Imagine 48 hours of doing nothing but burpees. No sleep, hardly eating — just burpees. That nightmare was Josh Zitomer's reality. The trainer and ultra-triathlete became the new burpee world-record holder after notching 10,000 in 48 hours last month to raise money for a children's charity. Obviously, this gargantuan physical effort took a lot of mental prep.
"I had two strategies," he explains. "The first was sets of 250." After each set, Zitomer would pause long enough for water, a few sips of an electrolyte-packed sports drink, and small bites of calorie-dense foods such as oatmeal with nuts and raisins and PB&Js with nutella (around the 7,000th burpee, Zitomer allowed himself a slice of pizza — "Heaven!"). Once sets of 250 proved too difficult, he focused on just moving forward — busting out 8 minutes of burpees at a time, then 2 minutes rest. Ultimately, he attributes his ability to power through to mind over matter. "Around 6,000, I had to become robotic and go through the motions as if there were no pain," he says. "We're all capable of enduring so much more pain than we give ourselves credit for — most of us just aren't used to straying outside of our comfort zone."
Zitomer picked up a few other tips on the way to 10,000. Here, the burpee-master shares how to make this killer move hurt a little bit less.
Train the Triceps and Core
For most, the hardest parts of the burpee are the pushup, and actually picking yourself up off the floor. Zitomer has two tips to help breeze through these movements.
First, focus on strengthening the triceps. During training, "I would do 10 triceps pushups for each burpee," Zitomer says. Basically that means dropping down into the burpee, and cranking out enough push-up reps to fatigue your arms, then coming back up. A few sets of this each workout will guarantee that, when you do regular burpees a month from now, they'll feel far easier.
You always want to target your core. A tight, strong midsection will help make getting down into the pushup, and picking yourself back up to a standing position, much easier to do. Just like the triceps pushups, you can train this by souping up the traditional burpee. "I would drop down into a burpee and instead of doing a pushup and coming right back up, I'd do a series of core movements while I stayed in that pushup position, then come back up," Zitomer says. Try tapping a knee to opposite elbow or doing mountain climbers.
Save Your Legs
After doing your pushup, you want to keep your hips as high as possible when you jump your knees in to get back up. This helps take strain off your legs, Zitomer says, because if your hips are a couple inches higher, "you don't have to squat from that low position when coming out of a burpee."
Focus on Breathing
A lot of burpee-related strain happens in the lower back, one of the reasons the exercise can feel so grueling. Focusing on breath intake during the movement can go a long way.
"Inhale on the pushup, exhale on the explosive jump," he says. "When you inhale, it protects the low back by creating pressure within your abdominal cavity and support; then you're exhaling on the explosive portion, which is typical when strength training."
Get Your Head Right
To slam out burpees by the thousands, Zitomer says has a couple mental tricks. For starters, look at each burpee as its own single exercise. "Do one, then think about the next one —once you start thinking about them as a set of 30, it gets daunting," he says. Or, try choosing one part of the movement and focusing on only that. In doing so, "you're diverting your attention away from your burning lungs or your tired chest."
Most important, try not to focus on how much burpees suck. Zitomer is a firm believer that, when we obsess over how much it's going to hurt, our minds hold our bodies back from their full potential.
Foam Roll After
"The deep muscles of the mid to lower back are stressed pretty hard throughout the burpee movement," Zitomer says. "Rolling is extremely important to loosen up the musculature." If a traditional foam roller isn't cutting it to dig into your knots, you can take it up a notch. Zitomer personally uses a baseball over a foam roller. "A bit more aggressive," he admits, "but it also targets tight areas more specifically."