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Planes of Motion – Unlocking Performance

Fundamental Movement Performance Training

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When we think of the typical sports or activities we perform, watch or take part in, we often see similar characteristics from a movement perspective. We’ll see individuals performing modified versions of squatting, lunging, rotational twists, turns, reaches and pulls. Due to this shared movement profile, the vast majority of the sports and activities we partake in are what’s considered, tri-planar.

The term “tri-planar” refers to the three planes of motion around which the body moves independently or in a combination of. To better understand how we organise sessions and select exercises, a basic appreciation of these three planes is a important part of how we begin.

The first of these planes needed for our consideration, is the sagittal plane. The easiest way in which to envisage this, is to think of forward and backward movement through exercises such as Squatting, Pressing and Deadlifting. With these types of movements and exercises, we are typically dealing with actions that involve flexion and extension across a joint or series of joints.

The sagittal plane must be considered first…

Much of the work we do initially with a client, revolves around the preservation of this plane of motion. Simple methods of screening such as a simple Toe-Touch progression or a Functional Squat test, will quickly indicate whether an individual has full access to, and control over, this plane.

From a training perspective, the majority of our focus within this plane of motion revolves around command of movements at three areas of the body. The first of which is at the pelvis.

In this area we are looking at developing the capacity with a client to move between anterior and posterior titling (forward and backward rotation) through the appropriate musculature required.

We may at this point have to apply specific focus on certain chains of muscles that may be preventing motion, possibly through excessive tone and tension in the area. These muscles, or groups of muscles, may be limiting some of these basic actions such as forward bending that are fundamental demonstrations of sagittal plane control. The goal is providing training solutions to enable inhibition for non-compensatory movement.

However, not only may clients present with limitations in basic capacity within these motions, equally we may  encounter individuals that have an excess of movement range. Excess range without the necessary strength to effectively control motion often leads to individuals compensating at another area to achieve control. From a programming and exercise selection perspective, these individuals may require less inhibitory exercise selection early on, and potentially more bias towards stability and strength exercises  enable greater joint position and strength demonstration in this plane.

Once this awareness has been developed, and symmetry achieved between both sides of the pelvis (left and right), we begin to couple actions at the pelvis with those above at a thorax/ribcage.

The goal therefore becomes, can the individual therefore demonstrate sagittal plane control by fully internally rotating a ribcage on exhalation from an externally rotated position on inhalation?

Our next step… can these two areas, pelvis and ribcage, be synced together during movement?

Preservation of this plane is concluded by combining action at the head and neck, i.e, can the individual combine extension or flexion with appropriate action at the pelvis and ribcage?

Without the capacity for command, demonstrating motion is this first plane, it becomes exceptionally difficult to control motion in further planes without compensatory activity.

Many of the typical exercises we associate with training, tend to fall into this plane of motion. As previously mentioned, programmes built around Squatting, Deadlifting, Pushing, Pulling and the like, have their place within effective programming. However, they should still be considered as a step in a much bigger picture to develop and improve human movement…

Once sagittal plane control is established, our next step is to consider how we incorporate movement within the frontal plane.

Movement in this plane can be easily visualised at a global level through exercises that involve side-lunging or side-stepping, actions that take us side-to-side. With demonstrable control in the sagittal plane, we have appropriate joint position that should enable us to move through the frontal plane without compensatory activity.

Still with our three areas of focus, the pelvis, ribcage and head/neck, the aim is now to be able to perform actions such as abduction and adduction or elevation and depression, using those muscles primarily responsible for frontal plane movement.

Controlling movement through the capability to shift between hips, provides us with the stability, control and capacity for power within the final plane of motion, the transverse or rotational plane.

The transverse plane, can best be visualised through exercises such as medicine ball throwing, those activities that require the body to twist.

If we think about the common sports many of us may take part in, the vast majority, if not all, will require we have the ability to move within this plane of motion.

Running, Golf, Football, Swimming, Rugby, the Racket sports and so many more, require the ability to control and perform rotation.

In our three areas of focus,  we are aiming to develop and control the ability to internally and externally rotate at the pelvis. Whilst at the ribcage and neck/head, rotation to the left and right become the goal.

Internal and External Hip Rotation

Left and Right Trunk Rotation


The key however still remains, without compensation.

Many of us go about our sports or fitness pursuits having to turn and twist our bodies, yet are we truly performing the movements using the muscle chains and groups who’s role it is to perform these actions?

How many of us have ran long distances in training, or played for Golf or Football for a few hours and suffered the next few days with aches and pains such as in the lower back?

Our experience would say these are often the same individuals that struggle with simple actions such as touching their toes.


If an individual first doesn’t have control in the sagittal plane at our three areas of focus, they subsequently may struggle with joint position when asked to move in the frontal plane, shifting between hips. They will compensate to achieve this motion. Without control and stability in the frontal plane, movement in the transverse plane will be also compromised.

Instead of possibly rotating appropriately in areas of the spine  designed to allow this type of twisting and turning during our Golf swing, supported by good frontal plane stability at a pelvis, we may instead attempt to rotate through compensatory areas not designed for this type of motion, such as a lower back…

The result?

Possible pain, soreness and future injury….

The goal therefore must be an appreciation for the individual, their joint positions, and those required for their sport, activity or typical day-to-day movement patterns. Through this understanding, we can then provide training solutions for sequential preservation and building of control, stability and strength within each plane of motion.

The result is an all-round, athletic individual, capable of moving freely without restriction. Equally comfortable demonstrating strength in basic fundamental lifts, yet still able to participate in challenging sports, activities and movements that require frontal plane hip-shifting and transverse plane rotation, with a key performance factor… without compensation.

To read more around the concept of joint position and it’s importance, why not take a look at the following articles… (1, 2, 3)

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