Movement planes as a criteria for evaluating your fitness routine

There are many different criteria for evaluating a fitness routine. One of the most useful is the concept of movement planes. There are three movement planes and a good workout routine will incorporate movement through all of them.

The most targeted movement plane at the gym is the sagittal movement. The sagittal movement plane is the one that would split you into two symmetric halves down the middle. Movement along the sagittal movement plane is front to back and called flexion (narrowing the angle of a joint) or extension (opening the angle of a joint). Most symmetric exercises are sagittal (bench press, squats, etc.) as well as things that involve forward or backward movement (running, biking).

The frontal or coronal movement plane is one that is perpendicular to the direction that your face and belly button point. It would split you in half asymmetrically into a front and back. Movement along the frontal plane goes towards or away from the centerline of the body (think jumping jacks). Moving towards the body is called adduction (bringing your arms down towards your side) and away from the body is called abduction (bringing the arms up and out to the sides). Lateral movement,  from side to side, happens in this plane. The chief muscles doing abduction are the glutes (legs) and deltoids (arms). The main adductors are the inner thigh muscles (legs )and the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles (arms).

The transverse plane is parallel to the ground and movement in this plane is generally called rotation. It tends to be the least targeted in the gym and fitness routines but the most critical to athletic performance (throw the ball, swing the racquet, turn in dance, twist the trunk in swimming). It is the most complicated of the movement planes. In general, it involves muscles that when fired symmetrically in a balanced fashion, result in movement in the sagittal or frontal planes, but when fired asymmetrically, create rotation in the transverse plane.

I like to think in terms of natural movement and synthetic movement. Natural movement generally involves a mixture of motion through all movement planes. Synthetic movement tends to be very rigid and confined.

A good example of synthetic movement would be cycling. The body is fixed to move along a track mechanically and locked into movement in the sagittal plane. Like most synthetic movement, this results in relatively few muscle groups being used. As such, cycling tends to be very incomplete as far as conditioning for the body. In cycling’s favor, the muscles used are some of the largest in the body so the activity burns a lot of calories and the mechanical advantage translates to a pretty efficient way to cover a lot of distance. By itself though, cycling is not a very good fitness solution.

Looking at a sport like tennis, there is a lot of side to side frontal plane movement and forward backwards sagittal movement. In fact, there is generally a seamless mixture of the two. Tennis also features rotation on both sides with plenty of motion in the transverse plane. Tennis is very well balanced across all three movement planes.

Looking at power lifting (squat, bench press, and deadlift) and Olympic lifting (snatch, clean and jerk), the movements are almost exclusively all in the sagittal plane. Except for the clean and jerk, the exercises are all completely symmetric. Weight lifting relies on simplistic movement and confining things to large muscles to be able to tackle higher weight loads. This comes at the expense of the number of muscles targeted and the ranges of motion explored. For this reason, the strength cultivated through classic weight lifting is frequently more for aesthetics than translating to real world athletic performance or any kind of balanced training for the body.

Compared to weight lifting, the weight loads in yoga are relatively small since it is generally limited to that of an individual’s own body. For that reason, people doing yoga alone generally don’t get overly muscular or explosively powerful. On the other hand, yoga excels at balanced movement through all three movement planes. A good yoga practice should contain a lot of twisting motion in addition to a lot of lateral movement to balance the sagittal movement. When I first started doing yoga, I really was taken by the variety and complexity of the movements and how much of it is asymmetric.

The concept of movement planes extends beyond just the realm of exercise. One of the reasons I prefer Thai massage to classic Swedish / deep tissue is that it addresses movement planes better. The dominant positions in Swedish / deep tissue are supine (on your back) and prone (on your belly). In general, two thirds of the massage will be spent on your belly. This mainly presents the muscles largely responsible for sagittal movement. Also, conventional massage focuses mostly on working muscles directly instead of range of motion.

On the other hand, Thai massage makes great use of side lying position and also incorporates a lot of range of motion and stretching. Twisting in particular should be a big component of every Thai massage. Twisting is very difficult in a conventional table massage with a client on a narrow table without clothing and just a thin drape covering them. In Thai massage, being on a large mat on the ground with clothes on makes elaborate movements and stretches far more possible. Side lying also presents better access to the abductors (deltoids, glutes) and the adductors (inner thighs, lats, and pecs). Being able to better address the planes of movement of the body gives Thai massage a significant advantage over conventional massage.

With both fitness and massage clients, I thoroughly integrate addressing the planes of movement in both my workout plans and body work. Clients always like to ask what muscle are being targeted or where they should feel the stretch, I cringe and think it points to a fundamental flaw with a lot of training. When we do something physical in the real world, it’s never just one muscle doing the work so it is crazy to train that way. The focus should be on movement instead of individual muscles. Any exercise that doesn’t target several muscles at the same time and perform an interesting motion should be dropped from your fitness routine unless it is a physical therapy exercise to heal an injury.

When evaluating whether or not your current fitness plan is adequate, try evaluating how many movement planes your workout targets. For instance, if you are a runner or cyclist, you are going to need to do something else in addition to balance out your body. If you are a weight lifter, look at your routine and evaluate if everything is symmetric and mostly front to back movement. Very few people in the gym do any kind of twisting. If you are doing more natural movements like sports, dance, acrobatics, yoga, wrestling, or swimming with a variety of strokes, you most likely have this covered. If nothing else, make sure that your workout routine involves twisting and side to side movement (of both the arms and legs as well as the torso).

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