What comes to mind when you think of exercises? Maybe a pushup? A squat? Bicep curl? These and most other popular exercises are all movements that exist within a single plane of motion. However, there are precisely three planes of motion: sagittal, frontal, and transverse.
The sagittal plane divides the body into left and right, so all movements within this realm are up-and-down motions. In the frontal plane, the body is divided into front and back, which is where all lateral (side to side) movements occur. Lastly, the transverse plane divides the body into upper and lower portions, so any kind of movement in this realm requires the body to rotate or twist.
- Examples of sagittal plane exercises – deadlift, bench press, and rowing
- Examples of frontal plane exercises – lateral lunge, side-stepping, and jumping jacks
- Examples of transverse plane exercises – woodchops, supine bicycles, and medicine ball throws
Most of us exercise in the sagittal plane, performing movements that are linear in nature and oftentimes isolating one muscle group at a time.
Unfortunately, this is completely contrary to the way our bodies have evolved, forcing our obliques and hip muscles to atrophy and causing a host of muscular compensation issues.
Sagittal plane exercises are important and necessary when devising an intelligent exercise program. However, it is essential that fitness trainers and workout enthusiasts alike ensure that all protocols involve exercises in every plane of motion.
The Plane of Motion We Most Overlook
So, in which plane of motion do we tend to exercise the least? That would actually be the transverse; however, that is not to say that this is the plane in which we move the least. Quite the contrary: Since all locomotion exists in the transverse plane, all human bodies are designed to be at their strongest in this realm.
Think about martial arts, where throwing a strike requires the body to pivot and twist in order to generate a hard hit, or a baseball player batting a home-run by twisting his entire body into the swing of the bat.
Crawling, walking, running, and climbing all require some degree of twisting in the trunk and the hips. These are all actions that exist in the transverse plane. Unfortunately, due to the sedentary nature of urban industrialized society living, most of us have lost our mastery of locomotive biomechanics, and as a result, our strength in this particular plane.
So how do we break free and align our exercise programs with our body’s natural mechanics? The answer is simple: We perform exercises that mimic the movements our bodies naturally generate. The days of “Ahhh-nold’s” Gold’s Gym-style exercises where it was all about isolating one muscle group at a time and trying to see how much they can grow are over.
Today, we recognize an important principle: The brain does not distinguish between one muscle or another; it only sees the body as one complete machine that requires multiple muscles to synchronize together to accomplish a task.
You may have heard the latest buzz on the concept of “functional training.” Although it sounds vague (have we all been non-functional?!), the term simply refers to training the body for biomechanical efficiency.
Bear with me while we talk efficiency for a moment. Have you ever tried to move a big, heavy couch and thought, “I need a couple of large, strapping dudes”? The reason is because your 5’2”, 100-lb., 14-year-old niece is likely a less efficient choice than a 6’ tall, college ball player.
Even if your niece can carry one corner, you would still need two people to take the other corners. Your niece is the less efficient person for a moving job than a football player.
When we think about muscles in the body, it is the same concept: smaller muscles — particularly ones farther away from the center of the body — are far less efficient as primary movers in an activity than larger muscles that are closer to the center of the body.
Thus, we must train for strength and stability in the large muscles in the trunk and hips and discourage muscular compensations in the smaller muscles in the outer extremities. Biomechanical efficiency is about using the right muscles for the right job.
Exercise in All Planes of Motion
When we train the body in the transverse plane, we are teaching it to synchronize all the muscles in the trunk and hips to work together to generate power. The abdominals have to synchronize with the obliques and hip muscles, and upon feeling more stability coming from the center of the body, the outer extremity muscles will learn to do less work.
Let’s take the woodchop exercise as an example: To “chop wood,” or pull the resistance handle in a downward diagonal motion, we will most often grip the handle tightly, pull with a combination of our biceps, triceps, and deltoids, and all the while our upper trapezius muscles are hiking our shoulders upward.
The biomechanically efficient way to perform this exercise is to keep the shoulders packed down tightly, so as to encourage the entire shoulder girdle to work together, maintain tight abdominals and obliques, and pivot the hips and feet as the handle is being pulled downward while the arms remain straight. In this manner, the bulk of the force is generated from the core of the body.
Training the body with all three planes of motion in mind and taking care to avoid being overly dominant in one plane — particularly sagittal — will ensure a stronger, more mobile, and more stable body that has a lower risk of injuries from overuse.
While sagittal plane exercises are essential, especially if you are working on strength and power (e.g., powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting), exercises in all planes of motion deserve equal attention. Including more exercises in the transverse plane will help to round out a quality exercise program and improve everything from kickboxing to sprinting.
Transverse Plane Exercises
Below are some excellent transverse plane exercises!
– Upward and Downward Woodchops
Using resistance tubes or a cable crossover machine:
– Lunges with Weighted Rotation
A forward lunge with upper body rotation, swinging weight over leading leg:
– Dynamic Planks
Move from plank to side plank, taking care to maintain a level pelvis:
– Sledgehammer Swing
Slam sledgehammer into tire; allow your top hand to loosely grip and slide down the handle as the hammer makes its way downward:
– Landmine Lunge to Press
Start in lunge; press and stand simultaneously until body fully changes direction and faces bar, arm fully extended with bar overhead:
Rui Li is the new owner of New York Personal Training, a boutique 360° health and fitness studio in the heart of Flatiron, NYC. She has written and consulted for a variety of publications, including Men’s Fitness, Verily, and Refinery29. Specializing in injury prevention and gait analysis, Rui has made it her mission to help people get out of pain and stiffness and unlock their inner athlete. Her experiences in the U.S. Army showed her that a well-functioning body can overcome just about any obstacle. In Rui’s spare time, she enjoys finding challenging hiking trails where she can stimulate her mind and train her body. She loves scrambling up rocks and squeezing between boulders with her canine sidekick, Desmond.