Introduction

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m all about turn-in climbing. There’s just something about a really good drop-knee that brings me inexplicable joy. I consider the phrase, “this move can’t be done statically,” to be a personal challenge to my turn-in climbing abilities. If there’s any way at all to do a move turned-in, I can probably tell you exactly what that way is. And Aleksandra from the past probably would have tried to do it that way, too.

But, as it turns out, Aleksandra from the past doesn’t know as much about climbing as Aleksandra from the present, and Aleksandra from the present fully embraces turn-out climbing. My climbing style didn’t evolve easily – that journey involved many arguments, two months of climbing exclusively in turn-out for every single move, and some really annoying hip mobility exercises (thanks Taylor). However, my climbing got much better for it, and turn-out climbing is something I continue to work on. As a coach, I get to watch a bunch of kids use turn-in climbing as a crutch, and hopefully stop them from becoming too dependent on it. In this spotlight, I’m going to go through why I think people gravitate towards turn-in climbing, how that can limit your climbing, what the research says, and how you can apply all this to your own climbing.

Aleksandra Dagunts demonstrating "turn in" climbing
It’s pretty hard to find pictures of me climbing in turn-out. But here’s some in turn-in.

Some quick definitions:

  • By turn-in climbing, I am referring to a stance where both of your knees are facing the same direction, one hip is twisted into the wall, and the pressure from the foot which is twisted inward is on the outside edge of your climbing shoe.
  • Conversely, turn-out climbing is a stance where your knees are facing opposite directions, the pressure is on the inside edge of your climbing shoe, and your hips are square to the wall. 

Why are we so drawn to turn-in climbing?

  • I am going start with the assumption that when most people start climbing, for a variety of reasons (lack of upper body strength, taught in intro classes, preference, etc.) they climb mostly in turn-out or with their knees facing the wall (front-pointing).
  • When we pick up on turn-in climbing, it can really revolutionize our technique. Hip flexibility can be a major limitation in turn-out climbing, so turn-in climbing might be the first time you really feel yourself get your hips into the wall on an overhang! For a lot of people, this is a real “A-ha!” moment.
  • Once we start getting the hang of turn-in climbing, it’s not that hard to get quite good at it. Especially if you’re a taller climber, you can make your way through quite a few climbing grades before you start needing to do more dynamic moves, or before the footholds for a turned-in set-up aren’t there anymore. So it’s really easy to start to rely on turn-in climbing. It works! Really well! Until suddenly, you get to a move that doesn’t work using turn-in, and you have absolutely no idea what to do.

When does turn-in climbing fail us?

  • Turn-in climbing usually requires very specific foot placement. If the footholds aren’t available for that, turn-in climbing won’t work. Even if you do have the footholds, turn-in climbing usually requires more foot movements, especially if you are doing several moves in a row, since you have to switch which way your knees are facing. This can mean you’re on the wall for a longer time, possibly with a higher potential for grip fatigue.
  • Turn-in climbing often doesn’t work as well for dynamic moves. It often creates awkward positioning from which to drive dynamically from your legs, and changes the way your hips build momentum. If your feet cut, your legs will probably swing quite a bit, making your arms work much harder.
  • Unfortunately for us turn-in fanatics, as you progress in your climbing ability, you’re more and more likely to encounter climbs with fewer feet or more dynamic moves – especially if you’re a competition climber. Based on anecdotal evidence, learning to climb in turn-out is really important.

What does the research have to say about this?

  • For his Master’s thesis at Northern Michigan University, Saravanan Balasubramani studied the effect of climbing turn-in, turn-out, or front-pointed on arm muscle activation. He found that the three different climbing techniques did not significantly affect arm muscle activation. However, the only type of movement that was studied was a fairly easy upwards motion on good handholds and vertical terrain. The author concludes that repeating the study on more complex moves, a larger variety of handholds, and more overhanging terrain could yield different results.
  • For his PhD thesis at the University of Leeds, Christopher John Low performed similar research to what is described above, but with different methodology. He found that competition climbers were more likely to use turn-in climbing technique. He then concludes that there are pros and cons to both techniques. Namely, turn-out technique requires more effort at the beginning or “set-up” of the move, but less throughout and at the completion of the move. Additionally, he concludes that turn-out technique may be better for dynamic moves.

 

Aleksandra Dagunts demonstrating "turn out" climbing on the lift and "turn in" climbing on the right
Turn-out, (2) Turn-in. Guess which one worked. (Trick question. Neither of them worked.)

What can you do about all this?

If you’re someone who is overly reliant on turn-in climbing, here’s some things you can do to break the habit:

  • Take a hiatus from turn-in climbing for a while. Commit to figuring out how to do every move in turn-out.
  • Seek out climbs with more dynamic moves and fewer foothold options to force turn-out.
  • Do hip mobility and strengthening exercises.
  • Watch climbing competitions and compare how different climbers (especially climbers of different stature) do the same move. See if you can figure out when turn-in or turn-out climbing works better.
  • Do the above exercise watching other climbers at your gym and/or recorded videos of yourself.

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