Understanding and Training the 3 Planes Of Motion

Whether you are studying for the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), the National Strength & Conditioning (NSCA), or American Council on Exercise (ACE) CPT programs - You are going to need to understand planes of motion.

These three planes of motion are a fundamental pattern of human movement that often get ignored in most workouts you see in the gym. They’re not just important because they define how the human body was built to move but are essential in building balanced programs.

This doesn’t mean you need an even ratio of all three - but you do need an ongoing awareness of where movements fall and how you can better drive client results.

Overloading one plane or neglecting another can lead to muscle imbalances, injuries or other limitations when it comes to activities of daily life.

Here’s the breakdown:

Sagittal Plane

This is the plane of motion that many of your traditional strength exercises live in (mostly).

Think of the sagittal plane as “front-to-back” movements; imagine a line going straight down the center of the body. Flexion and extension movements follow this vector.

(Visual learners: Imagine you’re stuck in a hallway and facing forward, what exercises can you do?)

Some examples are bicep curls, reverse lunges, squats, crunches, hamstring curls, and tricep extensions. A good reminder for this plane - you’re using the muscles you think of when you look in the mirror. These exercises can easily be overloaded since we tend to be most stable in the sagittal plane.

Instead of getting creative to add in sagittal plane exercises, you will most likely have to look through your programming to make sure you aren’t only working in this plane.

*Study tip* Almost all flexion and extension in the human body happen in the sagittal plane.

Frontal Plane

Now imagine a line going through your body dividing you evenly into front and back “halves.” This is the frontal plane and it involves abduction, adduction, and scapular elevation/depression movements.

You can think of it as the “side-to-side” plane.

(Visual learner? Think of it as the “snow angel” plane. Get up (or actually lay down on the ground) and mimic creating a snow angel. Any movements that follow that pattern are in the front plane.)

This plane will include exercises like lateral shoulder raises, lateral lunges, and fire hydrants.

Working through the frontal plane will require the use of more accessory and stabilizing muscles. Many of the muscles that power frontal plane movement help to control movement in other planes (like sagittal) and drive change of direction.

Transverse Plane

This plane is most likely the most under trained. Imagine a line dividing your body in equal top and bottom “halves.” That’s the transverse plane and it is responsible for all rotational movement.

(Visual learners: imagine there’s a pole going straight down the center of your body and anchored into the ground between your feet… how would you be able to move?)

Specific joint movements in the transverse plane are rotation, pronation, supination and horizontal abduction/adduction.

Hitting the transverse plane in abdominal exercises is easy: russian twists, bicycles, and diagonal chops are all super common exercises. When it comes to programming for lower and upper body exercises you will have to get more creative - but don’t neglect it as the hips are involved in a lot of rotation as well.

Programming

As you begin adding planes of motion into your workouts keep in mind that each new addition and change of direction of a movement should be considered a progression.

For most people, adding a lateral or rotational component to an exercise is an unknown variable that they likely haven’t been doing in their training so start with light loads, less ROM, and slower speeds.

But adding them in is essential as true human movement in the real world is often multi-planar and involves both driving movement and stabilizing it in all 3 planes of motion.

Now because of how joints work together to perform a certain movement, not all exercises will fall neatly into just one plane of motion. An easy way to decide which plane of motion you’re using is to focus on the body as a whole:

  • Staying in place or moving front to back? Sagittal.

  • Moving side to side? Frontal?

  • Twisting, turning and rotating? Transverse.

If you want to see the three planes of motion in action, check out this video with our Academy Instructor and Owner, Joe Drake.

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