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Few of us will ever experience the excitement, exhilaration, and difficulty of climbing a mountain, but nearly anyone can replicate the move on a small scale. You can accomplish that with an exercise called, of course, mountain climbers. They look deceptively simple, and there is no scenic view at the end, but mountain climbers are a challenging full-body workout move that is helpful for both cardio and strength training. Let's look at what they are, why you should add them to your routine, and how to perform your best version of them. To help us learn more about this topic, we spoke to trainers Nico Gonzalez and Joy Puleo.
Meet the Expert
- Nico Gonzalez is an Integrated Movement Specialist, owner of Fitness Physiques by Nico G, and Master Instructor for Balanced Body Education.
- Joy Puleo, M.A., PMA-CPT is the Balanced Body Education Program Manager and a Pilates expert.
What Are Mountain Climbers?
Performed on the floor with only your own bodyweight, mountain climbers are an accessible move for most people who have a fitness foundation. Gonzalez tells us that they're typically done in the context of interval training, as one exercise in a variety of moves. Puleo says that "Mountain climbers are dynamic and intense full-body movements," which are performed by alternating your legs underneath you from a high plank position.
As for whether this exercise is a strength or cardio move, Puleo tells us that "it is true this exercise can be cardio in nature, as the faster your pace, the more you will raise your heart rate, but even doing the mountain climber at a slower pace will challenge your core and upper body to stabilize as the lower body moves. Fast or slow, the mountain climber translates really well to upright activities and adds power to your run, jump, and cycle cadence."
What Are the Benefits of Mountain Climbers?
Burpees are perhaps the only other bodyweight exercise known for being so intense and results-oriented despite such simple movements. Like burpees, the benefits of mountain climbers are based on using your whole body for the exercise and how quickly you move through it. Puleo feels it's the combination of the move's isometric and dynamic natures that makes them so valuable, noting, "The mountain climber is a whole-body experience which works the upper body and the core isometrically, building strength and power in the plank position, and the lower dynamically."
Mountain climbers offer full body strengthening and conditioning. Gonzalez says, "the mountain climber is one of your best bets to work your upper body, core, and lower body all at once." That's because "while the body is in a plank, the upper body is resisting gravity while isometrically contracting the back of the arms and the chest. The core fires by resisting gravity in a balance challenge between the front of the core and the back of the core (abs and lower back muscles). Finally, the legs, while visually the moving parts of the exercise do work glutials, hamstrings, and quads."
How to Perform Mountain Climbers
- Begin on your knees in a prone position on the floor or a mat, with your hands directly under your shoulders and your palms flat on the floor facing forward.
- Engage your abs as you draw both of your legs back into a high plank position. Gonzalez says to focus on your glutes as you reach your heels back.
- Without moving your upper body, bring one knee up to your chest.
- As you pull that knee back to a straightened position, bring your other knee up to your chest.
- Continue alternating this knee to chest move for a duration of time.
- To finish, return to a plank position with both feet on the ground, then release as you would a plank.
Because positioning is so important for stability in this move, Gonzalez recommends making sure your hands are properly performing before beginning. He tells us to "place pressure into the thumb which fires the fascial matrix in the front of the upper body. Secondly, create awareness into the pinky which fires the fascial matrix in the back of the upper body." You should do this because "placing pressure into both the thumb and pinky creates a fascial shield for the upper body while in the mountain climber."
Variations and Modifications
This move is challenging as it is, but there is always room for a more advanced take! Alternately, if mountain climbers are too challenging for you initially, you may need to modify them for ease.
- Bring your knee to the opposite side of your chest instead of straight up. That means your left knee would nearly graze your right pec.
- Do a "spider mountain climber" by bringing your foot forward towards your tricep and touching your toes to the floor on each side.
- Incorporate push-ups, pausing after every ten mountain climbers to do one push-up.
- Bring each knee fully back to starting plank position before moving the other knee forward for a slower pace.
- If you cannot be in a high plank position, begin from the kneeling position instead and alternate, reaching each of your legs back behind you.
- Use a workout bench. Place your hands on the bench so you're at a 45-degree angle, and the move doesn't put pressure on your shoulders.
Who Should Avoid
This workout move is a simple one, but it may not be safe for all exercisers. Anyone who can't perform a high plank move should opt for the kneeling modification. Puleo says that you should opt for the bench modification if you have wrist, neck, or shoulder issues. Gonzalez adds that mountain climbers aren't appropriate for anyone who has lower back problems and needs to avoid pressure on that area of the body.
If you aren't at a fitness level where mountain climbers are viable for you, Puleo recommends doing the parts of the move separately. That involves performing a high plank, then doing a standing march. Your knee lift with the march can begin slowly, eventually becoming more rhythmic and quick. Aim for a goal of running in place with a high knee lift. She says that once you have mastered the components individually, you can attempt putting them together in the standard move.
Mountain climbers are a challenging bodyweight workout move. They simulate the motion of climbing a mountain and use most of our major muscle groups while doing so. To properly perform mountain climbers, you'll want to be adept at a high plank and able to do a fast, high leg march, as the move is essentially a simultaneous combination of those two exercises. Mountain climbers aren't appropriate for anyone with a lower back injury, and people dealing with neck, shoulder, or wrist problems should first try them in an elevated manner. Mountain climbers help to both strengthen our muscles and increase our cardio function. They're the closest most people will get to the feeling of climbing a mountain, and they're an excellent addition to your fitness routine.