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The pros and cons of planes of motion

In a side plank there are different planes of motion exercises. Frontal: Moving the hips up and down; Sagittal: Bringing the bottom  knee into the chest; Transverse: Rotate the body under and back up.
In a side plank there are different planes of motion exercises. Frontal: Moving the hips up and down; Sagittal: Bringing the bottom knee into the chest; Transverse: Rotate the body under and back up.
Bob Hickman

Fitness tends to have buzzwords, and one of the recent buzzwords seems to be functional fitness, moving the body in ways it was meant to be moved, training it for everyday activities. How often do you hear a friend say they threw their back out doing a simple every day movement like making the bed? Yet they complain that it seems impossible because “they work out all the time”.

The problem lies in the fact that most people train the body in one plane of motion, forward and backwards or to use its technical term sagittal. The fact is though that in everyday movements the body doesn’t move just in this one plane of motion, it’s constantly changing and constantly varied. So let’s look at the planes of motion and how you can use them to shake things up in your fitness routine, to prevent injury and allow for a more balanced fitness program.

What is a plane of motion?

A plane of motion is simply the direction in which the body naturally moves. Think of this as walking, you step forward one leg after another. Yet in a side step, you step laterally left to right, or vice versa. Another plane of motion is twisting moves or rotational movements, such as bending to lift a child up off the floor.

Sagittal Plane

The first plane of movement we’ve already mentioned. If you took a snapshot of the body and with an imaginary line divided into two halves right down the middle, left and right giving you have the sagittal plane of motion. Movement in this plane is forward and backwards along that imaginary line.

Typically this would activities such as walking, running, and cycling but can also be seen in strength exercises like forward or reverse lunges. It is the sagittal plane of motion that gets used a lot in traditional exercise programs.

Frontal Plane

The frontal plane takes that same snapshot of the body, and with the same imaginary line divides the body into two halves, this time front and back. Movement in the frontal plane happens along the direction of that imaginary line, which is sideways moving to the right and left. Examples of exercises used in this plane of movement would be side shuffles, side lunges, lateral arm raises or lat pull down.

Transverse Plane

Finally there is the transverse plane. We’ve taken the body in halves front to back, and left to right, this time the body gets split into top and bottom halves at the waist. The movement directions in the transverse plane are rotational. Examples of a transverse plane exercise would be a wood chop or bicycle crunch.

Why should you care about planes of motion?

To put it succinctly, everyone! We should all care about planes of motion. Research suggests that training in all three planes of motions helps to prevent injury not just in athletes but in all exercise participants. Why wouldn’t you want to get stronger as a whole, the body moves as a whole not just one muscle at one time.

How do the planes of motion affect the way we move and exercise?

Not only will training in all three planes of motion hit slightly different muscle groups but you will get a stronger core, and a more well-rounded physique. Whilst there is something to be said for training for specificity, say training for a marathon, when it comes to strength training you want to hit the muscles from all angles which means changing the plane of motion.

These movement patterns are going to serve us better long term than say just doing a leg extension or leg press machine. Those machines only work on one plane, whereas the body was made to work in all three.

What does plane of motion help you improve?
Put simply there are so many benefits of training all three planes of motion it’s hard to pick just a few but here are a few.

  • Helps to reduce the risk of injuries, particularly training the transverse plane.
  • Helps us get stronger in each plane of motion
  • Allow us to perform everyday activities more efficiently
  • Allows us to move more dynamically, and therefore boost our calorie burn during exercise
  • Helps with stability and balance.

Which plane of motion do people get injured more frequently and why?

Many injuries such as ACL tears in the knee, or back injuries occur in the transverse plane of motion. Yet rather than training our bodies to become stronger in this plane, it’s been overlooked completely by most training programs. Not only that but as we become more sedentary as a nation these injuries are becoming more and more common.

Timothy Hewett PhD, professor of physiology and biology at Ohio State University cites transverse plane pivoting movements as the leading cause of knee ligament injuries. With female athletes who participate in these activities being 2-10 times more likely to sustain ACL injury. He states that these injuries occur when landing or running then pivoting and that by training good body mechanics within these planes a reduced injury rate should occur.

What can I do to reduce the risk?

One important thing to remember is that most sports include rotational, transverse plane, movements yet until recently this plane of motion was all but neglected in training. However it’s not just an essential plane of motion to train for athletes but for the average person too. Imagine making the bed, you bend you twist you lift. In fact the transverse plane gets a pretty well used all day every day, by choosing exercises in the transverse plane for our workouts, we can get stronger at these movement patterns and reduce the risk of injury.

Research from Peter Beek PhD, from the department of motor behavior at the University of Amsterdam the Netherlands confirms the need for training in the transverse plane with research on walking and lower back pain. His study has shown that low back pain was more likely in the participants with less flexibility and rotation in the spine and hips.

Is any plane of motion better than the others?

If you had to pick just one, it would be the transverse plane, simply because it’s so underutilized yet so important. However all good training programs should include all three planes of motion, this is the problem currently, in that most barely even address the frontal plane, and most don’t include the transverse plane at all.

The simple fact is that transverse movements are challenging due to the rotation, flexibility and core strength required. This can be especially so if you have weak core and stabilizing muscles, as such it’s best to limit these to 2-3 exercises per workout session. Perhaps less if you are a beginner.

Remember to use modifications, and that it’s about progression, not perfection. If you are new to moving in the transverse plane, you might find your core, balance, and stability are significantly challenged. So focus on form and technique rather than speed and reps.

Training for exercise movements vs training with machines.
Machines are not a functional representation of what happens in daily movement, they lack the ability to move the body in all planes of motion in any functional way. Most machines focus on single joint movement, isolating muscles.

Maybe you’re able to lift a lot of weight with that leg extension but that won’t really help you getting in and out of a chair as it only works part of the leg muscles, the lunges however works everything and you can vary the plane of motion.

One great bonus of working in all three planes of motion means you have to work functionally and dynamically and that means a boost to the calorie burn and metabolism. By using multi joint functional exercises like squats, lunges, and rotational ball passes the core has to work to engage your torso while your body performs the exercise. This means more muscle activation and more calories!

So next time you’re sitting down to plan your next workout, thing about your movement patterns. Are you just training in one direction? Are you just sitting the whole workout going from one machine to the next and wondering why you aren’t getting results? Two tips for the best results are training for function and training in all three planes of motion.

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