When you move your body through daily activities (like household chores) or during exercise, it moves in different dimensions. Your body can move forward and backward, side to side, up and down, and it can rotate around itself.
These movements are described in exercise settings as occurring in different planes of motion (or planes of movement).
By understanding the three planes of motion, you can adjust your fitness training to maximize exercise or sports performance and reduce your risk of injury.
The Three Planes of Motion
There are three planes of motion: sagittal, frontal, and transverse. It’s easiest to think of each plane as an imaginary line or a glass plate that divides the body into opposing segments when standing in the anatomical position.
- Sagittal plane: Divides the body into right and left sides
- Frontal plane: Divides the body into front and back
- Transverse plane: Divides the body into top and bottom sections
To determine the plane of motion of a particular movement, consider how the movement would interact with those three imaginary lines or plates.
When a movement runs parallel to the imaginary line or plate, the movement is occurring in that plane of motion.
For example, when you are walking up the stairs, the forward and upward movement (flexion) that occurs and the hip, knee, and ankle would occur primarily in the sagittal plane because that movement would run parallel to an imaginary line that divides the body into right and left sides.
If you stopped and reached directly out to your side to grab the handrail, that movement is primarily happening in the frontal plane because the lateral reach would run parallel to a line dissecting the body into front and back sections.
If you turned around to look behind you, that rotational movement would occur in the transverse plane because your torso rotation runs parallel to a line dissecting the body into a top section and a bottom section.
Any individual movement at any joint in the body can occur in a single plane of motion or in multiple planes.
Most often, complex movements occur in several planes of motion at the same time. It can be helpful to learn more about typical movements in each plane and how it affects daily movement and fitness activities.
Movement that occurs in the sagittal plane generally happens in front of us or behind us.
This is probably the most familiar plane of motion for most people because many of our typical day-to-day activities happen within arms reach in front of us.
Texting, walking, or typing on a computer involve movement that is primarily in the sagittal plane. Even quite a bit of our eating mechanics happen in the sagittal plane.
Sagittal movements include:
- Flexion: A bending movement that decreases the angle at a joint
- Extension: An extending movement that increases the angle at a joint
- Hyperextension: Extending the angle at a joint beyond neutral
- Dorsiflexion: Bending at the ankle so the top of the foot moves toward the shin
- Plantarflexion: Pushing the foot down and away from the body
Typical exercise activities that take place in the sagittal plane include a biceps curl, a forward or reverse lunge, a squat, vertical jumping, running, a downward dog, or chair pose (in yoga). Many traditional strength training movements occur in the sagittal plane.
The frontal plane divides the body into front (anterior) and back (posterior) sections. Movements that occur in the frontal plane are lateral or side-to-side movements. These include:
- Abduction: Moving (or moving a limb) laterally and away from the midline of the body
- Adduction: Moving (or moving a limb) towards the midline of the body
- Elevation: Moving the scapula (shoulder blades) up
- Depression: Moving the shoulder blades down
- Eversion: Rolling the foot towards the inside (medial side)
- Inversion: Rolling the foot towards the outside (lateral side)
Throughout activities of daily living, frontal movements are slightly less common than sagittal movements. Think about how often you walk forward as opposed to side to side, or how often you reach for something in front of you rather than directly out to the side.
Exercises that occur in the frontal plane include side lunges, lateral shoulder raises, or a side shuffle. Standing side bends and triangle pose are yoga poses that occur in the frontal plane.
The transverse plane divides the body into upper (superior) and lower (inferior) sections.
Movements that occur in the transverse plane generally involve rotation. For many of us, movement in this plane is less common. In fact, exercise injuries most often occur during transverse (rotational) movements.
Transverse plane movements include:
- Rotation: Moving the torso or a limb around its vertical axis
- Pronation: Rotating the forearm or foot to a palm-side or foot-side down position
- Supination: Rotating the forearm or foot to a palm-side or foot-side up position
- Horizontal abduction: Moving the upper arm away from the midline of the body when it is elevated to 90 degrees
- Horizontal adduction: Moving the upper arm towards the midline of the body when it is elevated to 90 degrees
Typical everyday activities in the frontal plane include turning your head to look behind you or turning a doorknob. Exercises that occur in the transverse plane include hitting a golfball, swinging a bat, or a seated twist.
Benefits of Training in the Three Planes of Motion
There are several different ways that training in all three planes of motion can help you to move with greater ease in life and sports.
Prepares the Body for Daily Life
In the past, many traditional strength training programs would focus on training (primarily) one muscle at a time and often in a single plane of motion.
For example, weight lifters might do bicep curls to work (primarily) the biceps in the sagittal plane, a chest fly exercise to work (primarily) the pectoral muscles in the transverse plane, or lateral raises to work the shoulders in the frontal plane.
But more recently, it has become much more common to do compound exercises. Compound movements allow us to train several muscles groups at one time and in different planes of motion.
In this way, training activities more closely mimic activities of daily living. For example, you might lift a heavy bag of groceries and turn to walk away from your car involving both sagittal and transverse movement.
When you prepare your body for these complex daily activities with compound exercises you can perform them with greater ease throughout the day.
Prepares the Body for Sport
Complex multi-planar movements also help us to prepare for safe and effective sports performance.
Researchers know that many athletic activities require our bodies to move in many different directions often under high stress. In fact, several studies have noted that anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries—one of the more common sports injuries—are more likely to occur during multi-planar rather than single-planar movements.
When we train our bodies to perform multi-planar movements safely and effectively with exercise we can help reduce the risk of injury during daily activities or in stressful athletic competition.
It is not uncommon for people to have a “favorite” plane of motion. That is, we typically fall into certain movement pattern ruts.
For example, we might do the same fitness activity or the same exercises over and over again.
One way to get out of that rut is to make sure you include movement from all planes of motion in your workout routine.
By doing so, you’ll have to challenge your body to move in different ways, with different exercises, and perhaps with different equipment.
For example, strength training machines can be appropriate when you are first starting starting out. But many machines provide the ability to work one muscle and only in a single plane of motion.
Dumbbells, kettlebells, TRX straps, and bands, however, allow you to move joints freely in many planes of motion and work several muscles at a time. Try switching your equipment to mix things up a bit.
Runners do a lot of their training in the sagittal plane. Even if they cross train by swimming (freestyle) or cycling they still end up working primarily in the sagittal plane.
For this reason, coaches often recommend doing some form of cross training such as yoga or weight training that allows them to move their joints in different ways that include lateral movements or rotation.
Even flexibility training should incorporate all three planes of motion. For example, walkers might choose to do a simple calf or hamstring stretch at the end of their workout, but may also benefit from a seated spine rotation or a lying hip stretch.
How to Get Started
Even if you understand the concept and importance of training in the three planes of motion, it might seem tricky when you first try to incorporate it into your workout routine.
Exercise apps (and even many trainers) may not be able to tell you what plane of motion a particular exercise is in. But you can still challenge yourself to move your body in different ways.
One way to get started is to challenge yourself to do your favorite exercises in a different position.
For example, if you usually include basic squats in your workout routine (sagittal plane), why not challenge yourself with a weighted side squat (frontal plane)?
If you usually warm up for your run with some walking lunges (sagittal plane), why not add some side shuffles (frontal plane)?
You can also combine exercises in different planes of motion. For example, if you usually do a basic bicep curl to work the front of the forearm (sagittal plane), why not add a side step onto a platform (frontal plane)?
Or, if you like to do basic lunges, try adding a torso rotation at the bottom of the lunge to include some movement in the transverse plane. You can also add rotational exercises like a woodchop or a hay baler to make sure you’re getting some variation in your workout.