Struggling With Mountain Climbers? Here's What Your Body Is Telling You

Like the name suggests, mountain climbers are demanding. The mother of all compound moves, mighty mountain climbers work multiple muscle groups (pretty much every single one, in fact) and torch calories thanks to the cardio component. The key to reaping these benefits? Mastering the movement.

If you find mountain climbers nearly impossible, there are things you can do to get stronger. (Image: gorodenkoff/iStock/GettyImages)

To scale your own personal Everest, you need to have a combination of strength, endurance and body control. If you're lacking in any of these areas, your body will let you know.

The good news? By identifying your physical limitations, you can work to target and improve them. Here, Geoff Tripp, CSCS, certified personal trainer and head of fitness at Trainiac, shares some of the most common mountain climber challenges, plus pointers to get you crushing those climbers like a beast.

If Your: Hips Droop and Knees Hit the Ground

You Might: Need to Strengthen Your Core

Plain and simple, a weak core will make it extremely difficult for you to perform mountain climbers correctly, says Tripp. Essentially, the mountain climber is just an active plank. So, if your hips and midsection are sagging, and your knees are banging against the floor, nailing the move will be nearly impossible.

To achieve a solid core during mountain climbers, build up your strength in baby steps. First, start with mastering the basics such as high and low plank holds, says Tripp. To do a high plank:

  1. Start lying on your stomach, hands under your shoulders and feet flexed, toes pressing into the ground.
  2. Push through your hands and toes as you lift yourself up so that your arms are fully extended and your body is in a straight line from head to toes.
  3. Hold for as long as you can with proper form. Once your hips start to sag or you lower back arches, lower back down, rest and repeat.

Then, gradually add climbers to the mix, only performing as many reps as you can with good form. You might want to jump right in and crank out 100 reps, but resist the urge: a fast pace can result in sloppy form, which may increase your risk of injury. Focus on doing each rep slowly and deliberately. In time, you'll develop core strength by laying down the foundation of proper movement patterns, says Tripp.

If You: Can’t Drive Your Knees to Your Chest

You Might: Need to Build Hip Flexibility and Strength

"Tight hips will make it hard to get proper hip flexion when performing mountain climbers, so essentially you won't be able to drive your knees up as high," says Tripp. And if you're like the one in four American adults who sit more than eight hours a day, odds are you have tight hips.

When you spend a third of your day in a chair, your hip flexors become stiff and shortened. That's part of the reason why mountain climbers — which require a certain amount of hip flexibility — are so challenging for so many people.

So, what can you do to combat tight hips? "Spending time during your warm-up to actively mobilize your hips will help," says Tripp who recommends incorporating moves like body-weight lunges with rotations, lateral lunges and deep squat holds to improve hip mobility, flexibility and flexion. For lunges with rotations:

  1. Stand up tall, then step one foot out a few feet in front of you.
  2. Bend both knees to 90-degree angles.
  3. As you do, twist your torso to face the same side as your front leg. So if you stepped out with your right foot, rotate to the right.
  4. Step back to the start and repeat on the other side.

If You: Struggle to Hold a High Plank

You Might: Need to Work on Your Shoulder Stability

If you lack upper-body strength, you're bound to struggle with climbers since they involve a coordinated engagement of your pectorals, deltoids, back and shoulders. Without muscular strength to hold you up and in place, you're likely to experience poor form and improper alignment. Or worse, you might feel strain or pain in your back.

Often, weak shoulders are the source of the problem. "Having tight and or weak shoulders will make it hard for you to actively protract your scapulae (shoulder blades) to promote good shoulder stability," says Tripp. During mountain climbers, people always want to retract their shoulder blades (pinch them toward each other) when what you really need to do is protract (round them forward).

Shoulder mobility drills like floor or wall angels (lying on the floor and raising your arms overhead while spreading your legs) will help to improve shoulder mobility while exercises like the scapula push-up (a narrow, straight-armed push-up involving a small range of motion where you pinch your shoulder blades together) will enable you to practice the action of protracting and retracting your scapulae.

As you progress, you should add stability ball wall push-ups (doing push-ups against a stability ball braced against a wall at chest height) or floor push-ups to your routine as well, says Tripp, explaining that these moves will improve strength and stability to give you a sturdy base when doing mountain climbers.

If You: Get Out of Breath Easily

You Might: Need to Build Aerobic Capacity

Make no mistake, mountain climbers are an intense cardio movement. Just a few reps can get your heart hammering in your chest or your lungs gasping for breath. Sound familiar? Don't sweat it. "Anytime you add an active component to an already challenging drill you are going to tax the aerobic system," says Tripp.

In this case, the key to conquering climbers is improving your aerobic capacity. Certainly, performing other types of interval-based cardio exercises can help enhance your endurance.

That said, if you want to get better at doing mountain climbers, you simply must practice the move, Tripp says. "It's such a specific move that there isn't a lot out there (besides the VersaClimber machine) that mimics it."

So, what can you do? Tripp recommends building up your volume of reps over time. At first, keep the work interval shorter by performing a set count of climbers, then add in timed segments as your fitness builds. This slow progression also allows you to work on perfecting your form, says Tripp. A win-win.

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