Pro trainers break down the key benefits of mountain climbers — plus the form you need to score them.

By Megan Falk
July 20, 2021
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When your online or IRL fitness instructor tells you to drop to the ground and power through a round of mountain climbers, it's difficult not to let out a dread-filled sigh. The plank position puts your abs through the wringer, the cardio leaves you breathless, and by the end of the round, your shoulders feel like they're on fire. 

But what makes mountain climbers so difficult and despised is the exact reason why you should add them to your routine, says Ashley Joi, a certified personal trainer and Isopure Athlete. "It's good for your lungs, heart, and so many bigger muscle groups in your body," says Joi "It's a very beneficial exercise that people should incorporate more into home workouts, bodyweight workouts, and warm-ups."

The Key Mountain Climbers Benefits

You can probably guess that the mountain climbers exercise is a killer core move, but that's not all it has to offer. "It's a low-impact exercise that really helps with strengthening big muscle groups...your hamstrings, quads, lower back, shoulders, as well as your glutes," says Joi. "It's definitely a full-body exercise." More specifically, the obliques, abdominals, back, shoulders, and arms keep your entire body stable, while the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors are employed to bring your knees in and out from your chest, according to the International Sports Sciences Association. Plus, using all your might to drive your knees as quickly as possible makes it an ideal cardio exercise, says Joi. (That's why it's also a move worth incorporating into your HIIT workout.)

Perhaps the most under-the-radar mountain climbers benefit, though, is the move's ability to challenge and improve hip mobility and strength, says Joi. "The movement is very dynamic, so being in a plank position and driving your knees back and forth is more about mobility than anything," she adds. ICYDK, mobility is your ability to move a muscle or muscle group — in this case, the hip flexors, which help you move your leg and knee up toward your body — through a range of motion in the joint socket with control.

If you're lacking hip mobility, you might have trouble keeping your back flat — a key component of the move's proper form — while performing a round of mountain climbers, says Joi. In that case, modifying your mountain climbers (more on that in a sec) will help improve your hip mobility enough to eventually perform the standard version, which will boost your mobility even more, she says. "A lot of times, mountain climbers are seen as a good cardio boost exercise, which it can be, but it's also great for mobility and overall function," explains Joi. "Overall, it's a great functional exercise."

How to Do Mountain Climbers

In order to get the full-body perks, you'll need to know how to do mountain climbers properly. Here, Joi breaks it down into three easy steps.

A. Start in a high plank position with shoulders over wrists, fingers spread apart, feet hip-width apart, and weight resting on balls of feet. Body should form a straight line from shoulders to ankles.
B. Maintaining a flat back and gazing between hands, brace core, lift one foot off the floor, and quickly drive knee to chest.
C. Return foot to start and repeat with the other leg. Quickly alternate driving knees in toward chest as if running.

The move may seem pretty tough to mess up, but there is one common mistake you should be careful not to make: As you're driving your knee to your chest, you might unknowingly start to lift your butt up into the air, losing your flat back, which can place more stress on your wrists, says Joi. What's more, "when your butt is poked up more, it's not the same knee drive [as when your back is flat], so there's less engagement in your hip flexors, core, and glutes during the push-off," she explains. (Be careful of making these mistakes in your indoor cycling class, too.)

Young woman doing the mountain climber exercise
Credit: StockRocket/Getty

Mountain Climbers Exercise Modifications

Even though there are no kettlebells or fancy equipment involved, mountain climbers are a seriously tough exercise — and it's okay if you want to modify them to meet your fitness level and needs. In fact, modifications are a great way to ease any painful pressure on the wrists, says Joi. "Textbook proper form is with your hands right underneath your shoulders, but everyone's body is slightly different, depending on what you do on a daily basis, your strengths, or your injuries," she explains. "[If you have] pain in the wrist, sometimes pushing your hands out a little bit further forward can alleviate the stress."

Adding a slight elevation, such as by placing your hands on a box, step, or bench, to your mountain climbers will do the trick, too — and it'll help you maintain that flat back, says Joi. "That can take the stress off more on the wrists and shoulders, and it can make the range-of-motion easier for your knees because of being in an elevated position," she says.

Also worth noting: If standard mountain climbers are too intense or you end up performing them in a downward dog position, bring your knees up to your chest at a slower rate and tap your toe to the ground, rather than quickly driving them up as fast as you can, she adds. 

No matter which adjustment you decide to go with, know that "just because there is a modification doesn't mean you have to stick with it [throughout the round]," says Joi. "Alternating between a high intensity and low intensity is great."

Mountain Climbers Exercise Advancements

If your rounds of mountain climbers barely get your heart rate up (props to you), it's time to take things up a notch. One option: take your workout off the hard floor of the gym and bring it to the soft beach sand, which will further challenge your stabilizing muscles and make the push-off even more difficult for your lower body, says Joi. Or, try a round of traveling mountain climbers, which will test your obliques and lower body. Keeping your hands in place, drive one knee up toward your chest, and instead of sending it straight back, drop it to the right. Continue to move to the right until you've traveled as far in that direction as possible (or all the way around in a circle!), then move back toward the left and repeat until your round is up.

To light your core on fire, Joi recommends switching up where you're bringing your knees. "You can get more engagement in your obliques by driving your knee to the outside of your elbow," says Joi. "Or, drive the opposite knee to opposite elbow, which would give more of a twist, engaging the obliques and lower back muscles as well." (If you want to go absolutely wild, you can also do mountain climbers with your toes on a plyo box or bench.)

Need a visual representation of how to do mountain climbers and all these switch-ups? Watch the video above featuring Brianna Bernard, a certified personal trainer and Isopure Athlete, to learn how to nail the moves.

How Long Should You Do Mountain Climbers?

If you're a mountain climber newbie, Joi recommends first performing mountain climbers in 30-second increments, which, BTW, feels much longer than it seems. By sticking to the same time period every time you do the move, you'll be able to keep track of how you're progressing in terms of strength and mobility, she explains. For example, you might initially perform an entire round of mountain climbers with the slowed-down toe tap modification. As you get stronger, you might then perform half of the moves with standard form and the other half with the taps. After some practice, you might be able to do the full round without any adjustments — and maybe even an advancement or two, she explains. "Just see what you can do within those 30 seconds."