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How the burpee turned the Detroit Lions into contenders

Jun 16, 2023

ON THE OFFICIAL in-house practice script delivered to players and staff before Day 1 of 2023 Detroit Lions training camp, the big moment is described ever-so-cryptically as just "40 THEM THINGS." In 2021 when defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn brought this camp-opening bonding ritual with him from New Orleans he called it, simply, up-downs. Any Detroit fan old enough to remember the Lions' last playoff win (in 1991) probably knows a version of them from phys ed class as squat thrusts. As a star tight end at Glen Rose High School in Texas, often decked out in a T-shirt that said "No Excuses, Just Results," Detroit coach Dan Campbell called them whistle stops. These days, with the darlings in Detroit suddenly everyone's favorite dark horse to win the NFC North, the Lions' social media team has labeled this viral, football-season-opening ritual "A #LionsCamp tradition unlike any other."

But when the time finally arrives and the Lions pride of 300-pounders gather 'round their famously hypercaffeinated coach at midfield, there's no mistaking the classic calisthenic chosen for this important, collective moment of sweating, suffering and bonding. It's one of the least understood but most universally hated, humbling and ruthlessly efficient exercises known to man. And it's so deceptively simple: gravity + squat + plank + pushup + repeat. This is the only movement tough enough to win a world war and cool enough to move merch. The one drill that kept debutantes and desk jockeys alike occupied during COVID-19 lockdowns. The closest we've ever come, according to West Point's Master of the Sword, Colonel Nicholas Gist, to creating "a perfect exercise."

So, of course, after more than half a century of futility, when Campbell needed something, anything, to help change the culture in Detroit, he turned to the simple yet somehow instantly exhausting drill the world has loved -- and loved to hate -- since it was invented (in the nick of time) just before World War II by a New York-based physiologist with a funny last name.

The burpee.

It's an exercise of such profound power and perfection it has changed the course of human history. So there's a chance it could also work on the Lions. "For sure it helped turn this team around," Detroit veteran safety Tracy Walker III said. "It's a tradition and a foundation that we set and that we've built from the ground up. Nothing is going to be given to you here. You got to earn it. And it's all pretty easy to understand as a player if you look over and your coach is out there doing f---ing up-downs next to you in the dirt."

Now, what started as a way to build chemistry and culture has become a viral sensation and a slightly silly rite of passage in Detroit where each summer the Lions and their head coach perform the task of 40 burpees together to officially open the season and the Lions' long march back to respectability.

"What always excites me [about the start of football season] is the brotherhood," Campbell said. "Being back around the guys and watching them sweat and grind and bleed and laugh and cry, just all of it man. It takes a high level of commitment and sacrifice, and that's what makes it special. It's not for everybody, and I always appreciate that. If there are guys who don't quite get there, they get weeded out in a hurry."

Which is exactly why Dr. Royal Huddleston Burpee invented the burpee in the first place.

IN THE EARLY stages of World War II, Army experts studied the physical conditioning of the average American recruit and then revealed their shocking (and shockingly timeless) conclusion to editors at Popular Science magazine: Our boys are a bunch of softies. "Our young men are a sad commentary on the machine age, easy schooling, and easy living," the magazine reported. "They're softies compared to their fathers of a generation ago. They look all right: they're taller, heavier, better nourished, and freer from disease. But they haven't exercised as much as their fathers used to and they're physical weaklings by present day military standards."

To fix the problem, a blue-ribbon panel of trainers and physiologists was assembled to whip the soldiers into shape with a workout regimen of essential calisthenics known as The Army's Daily Dozen.

The workout featured a challenging new exercise with a bizarre name: the burpee.

