What Muscles Do Mountain Climbers Work?

Mountain Climbers are an excellent full body exercise. During this exercise, your whole body is engaged to keep you balanced while also generating power to drive your legs forward. Not only will Mountain Climbers get all of your major muscle groups firing, they will also spike your heart rate and get you breathing hard. 

In addition to your arms, shoulders and legs, Mountain Climbers require your entire core, neck to low back, to keep you balanced and stable. The core stabilizers and trunk flexors and extensors are co-contracting. This co-contraction stabilizes your entire back, allowing your spine to stay in a neutral and aligned position.

From the core, we move out to the extremities, your arms and legs. The entire shoulder is firing to keep your upper body strong and stable as you push your hands down into the ground. The rotator cuff, deltoids, pectoral muscles, and scapular stabilizers maintain strong, stable shoulders while the triceps lock out the elbows and keep your hands flat on the ground.

While your core and shoulders are keeping you balanced, your legs are generating the power. During the Mountain Climber, the driving leg is pulled forward by the hip flexors as the hamstrings bend the knee. The calf muscles and the muscles of the foot and ankle are also engaging to push the leg forward. On the opposite leg, the gluteal muscles are stabilizing the hip and pelvis while the quadriceps muscles are locking the knee in extension to ensure a strong base of support.

As you can tell, the Mountain Climber is a full body workout and that is why it is a favorite exercise among personal trainers and strength coaches. It’s one of the single best exercises to strengthen the core, improve conditioning and burn calories at the same time, according to Nick Tumminello, also known as the “Trainer of Trainers.” But it is important to understand the correct form to ensure you are moving optimally for the best performance and outcomes.

Mountain Climber Form

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.

Here are the specific core muscles that we briefly described above.

Core StabilizersTrunk Flexors and Extensors
Transversus AbdominisRectus Abdominis
MultifidusInternal/External Obliques
DiaphragmLatissimus Dorsi
Pelvic FloorErector Spinae
 Quadratus LumborumPsoas  

Here are the specific shoulder and scapular muscles that we briefly described above.

Shoulder StabilizersScapular Stabilizers
Rotator CuffSerratus Anterior
DeltoidsRhomboid Major and Minor
Pectoralis Major and MinorBicepsTricepsLatissimus Dorsi  Upper, Middle, and Lower trapezius

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

Here are the lower extremity muscles that we briefly described above.

Stabilizing MusclesDriving Muscles
Gluteus MaximusIliopsoas
Gluteus Medius/MinimusRectus Femoris
QuadricepsHamstringsAdductorsGastrocnemius/SoleusToe flexors  

Step 3: Extend your right leg back to the starting position and simultaneously drive your left leg to your chest and touch your toes to the ground. Continue this back-and-forth sequence.

Mountain Climber Benefits

Obviously the Mountain Climber is a full body movement, is great for strength and stability, and improves cardiovascular endurance. When looking at research comparing an exercise like the Mountain Climber to traditional core exercises such as the plank or crunches, the Mountain Climber was found to be superior in terms of muscle strengthening, improving endurance & stability, reducing injury, and maintaining mobility. More specifically, research has demonstrated, by use of surface EMG, that activation of your core muscles is greatest during exercises that require deltoid and gluteal contraction!

Mountain Climber Variations

Slow Mountain Climbers are great to include in a warm-up routine. These are performed the exact same way as a traditional Mountain Climber except you will hold the position for a longer duration, around 5-10 seconds, allowing a stretch throughout your leg.

Unstable Mountain Climbers are also performed similar to the traditional version. However, your hands will be on an unstable surface such as a bosu ball or medicine ball. This unstable surface will demand more stability and strength from your arms and core. An unstable surface can also be created by use of TRX straps. Your feet will go into the handles of the TRX straps, increasing the demand of stability and strength from your lower extremities.

Plank-Jack Mountain Climbers add a cardio boost to the typical Mountain Climber. Perform the Mountain Climber as you normally would. Then tighten your core and jump both feet apart and back together four times, like a jumping jack on the floor. After performing the plank-jacks, complete another set of Mountain Climbers. Repeat.

Mountain Climber Mistakes

Mountain Climbers may seem pretty straight forward. But avoid these mistakes to ensure you are getting the best workout you can.

Bouncing up and down. This indicates that you are not keeping your core engaged. You will be missing out on one of the best benefits of the Mountain Climber.

Failing to touch your front foot on the ground. This is a subtle mistake but it can make Mountain Climbers easier to perform. Therefore you will not get the same muscle burn and cardio boosting benefits as you normally would.

Hips rising up, like in the yoga position, downward dog. This mistake may go unnoticed if no one is around to watch you. Allowing your hips to rise up means you are not engaging your gluteal muscles enough to keep your hips and pelvis stable while performing the Mountain Climber.

Mountain Climber Challenges

Up for a challenge? Try incorporating Mountain Climbers into your normal workout routine as a dynamic warm up, as a cardio booster, or as a superset with other exercises.

Warmup Routine

10 air squats
10 lunges
20 Jumping Jacks
20 Mountain Climbers
Repeat 3 times

Tabata Workout

20 seconds Mountain Climbers, all out intensity
10 seconds rest
Repeat 8 times

Superset Example

12 Goblet Squats
30 seconds Mountain Climbers

Related Questions

How can I modify the Mountain Climber?

If you are experiencing pain or an injury the Mountain Climber can be performed standing with your hands pushing into a wall or counter top. The same form and movement still applies except you are putting less load and stress through your upper body.

Does the Mountain Climber exercise work the same muscles as real mountain climbing?

Dr. Jordan D. Metzl, MD, states that Mountain Climbers mimic the movement of real climbers as they scale steep peaks, and they build strength in the back, arms and legs as well as the core.

Mountain Climbers are a great exercise, working the full body, and can be done anywhere. Make sure you have proper form and try out the variations or workout ideas above to get started.


Stack: Why You’re Doing Mountain Climbers Wrong and How to Fix Them

Physiopedia: Core Stability

Teach Me Anatomy: Muscles of the Lower Limb

Teach Me Anatomy: Muscles of the Upper Limb

Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research: Integration Core Exercises Elicit Greater Muscle Activation Than Isolation Exercises

The New York Times: The 9-Minute Strength Workout

Heath Barrow

Heath is a certified personal trainer, an ordained minister, and most importantly, a father. He loves reading and learning new things...and enjoys it when he's able to pass that along to others!  ~"A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." (Proverbs 11:25, NIV)

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