Whether it was fitness programs I was provided in high school and college sports, or fitness programs I created myself, they all had common movement patterns. They all contained squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead shoulder presses, bicep curls, sit-ups, and many other well-known movement patterns. And because these movement patterns were well-known, commonly taught, and frequently practiced exercises, I figured those were the main exercises if not the only exercises needed to get fit and healthy. But after years of focusing primarily on these exercises, I’ve still had a fair number of injuries, posture misalignments, muscle imbalances and back pain. How could it be that the consistent training routines I was provided and recommended through fitness professionals and coaches weren’t keeping me fit and healthy? How could it be that I was still injury prone and in pain? Well after diving in deep to the fitness research and education, I found out that like most, I was training primarily in one plane of motion. In this three-dimensional world where we commonly perform complex movement patterns like running, changing direction, throwing, and twisting, I was only training for one dimension. How could I ever expect to be consistently fit and healthy when I was only training in one out of three planes of motion?
Planes of Motion
In nearly every functional movement we perform throughout the day from unloading the dishwasher, to carrying out the garbage and vacuuming the carpets, we are moving in three dimensions. We’re moving forward and back, left and right, and rotating in either direction. When we’re moving front-to-back, we’re moving in what’s called the sagittal plane of motion. When we’re moving left and right, we’re moving in the frontal plane. And rotating/twisting is in the transverse plane. And almost every movement we perform day-to-day, utilizes all three planes of motion.
This is even more evident in athletics. For example, one of the biggest aspects of baseball is the baseball swing. I played baseball in college and ~35% of our practice time was spent swinging a bat. The main component of the baseball swing is rotation in the transverse plane. Even though I’m also moving my body weight from right-to-left in the frontal plane, and various body parts extending in the sagittal plane, I’m primarily rotating in the transverse plane of motion. And if 35% of our practice was focused on the baseball swing which is primarily in the transverse plane, the remaining portions of practice included rounding the bases, throwing a ball and making plays in the field also primarily in the transverse plane. Nearly 100% of our athletic movements utilized three planes of motion with most of them focused on the transverse plane. So, wouldn’t it make sense to train all three planes? Absolutely.
The sagittal plane, moving forward-to-back, is the most trained plane of motion. We perform squats where our hips are sitting back and shooting forward. We perform bench presses where our chest and arms are moving the bar forward and back. We also perform bicep curls, triceps extensions, hamstring curls, and leg extensions all front-to-back in the sagittal plane. The reason we train in this plane of motion so much is because it’s the most stable. This allows us to perform an exercise with the most force while reducing the risk of injury.
For example, let’s look at the lunge. Most of us can easily perform a lunge and wouldn’t have a problem doing it with added weights like dumbbells. With practice, we can perform a lunge with a lot of added weight. But if we take that lunge and try a side lunge or transverse lunge then we’ll notice it’s much more difficult. It’s a less stable movement pattern. This instability in the movement doesn’t allow us to generate as much force and provides a greater chance of injury. Because most of us are concerned with strength alone, and don’t have a personal trainer or fitness coach to teach us proper form which prevents injury, we stick to exercising in the familiar sagittal plane.
This isn’t a terrible thing though as these exercises do provide a key benefit. Since the movements are more stable, we can generate more force. This allows us to lift more weight and build more strength. These sagittal plane exercises are great for building strength which is why all my high school and college training focused on sagittal plane exercises.
Sample Exercises: Forward Lunge, Push-up, Sit-up, Plank, Squat Jump
But that strength can’t be completely utilized in everyday functional movements or athletic movements without proper stability. That strength also isn’t as useful in stabilizing our body to stay properly aligned, balanced, and in good posture statically or dynamically. Because of this, it’s important we have a multi-planar workout program that focuses on these other key aspects of movement.
That’s why we also need to incorporate exercises in the frontal plane (side-to-side). The frontal plane is less stable than the sagittal plane. This means we aren’t going to be generating as much force or lifting as much weight with these exercises. But that’s completely okay because our focus in the frontal plane is on more than just strength. It’s on stability and balance too.
Frontal plane exercises can be identified by those moving side-to-side or in the lateral direction. A few examples of these exercises are lateral dumbbell raises, lying snow angels, or side bends. These exercises activate, strengthen, and stabilize our many lateral or side muscles like our obliques, abductors, and adductors. While these exercises are less stable, they increase our stability which helps reduce injury, improve posture, and balance muscles. That’s why it’s important that our workouts incorporate frontal plane exercises.
Sample Exercises: Side Lunge, Lateral Push-up, Oblique Crunch, Side Plank, Lateral Hop
And the least stable plane of motion is the transverse plane. This instability makes it the most dangerous plane of motion which frequently produces rotator cuff tears, knee sprains, groan pulls and back injuries. Despite it being the plane of motion that produces the most injuries in day-to-day activities and athletics, we rarely train it. It’s the least trained plane of motion.
This is the same plane of motion in which my injuries had occurred in the most too. I also had rarely trained in the transverse plane. It only makes sense that I’d get injured there as it’s the most unstable and my most undertrained plane of motion. Ever since learning this information at the beginning of the year, I’ve focused increasingly on exercises in the transverse plane. I’m frequently performing rotational moves like curtsy lunges, transverse lunges, one-arm chest presses, one-arm shoulder presses, one-arm rotational rows, and bicycle crunches. And after six months of this focus, I’ve had the least amount of back pain and hamstring strain in several years.
It makes perfect sense since learning this information, but it was never taught to me before. Our training should focus on increasing the efficiency of movement we perform the most. Whether day-to-day activities or athletics, our movement is frequently three dimensional with a focus on the transverse plane of motion. It only makes sense that we should be incorporating transverse plane exercises into our workouts on a consistent basis.
Sample Exercises: Transverse Lunge, T Push-up, Bicycle Crunch, Rotating Plank, 180 Degree Jump
Through a lot of research and recent education, I’ve become much more aware of how to put together a complete workout. A workout is much more than just strength training. Although it’s important to be strong, that strength isn’t useful without stability. Most static posture, daily functional movements, and athletic moves rely primarily on stability. And to be stable, we need to be well-trained in all three planes of motion. This means keeping sagittal exercises in our workouts for strength while increasing our frontal and transverse exercises for stability and balance. In this three-dimensional world, we need to be well trained in all three dimensions. This provides us the best opportunity to not only live a pain-free, injury-free life, but to perform and feel at our best.
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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe
Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient, and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognitive Health, Financial Independence and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.
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