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In its simplest form, exercise is movement. And an important aspect of this type of movement is one’s plane of motion. Here we talk about what planes of motion are and why they’re important when providing personal fitness training. We also share how to use these planes when designing your clients’ exercise programs.
A plane of motion is the plane or space in which the body moves during a specific exercise or movement. These planes are often differentiated based on an imaginary line drawn somewhere along the human body.
For instance, one plane of motion involves an imaginary line that runs from head to toe. This line separates the front of the body from the back. Another plane of motion involves a line that runs from one side of the hip joint to another. This line separates the upper body from the lower body.
To draw these lines correctly, the body needs to be in an anatomical position. This position is one in which a person is standing with their arms at their sides and palms facing forward.
Other names for planes of motion include anatomical planes or cardinal planes.
There are three main planes of motion. They are the frontal plane, sagittal plane, and transverse plane.
Imagine running a vertical line down the body’s midline, as if separating the front of the body from the back. Movements along this line occur in the frontal plane. If you ever see a reference to the coronal plane, they are talking about this plane of motion.
If a motion involves adduction (moving toward the midline) or abduction (moving away from the midline), it occurs in the frontal plane. Ankle inversion (lifting the medial border of the foot) and eversion (lifting the lateral border of the foot) movements also exist in the frontal plane.
The jumping jack is an exercise that involves frontal plane movement. So too are the side lunge and side bend. The lateral raise is another example of a frontal plane movement.
Like the frontal plane, the sagittal plane is also a vertical plane. However, this vertical line separates the right side of the body versus separating the front from the back.
Exercises that involve joint flexion (decreasing angle between two bones) and extension (increasing angle) occur in this plane of motion. Additional movements include dorsiflexion (top of the foot moves toward the shin) and plantarflexion (sole of the foot moves downward).
When you do a biceps curl or squat, for instance, the motion occurs in the sagittal plane. The lunge, vertical jump, calf raises, and stairs also involve sagittal plane movement.
The sagittal plane is sometimes called the longitudinal plane. Planes that run parallel to the sagittal plane—but are not located on the body’s midline—are called parasagittal planes.
The transverse plane involves a horizontal imaginary line. This line runs from one hip to the other. Also known as the axial plane, this plane separates the upper and lower body.
An exercise that involves rotational movement occurs in the transverse plane. This includes both internal rotation (inward) and external rotation (outward) motions. Movements at the wrist include pronation (rotating medially from the bone) and supinations (rotating lateral from the bone). Movements from a 90-degree abducted arm include horizontal flexion (humerus is flexed toward the midline) and horizontal extension (humerus extends back away from the midline).
If you do a twist, for instance, the motion occurs in this horizontal plane. The wood chop is another rotational motion that uses transverse plane movement. Additional options include push-ups, bench press, and seated hip adduction due to the rotation through the joints.
Having a basic understanding of the planes of motion is important when personal training because it helps you develop more comprehensive exercise programs. If one plane is missed, it would be like working the biceps without also working the triceps. A muscle imbalance can develop. Skipping a plane of motion during exercise can also negatively impact injury risk.
Plus, we use the three planes of motion in our everyday movements. Grabbing a bag of groceries from the trunk, carrying it to the house, and putting each item away uses all these planes. By doing exercises that work each one, we can develop the muscle strength needed to perform these day-to-day activities.
Exercising in all planes of motion is even more important for athletes. Most sports involve movement in every anatomical plane. Training in each plane, then, helps better prepare these clients for their sport of choice.
A good example of this is basketball players. When running down the court, the movement is in their sagittal plane. Raise their arms laterally to block their opponent and the movement is in the frontal plane. Rotate at the hip when attempting a layup from the side of the basket and they are using transverse plane movement.
In some cases, focusing on a specific plane can be beneficial for athletes as well. For instance, one study found that proficient golfers have greater transverse plane flexibility. This flexibility accounted for 48% of ball speed variability. It also accounted for 45% of total distance variability. Researchers concluded that developing transverse plane flexibility can help golfers optimize their performance.