Although the rumor persists to this day (and makes perfect sense if you've ever attempted more than five in a row too soon after a meal), the term "burpee" is not, in fact, some phonetic version of the guttural sounds elicited by the exercise. It is named for the man who designed it in 1939 as part of his doctoral thesis in Applied Physiology at Columbia University. (Burpee is actually the Americanized spelling of the French Canadian Beaupre'.) Born and raised in Little Neck, on the edge of Queens, after serving in the Navy in World War I, Burpee began a distinguished career as a director at the New York YMCA who dedicated his life to promoting physical fitness and well-being through science and higher learning.

Based on a black and white family photo, Doc Burpee definitely practiced what he preached. Posing by a lake, an absolutely yoked Burpee, decked out in a navy hat, white tank top and quilted shorts, looks like a mythical mix of Clark Gable and Popeye. Family lore says Burpee inherited his strength and toughness from his mother, who was given the Huddleston name as an infant after she was found abandoned on a doorstep huddled around a stone. "My grandpa was a really fit guy who, in the 1920s and 1930s, was on the cutting edge of fitness and body building," said Royal's granddaughter Sheryl Burpee Dluginski, herself a longtime gymnastics coach and fitness trainer in New York City. "Goog -- that's what we all called him, Goog -- had a fascination with the human body, what it can do, and that extended to learning about the science and physiology behind it."

As the director of a Y, every day Burpee saw firsthand the need for a quick and accurate way to assess the fitness levels of new members in order to place them in the most beneficial training program. Solving that problem became his obsession and the focus of his doctoral thesis at Columbia: Seven Quickly Administered Tests of Physical Capacity. While painstakingly analyzing 305 different exercises over 151 pages, Burpee kept coming back to three essential movements: the squat, the pushup and the sun salutation. He seems to have just combined all three into a single movement.

The burpee was born.

Technically, of course, no one person can claim to have invented a movement that humans have probably been performing for millions of years. According to Whitfield East, a professor emeritus at West Point and an expert in combat readiness and training, Prussian soldiers were documented applying similar gymnastic moves into their combat training scenarios as early as the 1800s. And the training was often much deeper than just physical conditioning. Because the idea of rising quickly from the safety of the ground to charge at imminent danger on a battlefield is so counterintuitive, the command-and-response style of basic exercises like the burpee is still used to train a soldier's physique but, more importantly, it's used to condition their brain and their body to follow orders, no matter what.

Burpee never intended for his movement to be used in this way, or even as an exercise -- or a meme, or a bumper sticker, for that matter. His original version, which he called a "Front Leaning Rest" (talk about a misnomer) was pretty much just a squat thrust, a squat to a plank and then reversed. The pushup, the jump and overhead hand clap at the end and dozens of other variations, including everything from back flips to beer chugging, have all been tacked on by enthusiasts over the past few decades. Burpee himself was drawn to the movement for the same reason we all tend to deeply loathe it: the way it so simply and effectively targets the entire body in a way that quickly (and painfully) overloads the cardiovascular system of weekend warriors and elite athletes alike. And while you can slow down or modify almost every other form of cardio (or human endeavor, for that matter) there's simply no cheating or scaling, or hiding or relief from the almost instantaneous burpee burn.

Which is why it is often used by coaches, trainers and gym teachers as a form of punishment. As a prep player in Texas, Campbell and his teammates would start from the goal line and sprint the length of the field until they heard the coach's whistle. Then, they were supposed to stop, hit the ground, bounce back up and keep sprinting, until the next whistle. "Dan was an absolute animal," said his line coach at Glen Rose, Richard Dye. "Full speed. Everything he had. All the time. Nothing's changed, really."

Whenever 315-pound Detroit Lions defensive lineman Alim McNeill hears the word "burpee," he's instantly transported back to a dusty, suffocatingly hot middle school practice field in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, where he and his teammates once had to do 100 burpees for every piece of equipment that was left out overnight. "Worst day of my life, no lie," McNeill said. "We did at least 600 burpees. I have eyewitnesses. I know everyone says they hate burpees, but ever since that day I have truly, truly hated burpees."

