How to Do Mountain Climbers

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Also Known As: Running planks

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

Level: Beginner

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 exercise nearly the entire body and are sure to get your heart rate up. Your quads and core get an especially good workout, too.

As you're making use of your own body weight, you can perform the move just about anywhere. 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 break room at work.

The basic move is great for beginners, but more experienced exercisers can take things up a notch with variations.

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. And because it's a cardio exercise, you'll get heart health benefits and burn calories.

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 and out as far and as fast as you can. Alternate inhaling and exhaling with each leg change.

When you're focused on the move, you might find yourself holding your breath. Remember to breathe.

Common Mistakes

Bouncing on Your Toes

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.

Not Allowing Your Toes to Touch the Floor

Another form error you might find yourself making, especially as the move speeds up, is failing to fully complete the movement by letting your toes touch the ground as you bring your knees into your chest. If you find that this is the case for you, you won't get the full benefit of the exercise and could be risking injury.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

If you're at the beginner level, start with low-impact mountain climbers:

  1. From a plank position, bring your right knee to your chest, keeping your right foot elevated.
  2. Bring your right foot back to plank position with your toes touching the ground.
  3. Quickly reverse the move, this time bringing your left knee to your chest, keeping your left foot off the ground.
  4. Return your left foot to plank position, toes touching the ground, and immediately lift your right foot to repeat step 2.
  5. Quickly alternate sides for one minute or for the number of reps you choose.

If you feel you need to take some of the weight off your arms, shoulders, and hands, try modified mountain climbers on a step. For this variation, elevate your upper body on a step or block. This 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.

  1. Start from a plank position.
  2. As you bring your right knee in, touch your big toe to the floor.
  3. Jump-switch your feet, taking your right foot back and your left foot forward at the same time.
  4. Repeat for your desired number of reps or time duration.

Sliding mountain climbers: If you have a gliding disc or a towel and hardwood floor, try using them to change up the basic move.

  1. Place your disc or towel on the floor, then position your foot on it as you assume a plank position.
  2. Slowly begin to complete a basic rep, using your other non-sliding leg and upper body to stabilize yourself.
  3. 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 while standing:

  1. Start by raising your knee to hip level, then drop down to the floor holding a plank position.
  2. Perform the basic move, bringing your knee to your chest then back out again.
  3. To get your heart rate up, try jogging for a count of 10 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 injuries or instabilities in 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 can be easily adapted to your level, done as a standalone workout, or blended into your existing regimen. The move can be:

Workouts that feature the mountain climber move include:

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:

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