Let's talk mountain climbers — the staple exercise of bootcamp, HIIT and CrossFit workouts everywhere and one of those exercises people love to hate. Regardless of how you feel about them, though, there's no denying they give you a great full-body workout and burn a lot of calories.
Mountain climbers, also known as running planks, are one part strength training and one part cardio, says Hervé Damas, MD, a physician and former NFL player for the Buffalo Bills.
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"From a strength standpoint, you're using a combination of isometric actions and body-weight resistance. For the cardiovascular component, it is a predominantly anaerobic movement, meaning it requires a lot of energy utilization and cannot be done for long periods of time."
- What is a mountain climber? It's a running plank performed by bringing the knees up toward the chest, one at a time, in rapid succession, for a short burst of one minute or less.
- What muscles do mountain climbers target? Primarily core (abs, lower back, hip flexors), but they also recruit your entire body for support and stabilization.
- Who can do mountain climbers? All fitness levels, even beginners.
How to Do Mountain Climbers
"Mountain climbers don't require any equipment, making them the perfect exercise to do anywhere, anytime," says Rikki Heiken, owner and lead instructor at Sweat Studio in North Miami Beach. Beginners can do them, but that doesn't mean they're easy. Clear some space and give them a try.
Step 1: Start in a High Plank
- Press up into a high plank position like you're about to do a push-up, with hands beneath the shoulders and your body in a straight line from head to heels.
- Feet should be shoulder-width apart and anchored to the floor on the balls of your feet.
- Keep your hips level and don't let your lower back sag.
Step 2: Alternate Drawing Each Leg Up to Your Chest
- Bring your right knee into your chest, engaging your abs at the same time.
- Return your right knee to starting position.
- Bring your left knee into your chest, then shoot it back, switching legs at your desired pace.
- Keep your breath steady throughout the exercise, breathing in through your nose and out of your mouth.
Step 3: Keep a Steady Pace
- Mountain climbers are usually done with a two-count cadence — 1-2, 2-2, 3-2, 4-2, 5-2, and so on — to keep track of how many reps you do in a set.
- With every count, one leg is bought into hip flexion while the other is extended. Add one to the count each time you bring your starting knee to your chest.
- Aim to do the same number of reps in each timed set.
How Long Should You Do Mountain Climbers For?
You can do them in sets from 20 seconds up to a minute. Choose a period of time that allows you to keep a steady pace and good form for the entire duration.
Beginner HIIT workouts often start with 20 seconds of exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest for each set. But in Heiken's higher-intensity fitness classes, mountain climbers are done in one-minute sets. The first 30 seconds are slow and controlled and the last 30 seconds pick up the pace for a spike in heart rate.
Benefits of Mountain Climbers
Mountain climbers are a full-body exercise, and when done at a higher intensity, they increase your heart rate and burn calories. You can do them as a warm-up, a burst of cardio between strength-training sets or a component of your body-weight workouts.
Mountain Climbers Engage All Your Major Muscle Groups
Mountain climbers strengthen nearly every muscle in your body, Dr. Damas says. Your abs, lower back, chest, shoulders and triceps remain engaged to hold you in the plank position, while your hip flexors, quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings and calves work to move your legs.
They Improve Your Cardiovascular Fitness
Whether your set lasts 20 seconds or 60, these high-intensity bursts of energy bring up your heart rate almost immediately. Raising the heart rate and lowering it again in a series of short bursts is one of the fundamental principles of a HIIT workout, as it improves your fitness level with shorter workouts. In fact, HIIT workouts are more effective than steady-state cardio at improving cardiovascular fitness, according to a study published in the August 2019 issue of the journal Circulation.
Mountain Climbers Burn Lots of Calories
"Mountain climbers require a great deal of caloric expenditure," says Dr. Damas. That means, when combined with a healthy diet, they can help with weight loss (if that's your goal).
Exactly how many calories are burned doing mountain climbers? A 155-pound person burns 298 calories in 30 minutes doing vigorous-intensity calisthenics (like mountain climbers), so that works out to about 10 calories per minute.
Your exact calorie burn depends on your age, weight, fitness level and intensity (based on heart rate). You can use an online calculator or an app like MyPlate for a more customized number.
They Work for All Fitness Levels
Whatever your current ability level, you can dial the intensity up or down by changing up the duration and frequency of sets and rest periods. Mountain climbers are a fitness instructor's dream, as there are many different ways to modify the exercise.
Beginners can take it slow and steady for shorter sets and more total reps, while seasoned athletes can go longer, faster and harder. There are also modifications for knee, back, shoulder, hip and other injuries (more on that later).
But Do Mountain Climbers Burn Belly Fat?
Dr. Damas says this is a bit of a misconception. "There are no activities that 'burn' belly fat only," he says. However, building muscle increases metabolic demand, improving your fat-burning power as your body gets stronger through repeated exercise sessions.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Even though this exercise gets significantly harder the longer you do it, maintaining proper form reduces the risk of injury and maximizes the benefits of the exercise. Below are some common mistakes that can render mountain climbers ineffective. If you notice yourself making any of them, stop and modify until you're able to do them with proper form.
Breaking Proper Alignment
As described above, your starting position should be a plank, forming one straight line from head to toe, and your body should stay in the position throughout the exercise. "Once your hips lift up, you lose the engagement in your abdominals," Heiken says.
Even experienced athletes tend to adjust their posture, rotating the body or hips, especially when fatigue sets in. "If you cannot maintain the body alignment that you started with, you should stop," Dr. Damas says.
Holding Your Breath
"Holding your breath will lead to early fatigue and poor recovery," Dr. Damas says. Sticking to a set cadence is a good way to remind yourself to breathe. You can either breathe in as the right knee drives up and out with the left or breathe in for two counts (right-left) and out for two. Choose the method that works best for your cadence and keep your breath pattern consistent throughout each set.
Not Resting Between Sets
Whether you're doing mountain climbers as part of a HIIT, cardio or strength-training workout, resting between sets is key for recovery and maximum benefit. Dr. Damas suggests a rest period of one to three times the duration of each set. For example, if each set lasts 30 seconds, rest for 30 to 90 seconds between them.
Dropping Your Head
Avoid looking at your feet and keep your head in line with your neck and spine by looking two to four inches in front of your hands. Dropping your head or lifting it too high puts a strain on your neck and places your body out of alignment, putting you at risk for injury.
Not Keeping Your Intensity in Check
When performing multiple sets, aim for hitting about the same number of reps each time instead of maxing yourself out on the first set. A 2018 study published in the Brazilian journal Clinics found that all-out effort on mountain climbers and other whole-body exercises in the first set leads to decreased reps in subsequent sets and increased fatigue after each set without additional benefits from their efforts.
Mountain Climber Modifications and Variations
Kick your mountain climbers up a notch or modify them to your fitness level to keep your workout fresh and provide just the right amount of challenge.
Standing Mountain Climbers
If maintaining a plank is too hard on your upper body, perform a standing mountain climber instead.
- Begin standing, both arms overhead.
- Crunch your knees into your chest, one knee at a time, as you bring the opposite elbow down to your chest.
- Alternate right knee with left elbow and left knee with right elbow.
- To keep the exercise low-impact, keep one foot in contact with the floor at all times.
Incline Mountain Climbers
If holding a plank puts too much pressure on your shoulders, place your hands on a step or sturdy box and perform a standard set on an incline.
If your hips are tight or if the cardio is too much for you, don't bring your knees all the way to your chest and tap the floor with each rep. The movement is slower and smaller, but you still feel the burn in your core, arms, shoulders, back, glutes and thighs.
- Begin in plank.
- Bring your right knee up toward your stomach and tap your right toe to the ground in front of you before returning to plank position.
- Switch legs, bringing your left knee up toward your stomach and tapping your toe on the ground before returning to plank.
Jumping Mountain Climber
If you're ready to for a challenge, instead of alternating legs, keep your legs together and jump in and out in a half-burpee. But unlike with burpees, this move doesn't require standing or jumping straight up.
- Begin in plank position.
- Crunch your abdominal muscles and contract your glutes to hop your legs in and out quickly, keeping your feet together at all times.
- Return to a plank after each jump, keeping your hands in contact with the floor at all times.
Cross-Body Mountain Climbers
Bring each knee across to the opposite elbow to add obliques to the list of muscles worked with each crunch. Maintain proper hip alignment to protect your lower back and hips as you contract your abs.
Push-Up Mountain Climbers
Target your chest muscle even more by doing four mountain climbers followed by a push-up. Drop to your knees for the push-up if you want to modify.
Incorporate Mountain Climbers Into Your Workout
Mountain climbers are effective all on their own. But if you want some ideas on how to include them in your next workout, try one of these:
- Description of training loads using whole-body exercise during high-intensity interval training
- Evidence for HIIT Benefits in Cardiac Rehabilitation Grow Bridget M. Kuehn (Originally published 5 Aug 2019)
- Harvard Health Publishing: Calories burned in 30 minutes for people of three different weights
- Rikki Heiken (certified in group fitness, personal training, Pilates (mat, megaformer, and Pilates suspension) and TRX)
- Dr. Hervé Damas, Dr. Hervé Damas, physician and former NFL player