A comprehensive workout program includes exercises in each movement plane. This is referred to as multi planar movement training or training that involves the use of multiple planes. By incorporating all the different planes in one session, the body gets a full workout.
Taking a multi planar approach is fairly easy since many exercises use multiple planes of motion. The lunge with a twist is one as the lunge occurs in the sagittal plane while the twist occurs in the transverse plane. Some movements even include all three planes. One example is the side-to-side push-up.
To strike a good balance between the planes, look at the workout you’ve created. For each exercise, note which plane (or planes) of motion it uses. Do you tend to use one plane more than another or is there a balance between all the planes? If there isn’t a balance, swap out exercises until you’re working within each plane equally.
It can also be helpful to incorporate different types of exercise. If the workout needs more sagittal plane movements, for instance, add yoga poses such as the Chair pose, Cobra pose, or Downward-Facing Dog. Poses in the frontal plane include the Triangle pose and Side-Reclining Leg Lift pose.
There are many functional, multi-joint exercises you can use that integrate the different planes of motion. Here are a few of our favorites:
The client will begin with feet shoulder-width apart and arms clasped in front of the body. Or, if they are more advanced, they can hold a medicine ball or light weight out in front of the body. They will step forward with their right leg into a lunge. At the bottom of the lunge, they will slowly twist the trunk to the right side. The rotation must be in the midsection and the knee and ankle stay in alignment with the toes, pointing forward. They will then control the twist back to the center and press up from the lunge, back to the starting position.
Start your client with feet a little wider than should-width apart. They will hold the medicine ball with both hands and slightly rotate the torso to bring the ball above one shoulder. In one fluid movement, the client will bring the ball across the torso diagonally towards the opposite knee. The client will then rotate back to the starting position.
The client will start with their body turned so their toes point 45-90 degrees away from where the barbell touches the ground. They will hold the weighted end of the bar with their outside hand (arm furthest away from the bar). The client will partially squat down and transfer some of the weight into their back leg. As they come up from the squat, they will drive and rotate the hips so they point toward the direction of where the bar hits the ground. As the hips rotate, the outside arm (holding the bar) will simultaneously press up and fully extend the bar into the air in alignment with the shoulder. Then the client will simultaneously rotate and lower the arm back to the starting position.
Start your client in a neutral position with their hands at their sides and toes pointed forward. While keeping one foot planted, the client will lift and externally rotate the second leg at the hip and lower into a lunge in the direction of the externally rotated leg (about a 90-degree angle from the direction of the stationary leg). The client will lunge forward, press up through the heel, and rotate back to the neutral starting position.
This exercise is very similar to the rotating lunge. However, instead of rotating the hip and lunging out to the side, the client will rotate the hip and step up. The client will stand with the box/step-up on their side. Toes will point about 90 degrees away from the box. They will bend the knee and externally rotate the hip of the leg closest to the box. The client will extend their leg and press up through the heel and the glutes onto the box which will lift the opposite leg off the ground. They will then slowly lower their leg back down to the ground and step off the box, internally rotate the hip, and lower the leg back down to starting position.
Here are a few tips to remember when integrating multi-planar exercises into your client's workout.
Focus on exercises involving the major joints of the body (hip, knee, shoulder, elbow, etc.).
Emphasize movements that include multiple joints, and check for kinetic chain alignment.
Start small and you build strength and confidence; multi-joint movements tend to be a bit more complex.
Mix it up. Include new movements and new equipment/modalities in each workout.
Multi planar training is a balanced training program that focuses on moving the body through all three planes of motion. This is incredibly important because most human movements (daily activities and athletics) require us to move effectively through all three. So, to support proper functional movement, ensure you include multi-planar exercises in our clients' routines.
Functional training and a varied workout series can help prepare the body to move in many directions. It's about more than just one muscle group or plane of motion. Just remember to start simple; focus on multi-joint, complex movements; and use a variety of different exercises and modalities, if you can.
Learn more about how to develop complete training programs by becoming an ISSA Certified Personal Trainer. This certification course is available online and allows you to use your passion for fitness to help yourself and others. Working as a personal trainer also increases your income potential whether you do it full or part-time.
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