As a clinician and an avid fitness junkie/meat-head, I like to train hard and feel the positive results like other folks who enjoy exercise. Fortunately for me, I’ve got years of training and over 18 years of clinical practice that helps me weed out all the detrimental and potentially back injuring exercises that create so many visits to health care providers. Many of my patients, unfortunately, do not have the experience to know which exercises to do and which ones to substitute/cut out altogether. This scenario unfortunately has many of my patients and thousands of exercisers doing potentially injurious movements without knowing the ramifications of these exercises and the detriment to their spines.
In this installment of “BACK BREAKER” of the Week, I’d like to propose jettisoning the BURPEE from your workout from here to eternity! Every single week in practice I have patients tell me about how they do burpees to get their heart rates up, their fitness instructors use burpees to increase their conditioning and how their kid’s coaches have their kids doing burpees for conditioning/fitness. I’m not certain what has created this love affair for burpees but I’m here to state unequivocally they are horrible for your lower back and should be banned from your fitness routine! But why Dr. Rob? Burpees get my heart rate up and make me sweat! Well, they may get your heart rate up and make you sweat but they inevitably will wear down the ligaments of your lower back, cause instability and eventually bulge your lumbar discs! The detrimental nature of the burpee is two-fold:
1. With both the lowering and raising components of the burpee the lumbar spine is taken through a large range of flexion (the position that bulges discs!) at the bottom of the lumbar spine. This occurs from the pelvis tilting into a posterior pelvic tilt on the way down and again on the way up.
2. A large range of flexion occurs in the upper lumbar spine from the torso dropping forward toward the knees on the way down and again on the way up again, creating excessive upper lumbar flexion. So, by its truest nature, the burpee is the perfect exercise to not only destroy your discs at the bottom but also the top of your lumbar spine!
As I’ve talked about over and over and over again in my videos and explained extensively in my book, the lumbar spine craves its safe, neutral, non-straining position of lordosis during activities of daily living but more importantly during exercise! This is simply because exercise in general has the potential to create more repetition and more load on the spine placing it in danger of breaking down.
So, with this in mind let’s substitute the MOUNTAIN CLIMBER for the burpee.
The mountain climber will work your core, get your heart rate up, make you sweat, increase your fitness and most importantly not break your back down. Like all core builders and safe exercises I recommend, you should start in a lumbar neutral position (lordosis), brace your core so your spine remains in this position throughout the entirety of the exercise. Move one leg toward your torso but stop just short of 90 degrees (slightly less than a right angle from your torso to your thigh). Be sure not to bring your knee closer to your torso than 90 degrees because your pelvis will posteriorly rotate dragging the lower vertebrae with it potentially causing disc strain. Quickly and simultaneously move your opposite leg to the same position while your first leg moves back to the start. Repeat quickly or slowly based on your fitness level and never do so many that you are too fatigued to hold your core brace and spine in lordosis. Performed correctly, the MOUNTAIN CLIMBER is a safe alternative to the burpee. It can be substituted during fitness classes and on your child’s sports field/court with great ease.
If anyone asks you why you’ve changed the movement and aren’t doing the burpees that have been taught/recommended, simply blame me and say “Dr. Rob said NO BURPEES!!”, then tell them “you should do mountain climbers instead of burpees too, so you can be like
Dr. Rob and I and PROTECT YOUR BACK”!