Monday 11 March 2019

Planes of motion and axes

An important but often awkward or difficult concept of exercise to get your head around are the planes of motion and associated axes. These refer to the different dimensions and axes that body motions occur in.

Working out in all three planes of motion helps improve your neuromuscular efficiency, meaning greater cohesion and co-ordination between your muscles and central nervous system.

Table of contents

Planes and axes

There are three planes of motion in human anatomy:

  • Frontal, also known as coronal
  • Sagittal
  • Transverse, also known as axial or horizontal
The three planes of motion: frontal, sagittal and transverse
The three planes of motion. Photo from CNX.

Movement at each of these planes, also called joint motion, takes place on an axis that runs perpendicular to that plane. This is were confusion sets in for most as the axis movement does not share the name of the plane it is in:

  • Frontal plane joint motion takes place on a sagittal axis.
  • Sagittal plane joint motion takes place on a frontal axis.
  • Transverse plane joint motion takes place on a vertical axis.

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Gross movement

Exercises can be classified as belonging to one particular plane of motion. The body however moves in a three-dimensional manner meaning the reality is that there is usually more than one taking place in that exercise. It all depends on what movement is occurring at each joint in the body.

Thus for simplicity it is easier to classify an exercise by the dominant plane of motion that is taking place. This is also known as gross movement.

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Planes of motions and your joints

Planes of motion are an integral part of joints, which are defined by their shape and the movement they allow to be performed. For example:

  • Pivot joints, such as the atlantoaxial joint where the spine and skull connect, move in the transverse plane.
  • Saddle joints, which can only be found in the thumb, allow for movement in two planes of motion: sagittal and frontal.
  • Ball and socket joints, such as the shoulder, allow movement in all three planes of motion. No surprise that these are the most mobile of joints.

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Anatomic position

The anatomic position is the central reference point for the nomenclature used in describing body parts and movements. This position is where the body is standing upright with arms at the side and the palms of the hands facing forwards.

The anatomical position of the body
The anatomical position. Photo from CNX.

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Frontal plane

The frontal or coronal plane sees a lateral bisection of body from side to side creating a ventral (anterior, front) and dorsal (posterior, rear) halves. Joint movement takes place on a sagittal axis, in otherwords side-to-side.

Movements that occur in this plane include:

  • Abduction - movement away from the midline of the body, increasing the angle between the two parts.
  • Adduction - movement towards the midline of the body, decreasing the angle between the two parts.
  • Depression - movement of the scapula downwards.
  • Elevation - movement of the scapula upwards.
  • Eversion - lifting of the lateral (outer) body of the foot at the ankle.
  • Inversion - lifting of the medial (inner) border of the foot at the ankle.
  • Lateral flexion - such as of leaning your spine to the side.

Examples of frontal plane exercises include:

  • Lateral arm raises
  • Hip abduction
  • Lateral lunges

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Sagittal plane

The sagittal plane sees a front to back bisection of the body creating left and right halves. Movement is this plane takes place on a frontal axis, in other words forward and backward movement.

Movements that occur in this plane include:

  • Dorsiflexion - movement of the foot upwards, decreasing the angle between it and shin.
  • Extension - a bending motion which increase the angle between it and the midline.
  • Flexion - a bending motion which decreases the angle between it and the midline.
  • Plantarflexion - movement of the foot downwards, increasing the angle between it and the shin.

Examples of sagittal plane exercises include:

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Transverse plane

The transverse plane sees a bisection of the body into top and bottom halves from the waistline. Movement in this plane occurs of a vertical axis, in other words rotational movement.

Movements that occur in this plane include:

  • External rotation - Movement of a limb outwards laterally.
  • Internal rotatioh - Movement of a limb inwards medially.
  • Horizontal abduction - Movement of a limb from the forward position to the side.
  • Horizontal adduction - Movement of a limb from a side position to the front.
  • Pronation - Rotation of the forearm medially inwards, i.e. palms down.
  • Supination - Rotation of the forearm laterally outwards, i.e. palms up.

Examples of transverse plane exercises include:

  • Lunges with torso twist
  • Throwing
  • Hip circles
  • Neck rotations

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Importance of three-dimensional training

The transverse plane is the most often overlooked plane of motion when it comes to exercise. However it is quite important to have a well rounded and balanced training approach that focuses on the whole system. Rotation is a central component of human movement and we do it every day performing ordinary tasks. Focusing primarily on the other two planes leaves us at a serious disadvantage.

Stronger transverse plane orientated muscles such as the obliques benefit from the extra control you can exert over these muscles, helping prevent injuries caused by uncontrolled over-rotation. Indeed the core is the linchpin of the body connecting the upper and lower halves of the body and controlling movement. Working it out in all three planes maximises its ability.

Training in the transverse plane can also aid your frontal and sagittal dominant exercises, for example: the squat might primarily be in the sagittal plane however it is an exercise that needs good adductor length, abductor strength and hip rotation to perform properly. These muscles in the squat movement move in the transverse plane. Lacking ability in these three components is a primary cause of anterior pelvic-tilt during the squat creating lots of pressure on your lower back.

Signing off

Hopefully this has helped you understand the three planes of motions and associated axes better. It can be awkward to get your head around at the start but once you do and start implementing it in your training, you will be better and more well rounded. If you have any questions feel free to comment below or send me some feedback!

Lyle Richardson,
Gym Pal - Your Friend In Fitness


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