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January 14, 2022 8 min read

Mountain climbers are an incredibly intense full-body exercise that requires no equipment and brings some helpful cardio to any workout routine. But like any exercise, this straightforward bodyweight movement is only as good as the form in which it’s done. 

This complete guide to the mountain climber exercise will explain what muscles are worked, how it benefits your routine, and progressions you can use to learn the proper form.

What Is A Mountain Climber?

Evoking the movement of bouldering or rock climbing, mountain climbers are a blend of cardio and core exercise. They’re performed in a plank position that requires support for the upper body, abdominal strength, and hip and knee flexibility. 

Although a fairly common exercise in bodyweight workout routines, mountain climbers are also very easy to do wrong, particularly because people think you need to run through repetitions at a breakneck speed to get any cardiovascular benefit from the move. We’ll dig deeper into the proper form and common mistakes made with mountain climbers, but first let’s take a look at how they’re performed. 

How To Do Mountain Climbers


Brush up on your push-up form because that’s the basic starting position for this exercise. 

Follow these steps to do a flawless mountain climber exercise:

  1. Start on the floor or an exercise mat on your knees. Lean forward and place both palms on the ground directly beneath your shoulders. Your wrists should be directly underneath your elbow so the forearm is perpendicular to the ground.
  1. Engage your core to maintain this plank position. Make sure you have a flat back and a straight line running from head to heel.
  1. Slowly bring your right knee up and bend it so it comes as close to your chest as possible. Bring it back to the starting position and repeat the same movement with the left leg. 

Aim to do 20 perfect, slow mountain climbers and, if you feel the burn, increase that number the next set and work your way to 100 rep sets.

 

Muscles Worked In Mountain Climbers

Mountain climbers activate muscles in your entire body although it is principally an oblique and ab workout. 

More specifically, mountain climbers work out the following muscles and muscle groups:

  • Abdominals: This is the main muscle group targeted by mountain climbers. The high  plank position strains the abdominals to prevent the trunk from rotating or sinking. Your rectus abdominis and obliques are targeted in particular, though other abdominal muscles are involved as well. The rectus abdominis is the “six-pack” muscle responsible for any motion that brings your knees closer to your core like it does in crunches and leg lifts. The obliques power trunk rotation, with each oblique powering twisting on the opposite side of the body. In the mountain climber, the obliques are acting to prevent this action from occurring. 
  • Deltoids: Found on the top of each shoulder, the deltoid helps raise the arm out to each side like you would do in a lateral dumbbell raise and out in front of the body like you would do in a front raise. The lateral delts help with the first action and the anterior deltoid helps with the front raise.
  • Teres Major: On the back of the shoulder near the shoulder blade, the teres major helps with internal rotation, which is what happens when your elbow moves forward and the hand moves in toward the chest. In mountain climbers, the teres major works to stabilize the arm and prevent this internal rotation. 
  • Pectorals: These chest muscles get a great workout from push-ups and other pushing motions like the bench press, so it’s no surprise the pectoralis major and minor also see some activation in the mountain climber exercise. 
  • Triceps: Powering elbow extension and arm adduction/extension at the shoulder joint, the tricep muscle works as a stabilizer as you support the weight of your upper body during a mountain climber exercise. 
  • Glutes: Your glutes stabilize the lower back. They prevent sagging in your lumbar spine during mountain climbers. Now, granted, the glutes aren’t working anywhere near as hard in mountain climbers as they are in virtually any other lower body or full-body exercise. Activation is minimal, but it’s still happening to some degree.
  • Hip Flexors: That motion when you draw your knee in and push it back out again occurs at the hip - small muscles called the hip flexors are the main drivers of this motion. The trick with mountain climbers is not to let the hip flexors take over for the abdominal muscles.
  • Hamstrings: A particularly important muscle group, your hamstrings help powerhip extension and knee flexion. That is, any motion that lengthens the front of your hip (walking, running, etc.) and bending the knee. Both occur in mountain climbers.
  • Quads: The quadriceps are found on the front of the thigh and help stabilize the knee in addition to being responsible for the majority of knee extension power. Knee extension is the straightening out of the knee joint, so the quads have an antagonistic relationship with the hamstrings. As you can see from the long list of muscles worked in mountain climbers, it’s a full-body workout.

Let’s take a look at some common mistakes that can reduce muscle activation and cheat you out of strength gains during this exercise. 

Common Mistakes & Form Errors in Mountain Climbers

By far the most common error in the mountain climber exercise is a poor position. Anything that prevents your core muscles from activation is going to prevent you from using - or building - core strength. That’s why keeping a straight line from head to heel is so vital. If you have your feet too far in and your butt up in the air, you can bring your left and right leg in all day and never activate your core. Just like the push-up and planks, people also tend to get their hand position wrong during mountain climbers. You want a shoulder-width stance with your hands directly beneath the shoulders and a straight line along the entire arm.

