There are various theories about who came up with mountain climbers. Most agree that it is a big part of military training, in order to train soldiers to expertly manoeuvre through tight spaces while staying low, and crossing over different kinds of terrain using all four limbs. Another theory is that it was mountaineers who made it part of their daily training given they have to, well, climb. And if you can do climbers with gravity resting across your back, it might, one hopes, make climbing against gravity slightly easier.
Along with burpees, mountain climbers are a foundational move for cardio-based core training, challenging the body to move in a complicated fashion while not letting the midriff collapse or the lower back cave in. Most beginners in the gym have to go through this tortured resistance. But the rewards will compel you to do it.
The reasons are simple. Mountain climbers will not just annihilate your core, but also work your arms, shoulders and quads. They will force you to activate your abs to avoid your hip flexors hurting like never before. This is an exercise universally disliked by every level of athlete, and yet, a favourite for a full body workout. They can be done to warm-up, they can be done in the middle of a workout, and they can be finishers. In short, mountain climbers, just like push-ups and squats, are unavoidable.
“It wears you out, it hurts your arms and it looks like the stupidest thing ever invented. You could drop to the floor right now and do some if you wanted. You won’t, obviously, because that sounds hellish. But you could,” states a Guardian article titled Is It Worth Doing Mountain Climbers? And this is just the beginning, because there are variations where it gets tougher.
But let’s start with the basic mountain climbers, because losing form in this exercise can do a lot of harm. Step one is to learn a basic plank. Core and hip engaged, shoulders and glutes strong. “Performed from a plank position, you'll alternate bringing one knee to your chest, then back out again, speeding up each time until you're running against the floor,” states a VeryWellFit article titled How To Do Mountain Climbers. Nearly 2 million viewers have seen the video below by Well+Good on how to do a basic mountain climber, and it details the most important parts of getting it right.
“Oftentimes what we do is have our butt in the air which causes our shoulders to come away from our wrist and then I have no room to bring my knees to the chest,” says trainer Charlee Atkins in the video. That will not work your core, she adds. She insists on a straight line from head to heels with the shoulders over the wrists. One of the things that people forget is that it is not necessary to go all out like in a sprint while doing mountain climbers. Atkins says one should rather look at a “marching” pace than a running pace.
Once this is mastered, it is time to move to the dreaded. But before you get into them, remember that the magic of mountain climbers is that you can add almost anything to it. Example: do five mountain climbers on either side and then add a few fire hydrants to burn the obliques; add ten shoulder taps after ten mountain climbers and repeat; do a few mountain climbers and do plank jacks; the list is limitless.
But there are some set progressive patterns as well. The sliding mountain climber is my favourite, where you use sliders or wear socks and do mountain climbers without letting your toes lift off the floor, instead sliding them forward. This forces your abs to pull the weights of your lower body in towards your chest. It will wreck your abs but on some days, that is just what you want.
Another one is the spiderman mountain climbers where you can choose to plank on either your palms or your elbows and pull the legs outwards rather than inwards, almost like Spiderman climbing New York city’s skyscrapers. You can also try the cross-body mountain climbers, in which you pull the left knee towards the right elbow and the right knee towards the left elbow.
One common mistake beginners make is bouncing on the toes while doing these. This might seem harder, but it actually takes your core out of the equation a little. The best part about all of this is that you can do mountain climbers anywhere—it needs zero equipment, gets your heart-rate up, helps your core get strong and makes sure your other movements are more aligned.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, podcaster and writer.