In a 2014 university study, West Point's Gist, who has a doctorate in exercise physiology and is in charge of the academy's department of physical education, discovered that simple sets of burpees produced the same metabolic challenges and benefits as running, biking and other kinds of high-intensity interval training. "It's a complex, multi-joint movement that recruits a majority of the body's musculature," is how Gist puts it. "That's where the love/hate relationship comes from with the burpee. It seems simple when you first see it, but when you start to do it, it very quickly requires a lot of you."

That's what initially drew Dr. Burpee to it: how, in a clinical setting with no equipment and very little space, 20 seconds of burpees and a few simple heart-rate measurements could accurately assess a subject's physical capacity. Burpee published his findings in 1939. (In a nutshell: 10 burpees in 20 seconds meant you were in average shape. Less than 8 was poor. More than 13, excellent.)

A few years later when the U.S. entered WWII and needed to quickly assess the fitness levels of some 10 million newly inducted soldiers, East believes the staff at Columbia likely shared Burpee's thesis with West Point and soon thereafter the military adopted the 20-second burpee test for new recruits. Then, in 1942 when a group of Army experts, led by Colonel Ted Bank, published The Daily Dozen, the standard bearer for all conditioning programs, the routine included a version of the exercise the military had officially named "burpee."

(Bank, by the way, was the original version of Notre Dame's Rudy. After being severely wounded, and possibly gassed, during WWI, with the help of a specialized leg brace Bank walked on at Michigan and went 7-0 as a fill-in quarterback for Fielding Yost and the Wolverines from 1920 to '21.)

Later, the burpee was codified further by the military on May 1, 1944, in the War Department pamphlet 21-9 on "Physical Conditioning." The influential manual featured several pages and diagrams on how to perform the 20-second burpee test. Dr. Burpee's invention was also one of seven exercises -- along with pullups, situps, pushups, squat jumps, a 100-yard carry and a 300-yard run -- included in the publication's official Physical Efficiency Testing.

For a while, Burpee's contribution to fitness and the war effort made him something of a celebrity. He later served in the USO, helping to entertain troops with Bob Hope, and there are pictures of him riding in what looks like a victory parade with former New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia. "My grandfather took immense pride in the military connection to his exercise," Dluginski said. "So many people knew about it and it was used so widely and was such a big part of soldier recruitment and soldier training, he really felt -- and I think it's true -- that he had a role in helping us win that war."

Burpee died in 1987, just shy of his 90th birthday, without ever making a penny off his exercise. And although it has faded in and out of fitness fashion the past half century, the burpee's connection to the military has remained strong.

In August 2021, Sergeant Nahla Beard, an air-traffic control supervisor at the Marine Corps Station in Iwakuni, Japan, was crowned as the new women's world champion in chest-to-ground burpees after completing 27 in one minute. (Guinness recognizes more than 30 variations of burpees for World Record status.) "The aspect of the Marine Corps is to constantly push yourself to be better, and that drive and hunger is instilled in every Marine," said Beard, who performed her first big set of burpees as punishment with the rest of her platoon because another Marine was late to PT. "The challenge is what you're seeking, especially with a burpee workout like that, so you just have to learn to love the pain that comes with it."

While serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, part of Gist's responsibilities as the Stability Support Transition Team deputy chief was developing camaraderie among the multinational coalition forces, which he often did through sports and fitness. When there wasn't enough space or adequate safety for pickup soccer, Gist organized competitive workouts featuring the burpee. "It's the burpee, so when you do the first few it's fun and then you get to 30 seconds or a minute of burpees and it becomes not so fun," Gist said. "There were a lot of laughs at the burpees and, yeah, maybe, afterward, some shaking of heads from our Iraqi Army partners."

A few years later, using the same kind of competitive military-style workouts that often featured the burpee, CrossFit exploded in popularity. In 2012, the first workout in the annual CrossFit Open was seven minutes of burpees. Eventual women's champion Kristan Clever topped the leaderboard with 143. And over the next decade, the growth of CrossFit and other boot-camp-style HIIT fitness classes, pushed the burpee's popularity to an all-time high.

So when COVID-19 lockdowns hit and gyms were off limits, with no space or equipment or guidance, millions turned to the burpee and its endless variations for their daily burn and peace of mind. "Everyone in fitness was looking for bigger or better, trying to take simple stuff and make it complex, when we realized we had all these simple exercises right there in front of us," said Burpee world-record holder and Australian fitness guru Eva Clarke. "What we learned was if you move, you feel good, and if you feel good, you're happy, and if you're happy, we have a better world. And I know the good old burpee can do that."

As an athlete and a trainer, Clarke's favorite thing about the burpee is how it resembles a ... potato. "You can cook it so many different ways," she explained. Nowadays, there are burpee backflips, burpee pullups, box jump burpees, beer burpees, murpees (modified burpees), Spider-Man burpees, Superman burpees, bunny hop burpees, one-legged (and one-armed) burpees, Herkie burpees and something called "the Burpee Mile," which is a burpee followed by a broad jump, repeated for an entire mile.

And then there's Clarke's specialty: The Burpee Marathon.

On Jan. 10, 2015, while working as a fitness trainer in Abu Dhabi, Clarke took on one of the nastiest world record attempts ever conjured: To coincide with the famous 24-hour car race at the Autodrome in Dubai, organizers added a marathon fitness challenge right next to pit row and then recruited, from what must have been a very short list, a select few endurance athletes willing to try the nightmare fuel that is The 24-hour Burpee Challenge.

After serving as a combat fitness leader in the Australian army for nine years, Clarke became the fitness trainer for the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi where her impressive physiology (and high tolerance for both training and pain) allowed her to become what curators of the Guinness Book of World Records describe as a "serial" record-breaker in the niche of high-intensity/extreme-endurance fitness. Put it this way: Clarke is in such good shape, sometimes she accidentally sets world records. Warming up for the burpee challenge in Dubai, Clarke banged out a minute's worth of knuckle pushups. The adjudicator from Guinness, who was also warming up for the event, decided to count along.

"Seventy," the official announced, shaking his head. "That's a world record."

Even with the desert heat and the deafening noise from the race cars, for the first several hours Clarke managed to stay on pace of her seemingly impossible goal of 15,000 burpees, or, 625 burpees an hour for 24 hours in a row. She explains her mastery of the movement like this: "The maintenance guy at work told me, 'Eva, I drank 24 beers last night and I don't even feel the least bit sick today.' Well, that's just like me with burpees. I could do 1,000 right now and I wouldn't even feel it. The maintenance guy drinks beer every day and his body has adapted to it. I do burpees every day and my body has adapted to it. I'm sure the burpees would give him a heart attack, and I'm sure all those beers would make me feel toxic. I'm just constantly amazed by how our bodies will adapt to whatever you do to them. Burpees or beer, really. It's up to you."

In the cold night air of the desert, somewhere around burpee No. 8,000, Clarke's wrists gave out, then her neck and back stiffened, and when track medics looked at her raw and bloody hands they assumed she was a racecar driver who had been burned to the bone in a gasoline fire. Crikey. "At some point, you might still have more mentally to give," said Clarke, who is now a secondary school PE teacher, jujitsu coach and "mum" of three in Gippsland, Australia. "But physically, the burpee has left you busted."

Although her pace slowed and her blood-soaked gloves had turned crimson, when the 24 hours expired, Clarke had claimed her fifth world record by completing 12,003 burpees, which remains, to this day, the most burpees ever performed in a day. (Clarke has tacked on three more world records since then; she owns eight now.)

At the time, Clarke lived about an hour away from Dubai. Unable to drive on account of her hamburger hands and sleep deprivation, friends volunteered to get Clarke home. Before they reached the city limits, Clarke had fallen fast asleep, and that's when they noticed her entire body twitching and moving in a strangely familiar way.

"I was doing burpees in my sleep," she said.

What continues to haunt Clarke, and every other athlete, is how, despite all the advances and triumphs in human fitness, sooner or later this simple movement reduces us all, from the Detroit Lions, to West Point cadets, to Crossfit enthusiasts and even perfectly ripped Hollywood actors, to the same sweaty, heaving, uncoordinated mess.

The burpee remains the only thing in sports that has never been defeated.

And that's why we tend to dream about it, dread it and obsess over it so much, why the Facebook page has more than 135,000 followers and why Dluginski has seen the phrase "F--- Burpees" on more T-shirts, bumper stickers and posters than she can count. "I get it, it's funny," she said. "I'm all for everyone loving to hate the burpee. But I also want the truth out there that there's a real person and a real story behind the burpee. Bemoan the exercise all you want. But don't denigrate the man."

For burpee purists, though, it might already be too late, thanks to the way modern methods have bastardized Royal Burpee's original. When Dluginski sees timed or competitive burpees, the ones that often promote rep counts over form, she imagines her exacting grandfather spinning in his grave.

There's a reason the inventor of the burpee himself never used it or promoted it as a fitness exercise, especially for beginners. The double-edged sword of the burpee is that it's extremely popular because it's so effective at quickly spiking the heart rate. The ensuing fatigue, however, rapidly diminishes form and the resulting poor body alignment can overload and expose joints in the hips, back, knees, ankles and wrists to injury.

Los Angeles-based trainer Patrick Murphy, who chiseled Zac Efron and Alexandra Daddario for "Baywatch" and other movies, is not a fan. "If you study the burpee, it is evident that every rep encourages negative adaptions from head to toe," Murphy said. "Most people achieve the exercise with a forward head, protracted shoulders, flexed spine, and knees caving in when moving through the squat (both up and down). It's simply a disaster and is so hard to watch."

Maybe, but not if you're a Lions fan.

MINUTES BEFORE THE start of training camp in Detroit, Campbell addressed a rare, standing-room-only media throng on the runaway "hype train" threatening to derail his suddenly resurgent Lions. Dressed in all black, while griping the sides of the podium with enough force to make it appear to levitate, Campbell's initial response to all the praise being lavished on the Lions was to use the word "work" about 15 times in the first seven minutes of his season-opening presser.

For Lions players, the message was clear: burpees, lots and lots of burpees. The rule in Detroit now is that anyone who joins the team cannot take a live snap with the defense until they've paid the burpee toll. Last year, when 335-pound defensive lineman Benito Jones signed late in August, the defense paused practice and surrounded him on the sidelines for the ceremony, even joining in with him on the last 10 burpees. "The ritual just speaks to the family aspect we've built here," McNeill said. This year, as Yo Gotti blasted through the practice-field speakers -- Playtime over, this is the big league/ Playtime over, this is the big league -- trainers, equipment guys, interns and even what appeared to be a few front-office types joined in on the 40 burpees buy-in. "People just gravitate to it," said Glenn, sporting a shirt with the word GRIT written in Honolulu blue over his heart. "It takes me back to a thing you're always looking for in football: ways to get people to buy into one common cause."

Right in the middle of it all, once again, was Campbell, god love him, whose brave but less-than-limber burpee form occasionally evokes a drunk uncle trying to do the worm at a wedding reception. "Listen, I paid my dues, it's over and I'm glad it's over," Campbell laughed afterward with a slight pump of his fist. "I feel like every year it goes a little bit faster and this year, it was rolling man, oh my god."

As hokey as it all might seem, something about Campbell's willingness to get face down in the dirt alongside his players and staff and share in the most human thing ever, the universal and supreme suck of burpees, seems to have resonated in Detroit, where the Lions open the 2023 NFL season with something they haven't had in decades: hope.

Somewhere, with a few critiques on the form, Dr. Royal H. Burpee is smiling.