Everything we do from a movement perspective is happening in one of these planes, or more often in a combination of two or even all three of them. To be honest in my early years as a strength and conditioning professional, I had a hard time understanding these anatomical planes of motion and their importance in everyday training.
First of all, let’s explain anatomical planes of motion.
Sagittal, Frontal or Transverse?
Sagittal plane – divides the body into a left section and a right section. Movement generally occurs in front of us or behind us. You should imagine staying in a narrow tunnel, where you can’t sideband or twist/turn. You can only move straight forward/backward.
Sagittal movements include:
The most known and used sagittal plane exercises are squat, deadlift, and bench press.
Frontal plane – divides the body into front and back. Movements that occur in the frontal plane are lateral or side-to-side movements. Again imagine yourself staying in an even narrower tunnel, and because the tunnel is so narrow, you can move only laterally. Movements are:
Examples of sagittal plane exercises are side lunges, monster walks, lateral shoulder raises.
The transverse plane (coronal) divides the body into upper (superior) and lower (inferior) sections. Movements in the transverse plane involve rotations in the upper body, lower body of both. As a fact, exercise injuries most often occur during transverse (rotational) movements.
Transverse plane movements include:
Transverse/coronal exercises are all rotational, like med ball throws or rotational lifts/chops.
Why these planes are important to understand?
As we already know, we can divide our movements into three different anatomical planes, in the same way we have sports occurring dominantly in some anatomical planes.
Sagittal plane domination sports: running, rowing, olympic lifting
Frontal plane domination sports: ice skating, hockey
Transverse plane domination sports: tennis, baseball, lacrosse
It is essential to understand that if you work with an athlete competing in a sport with the domination of frontal and transverse plane movements but during training you are mainly using exercises in the sagittal plane, you definitely need to reconsider your approach. Here are some suggestions why you should do this.
Let’s take an example.
Track&field running disciplines are examples of a pure sagittal plane movement domination. Athletes need to run from point A to point B moving only forward; there is not even a slight change of direction present. Off course there are some rotations present, mainly during locomotion and gait cycle, but there are no horizontal adductions/abductions or segmental rotations which creates dissociation lower from the upper body. As we mentioned, dominant movements in sagittal plane are flexion, extension, dorsiflexion, and plantar flexion. So it is fundamental for them to train these movements when they are outside of the track. This doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from other exercises but their dominant patterns are sagittally oriented.
On the other hand, our tennis players move dominantly in a frontal and transverse plane. If you have doubts about this, look at the video below:
As you can see during this point, 90% of the Daniil and Rafa movements are in the frontal plane, both players are staying close to the baseline moving right to left. My next question follows: is there a need to use sagittal plane-oriented exercises during training outside the tennis court? In my opinion, yes, but only to a certain point.
While moving on the tennis court, yes, there are extension/flexion bias movements, but many more abductions, adductions, and rotations are present during a tennis match. On the other hand, I can whiteness daily overuse of squats, deadlifts, and bench press in tennis player training menu. This type of sagittal plane exercise can be used, but rather as a supplemental, most of the movements must come from the frontal, and transverse plane exercises pool.
To back up my claims, I will quote one and only professor Stuart McGill: “I see too many athletes that are getting hurt in the gym and their patterns are looking more like that one of the lifters, so it’s not their sport it is their training causing injuries. Sagittal plane heavy strength training has limited benefits for rotational athletes.”
This kind of stabilization strategy is a major issue that creates a loss of proper intra-abdominal pressure with all other postural and muscles imbalances as a consequence (anterior pelvic tilt, stiff hip flexors…) Moreover, by overusing this type of exercises, where there is a less degree of freedom (squat, deadlift, KB two-arm swing), the more you are forcing the motion only in the plane you are moving. How is that? By putting the whole body in the position to be efficient in the sagittal plane, anteriorly tilting the pelvis, hyperextending the spine, elevating the ribs… To explain this more simply, sagittal plane movements don’t allow rotation or side bending, so the body is re-enforcing the front-to-back way of movement even more in the expenses of the frontal and transverse planes. If you are a tennis player, you have to be able to express motion as efficiently as possible in all three planes of motion. But if you are using predominantly sagittal plane movements in the weight room, then you will be using sagittal plane dominant posture to execute tri-planar movements on the tennis court.
Here are some examples of exercises outside of sagittal plane only – bilateral – double hinging movements for every rotational sport athlete:
1) OFF SET Diagonal lunge
2) 1-arm KB swing to bottom-up walking lunge
By using one arm and adding lunge into classic KB swing can be a good example how we can transform pure sagittal plane exercises into frontal and transverse plane friendly version.
Another essential aspect of overuse of sagittal plane exercises for rotational athletes is loss of mobility! If you want to change direction, accelerate and decelerate when moving laterally, loss of mobility can be a devastating factor. If you are questioning this, please do this simple experiment on yourself.
a) Measure your hip mobility in all ranges, then do 3-5 sets of barbell squat, 5-8 rep with 70% of your 1RM. After that re-measure, your hip mobility, and I’m pretty sure you will find less ROM probably in every range but in the external/internal hip rotation the most! Efficient shuffle depends on hip eternal/internal rotation, and after these five sets of squat, you compromised this! That doesn’t mean you can’t shuffle anymore. It means that you need even more compensatory strategies to move in the frontal/transverse plane during your next practice session on a tennis court! Another essential factor to consider is that rotational power comes primarily from external hip rotation!
b) Measure your thoracic rotational mobility shoulder external/internal rotation together with flexion/extension. Then do 3-5 sets of barbell bench press and 5-8 reps with 70% of your 1RM. After that, re-measure your mobility, and again you will find fewer ranges in thoracic rotation, and most probably in shoulder external and/or internal rotation.
Whit less thoracic rotation, there is far more stress placed on GH joint while swinging a racket. Moreover, when doing a bench press, scapulas are locked and can’t move, so there is no natural protraction/retraction with pressing, which again puts additional stress on GH joint.
In conclusion, there are periods where we can use sagittal plane exercises with rotational athletes. One good example could be when we have athletes who need to increase muscle mass and we decide to stimulate hypertrophy by using compound-based heavy bilateral movements. Out of that, we should focus more on frontal and transverse plane exercises with the athletes participating in rotational sports.