Muscular Development: ‘A Billion Burpees!’, by PJ Braun



The Following Article was originally published in Muscular Development Magazine in December 2022. It is the third in a series of articles written while PJ Braun was in prison. You can find previous and future articles in this series here. At the end of this article, you will find an addendum not included in the original publication where PJ reflects on the content of this article.

In prison, we have very limited options. Without a doubt, the king of all prison exercises is the burpee.

PJ Braun

People ask me all the time, “what’s the king of all exercises?” In my early 20s I would probably have said squat, but that was back when I was most definitely a bonafide meathead and would have narrowed it down to one of the big three: squat, bench press, or deadlift. I think Dr. Hatfield, aka Dr. Squat (the first 1,000-pound squatter), said “If you don’t squat, you won’t be squat!” With many years of learning and gaining wisdom, I can say that it is just too hard of a question to give a general answer. We have all sorts of great, functional exercises, and it will vary too much from sport to sport, etc. Now I am in prison and in prison we have very limited options. Without a doubt, the king of all prison exercises is the burpee.

Today I asked a group of inmates, “How many burpees do you think are done every day here?” One of the guys said, “A billion!” We laughed, but at any time of day no matter where you are, inside or outside, you can see someone doing burpees. As I walked to the computer room to type this out, I stopped to chat with a guy who was midway through what would total 500 burpees today. He said it was his ‘Easy Burpee Day.’ Funny thing is that no one in the free world goes to the gym and does burpees. Well, maybe some of my CrossFit friends, but I have never actually seen a single person doing burpees in any gym in the USA or in any country that I have traveled to over my 30 years of working out!

So how did the burpee get so popular? Well, for starters, when your options are a pull-up bar, dip bar, and the ground, you either limit yourself to pull-ups, dips and push-ups, or you get creative. Let’s talk about the pull-up first. You can do wide grip, close grip, underhand, single arm, negatives, kipping pull-ups, and, for the very strong guys, you can hang weight from a belt. 

The dip gives you fewer options: elbows out or in, lean forward or up straight, and, of course, negatives and added weight. Lastly, we have the good old-fashioned push-up, which has infinite variations at this point. I have seen many in prison that I never would have even imagined. The burpee is the most intense variation of the evolution of the push up.

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I have asked many of the fittest inmates where the burpee craze came from and I have gotten all sorts of answers. I am sure if I had internet access, Google would have the answer for me, but since I only have (if you have done time, you know the phrase), I have selected a theory that goes like this: It started from a Navy SEAL who was down and wanted to remain in great shape and help train others to get in shape but had no equipment. 

The burpee-style workout caught on like wildfire and as time went on, prison workout routines started making their way to Amazon in the form of books, eventually finding their way back into the prison system and now we have a nationwide prison burpee phenomenon! The thing is, in the places I have traveled and all the workouts I have seen, I would say less than 20 percent of the guys doing burpees look like they work out at all – and of those 20 percent, most of them are doing other important exercises like the pull-ups, push-ups and dips. A very small group of men I have seen who only do burpees and look great surely must have exceptional genetics.

It’s important to consider that nutrition plays the biggest role in how we all look in prison and there is a major lack of education. Proper form and exercise science are other areas where education is minimal. Done incorrectly or too aggressively, the burpee can cause injuries to the back, knees and shoulders are all common in prison from excessive burpees.

So, how many burpees do I do? None. I can’t do them. Most of my chronic injuries won’t allow me to do effective burpees. Even if I was injury free, I’m going to be honest with you and say that I would still not do burpees because they really suck! Burpees are hard and not fun! No thank you, I like to lift weights and not flop up and down till my lungs are ready to collapse. Sounds like punishment. It reminds me of hell week doing “up-downs” in full pads in August while playing high school football! I would rather run a marathon! This may seem like a bash on the burpee, aka “The King of Prison Workouts,” but I do it from a point of satire.

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To anyone reading this, I encourage you to check out some YouTube videos on burpee variations because there are tons! We have some guys in here that can do the most impressive, contorted variations that my body would never be able to pull off and I salute them for that. I want to feel strong: get a pump and look big and muscular from my workouts so I must utilize weight resistance for that hypertrophy. In prison, this can be very difficult – but I have found a way to get it done, at least to some extent. I will explore this topic in an upcoming article.

Guys here train so hard while having so little; it’s inspiring! I think it really comes down to lack of knowledge. I would love to see some physical fitness and basic nutrition classes added to the inmate lifestyle so guys don’t feel like they are rotting away; learning without any rational sense to what’s being taught. 

For that reason, I became the co-chairman of the Healthy Living Committee here at the camp. One of the first things I am setting up is a general seminar on nutrition and supplementation, in which I will encourage whoever participates to ask me anything. I have no idea how many will show up, but I hope that it turns into something beneficial for the community and I know my knowledge and experience will be of service to many here! I will keep you updated on my progress.

So, until next time, have some gratitude toward your gym and the gym equipment that you use daily and go try out some burpees. If you can do 400 in an hour, you’re hitting beginner status!

Peace out, bye!

Instagram @pjbraunfitness

Editor’s Note (May 2024): Prior to posting this article, PJ Braun was requested for comment and asked to reflect on the content of this article. This was his response. It has been edited for clarity.

Man, rereading this brought back one memory in particular that almost got me thrown out of a program I was in, which would have kept me in prison an entire extra year! It was something I was doing out of kindness and joy that was received VERY poorly by a staff member who thought I had introduced contraband into the unit. I’m not going to tell the story yet; I can’t wait to share that one on a live podcast. Needless to say, I was removed as head of the Healthy Living Committee after a few short months as chairman. Lmao 

This was the first article that got big attention at the compound because guys started figuring out who I was. I actually had quite a few guys come up to me to say they also hated burpees, while others were shocked that I didn’t do them. Here’s the thing: way before I got into bodybuilding on a competitive level I dislocated both of my shoulders numerous times powerlifting and playing football. Football and competitive powerlifting contributed to many of the injuries that held me back in bodybuilding because, instead of resting and having surgery, I was getting cortisone shots and continuing to train through the medically dulled pain. As my bodybuilding got more serious, my crazy intense work ethic caused my workouts to go too far, leading to the situation I have today.

What I’m getting at is that I can’t even do a burpee. I can do a regular pushup as long as I’m very slow and strict, I did those as part of my exercise regime, but even a slow burpee sends awful pain through my deteriorated shoulders. Though I may make fun of those guys, I have nothing but respect for their efforts, especially the guys who worked their way down from the penitentiary. They would do burpees in their cube next to their bunk. That’s intense!

I thank God that I found bodybuilding early in life and learned so much because, without bodybuilding, my time in prison would have been a lot harder. I made the best of what I had. 

PJ Braun