How to Train In All 3 Planes of Motion — and Why It Matters

Experts share why training in all planes of motion can make you a better — and safer — athlete and give examples of exercises to mix into your routine.

Planes of Motion
Getty Images.

While it would be pretty incredible to live in a flat, two-dimensional environment like they do in cartoons such as Peanuts or Scooby-Doo, your life takes place in a 3-D world. And in order to stay healthy and injury-free, you have to practice moving in multiple dimensions — or training in all planes of motion.

But what are planes of motion, exactly, and why are they so important? Ahead, fitness experts break down the three planes of motion and share exercises that occur within each of them. Plus, they explain the benefits of considering planes of motion when planning your workouts.

What Are Planes of Motion?

To put it simply, a plane of motion is a way to describe the direction your body is moving within space, explains Bethany Cook, P.T., D.P.T., S.C.S., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist in Miami. “When it comes to training, specific movement patterns are broken down into different directions, or planes of motion," she adds. During a workout, for example, you might move forward and backward, shift from side to side, or rotate, and these three basic movements make up three planes of motion.

The 3 Planes of Motion

Your movements can be categorized into three planes of motion: the sagittal (aka longitudinal), frontal (aka coronal), and transverse planes. In order to determine which plane of motion you’re moving in, imagine plates of glass running through your body, cutting you into different halves — left and right (sagittal), front and back (frontal), and top and bottom (transverse). As you tackle an exercise, think about how you’re moving in relation to the glass; if you're moving parallel with one of those plates, you’re primarily working in that plate's corresponding plane of motion, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. For example, moving in line with the glass plate dividing you into front and back halves means you're predominantly training in the sagittal plane.

While this mental image gives you a good idea of which plane of motion you’re primarily utilizing, know that some of the muscles within your body may be working in different planes during an exercise, says Kirsi Cochell, C.P.T., C.E.S., a certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist. “You’re not moving like a robot, so while you can break down movements and fit them into different planes of motion, it's also important to not like let that box you in," she explains.

Still confused? Keep on reading to learn more about the three different planes of motion and find exercise demonstrations for each plane.

Sagittal Plane of Motion

The sagittal plane divides your body into left and right halves and involves forward and backward movements, says Cook. In this plane of motion, you’ll practice movement patterns such as flexion (bending a joint so the two bones are closer together) and extension (extending a joint so the two bones are farther apart), according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

That means many of your major movement patterns — squatting, hinging, pushing, and pulling — take place in the sagittal plane of motion, explains Cook. “Basically all the things that you do on a daily basis with your huge muscle groups, they all are primarily [occurring] within the sagittal plane,” she says. For example, biceps curls, forward lunges, pull-ups, and push-ups all primarily occur in the sagittal plane, says Cochell. Walking and running also take place in the sagittal plane, so it's one of the most commonly used planes of motion, she adds.

To better visualize sagittal plane movements, watch Cochell demonstrate three exercises occurring within the plane of motion below. Remember to imagine a plate of glass going down the midline of her body and dividing her into a right and left half, and note how she's moving in line with the plate.

Reverse Lunge

To complete the reverse lunge, you'll step one foot straight back behind your body and lower to the ground until both of your knees are bent at 90-degree angles. Due to this backward step, which is parallel with the glass plate cutting you in half, the move can be characterized as a sagittal plane exercise.

Biceps Curl

During a biceps curl, you'll bend your elbow joint to bring your hands up from your sides to the front of your shoulders. Since this exercise runs parallel to the glass plate — and involves the flexion movement pattern — it primarily works in the sagittal plane of motion.


Even though the push-up is performed in a plank position on the floor rather than standing, it still works within the sagittal plane; your body is moving closer to and away from the ground, keeping you in line with the glass plate dividing you into right and left halves.

Frontal Plane of Motion

To envision the frontal plane, imagine the plate of glass dividing your body into front and back halves. In turn, any side-to-side (read: lateral) movements take place in this plane of motion, says Cook. Specifically, adduction (movements toward the midline of the body) and abduction (movements away from the midline) exercises occur in this plane of motion, adds Cochell. 

IRL, moving in the frontal plane might look like stepping to the side of a sidewalk to avoid a big crack or waving your arm up from your side to hail a taxi. And in the gym, you might tackle frontal plane exercises such as lateral raises, side planks, cossack squats, lateral lunges, and side shuffles, says Cochell. For a better idea of what a frontal exercise looks like, watch as Cochell demos a few moves below. Envision a plate cutting her body into front and back half and Cochell moving parallel with it.

Side Plank

It may not look like it, but the side plank can be classified as a frontal plane exercise: "In the side plank, your obliques are the primary muscles working and isometrically contracting," says Cochell. "Because of the isometric contraction, you're holding a position rather than moving. You're also resisting the pull on your trunk to bend laterally, which places you in the frontal plane." Your shoulder stabilizers and medial deltoid are also working, so the shoulder is engaged laterally, she adds.

Cossack Squat

With every rep of the cossack squat, you're sinking your hips closer to the ground out to the side of your body. And this movement is in line with the glass plate cutting your body into front and back halves, making it a frontal plane exercise.

Lateral Raise

To complete a lateral raise, you'll abduct your arms away from the midline of the body at your sides. Because of this movement pattern — and the fact it's occurring parallel with the glass plate — the exercise can be categorized as a frontal plane move.

Transverse Plane of Motion

In the transverse plane of motion, your body is split into top and bottom halves at the waist, so it involves twisting movements, says Cook. “Whether it's spinal rotation, limb rotation, or shoulder and hip rotation, that will all be within the transverse plane of motion,” she explains. 

Curtsy lunges, wall ball slams, Russian twists, and wood chops all take place in the transverse plane of motion, according to the experts. And anti-rotational moves — such as renegade rows and bird dogs — also occur within this plane, adds Cook. “Any time you're resisting the rotation, it's going to be an isometric contraction,” she explains. “So your muscles are contracting but they’re not necessarily moving — that's still gonna be considered within the transverse plan of motion.” To better understand the plane of motion, watch Cochell practice three transverse moves below while picturing a plate splitting her body in half at the waist.

Russian Twist

The Russian twist exercise involves spinal rotation; your upper half twists from side to side while your lower body stays still. In turn, the move largely occurs within the transverse plane of motion.

Kettlebell Rotational Deadlift

During this deadlift variation, you'll use one hand to pull the kettlebell off the floor on the opposite side of your body and rotate your trunk to bring it back to your side. And the twisting motion occurring through your upper half makes this a transverse plane exercise.

Rotational Medicine Ball Slam

You can probably guess this exercise's primary plane of motion just by reading the name. Once again, this move involves rotating your upper half while keeping your lower body in place, so it works within the transverse plane of motion.

The Importance of Training In All Planes of Motion

Above all, training across planes of motion ensures that your fitness routine is well-rounded, similar to how training all muscle groups and utilizing multiple exercise styles is key for a balanced regimen, says Cochell. But moving your body in different directions also comes with a few specific benefits for your daily functioning and health. 

Helps Your Body Work More Efficiently

Although you can categorize specific exercises as occurring in one plane of motion, the reality is that some of your muscle groups are performing small movements in other planes of motion during these activities, says Cook. Take running, for example. The cardio practice primarily occurs in the sagittal plane of motion, as you’re moving forward. Since it’s a single-leg activity (you’re only making contact with the ground with one foot at a time), however, “your body has to contract in all the planes of motion to actually keep you upright, stable, and from leaning or falling,” she says. Specifically, your hip abductors, which bring your leg out to the side in the frontal plane, need to contract to keep your legs moving forward, and the rotational muscles around your pelvis need to contract to prevent movement in the transverse plane, says Cook. 

If you haven’t trained in all planes of movement so you’re able to best perform those contractions, “you're going to actually be moving more from side to side in the frontal plane, just going from one leg to another, and that in itself is going to decrease your efficiency, ” she notes. “And if you don't have the stability and the strength around your joints, you're gonna be putting even more stress on [the joints], the muscles, and the tendons than you would if you were trained in other planes of motion.”

Reduces Risk of Injury

Perhaps most importantly, training in all three planes of motion may reduce your risk of injury, says Cook. If you were to skip training in the frontal plane, for instance, you may lack strength when performing lateral movements or develop muscle imbalances, she explains. When you do perform movement within the plane of motion, your body won’t be used to it, says Cook, and this can lead to compensated movement patterns and ultimately injury, according to ACE. “Some muscles may be weaker because you don't use them as much, so that’s going to give you less stability, less balance, even less coordination,” says Cook.

Supports Everday Functioning

Although you might perform the deadlift with perfect form in the weight room, you may not have the same all-star technique when you go to lift a heavy laundry basket off the floor. And that’s why training in all planes of motion can be beneficial. 

“If you’re closing a drawer directly in front of you, you might be twisting around and closing it with your hip or reaching across your body to close it” — not hinging at your hips and pushing it closed with both hands, says Cochell. “It's important that you train in these different ways in the gym so you can strengthen different muscles and the coordination between them." In turn, you're more aware of your body and less likely to get injured while moving in your day-to-day life, she adds.

How to Train In All Planes of Motion

Glance over your weekly workout plan, and there’s a good chance it's full of sagittal movements, has a few frontal, and is totally lacking transverse, says Cochell. Each plane of motion, however, should be utilized within your training routine, adds Cook, so consider mixing a few of the moves demonstrated above into your programming.

That said, you don’t have to categorize each movement within a certain plane of motion and ensure you’re working within it a specific number of times per workout or week, says Cochell. “I don't think it's necessary when you're creating your workout to try to find something to match each plane because it’s not always so simple,” she says, referring to the fact that many exercises work within multiple planes of motion.

Instead, look at your program holistically and think about any gaps, says Cook. Ask yourself: Are all your exercises today in the sagittal plane? How can you tweak them to occur within another plane? How can you change your training routine to include movement in other planes? “You want to make sure that there's just a variety — that you’re checking all of the boxes in some way so that you have a balanced approach that allows you to function optimally through your life,” adds Cochell.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles