What a month!!! It was a fun challenge but also pretty horrible. Definitely worth doing again!
(TL;DR – I did a bunch of burpees.)
Although I’m not very competitive against other people, I’m insanely competitive with myself. So, I like to set challenges for myself—physical/fitness challenges, work-related challenges, etc. ; moreover, these challenges often end up being a high point of memorable experience for me, and often a catalyst for growth.
There was the time that I did 100 new client proposals in 100 days (and had to stop part way into the challenge because I had gained so much more business that I couldn’t handle it all; that was a key turning point in my business, actually).
There was the time that I did 30 days of waking up at 5 in the morning. That, too, was a turning point in a weird biological switchover from being a night-owl to being a morning person. I now routinely wake up before my alarm at 4 or 5 in the morning.
Last year I did a time-tracking challenge on Facebook with a few other friends and we tracked how we used our time for the month. (Here’s a blog post about the practice of time-tracking—I highly recommend it if you ever feeling like doubling your income.)
There have been many other challenges, too (some are for a day or a week or a month, or whatever) but those give you an idea of what I like to do.
So, this past June, I was thinking about what I wanted to do for a challenge in July and I decided that a fitness challenge of 100 burpees in 10 minutes sounded fun. And extremely difficult, bordering on impossible (since I normally could do only 25-30 up until this point).
And, in my opinion, “fun and extremely difficult” is the perfect recipe for a challenge!
Of course I knew I couldn’t do a full month of burpees at that level—the challenge would need to be that I work toward it through the month.
But Wait. Before You Continue…
Before I go any further, let me just mention as a disclaimer that this challenge was right for my situation but may not be appropriate for everyone. I am neither a doctor nor a certified physical trainer; plus, I don’t know your situation at all. Therefore, you should totally ignore this blog post and NOT do this challenge at all without first consulting with a medical professional.
I’ll add another disclaimer here that the rest of this blog contains really sweaty pictures of me. That’s probably more horrifying than doing burpees without consulting a physician first.
/Disclaimers Done. Back To The Main Point…
If you’re still reading, let me tell you what worked for me to get to 100 burpees in 10 minutes…
Let’s start by talking about what a burpee is. There are a wide variety of definitions of what a burpee is and isn’t (and the sheer number of burp jokes that I endured this month were “hilarious”—quotes are used here to express irony—but have nothing to do with burpees; so allow me to dispell that notion before we go any further).
A burpee is a compound exercise created by a physiologist from the 1930’s with the almost impossible name of Royal H. Burpee; so, burpees have been around for nearly 90 years and are a measure of fitness as well as being an extremely challenging exercise. (Ref. Wikipedia)
There are many variations of a burpee, but I prefer the following, and consider it to be the purest form of a burpee:
#1. From a standing position, crouch into a squat with your hands flat on the floor in front of you
#2. Kick your legs back so you are in the plank position
#3. Do a push-up
#4. Kick your legs back to a crouch, then explosively jump up with your hands above your head
That’s one burpee.
At the end of the fourth step, you land back in the starting to do more.
And I wanted to do 100 of those in 10 minutes.
Hashtag: what was I thinking?
(Again, there are many variations: if you want to do it a bit easier, some people don’t do the push-up and/or they walk out into a plank instead of kicking; if you want more of a challenge or to use different muscle groups, you might do a pull-up at the top of your jump, or some mountain climbers instead of a push-up.) I don’t care and I’m not here to judge. Do what works for you.
Finding A Baseline
In general, I’ve only ever blasted out 25-30 burpees in a single session before, and usually those sessions lasted a minute or two until I felt like I had been hit by a truck.
So, my starting point for the month was to find my baseline: since 25-30 burpees in a single session was usually just a couple of minutes, I wanted to know how many I could in 10 minutes (even with breaks—just try do as many as possible in 10 minutes).
In the last couple days of June I did as many as I could in 10 minutes… and ended up doing 60 burpees in 10 minutes. Basically, I did about 25-30 burpees (my standard), rested for a bit and caught my breath, then squeezed out a bunch more in sets of 10, and then probably 5. And then probably 1 or 2. I don’t remember the exact cadence but I assure you: it wouldn’t have looked pretty. But I got 60 in 10.
But now I had a baseline number to start with. It meant I needed to add 40 more burpees in that 10-minute duration to reach my goal, and I had 31 days to do it. And it felt daunting because those 60 were rough!
But, in 31 days, I did indeed hit 100 burpees in 10 minutes.
Here’s How I Did It…
Days 1-3: More Of The Same
Days 1 through 3 was basically me doing the same thing but trying to do it slightly faster. That shows up in my numbers. Not bad but not spectacular growth.
Days 4-9: Injury And Discovery
On day 4 I tried to go even faster but by the end I was in a lot of pain—I’d tore open an old injury from many years ago. :( After reviewing what I was doing wrong, I realized two things:
I was rounding my back as soon as my hands touched the floor (that’s not a good thing)
My shoes were sticking to the floor, which was making it difficult to kick back and causing my back to round even worse
It was bad. I could barely sit or lay down. Burpees were out of the question. Fortunately, since my original injury (way back in 2004), I have a bunch of special workouts and stretches to do that are really good at putting my body back together again. So, between those rehab-style exercises and a bit of jogging, I got back into my burpee challenge on day 8.
By day 9, I beat my old score (shoelessly, this time, and with a straight back!)
At this point, I also had a significant realization that I’ve been chewing on ever since: whenever I did these burpees, I would feel clobbered part way through and I would have to stop for a moment to collect myself. It was right around that 25-35 burpee park.
Then I realized, after hitting 77 burpees on day 9, that the physical limit I thought I encountered was actually a mental limit disguised as a physical limit. When I think I’ve hit a wall, it’s actually my brain saying, “You didn’t listen to me when I said stop so now I’m making your whole body seem like you want to stop.”
You gotta push through that. It helped and I added another 10+ burpees almost immediately. (That’s not to say you won’t hit a physical limit at some point, which I did many times in this challenge, but it was just a realization that the first limit felt like a physical limit but was actually a mental limit.)
Day 10-19: A New Plateau
Day 10. I’d been thinking all day about the burpee challenge and was excited about doing it. And, I was going to try to go for 79 burpees, which I knew would be a real challenge. Then, just as my workout time was approaching, I was on a call with my friend and client Mike Agugliaro, and he asked how many burpees I was going to aim for this time.
In a moment of hubris I told Mike that I was going for 82.
Shortly after the call, I started my burpees. By 9 minutes and 30 seconds into the workout, I’d done 77 or so. I knew the last couple would be tough. But I also remembered that I’d (foolishly) told Mike that I was going to do 82. So I jammed out some very very very brutal final burpees in those last 30 seconds and hit #82 just as the timer clicked to zero. I was happy, as the photographic evidence shows.
For the next few days, I circled ’round that number—sometimes getting more, sometimes less: on day 12 I did 80; on day 14 I did 90; on day 17 I did 85; on day 19 I did 90.
Nothing spectacular. It was just a matter of maintaining the habit and enduring. I did notice an improvement on day 19: I felt like I could probably have done a few more if I hadn’t run out of time, so it was great to see that sliver of progress.
Day 20-26: Reinjured At The Worst Time
In an effort to break out of the plateau, I think I got sloppy, because I tore up my injury again.
On day 20, I only managed 83 burpees… and felt awful afterward. It was pretty clear that I had hurt myself even worse this time.
And, it came at the worst possible time because I was going on a road trip shortly after.
It sucked. (Well, the trip was fine but the driving sucked.)
Hours on the road led to some pretty comical-looking shuffling-around-like-an-old-man hobbling every time we stopped. I spent a few days in the hotel doing some injury-rehab exercises to put myself back together again.
But, there was some good that came out of it: all that non-burpee time and driving time gave me time to think about what I’d learned so far and what I needed to do to reach my goal. I built a plan.
(And I did return on the 26th and “only” did 87 burpees that day but I was just getting back into it from being out of practice for a while.)
The Magic Of Science
I knew the fundamentals of what I was doing but I realized I was looking at the workout as a whole: 100 brutal burpees in 10 short minutes. So, while I was stuck in some non-burpee rehab, I realized what I needed to do was break things down so I could see what needed to change to reach my goal.
I realized that 100 burpees in 10 minutes is actually just 10 burpees a minute… or, one every 6 seconds. When you say it like that, it seems much more achievable.
But, there are a couple of limits happening here: time and my physical abilities—both were preventing me from achieving my goal. In fact, there are two physical limitations keeping me from success: one is cardio-vascular and the other is muscular.
On the cardio side, I’m not bad. I run and do High Impact Interval Training, so my cardio is alright. Of course I still get winded but that’s somewhat controllable.
On the strength side, well, I’m not Lou Ferrigno. So, when I reached a muscular limit, my ability to do a push-up sloooooowed way way way down (and ultimately stopped).
In case you need proof that I do not possess the upper-body strength of Lou Ferrigno…
I realized a few things from breaking my workout down…
First, since time was a constant, I needed to adjust the physical limitations on my side. No Delorean would help me here!
Second, I needed to reduce when I got winded to reduce the number of seconds I burn up catching my breath.
Third, I also needed to delay when I got winded to hopefully reduce the number of mini catch-my-breath breaks needed. I was getting winded at 30 or 40 burpees but that meant I was (potentially) getting winded a couple times later in the workout and all of those added up. (This was part of that mental limit disguised as a physical limit. I wasn’t really winded at 30 burpees; I just thought I was!)
Fourth, I needed to increase my upper body strength to do two things: to at least get to 100 push-ups and to do them faster. I felt I was really close to 100 possible push-ups (if I had enough time) but increasing my strength would not only ensure I could definitely hit 100, but that I could do it at a speed that would allow me to hit 100 in 10 minutes.
When broken down to that, it actually got very focused and much simpler. (Not easier but simpler.)
That’s when I made my next realization: I was leaving too much to the end. Doing 20 burpees at the beginning of the workout looks and feels very different than doing 20 at the end. Those last few burpees are brutal. And slow. Therefore, I needed to front-load as much work as I could in the early part of the workout because I slowed down (from windedness and from slower push-ups near the end)… but at the same time, I couldn’t simply smash out 30 or 40 burpees in the first couple minutes because that would wind me early.
There was a balance: I needed to do a few more burpees at the beginning to buy some time at the end, but not so many that I was overly winded.
I also realized something else: when I just try to do 100 burpees in 10 minutes, I leave it open for my brain to tell me when I need to catch my breath or how many burpees is too many. So, I built a chart—not because I needed to keep track of anything but because I wanted to pull the thinking from an intrinsic (and seriously flawed-in-the-moment) decision-making ability to an extrinsic one. I wanted to follow a prescribed formula rather than allow my tired brain to tell me what to do next.
So I built a chart that essentially did 4 things…
It front-loaded 12 burpees a minute for the first few minutes, to buy myself some time for the later burpees when I couldn’t do as many.
It prescribed when I could take a breather to catch my breath (because I suspected that I could probably wait longer than my brain was telling me I could). I put one rest at the just-past-half-way point and another at the just-past-three-quarters point, and I had enough time to actually slow things down after each one.
The breaks allowed me to not only catch my breath but also to catch up if I’d fallen behind.
Plus, the delayed rest periods and fewer burpees at the end were not only physically accommodating and catch-up moments, they were rewards for the effort at the beginning!
The ugly chart above would keep me on track. My goal was to do about 6 burpees every 30 seconds. (If I got more, that was fine, but I also didn’t want to get winded so I would aim to maintain this approximately-6-in-30-second cadence.) It was a bit slower than I usually do my early sets of burpees but it also allowed me a bit of space if I needed to catch up. You can also see that a couple of breaks were built in (30 seconds each, pictured above although they never lasted that long because I used them to catch up). Then, the burpees slowed down a bit more, to just 3 every 15 seconds and then 2 every 15 seconds.
You’ll note that the rests were strategically placed just past the halfway point and just past the three-quarters point to force me to keep going and delay when I’d take a break due to windedness.
Day 27: Success
That was it. The very day I put that chart into use, Saturday July 27th, I did 100 burpees in 10 minutes (actually in 9 minutes and 50 seconds).
It felt sooooooooo good to achieve it, and even better to do so with a few days to spare in the month.
Day 28-31: Finish Strong (And Also Weak)
That success on the 27th really took the pressure off. It felt great. I was flying for the last few days. I went for a run on the 28th, tried again (but only hit 92) on Monday, and took a much-needed rest on Tuesday. (It was a long day of calls plus I was feeling pretty beat-up!)
Then, on the very last day of the month, I did it again, hitting 100 burpees in 10 minutes. It was by no means easier! In fact, with 30 seconds to go I saw that I still had 10(ish) burpees left and I thought I might not get my goal again… then I decided that I would HATE it if it failed on the last day of the month so I pushed through. It was awful. But I squeezed 10 truly horrible burpees in, with the 100th burpee done with milliseconds to spare.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way:
Lesson #1. Good form has the potential to slow you down slightly (but not much), but it keeps you in the game (versus injuring yourself and not being able to workout for a while). So, take the extra milliseconds to maintain good form. Be intentional and stay focused.
Lesson #2. You will hit a physical limit at some point, but you will first hit a mental limit that is disguised as a physical limit. Push through that one.
Lesson #3. Get scientific. Break this challenge into distinct parts to figure out how each of the pieces work together in the whole system, and where you’re strong and weak. Work on your weaknesses without ignoring your strengths.
Lesson #4. There is some muscle work happening here, too, so breaks are necessary. Take a day or two; that’s okay. Not gonna lie: I’m very happy with my triceps at the end of the month! ;)
Lesson #5. Warm-up before you start—warm-up your body with some light exercise and warm-up your mind by focusing. The days I wasn’t 100% focused were the days I struggled to achieve my new baselines.
Lesson #6. Involve other people. If I wasn’t posting regularly about this and getting a ton of feedback (both positive as well as the so so so many burping jokes) then I could have easily quit and no one would have been the wiser. Plus, there was that day when I could have easily stopped at 78 or 79 and been happy with it but I’d told a friend that I was going to do 82 so I did.)
Lesson #7. You will be shocked at how much you sweat in 10 minutes. And how awful it is in the moment. But how good you feel after. And especially how good you feel when you reach your goal.
Not sure what my next challenge will be. I’ve been a little bogged down lately between work and my trip so I haven’t had a chance to think about it, and my schedule looks pretty booked up anyway, so my next goal is just to get back into my regular workouts (a mix of High Intensity Interval Training and running), but include this burpee challenge 1 day each week as a test of my fitness and a continuation of this challenge.
If you’re thinking about doing this challenge, good luck! Have fun! And let me know how it goes.
Or just avoid it altogether because it is pretty rough!