Here’s a word to add to that ever-lengthening list of Words You Didn’t Know Were Named After People: the burpee.
Yes, if you’ve ever had a PT session, attended an aerobics class or an outdoor bootcamp, or if you’re deranged enough to be a CrossFitter, then you can thank the magnificently named Dr Royal H Burpee for this exhausting, energy-sapping, hamstring-snapping movement.
For the uninitiated, a burpee consists of four basic steps. First, from a standing start, squat down, placing your hands on the floor in front of your feet. Then, kick your legs out behind you, so that you’re resting on your hands and feet, in a plank. Then kick your legs back in towards your hands, bringing them back under your body, and back into a squat position. And finally, jump upwards, bringing your hands up to your head. Then repeat, quite literally, ad nauseam.
Although Dr Burpee conceived of the torture that now bears his name in the 1930s (when he was employed at a New York YMCA), it wasn’t until 1939 that the idea was officially introduced and circulated more widely. By then a doctorate student at Columbia University, part of Burpee’s groundbreaking PhD thesis in applied physiology included an entirely original means of quickly and efficiently assessing someone’s basic fitness. And this neat little amalgam of calisthenics, stamina, coordination and plyometric training fit that bill perfectly.
Given the timing of Burpee’s work, it wasn’t long before it found its place in the exercise regimes of the US Army. In the early 1940s, the US Army Service began using Burpee’s burpees just as he had intended—a means of assessing the fitness of conscripted recruits during the Second World War. (Although, alas, they would refer to the movement by the somewhat less snappy name of “front leaning rest”).
After the war, Burpee published a revised edition of his thesis under the title Seven Quickly Administered Tests of Physical Capacity (1946), which further popularized the burpee test and, moreover, firmly established its connection to his name.