Push-Ups vs. Burpees

Boot camp fitness group doing push up exercises outdoors

Burpees and push-ups have quite a bit in common -- both use just your bodyweight to make most of your major muscles burn. They ask a lot of your core strength and a long set of either will leave you feeling spent.

Although both moves are challenging and effective, push-ups are more modifiable. Burpees are also more cardiovascular in nature, taxing your heart, as well as your arms, legs and abs.

A push-up is actually a part of the six-count, heart-revving burpee. The move you choose for your workout depends on your fitness level, your goals and your desire for self-flagellation.

What is a Push-Up?

Rugged healthy man doing push-ups on the beach

A group boot camp workout often features both push-ups and burpees.

You're probably familiar with the classic calisthenics, boot camp and P.E. move, the push-up. After all, you've been taught push-ups since grade school.

A standard push-up involves getting into plank position -- balanced on your hands and toes with a strong, straight middle. Bend your elbows to lower your chest almost to touch the floor and return to the upright plank. That's one rep.

Jack Lalane, the late fitness guru, broke the World Record for push-ups in 1956 with a stunning 1,033 in 23 minutes. It's unlikely you'll work up to such a number, but doing so would certainly pose an extra challenge to the muscles of the chest, shoulders and triceps -- the primary ones worked during a push-up. You also use your abs, legs and back to stabilize your trunk as you press up and down.

The push-up is not really considered a cardiovascular exercise, however. Unless you are cranking out 10 minutes worth or more at a pace that raises your heart rate to a working level of 55 percent of your max or more, it's a strength-building move.

The Burpee Punishes Differently

The burpee, however, qualifies as a cardiovascular and strength challenge. It's nearly as ubiquitous as the push-up, too, when it comes to fitness classes, CrossFit and boot camps.

The move varies slightly from gym to gym and trainer to trainer. Most people know it as a six-count process, however:

  1. Start in a standing position. Squat down and put your hands on the floor.
  2. Jump both feet back into a plank -- or top of a push-up.
  3. Bend your elbows to touch your chest to the floor in a push-up.
  4. Rise back to plank.
  5. Jump your feet back to your hands.
  6. Stand up and launch your feet off the ground, hands reaching to the ceiling.
Sporty beautiful young woman practicing yoga, doing chaturanga dandasana, push-ups, four-limbed staff posture, working out outdoors on summer day wearing sportswear sweatshirt. Full length, side view

A group boot camp workout often features both push-ups and burpees.

Records for burpees are more staggering than Lalane's for the push-up. A fitness trainer, Mark Zarubi, for example, completed 18, 896 of the exercise in 24 hours in 2015 to raise money for a local charity.

During a burpee, your whole body, including your cardiovascular system, turns on. Your upper body catches you as you jump back into the plank and performs a push-up. Your legs and hips are instrumental in the jumping movements and your core stabilizes you throughout. Working the large muscles of your body in a systematic way raises your heart rate.

Modifying the Push-Up

While both moves are modifiable, the push-up is so much so that it can easily be made doable by even the most deconditioned of exercisers. Perform a push-up against a wall, with your hands on an incline or with your knees supporting you on the ground. It's a good idea to move through these progressions and satisfactorily be able to do a set of eight to 12 full push-ups before attempting a full burpee.

A burpee, on the other hand, isn't so easy to modify. You may of course take out the jumps and scramble the feet back to perform the push-up on your knees, but you'll still experience a dramatic change in body position and raise your heart rate. There's a reason the extremely challenging obstacle course runs known as Spartan races use burpees as a substitute when you fail on a challenge -- they're just hard.

Using Push-Ups and Burpees in Your Workouts

A push-up, or variation thereof, is a good exercise for just about any healthy exerciser, regardless of fitness level. A burpee is a harder progression that should be reserved for the more initiated.

Use these moves in a variety of ways to enhance your fitness:

  • Include push-ups as part of a chest strength-training routine along with bench presses and dumbbell flyes.
  • Do push-ups as  part of a body-weight calisthenics routine that includes squats, lunges and dips.
  • Add burpees between sets of weight training exercises to keep your heart rate up.
  • Perform burpees and push-ups as super sets -- for example a set of 15 burpees immediately followed by 10 to 20 push-ups -- to dynamically challenge your whole body.
  • Make burpees, push-ups or both part of a circuit training routine that involves stations that you visit for 1 minute each with no break between them; include dumbbell squats, pull-ups, bench presses, walking lunges, hanging leg raises and other dynamic moves in your circuit.
  • Use burpees as part of a cardio circuit that includes moves such as jump squats, mountain climbers, rope jumping and jump lunges.
  • Make burpees the intense interval in a HIIT workout, also known as high-intensity interval training. This workout involves alternating short bouts of all-out effort with more moderate work, such as marching in place, for a total of 20 to 30 minutes.