If you or a friend has taken part in a high intensity interval training (HIIT) workout, you may have heard of mountain climbers.

While climbing a mountain might sound daunting, don’t worry — this exercise is performed much closer to the ground.

This article discusses which muscles mountain climbers work, how to perform them well, their benefits, and some modifications, variations, and progressions you can try.

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Mountain climbers are an effective bodyweight exercise that works many muscles.

Your shoulder muscles, triceps, chest muscles, serratus anterior, and abdominal muscles work mainly to support your body against gravity while holding a plank position.

Your glutes, quads, hip flexors, hamstrings, and calves all fire to move your legs during the exercise.

  1. Start on the floor on your hands and knees. Place your hands shoulder-distance apart and align your shoulders directly over your wrists.
  2. Spread your fingers apart and press the space between your index finger and thumb down into the floor to properly stabilize the shoulders and upper body.
  3. Step your right leg back into a high plank position, aiming to keep your body in a straight line from heel to head.
  4. Step your left leg back to meet your right leg in plank position.
  5. Make sure your spine is neutral.
  6. Maintain the feeling of pressing your hands into the floor and lifting the space between your shoulder blades up toward the ceiling slightly. Doing this will better activate your serratus anterior.
  7. Keeping your neck in line with your spine, focus your gaze on a spot on the floor just in front of your hands.
  8. Using your abdominals, bend your right knee in toward your chest, then step it back into the plank position.
  9. Repeat with your left leg, bringing it toward your chest and then stepping it back.
  10. This is 1 repetition of a mountain climber.

For a faster pace, switch your legs simultaneously — so, as one leg is moving back, the other leg is coming forward.

As part of an overall program focusing on muscular strength and conditioning, complete 2–3 sets of 10–15 slow and controlled repetitions.

As part of a cardiovascular program with a HIIT focus, complete 6–8 rounds of fast mountain climbers for 20 seconds, with a 10-second rest in between.

Mountain climbers are usually performed at a fast pace, in which case they’re a great way to work your cardiovascular system and effective as part of a HIIT program (1).

As a whole-body high intensity interval training exercise, mountain climbers are a great option for adults with low physical activity levels to improve their cardiovascular function. When performed regularly, they may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (2).

They can also be performed at a slow, controlled tempo, which is better for beginners. What’s more, the starting position for mountain climbers is a plank, which is an effective exercise for working the core muscles (3).

If you’re looking for a modification to the usual mountain climber exercise, there are plenty of ways to make the move less challenging, more challenging, or simply more creative.

Incline modification

Place your hands on a bench or step to create an incline plank position and perform the exercise as noted above.

This option puts less weight on your wrists and upper body, which is useful if you’re looking to build strength gradually in these areas or need to consider an injury.

Being on an incline is also a bit easier for those who have a hard time maintaining good form in a plank position.

Positioning yourself higher off the floor will work your abdominal muscles to a lesser extent than having your hands on the floor would.

Still, some research suggests that exercises that integrate core work with deltoid and glute recruitment — like mountain climbers — actually elicit more activation in the abs and lumbar muscles than traditional ab exercises like the crunch (4).

Pushup handles modification

Hold onto pushup handles for an alternative grip and hand position.

This decreases the amount of extension in your wrists compared with having your hands flat on the floor. It may feel more comfortable if you experience issues with your fingers or wrists.

Twist variation

From a plank position, bring your right knee toward your left upper arm and left knee toward your right upper arm rather than bringing them straight forward toward your chest.

Keep your shoulders level and above your wrists. You’ll feel a twist in your waist area if you maintain stability in your arms and upper body.

Adding rotation works the oblique muscles in the sides of your torso more than regular mountain climbers do.

Semicircle variation

From a plank position, keep your hands fixed and pull your right leg to the outside of your body, toward your right elbow, and then back to the starting position. Then pull your left leg to the outside of your left elbow, making a semicircle shape.

This is a fun variation that adds side bending to regular mountain climbers, which means it targets the oblique muscles of the abdomen as well as the back muscles, such as the quadratus lumborum.

Decline plank progression

Place both feet up on a bench to create a decline plank position.

This progression is more intense for your shoulders, so it’s a great option if you’re looking to build strength in your upper body.

Pushup or burpee progression

To maintain motivation with mountain climbers, especially once you’re used to them, it’s great to pair them with other exercises such as pushups and burpees.

Try 4 reps of mountain climbers followed by 2 reps of pushups or burpees, and repeat this combination for 30 seconds as part of a HIIT program.

It’s best to use an exercise mat to avoid slipping and for the comfort of your hands.

As for challenges with technique, it’s common for the hips to come up too high during mountain climbers, creating a triangle or Downward Dog shape. In this position, your head would also hang down too low.

Alternatively, sometimes your hips may drop too low, creating an excessive arch in your lower back.

Try to keep your hips in line with your shoulders, your head in line with the rest of your spine, and your gaze slightly forward at a point on the floor in front of you. This way, you’ll reap the benefits of working both your upper body and your abdominal muscles.

Mountain climbers are a versatile exercise that can be modified to many levels.

Do them in a slow and controlled manner to start out, marching with your legs while focusing on good technique.

Then progress to running with your legs, adding more challenging variations, and making mountain climbers part of your regular HIIT program for cardiovascular health.