Are Burpees the Ultimate Bodyweight Exercise?
I heard before that the ultimate bodyweight exercise was burpees, but I wondered if that was true and what exact results could you get from them. Could you get fit by doing just burpees for 100 days? Would they build strength and endurance? Would your metabolism start to burn like a furnace? I wanted to find out. So I set a gong, a practice with intention.
The Workout Routine:
The idea was to perform 10 sets of 10 reps with a rest between sets. I didn't time the rest, but rather rested until I caught my breath then performed the following set.
I would do one day on and one day off to allow for the muscles to grow. I would vary the type of burpee to avoid plateauing by challenging the body and to keep it interesting. Because burpees are a pushing exercise, I needed to balance it with a pulling exercise - pullups. Initially I just did burpees, but I could feel I was over developing one side of the body and my posture was becoming poor. So I added 4 sets of pullups after the burpees were done.
Days 1 - 25:
Day one I started out ambitiously and quickly found how bad my endurance was. I hadn’t worked out for six years aside from occasional pushups. Doing the burpees felt incredibly lame, I had no strength and you can see my form sagging in the video. I had no core strength.
In the beginning I felt very sore.
I could hardly lift my arms for three days afterwards. After the third workout, the soreness starting subsiding. I struggled a lot with motivation in the beginning. To help, I would think about getting out in nature rather than thinking about the exercise. I found that once I was outside and moving around, the blood starts pumping and it changes your mood. You start to feel motivated.
Creating Variety in Burpees:
Initially I was doing just basic burpees, but realized burpees can be done anywhere and incorporated into anything. They are very versatile and are a tremendous workout. I think this is how workouts are meant to be, they are meant to be challenging where they engage the mind and challenge the body. When you can see skill improve and strength increase, it creates powerful intrinsic motivation.
Discovering the Recovery Breath:
After several workouts, I discovered how much breathing increases performance. My kung fu master, Master Wang had always stressed the power in Qigong and how it can increase physical strength, but didn't know how until I started applying. Qigong is a practice that uses visualization and breath to increase health and physical performance.
I tried out one technique that cut down my recovery time by about 50%. This was a very powerful breakthrough. In one instant, my performance shot up. I found that I could go further and faster with less effort, it was all because the body was being supplied with more rich oxygen.
Imagine you only used your arms to get around and then discovered you have strong legs. Your lungs are like that. Most people are only aware of the upper part of their lungs, but the power is in the lower area, just like your legs are.
Before I would get gassed out by breathing heavily. I would be winded before I reached muscular failure. It was my weak link. Now with the Recovery Breath, I could go until muscular fatigue. This technique was crucial for me hitting the 200 reps at the end.
Initially I did the breathing technique after doing a set to catch my breath. Later I used it as a breathing technique during the workout which helped much more to do more reps.
I also found that when you focus on your breath in between sets, rather than time, you stay more in the zone. You operate more out of autonomy than set schedules (which reduce intrinsic motivation). It is a more mindful approach.
Three Steps on How to Perform the Recovery Breath.
You can do the Recovery Breaths in sets of three and then relax. That seemed to be the most beneficial. This type of breathing also tones your abdominals.
Trying to Stay Committed:
I had missed a day because of a social engagement, so I just went the next day. At first I wasn’t feeling in the mood, so I just focused on where to shoot a video, making it project oriented. I weighed myself to see if I made any progress, it felt like there was none. This started to kill my mood. So I decided to pack away the scale. External measures tend to reduce internal pleasure.
Look at it as a Meditation:
Some days I would find that I wasn't able to perform as many burpees, this could be from lack of energy or from doing a new variation. This often would make me feel like I was regressing and not making any progress. I decided to look at it like a meditation - do the practice and not get distracted by "is it good enough?" The idea is to derive as much satisfaction out of it as possible so that you are telling your brain that it is enjoyable and let's do more of this.
Two Weeks in & Reaching a Low Point:
About two weeks in, I started noticing how food affected me. I was eating fairly clean, I didn't eat junk food and I prepared most of my own meals. But something I was eating was making me bloated and making the weight stick. This is when I started reaching a real low point, my stomach was puffing out big time. I wondered maybe my body had reached a set point because I was doing all this work, training consistently and the weight wasn't budging.
