By Sally Tamarkin
Ever do a burpee? Or 30? Ever tackled a circuit that requires, say, five rounds of 15 burpees? If so, you might want someone to blame for bringing this uniquely punishing movement into the world and to the attention of coaches, trainers and fitness enthusiasts. So at whom can we shake our sweaty, exhausted fists?
It’s difficult to know exactly who’s responsible for today’s burpee, which is often programmed to be done in multiple hi-rep sets (though it’s fun to picture an old-timey villain twisting his mustache and laughing uproariously as legions of exhausted exercisers drag themselves through each rep). We can, however, identify the one person who is most certainly not to blame for the movement as we know it today: the exercise’s inventor and namesake, Royal Huddleston Burpee.
Thanks, Royal H. Burpee
Royal H. Burpee was a physiologist in New York City who invented a much milder (and less tormenting) version of the movement, intending it to be done just four times in a row as part of a fitness test. In fact, he even spoke out against his movement being done in high volumes. Although there are only two remaining copies of Burpee’s thesis, we were able to get the low down on the origins on the burpee from the granddaughter of Burpee himself — Sheryl Burpee Dluginski.
Burpee Dluginski explained that her grandfather was a “fitness fanatic before Jack Lalanne” himself. At a time when exercise science was mostly concerned with measuring the fitness of already fit people, Burpee wanted a simple way to assess the fitness of everyday folks (starting with the new members of the YMCA in the Bronx, where Burpee worked). So in 1939, when Burpee was a Ph.D. candidate in applied physiology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, he invented an as-yet-unnamed, four-count movement that would provide a quick and accurate way to evaluate fitness. Only later would it evolve into the six-count beast we know today.