How to Do Mountain Climbers for a Total Body Workout

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Mountain climbers
Ben Goldstein

Also Known As: Mountain Climbers/Mountain Climber, running plank

Targets: Full body, but especially your arms, shoulders, quads, and core

Equipment Needed: None

Level: Beginner (try variations for a more advanced workout)

Climbing a mountain would be a daunting workout to most, but what if the mountain is the floor? That's the concept behind mountain climbers. Performed from a plank position, you'll alternate bringing one knee to your chest, then back out again, speeding up each time until you're "running" against the floor. While it sounds simple, mountain climbers provide near total body exercise and are sure to get your heart rate up. Your quads and core get an especially good workout. The move is great for beginners or more experienced exercisers: with adaptable variations, you can ease in with simpler variations or challenge yourself with the more difficult ones.

Benefits

Mountain climbers are great for building cardio endurance, core strength, and agility. You work several different muscle groups with mountain climbers—it's almost like getting a total body workout with just one exercise.

As you perform the move, your shoulders, arms, and chest work to stabilize your upper body while your core stabilizes the rest of your body. As the prime mover, your quads get an incredible workout, too. It's also a cardio exercise that will get your heart pumping and burn calories.

As previously mentioned, you can adapt the level of intensity to your level of experience, but the move is also adaptable in other ways. You don't need any equipment, as you're making use of your own body weight, and you can perform the move just about anywhere since it doesn't require much space.

You can easily add mountain climbers to your morning workout at home or the gym, in a hotel room while you're traveling, or even squeeze in a few in the breakroom at work.

Step-by-Step Instructions

When you're just starting out try the classic variation of the exercise:

  1. Get into a plank position, making sure to distribute your weight evenly between your hands and your toes.
  2. Check your form—your hands should be about shoulder-width apart, back flat, abs engaged, and head in alignment.
  3. Pull your right knee into your chest as far as you can.
  4. Then switch, pulling that knee out and bringing the other knee in.
  5. Keeping your hips down, run your knees in as far and as fast as you can.
  6. Remember to breathe! When you're focused on the move you might find yourself holding your breath. Inhale as you bring one knee in and exhale with the other.

Common Mistakes

Form

You need to exercise with proper form not only to maximize effectiveness but prevent injury. For example, a common beginner mistake with mountain climbers is to bounce on your toes as you perform the move. The bouncing might feel like a harder workout, but it actually requires less engagement of your core muscles.

Another form error you might find yourself making, especially as the move speeds up, is failing to complete the movement by letting your toes touch the ground as you bring your knees into your chest. Make sure you're letting your toes make contact with the ground to fully follow through the move.

If you find your toes not touching the ground consistently, you may be getting tired: when you don't complete the move, it's less work for your body. Not exactly cheating, but you won't be getting the full benefit of the move and lapsing into poor form puts you at risk for injury.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

  • Low-Impact Mountain Climbers: If you're at the beginner level, start with this version.
    • From a plank position, walk one foot forward bringing your knee to your chest
    • Touch your toe to the ground
    • Walk the foot back to the starting position to complete one rep
    • Switch sides and repeat, making sure each side gets equal reps
  • Modified Mountain Climbers on the Step: For this variation, try elevating your upper body on a step or block. This takes some of the weight off your arms, shoulders, and hands which can be helpful if you're easing back into a workout after an injury or are still working on developing your upper body strength.

Up for a Challenge?

Once you've mastered the basics, challenge yourself with a more advanced variation.

  • Foot-switch mountain climbers: More of a foot-switch than a run, this version has more impact and the potential to really get your heart rate up.
    • Get into your plank position as in the above version.
    • When you bring your right knee in, touch the toe to the floor.
    • Jump the feet in the air and switch sides so that the right foot is back and the left foot is in front.
  • Sliding Mountain Climbers: If you have a gliding disc (or a towel and hardwood floor) try using them to change up the basic move.
    • Place your disc or towel on the floor, then position your foot on it as you assume a plank position.
    • Slowly begin to complete a basic rep, using your other non-sliding leg and upper body to stabilize.
    • As you speed up the move, you'll feel this variation working your quads more than the basic version.
  • Standing Mountain Climbers: Add some additional cardio to this move by performing it standing.
    • Start by raising your knee to hip level, then drop down to the floor holding a plank position.
    • Perform the basic move, bringing your knee to your chest then back out again.
    • To get your heart rate up, try jogging for a count of ten before switching to the other side.

    You can also try slowing the move down to intensify the stretch (similar to doing a plyo floor lunge).

    Safety and Precautions

    Mountain climbers of any variation rely heavily on your ability to assume and hold a proper plank position. This includes checking to be sure that:

    • Your arms and hands are positioned straight down from your shoulders
    • Your back is straight and flat—not curved or arched
    • Your hips are not raised (your butt shouldn't be up in the air)

    To ensure the move is effective and safe, review the proper form for planking. Performing a plank with poor form can put you at risk for injury and will greatly reduce the benefit of adding mountain climbers to your workout routine.

    The fundamental plank position necessary to perform mountain climbers should be avoided if you have certain injuries or instabilities, such as if your shoulders or pelvis. Mountain climbers are a great workout for your knees, but if you've had surgery or need to have surgery (such as to repair a sports-related injury or replace a joint affected by arthritis) you'll want to talk to your doctor or physical therapist before working these movements into your routine.

    If you've recently been pregnant or had certain types of abdominal surgery, you may have a condition called diastasis recti where the muscles of your abdomen are separated. Until this condition completely heals, you'll want to avoid this type of core workout.

    Try It Out

    Mountain climbers are a move you can easily adapt to your level, do as a standalone workout or add to your existing regiment. The move can be:

    Once you've mastered planking and mountain climbers, you can try out other exercises that use your own weight for a full body, strengthening workout:

    Workouts that feature the mountain climber move:

    Was this page helpful?