Movements and activities often work a variety of muscles. This is definitely the case for mountain climbers. Find out what they do.
It only takes one look at how to do mountain climbers to see there is a lot going on in terms of muscle engagement. That being said, you will use some muscles more than others.
Mountain climbers mainly work your hip flexors, glutes (butt), abs, and obliques.
Additionally, your hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, tibialis anterior, triceps, chest, serratus anterior, front deltoids, latissimus dorsi, and trapezius muscles will have to work to a certain extent.
While you can consider mountain climbers a full-body exercise in that they engage a variety of muscles, something important to note is that this movement is likely not challenging enough to grow any muscles.
To build muscles you have to challenge them with enough weight, repetitions, and sets. Your cardiovascular system will likely give up before you reach this muscle growth point with mountain climbers.
Primary muscles worked with mountain climbers
In most movements and exercises you do, using muscles to move body parts is not the only thing you do. A variety of muscles also have to work to some extent to keep you in position.
The same applies to mountain climbers. Some muscles will have to work a lot harder than others during the exercise.
More specifically, mountain climbers will mainly work your hip flexor, gluteus maximus (butt), ab, and oblique muscles.
One important thing to note is that you will likely get out of breath before challenging these muscles enough for growth. Mountain climbers are mainly a cardiovascular workout.
Your hip flexors are a group of muscles that runs in front of your body between your thighs and hips. These include the sartorius muscles, pectineus, psoas, iliacus, and rectus femoris muscles.
In mountain climbers, your hip flexors will be the muscles that pull your thighs forward. These muscles will typically have the hardest time compared to their relative strength.
The gluteus maximus, also known as your main butt muscle, is responsible for the movement opposite of the hip flexors.
In short, your gluteus maximus muscles pull your thighs back until they are about horizontal in mountain climbers.
Something to note is that the gluteus maximus are some of the strongest muscles in your body. It is very unlikely that mountain climbers will be enough to get these muscles even close to failure.
Do mountain climbers work abs?
Next, mountain climbers work your abs, also known as your transverse and rectus abdominis muscles, in an isometric (static) way.
You can say that mountain climbers work the upper, middle, and lower abs. There is not really one specific part you engage more than others.
The ab muscles are responsible for pulling your chest toward your hips or your hips toward your chest.
In mountain climbers, this “movement” has to happen to some extent to stop the middle of your spine from collapsing down.
Something to keep in mind is that more dynamic exercises are typically more effective for growing and strengthening muscles.
Mountain climbers engage your abs to some extent but you should not really expect any growth.
Do mountain climbers work obliques?
Mountain climbers also work your external and internal obliques to some extent.
These muscles run along the side/front of your upper body and are responsible for tilting your upper body sideways or rotating it.
Similar to the ab muscles, mountain climbers will mainly engage your oblique muscles in a static way. Their main job is to keep your hips at the right angles throughout the brisque movements of your legs.
Secondary muscles worked with mountain climbers
There are also a variety of muscles that have to keep other body parts in position during mountain climbers.
More specifically, you can say that mountain climbers work your hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, tibialis anterior, triceps, chest, serratus anterior, front deltoids, latissimus dorsi, and trapezius muscles to a certain extent.
Knee and ankle flexion and extension muscles
As mentioned, the hip flexors and glutes will mainly be responsible for moving your thighs forward and backward during mountain climbers.
That being said, you will also have to fold and stretch your legs and keep your ankles at the right angles.
To do this first part, your hamstrings (back thighs) and quadriceps (front thighs) will be responsible.
Mountain climbers will also work your calves and tibialis anterior muscles to a tiny extent.
Shoulder stabilization and arm flexion muscles
Staying in the high plank position from mountain climbers requires some effort from a variety of muscles around your arms and shoulders.
For example, your triceps work in an isometric way to keep your arms slightly less than stretched.
Your chest and serratus anterior muscles are engaged so you don’t lower your chest too much.
Lastly, your deltoids (shoulders) and latissimus dorsi keep your upper arms at more or less the same angle to make sure you can do the mountain climbers without wobbling around.
Keeping your head up
A small detail is that you keep your neck/head in line with your body during the plank position from mountain climbers.
This works the upper part of your trapezius muscles located at the back of your neck.
Can you build muscle with mountain climbers?
It is a common misconception that mountain climbers can help you build muscle. For most people, this will not be the case.
The main exercise benefits of mountain climbers come from their engagement of your cardiovascular system (heart, lungs, and blood vessels).
To grow and strengthen your muscles, you have to challenge them enough to start the internal processes responsible for these results.
If you can do more than 50 repetitions with each leg before your muscles fatigue, mountain climbers will likely not be challenging enough to build muscle.
Even if you do 100 mountain climbers a day or many more, you will likely not experience any growth in a situation like that.
That being said, mountain climbers could still help you improve endurance in your muscles. Muscle endurance has its own benefits that could align with your training goals.
Changes that can potentially make mountain climbers build muscle
So if you can do more than 50 mountain climbers with each leg, this exercise will likely not help you build muscle.
In theory, there are some ways you could make the movement more challenging for the muscles you work. Even though this is not recommended, it could theoretically help you build muscle.
The first “way” is simply doing mountain climbers faster. The rougher, more explosive, movements will engage mainly your hip flexor muscles more.
Next, you can wear a compact weighted vest to make mountain climbers more challenging for your core muscles.
The closer to your hips the more you challenge your ab muscle. If the vest only rests on your upper back it will only make the exercise more challenging for your triceps, chest, and serratus anterior.
Lastly, to make mountain climbers more challenging for your hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings, you could wear ankle weights.
That being said, the brusque movements in mountain climbers are not ideal to build muscle even with weights. Especially considering the many more effective alternatives available.
Mountain climber variations to work different muscles
It is possible to change the mountain climber movements slightly to focus more on certain muscles.
The first variation is called a twisting or crossbody mountain climber. This involves moving your knee to the chest of the opposite side instead of straightforward.
These twisting mountain climbers will focus just a bit more on your oblique muscles.
Secondly, you can do mountain climbers with your forearms resting on a stability ball. This will require just a bit more work from core muscles like your obliques and abs.