If your hands are too far ahead of your body, your forearm will be at an incline. Don’t let your body push forward or slip backward with each leg movement. You shouldn’t be bouncing on your feet and your shoulders shouldn’t be rocking - if you want all those stabilizer muscles that we mentioned earlier to see any serious activation, you have to maintain the high plank position throughout the entire exercise. Speed is another big factor.

While you do want to get that heart rate up to reap the  cardiovascular benefits of mountain climbers, going too quickly is virtually guaranteed to lead to form errors, especially for beginners.

The best way we’ve found to stay intentional with mountain climbers and make it to whatever rep count you’ve set for yourself is to count a rhythm while you do them. Assign a number to different points of the move. For example, 1 could be when your right knee comes in, 2 when it returns to the starting position, 3 when the left knee comes in, 4 when it’s back again. Counting out a 1-and-2-and-3-and-4 helps maintain a strong, regular pace.

For the less rhythmically inclined, you can use a song with a solid beat.

Failure to draw the knee in far enough will keep the lower body muscles from getting the full effect of this exercise and, since it will reduce the overall time you spend in the plank position, rob your core of the full workout as well.

Get your thigh perpendicular to the ground when you pull each knee in. Finally, counting off your reps could literally cut your real rep count in half. When you hear someone say 100 reps of mountain climbers, that’s 100 times on each leg. Count every time you pull either knee in and your 100-rep workout magically becomes 50 and you get 50% of the workout, too.

Benefits Of Mountain Climbers

Lots of people avoid mountain climbers, which is understandable if you either don’t feel the burn or just don’t want that much cardio in your strength training routine.

But with the right programming and correct form, these exercises can help  increase your resting metabolic rate and prime your body to put on more lean muscle mass. Here are a few of the benefits of mountain climbers:

Easy To Program

    The form might have lots of small particulars, but once you’ve mastered it and built enough core strength to do a high number of repetitions, mountain climbers only take a few minutes to do. Looking for a good interval filler in your HIIT routine or superset workout? A cardio exercise for your warm-up or cooldown? Maybe something to throw into your calisthenics or bodyweight routine? Mountain climbers work for all of it.

    Time To Practice Mind-Body Connection

      Other big compound lifts that build full-body strength are too strenuous to leave space for intention mid-move. Contrast that with mountain climbers which, like many other planking exercises, gives you nothing but time to think about what your muscles are doing and which ones are exerting themselves. Trust us, a minute spent in the top plank position feels like an eternity, so you may as well use it to learn what it feels like when multiple muscle groups are engaged and working together.

      FOCUSED-AF is formulated to provide the mental clarity necessary to help you hone your mind-body connection.

      Cardio Boost & Fat Loss

        A little bit of cardio helps build muscle and keep fat off. The more lean muscle you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate, so the more calories your body automatically burns. Even if your primary goal is to put on muscle mass or sculpt muscle, you still need to burn enough calories to keep belly fat from building up. Mountain climbers are perfect because they’ll help build core strength and  chiseled abs while also burning calories so those abs stay visible.

        Mountain Climbers Progression

        Like pull-ups, it takes some skill and strength before you can get started doing mountain climbers. Most people can probably do a mountain climber before they can do a pull-up, but mountain climbers also need a way higher rep count to be effective. Beginners who can’t seem to stay in the plank position or anyone who needs to increase their rep count can try one of the following exercises to improve their mountain climber form. 

        1. Lunges


          Once you learn the form for these lunges, try out some of the many lunge variations to round out your leg day routine. Stand tall with your hands on your hips and then take a big step forward. Bend both knees simultaneously; your front knee should be bent to 90° and your back knee should be hovering just above the ground. Push through the soles of your feet to push back into the starting position. Repeat the same process with the opposite leg leading. 

          2. Planking


            To do this exercise, you simply follow the first two steps in our mountain climbers step-by-step at the beginning of this guide. Get a stopwatch so you can count how long you’re able to stay in the plank position. As you get better at the plank position, start to introduce slow leg lifts and practice keeping your core from rotating or sliding forward and backward. Eventually, you should get to the point where faster mountain climbers are no problem.

            3. TRX Mountain Climbers


              If it’s not the strength requirements but rather the form needed to make mountain climbers effective, find a TRX or similar piece of gear that will allow you to suspend your legs. You could also make a DIY version with a couple of high anchor points and resistance bands. Place your feet in the bottom of the TRX or your chosen variant. Get into the plank position and follow the steps to complete your mountain climber reps as normal. 

              Mountain Climbers Are A Great Cardio Core Exercise

              It’s hard to fit explosive energy into your  ab workout without mountain climbers.

              They’re a step up from normal planking and a great interval filler in between bigger lifts or other bodyweight exercises like pull-ups that work your muscles a bit harder. 

              You can never have too many exercises that are this highly effective and versatile enough to use almost anywhere you have spare time for a workout. Mountain climbers require lots of concentration and core strength, but the boost they give to your ab workout is totally worth the learning curve.