workout involves working at maximum intensity for very short periods of time, and then stopping to recover. For example, you might do as many burpees as you can in thirty seconds, stop for a minute, and then go again.
HIIT has been proven to raise your metabolism for an extended period of time: just 20 minutes of HIIT training can keep your metabolism elevated for up to 24 hours, making it a very effective weight loss strategy. If you're looking for a more long-term fitness strategy, you can try our HIIT workout four-week challenge.
How to do a burpee
- Stand up tall with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands by your sides.
- Get down into a squat thrust starting position, with your hands placed on the ground, shoulder-width apart in front of you.
- Kick your legs out to get into the plank position. Quickly lower yourself down until your chest is just above the ground.
- Push back up to return to the plank position. Bring your legs forward so that you’re back in the squat thrust starting position.
- Regain your feet and stand up. As you’re standing up, jump up. When you’ve landed, move straight onto your next repetition.
Tips on performing burpees
There's no getting around it: the burpee is a difficult move to perform, especially for first-time exercisers or those coming back to a fitness regime after a long period of inactivity. However, there are ways to make it easier: as seen in the video below, you can make burpees easier to start off with using a bench, stool or other flat surface.
Burpees are equipment-free, but to really get the most out of them, you'll want to get the best cross training shoes. These shoes usually come with flat soles for lifting stability, but also maintain springiness and cushioned soles to make them ideal for cardiovascular work such as burpees. If you're practising the HIIT training burpees work best in, they're an essential purchase.
You can ease up how taxing you find burpees, and improve your form, by practising push ups. You can either do a full push-up in a plank position, a push up on your knees, or a push-up against the wall, depending on your fitness level. Push-ups will develop your core strength and the added muscle in your strength and arms will help you get up after lying down on your stomach, an essential skill when performing burpees.
You can pair these with jump squats. Performed just like a regular squat, in which you bend your knees and lower your bum to the floor, jump squats teach you to lift off with enough force to propel yourself into the air. If you can't do jump squats yet, or you're worried about your joints, perform regular squats until you can comfortably do a set of 20 without stopping. That might be the time to bring in some plyometric power.
The burpee is essentially a combination of these two moves: you squat down, you push your legs out into a push-up position, you bring them back in and perform a jump squat. By practising those two moves, you'll soon be cranking out burpees like nobody's business.
Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and is currently Fitness and Wellbeing Editor at TechRadar, covering all things exercise and nutrition on Fit&Well's tech-focused sister site. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.
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