Understanding Exercise – Planes, Axes and Movement

planes of movement, axis of movement, sagittal plane, frontal plane, transverse plane, sagittal horizontal axis, frontal horizontal axis, vertical axis
Planes and Axes of Movement

Designing an effective fitness program is not as simple as it may seem.  It’s more than choosing a list of exercises, determining the number of repetitions and outlining the number of sets.  It involves selecting a combination of exercises designed to challenge all possible movements of the body.  Our body does more than move front and back or side to side.  The body can also twist, turn, jump and rotate (which is where injuries commonly occur).  By challenging all aspects of movement the body can produce optimal results (i.e. muscular development, balance, flexibility, coordination, etc.).  The best fitness program is one that not only produces physical results, it is one that ensures the body is strong and safe from potential injury and harm.

Understanding Movement of the Body

All physical activities are made possible by various movements and motions.  Every movement takes place in one of three planes of movement (sagittal, frontal or transverse/horizontal) and around one of three axes (sagittal, frontal or vertical).

Planes of Movement
  • Sagittal Plane – vertical plane of the body which passes from front to rear dividing the body into two symmetrical halves.
  • Frontal Plane – plane of the body which passes from side to side at right angles to the sagittal plane; also called the coronal plane.
  • Transverse Plane – any horizontal plane of the body which is parallel to the diaphragm; also called the horizontal plane.
Axes of Movement
  • Sagittal Horizontal Axis – axis of the body that passes from front to rear lying at right angles to the frontal plane.
  • Frontal Horizontal Axis – axis of the body that passes horizontally from side to side at right angles to the sagittal plane.
  • Vertical Axis – axis of the body that passes from head to foot at right angles to the transverse plane.

Types of Movement

There is more to movement than just planes and axes.  There are several “types” of movement that are further broken down into the following categories:

  • Flexion and extension
  • Adduction and abduction
  • Rotation
  • Circumduction
Flexion and Extension

man doing tuck jump onto ledgeThe first and most common type of movement occurs in the sagittal plane and around a frontal horizontal axis. These movements are otherwise known as flexion and extension.

Flexion takes place when the angle decreases between the two bones attached to the joint being affected. When you flex your knee joint, the angle between your femur or upper leg and your tibia/fibula or lower leg decreases.  Lateral flexion is a side bending of the spine and neck.

Examples of flexion include:

  • Tuck jump
  • Front dumbbell raise
  • Bicep curl

Extension is the opposite of flexion.  Extension occurs when the angle between the two bones increases. When you straighten or extend your knee joint the angle between your upper and lower leg increases.

Examples of extension include:

  • Straight leg deadlift
  • Tricep pressdown
  • Military press

If a part of the body such as a joint is overstretched or “bent backwards” because of an exaggerated extension motion, this is called hyperextension.  This type of movement puts a significant amount of stress on the ligaments of joint.  It is not always a voluntary movement and may occur as part of accidents, falls, or other causes of trauma.

Adduction and Abduction

woman doing side plank exerciseThe next most common movements are adduction and abduction.  These two movements are in the frontal plane and around a sagittal horizontal axis.

Adduction is movement in the opposite direction and toward the center of your body.  When you return your leg from the abducted position back to a normal standing position you are adducting your leg.

Examples of adduction include:

  • Cable crossover pulldown
  • Supine dumbbell flys
  • Hip adduction machine

Abduction is a movement laterally away from the middle of your body.  From a standing position, when you move your leg to the side away from the middle of your body you are abducting your leg.

Examples of abduction include:

  • Straight arm dumbbell side raise
  • Star jump
  • Hip abduction machine

woman teeing off on golf courseThe final movement is rotation.  Rotation takes place in the horizontal plane.  When you turn your head from side to side you are rotating your head in the horizontal plane around your spine which is acting as the vertical axis.  With the head and torso there is only one type of rotation. When you are dealing with your extremities there are two kinds of rotation – internal and external.

Internal rotation takes place when the front part of your arm or leg rotates towards the middle (midline) of your body.  When you turn your knees towards each other in a standing position you are internally rotating your legs.  External rotation is the opposite direction.  If you turn your knees away from each other in a standing position you are externally rotating your legs.

Examples of rotation include:

  • Golf swing
  • Throwing a baseball
  • Downhill skiing (turning left and right)

There is one more type of movement you should be familiar with.  This one is a combination of movements through two or three planes and is called circumduction.  An example of circumduction is moving your arms around your body in a windmill motion.

Common Movement in Relation to Planes and Axes

Flexion, extension and hyperextension occur primarily in the sagittal plane-frontal axis of the body (i.e. neck, shoulder, spine, hip, knee and ankles).

Lateral flexion and lateral extension occur primarily in the frontal plane-sagittal axis of the body (i.e. neck and spine).

Adduction and abduction also occur primarily in the frontal plane-sagittal axis of the body (i.e. shoulder and hip).

Internal and external rotation, horizontal flexion and extension, supination and pronation all occur primarily in the transverse plane-vertical axis.

Program Design Using Planes and Axes of Motion

In future posts you will learn how to design total body programs that include exercises challenging flexion, extension and rotation throughout the body in safe and effective ways to produce optimal results.

More Information on Planes and Axes of Movement