From this derailment, I experienced what they call “What-the-Hell” effect. Because I was already losing ground, I might as well give in to it. So I ate a few bowls of ice cream with peanut butter and a lot of Easter candy. I still had to do my workout that day. I thought I could just put it off for when I was feeling better. Then I thought, I could just burn this sugar out by running. Then I thought, why not just do burpees to burn it out? So I did them.
I learned that much of fat and feeling bloated is caused by inflammation. So the primary thing is to cut out anything that is inflammatory. Dr. Mark Hyman says, “Inflammation is one of the biggest drivers of weight gain and disease in America.” Inflammation is caused by foods that irritate the immune system more than others. The most common include gluten, dairy, corn, eggs, soy, nuts, nightshades, citrus and yeast. Most diets that do well is more because they eliminate or reduce much of these things.
The two big breakthrough I had at the end of the first 25 days:
Two big things I learned about motivation:
Days 26 - 50:
The Game Changer Diet:
For the next 25 days I decided to try a “Game Changer” diet to see what happens. I realized from the first 25 days that diet has a big influence on the results.
I decided to try a high fat diet as it changes at a fundamental way on how your body burns energy. Normally the body burns sugar (glucose), but if you limit your carbohydrate intake it will start burning fat (ketones) for energy. So for the next 25 days I decided I will try it and see what happens, leaving it open ended.
11 Days in, Lost 8 Pounds:
After a few days I started seeing results from the Game Changer diet, which is pretty exciting. However I did fall off the plan several times mostly because lack of variety and food was getting repetitive. I went with what the brain likes most - candy. You can’t force the process, you have to find a better way that feels natural. So, finding more recipes is a key part of a diet change. Eleven days into the Game Changer diet, my weight dropped by 8 pounds. Feels like the leanest I’ve ever been and definitely is encouraging.
Some of the benefits I’ve found is that fat makes you full and you never go hungry. It can hold you over for hours. I would have to remind myself to eat. There are a lot of misconceptions about fat.
Increasing Strength and Overcoming Mental Blocks:
With the burpees, I started making personal breakthroughs. I was able to get 10 sets of 12, and then slowly started increasing from there. At 10 sets of 14, I hit a mental block. I would perform one set of 14 and my brain would say, "you will never get the next set." So I would counter that with, "try the next set and go until physically, I can't." Getting through this mental block felt impossible, but it was only mental. Physically, I could actually do it, but the brain likes to put limits on what you can do physically. It was an important lesson of what you can actually do and what you think you can do.
Two Big things I learned:
Days 51 - 75:
Starting to Crave the Training:
I noticed a shift take place after 50 days of training, I actually am beginning to crave the training. I think the brain is getting addicted to the endorphins that kick off from doing the exercise. After working out, I feel a good energy boost and have energy throughout the day.
Training, I've made some breakthrough. I broke the 150 rep mental block. My coordination is improving a lot, the movements are coming a lot easier.
After getting 150 a few times, I attempted doing 10 sets of 20 for 200 reps and was able to get to 169.
Setbacks and More "What-the-Hell":
Though physically my performance is improving, I plateaued on getting leaner. More "What-the-Hell" effect kicked in and I binged on sweets for two days in a row. After abstaining from sweets for quite awhile, I noticed how much they create mood imbalances - they made me irritable and moody. This lead to an insight that sweets are mood imbalancing and fats are mood balancing.
Two things I learned:
Days 76 - 100:
The Last 10 Days - Give Up?
Even when you're close, your mind will still try convince you to give up. It will rationalize it by saying, "it was good enough." The last 10 days, I couldn't lose those last few pounds to really lean up. I really felt like calling it good and move on to something else. I decided that since I only have 10 more days left, just focus in and let the results fall where they may.
Getting to 200:
During the last 100 days, I hit the 200 level for burpees. Using the Recovery Breath was very important. Previously when I tried for the 200 level, but my breathing was so intense, it was like fire, and made my mind feel spacey. I couldn't reach it. Later when I tried with using the Recovery Breath, the workout became much easier and my cardiovascular was no longer the problem. I could put in the work until my legs give out and I finally reached the 200 level.
Final Weigh in:
The day before the final weigh in, I gorged on food and thought I screwed myself and wouldn't peak for the final day. But I didn't, I weighed in at 156, down from a starting weight of 180. Since I weighed in after working out, some of this weight lost was probably water weight, so I consider the actual weight to be 158, for a total of 22 pounds lost.
Two Things I Learned:
About the blog
Luke Shao and Master Wang are on a mission to share the ancient Chinese approach to acquiring any skill.