The History of the Burpee

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An exercise loved and loathed across classrooms, the Burpee can be found in P.E. classes, conditioning circuits and anywhere where trainees are searching to shed pounds and increase definition.

As simple as it is difficult, the exercise is often engaged in with relative unenthusiasm. In fact, I have yet to meet anyone who genuinely enjoys it! Nevertheless it is done. And for that reason alone, it’s interesting to explore its relatively recent history.

The History of the Burpee

Believe it or not, but the Burpee is actually named after its inventor, a Mr. Royal H. Burpee. Interested in health and fitness at an academic level, Burpee or ‘Goog’ as he was known to his family, created the movement during his PhD days at the Columbia Teacher College in 1939. Far from a tortuous intent, Burpee was interested in creating an exercise which would not only provide an overall conditioning for the body but would also act as a quick and easy means of testing individual’s fitness levels.

So how was the Burpee created?

As part of his doctoral research, Burpee set himself the task of creating an exercise that could be administered to large groups with little equipment and in the shortest time possible. So far so good right?

Not exactly…

You see, in an effort to be as thorough as possible, Burpee shifted through 300 different exercise protocols to find the most suitable test. After several months of presumably monotonous research, he finally centred on one entitled the Front Leaning Rest (FLR). This exercise, known also as the press up position was modified by Burpee to create that oh so loathed exercise.

Then What..?

Quite remarkably, soon after Burpee’s doctorate was completed his exercise was becoming popularised. In the first instance this was done by Burpee himself. As Burpee’s granddaughter recounts here, exercise science was still a burgeoning field at this time, something which perhaps encouraged her grandfather to innovate and design his own means of fitness testing. Thanks to his later position within New York’s YMCA gym, Burpee was given the opportunity to test, advance and promote his exercise amongst hundreds of trainees seeking to improve their health and fitness.

But there was another, and significantly more important avenue through which the Burpee was popularised. As is drilled into history students with an impressive regularity, 1939 marked the outbreak of the Second World War, a near worldwide conflict which engulfed the attention of militaries for nigh on six years. While the United States initially remained relatively impartial to the surrounding chaos, they too eventually entered the war, a decision which was to have repercussions for Burpee’s exercise.

Burpees and War

Seeking to find quick, easy and effective ways to train and also test recruits, army and navy officers revamped the training programme for new recruits in 1944. Included in this sea-change? None other than Burpee’s exercise. Pictured below is an infographic photograph published in Popular Science magazine in 1944. Note the Burpee exercise

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After the war finished and the troop’s returned home, the popularity of the Burpee increased. While a definitive history of the exercise remains to be written, it can be speculated that the institutionalised nature of the exercise post-WW2 helps explain its longevity. Similarly that many young men were exposed it it during the war hints at a continuity when the troops returned home from battle.

Interesting too is the comparison to be made with the Jumping Jack exercise, which itself stemmed from the US military. A timely reminder that exercise and military training are often intimately related.

So next time you’re doing another round of Burpees, do one more for Uncle Sam…Or don’t…who cares! Just get through the thing!

As always, happy lifting.

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