Why You're Doing Mountain Climbers Wrong and How to Fix Them

Learn how to perform Mountain Climbers and avoid common mistakes that ruin the exercise.

The Mountain Climber is a favorite exercise among personal trainers and strength coaches. It's one of the single best exercise to strengthen the core, improve conditioning and burn calories at the same time.

Mountain Climber Form

Here's how to perform Mountain Climbers:

Step 1: Assume a push-up position with your hands under your shoulders, back flat and core tight. Your body should be in a straight line from head to toe as if you were holding a Plank.

This is the starting position for the Mountain Climber

Step 2: Without moving your left leg, drive your right knee up to your chest and touch your toes to the ground.

This is the second step of the Mountain Climber

Step 3: Extend your right leg back to the starting position and simultaneously drive your left leg to your chest and your toes to the ground. Continue this back-and-forth pattern for the specified reps or duration.

This is the third step of the Mountain Climber

For another example, check out the video below:

Mountain Climber Muscles Worked

The Mountain Climber is a full-body exercise at heart. Everything from your hands to your feet are working in some degree during this exercise. In particular, the many muscles around your shoulders must work to keep your joints stable while the hip flexors drive your legs.

However, many people perform this exercise specifically to target their abs and obliques, so for the sake of simplicity, we indicated this area on our 'muscles worked' diagram below:

The primary muscles worked in Mountain Climbers

The Benefits of Mountain Climbers

Mountain Climbers are an advanced variation of a standard Plank. Your core now must brace and keep your spine stable while your legs are moving instead of simply holding a stationary position like with the Plank.

This type of core exercise is particularly beneficial for athletes who must learn to maintain a strong and stable core while moving their legs—an essential skill in everything from running to throwing a ball. This maximizes strength power in these sports skills while protecting your back from injury.

Of course, this is also a fantastic exercise for directly training the core muscles mentioned above if you're not an athlete.

Another benefit of Mountain Climbers is conditioning. The rapid leg movement coupled with the many muscles involved in holding the push-up position elevates your heart rate and taxes your energy systems, making it one of the best core exercise options for conditioning and fat loss workouts.

Mountain Climber Alternates and Variations

There are many variations of the Mountain Climber that you can perform to make the exercise more challenging or to change how it works your body. Here are a few of the most popular variations:

Slow Mountain Climbers

This is perfect for beginners looking to master the technique or to challenge the core for a longer duration without the fatigue caused by fast movement. Use the same technique, but hold each leg in the forward position for about 5 seconds.

Banded Mountain Climbers

Mountain Climbers with a mini-band wrapped around your feet resist each leg drive, forcing a slower and more deliberate leg action. This is better for building stronger hips—especially your hip flexors—than it is for conditioning.

Oblique Mountain Climbers

Rather than driving your knee to your chest, drive your knee to your opposite elbow. This cross-body motion challenges your core to prevent rotation and shifts some of the work to your obliques.

Med Ball Mountain Climbers

Placing your hands on a med ball makes the exercise unstable, which increases the demand on your core muscles and shoulders to maintain balance and stability.

TRX Mountain Climber

The TRX Mountain Climber places your feet in suspension straps, which makes the exercise highly unstable and forces your core to create the stability. It's possible to perform this variation at high speeds, making it a great version to increase conditioning if you have the necessary strength.

Mountain Climber Workout

Here are a few examples of how you can incorporate Mountain Climbers into your training:

Core Circuit

Perform the exercises consecutively with no rest between exercises and 30 seconds of rest between circuits. Repeat the circuit once you've completed a set of each exercise.

  • Mountain Climbers - 3x10 each leg

  • Alternating Leg Raises - 3x10 each leg

  • Side Plank - 3x15 sec. Each side

Full-Body Circuit

Perform the exercises consecutively with no rest between exercises and 30 seconds of rest between circuits. Repeat the circuit once you've completed a set of each exercise.

  • Mountain Climbers - 3x10 each side

  • Bodyweight Squats - 3x10

  • Pull-Ups - 3x10

  • Reverse Lunges - 3x10 each leg

  • Push-Ups - 3x10

Tabata Workout

Perform Mountain Climbers as fast as you can (with good form) for the specified duration. Rest for 10 seconds between sets.

  • Mountain Climbers - 8x20 sec.

Mountain Climbers

Common Mountain Climber Mistakes

The Mountain Climber you often see performed looks more like a seizure than a well-controlled exercise. You should never perform any exercise carelessly, because you won't maximize its intended benefits. In this specific case, your core won't have to work as hard.

Here are the common mistakes:

Mistake 1: Bouncing Up and Down

Mountain Climber form mistake

One of the worst mistakes people make when performing Mountain Climbers is bouncing up and down. Although you still may get out of breath doing it that way, you eliminate any core strengthening benefit and may put stress on the lower back.

Mountain Climbers should more closely resemble a Plank. Your upper body should be stable while your feet move back and forth at a fast pace.

Mistake 2: Failing to Touch the Ground With Your Toes

Mountain Climber form mistake

Notice in the GIF above that my front foot isn't touching the ground when I drive my knees forward. This is a subtle mistake, but it's essentially cheating and makes the exercise easier to perform. You may be able to do more, but that's not the point. To challenge yourself, you need to do them correctly.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock