During COVID, I did mountain climbers. Confined to my basement for workouts, I subscribed to a YouTube workout channel where the trainer self-admittedly hated mountain climbers. But instead of re-writing her workouts and taking them out, she chose to turn her loathing into a challenge and pretty much put them in every single one of her workouts and made us all suffer through it with her (I mean, we enjoyed the challenge with her…).
Mountain climbers are a cardio workout we all love to hate. They’re awkward (HOW, I ask you, am I supposed to keep my butt down and my hands directly under my shoulders while my midline is pretty much on fire? HOW?). They spike your heart rate. And…they burn belly fat.
No, really, they do1. So we answer the question of “Do mountain climbers work abs” with a resounding YES. Mountain climbers are a bona fide ab exercise, lauded for their ability to be both a cardiovascular movement and an ab exercise, meaning those of us who dream of a six-pack might want to consider hitting the floor and banging out a few minutes of this compound movement. A few minutes of mountain climbers, coupled with a regular exercise routine and a good diet (yes, all that stuff about ‘abs are made in the kitchen’ also has some truth2), and you’ve got a great formula for leaner, stronger abs.
How do you do mountain climbers?
The starting position for a mountain climber is a high plank position – hands flat on the floor, straight arms angled directly under the shoulders, toes on the floor, butt down. Straight back here, and head in line! With a steady tempo, drive your knees into your midline, as if running in place on the floor (or climbing a mountain, if you will).
Easy enough. But beware of some common mistakes3 that might hinder your progress.
Otherwise known as – your butt’s up in the air, and your nice straight plank is starting to look like a weak Downward Dog. It’s probably the most common mistake because it’s so easy to do. Keep your booty down and tighten those glute muscles to keep a straight and stable back as you drive your feet.
Oh, the straight position is such a fine line! If you drop your hips too low and weaken your plank position, you won’t be as effective. Dropping your hips also puts a strain on your lower back, and that’s a breeding ground for injury.
Bouncing on your toes:
Yes, you may *feel* like you’re working out harder, but bouncing will prevent you from
– Shifting your weight back on your heels: If you shift your weight back from your toes to your heels, you set yourself for your hips to start rising (see above).
Not letting your toes touch the floor:
If your toes are off the floor the entire time, you’re not completing the movement. You’ll miss out on the full benefit of the movement and could risk injury. Watch out for this as you speed up.
How do they work my abs?
For starters, your midline is working before you even lift a foot off the ground. That’s because you’re holding a plank position – which requires your ab muscles to hold yourself up off the floor and your back straight. Unlike other popular abdominal exercises, like crunches, movements done in the plank position are easier on your spine because they keep its natural alignment.
When you drive your legs into your midline over and over again, the tightened ab muscles are tested because of the instability and speed of the movement. This works your entire middle section (but if you REALLY want to target those obliques, check out the section of variations below), including those deep transverse abdominis muscles.
Why are they more effective than other standard ab moves, like sit ups or crunches?
Remember – spot training4 isn’t a thing. That means you can’t expect to do 1000 crunches per day, but neglect your high intensity interval training, strength training and nutrition, and come out with a sculpted six pack. Sorry. Abs are stubborn and training them requires a combination of abdominal focused moves, moves to pump your heart (cardio), moves to get your gains (strength) and a cleaned-up diet.
That being said, there are some ab movements that are better than others. Mountain climbers falls into the “better” category.
For starters, mountain climbers are compound moves. They spike your heart rate and get your blood pumping, so that means they’re cardio. They’re also a full abdominal movement because the plank position works your entire midsection, focusing on stability. That’s a big difference from a crunch or a sit up, which only work the upper part of your abs.
Also, because a mountain climber is in a plank position and aren’t on your back with a curl up, they won’t strain your lower back or your neck.
Any other benefits?
Mountain climber benefits go beyond the six pack. They work multiple muscle groups and are great for cardio. For example:
– Encourage athleticism, speed and quickness for sports athletes
– Benefits cardio health (because it keeps your heart pumping)
– Build strength in the shoulders, triceps, and chest due to holding the plank position
– Work the glutes, quats, hip flexors, hamstrings and calves during the knee drive
– Encourage mobility in the hips and knees
Mountain Climber Variations
We’ve talked about this versatile exercise and benefits of the standard mountain climbers. Let’s look at some variations that can help you either modify as needed or take it up a notch.
Slow Mountain Climbers
Think if you’re doing an exercise slowly, you’re not feeling the full benefit? Prepare to be proven WRONG.
Start in a plank position. Instead of quickly moving your legs into your midline, drive one leg into your chest. Hold for 3-5 seconds. Replace your foot and switch sides. Ooh, it burns!
For oblique muscles fire, instead of driving your leg in straight to the check, bring your knee up to the outside of the same side elbow (spider monkey mountain climber). Hold for 3-5 seconds. Replace your foot and switch sides.
Crossbody Mountain Climbers
A surefire way to find yourself WEEPING in both pain and gain!
Begin in the same plank starting position. Instead of driving your knees straight up your front, drive your knee slightly across your body (for instance, aim your right knee toward your left elbow). Switch sides. Start slow with these (as detailed below), then speed them up when you’re ready.
Yes, you will feel these EVERYWHERE. Did I forget to mention – BREATHE?
Down Dog Mountain Climbers
Another slow-but-mighty mountain climber variation for your workout routine that includes a staple yoga move. Begin in the high plank position. Moving slowly, drive your right leg to the center of your chest. Hold for 1-2 seconds. Then, in a fluid motion, pop your hips back extend your leg up in a down dog. You’ll feel this in your glutes. Hold for 1-2 seconds, and then transition back down to plank position, with your leg bent in to your chest. Hold for 1-2 seconds, and then back to the down dog. Gently set your right leg back down. Switch legs and do the same thing on your left leg.
Incline Mountain Climbers
If doing a regular plank position bothers your wrists or hands, you can place your hands on a bench or step to create an incline plank. This is also a beneficial modification if you’re working on your plank form.
Drive your knees straight into your chest as normal. Start slow and work your way up in speed. Being on an incline will work your abdominal muscles to a lesser extent than being on the floor, but it’s a great modification for injury or improvement.
Standing Mountain Climbers
Start standing straight up with your feet shoulder distance apart, hands at your sides. Bring your right knee up to waist level while extending your left arm over your head. Alternate with your left knee and right arm. Yes, this takes some coordination. Start slow and bring up your speed as you get the movement pattern down. Work for 20-30 seconds.
Spider Monkey Mountain Climber Plus Push Up
Holy shoulders and triceps! Start with a full plank. Lower into a push up as you drive your bent right leg to the outside side of the bent right elbow. Extend your arms and return your leg back to the plank position. Switch sides. Oh, this isn’t hard enough? Hold the bottom of the push up with your leg touching your elbow for 3-5 seconds before putting it back.
Burpee Mountain Climbers
Oh, for the love of…this one’s a little crazy. Cardio buy-out, CrossFitters? Start by standing with your feet shoulder width apart. Hinge at the hips, bend knees to a squat. Put your hands on the floor. Jump back to a high plank. Perform four mountain climbers (right leg, left leg, right leg, left leg), jump back up, land in a deep squat, and stand (or jump) straight up. Repeat for 30-45 seconds.
Mountain climbers are an effective exercise that can be done multiple ways – slow, fast, straight into the chest, crossbody, knee-to-elbow (spider monkey), the list goes on and on. So, no chance of boredom during your workout as you tighten and work your core. Flat belly ahead!
1: Gutentor Simple Thttps://mcclurefitness.com/story/5-exercises-that-will-really-target-your-abs/
Kendra Whittle is a writer, novice CrossFitter, marathon runner and triathlete. She lives in St. Louis with her husband, three kids and two dogs.