Sagittal, Frontal and Transverse Planes: Planes of Human Motion

Planes of Human Motion

What are the planes of human motion and why do we care? Let’s sort this out, just between us. If you’re a student of physical therapy, chiropractic or other medical profession, you’ll get this in school if you haven’t already. Those of you who are planning to certify in personal training or strength and conditioning will need to know it.  While it’s true that many of the rest of us don’t really need to know planes of human motion, it’s also true we’re going to bump into the terms more and more when reading modern training articles. It’s time we caught up with this generation of training lingo. We’ll take the simple route…promise.

The main problem for most of us is that we weren’t introduced to the terms in our early training (today we read that as Who needs it?). Additionally, the actions along the planes don’t seem to match the describing terms. For example, the frontal plane motions are left to right, and our brains just kind of disconnect in a sort of “I can’t learn that” frustration when we see frontal associated with side to side.

At its simplest:

  • Sagittal = forward or backward
  • Frontal = side to side (definitely confusing)
  • Transverse = rotational

To picture the three planes, imagine slicing through the body, like so:

  • First through the center, dividing the body from the left to the right to make up the sagittal plane
  • Next through the body from the left side to the right, separating the front and back halves to create the frontal plane (front side and back side)
  • Finally cutting straight through the hips to divide the top of the body from the bottom, the transverse plane

That’s not so hard. It starts to get a little more complicated when we begin to sort out which motions move along the planes. You want to think of the motion as moving along the surface of the plane, rather than visualizing the sectioned-off body.

planes of human motion

Think of planes of motion like this

Sagittal plane motion would include forward and backward motions, like sit-ups, back extensions or biceps curls. The sagittal plane cuts through the center of the body, so the motion is front to back or back to front, including straight forward running. Squats involve flexion (forward motion) and extension (backward on the way up), so would fit into the sagittal plane.

Frontal plane motion would include leaning from left to right as in sidebends and lateral raises, or perhaps you might picture jumping jacks for a good image of movement along the frontal plane.

Transverse plane motion is the hardest to picture because the plane is horizontal as it divides the top from the bottom, so it’s hard to get our heads around it being a rotating action. The main thing to remember is rotation. An example of a transverse plane exercise would be floor to overhead diagonals with a medicine ball, and a transverse activity might be swinging a golf club.

Why would an average trainee need to know this? Two reasons, really. It comes up fairly often as we read the work of our favorite writers because these folks know this stuff and it comes out naturally for them. It’s frustrating to have to skim sections because we don’t know the lingo, and in internet reading, skimming a section often means losing interest and clicking away before we get to the vital parts.

Secondly, what’s most important about the planes is to know they exist and to make sure our training programs include exercises along each. Our most common gym exercises are on the sagittal plane, moving forward or back such as in flat pressing, pushups, crunches or even squats and lunges.

When you create your training programs, be sure to add some frontal plane and transverse plane exercises to bring up your built-in injury prevention. That’s what’s going to help ensure good balance in your muscular body. Training only on one plane will pretty much do the opposite.

Human Movement Terminology

Now let’s take a look at a few other common movement terms that are a touch out of range of many of us. We’ll keep it as brief and simple as possible so you’ll have a cheatsheet for reading some of the more advanced corrective exercise articles found on the ‘net, stuff that might turn around that aggressive aging process.

Prone vs supine
Prone is lying face down; supine is face up.

Superior vs inferior
Superior means closer to the head; inferior means closer to the feet.

Medial vs lateral
Medial refers to nearer to the center; lateral refers to farther from the center.

Posterior vs anterior
Posterior is toward the back; anterior is toward the front.

Distal vs proximal
Distal means farther from the torso; proximal means closer to the trunk.

Extension vs flexion
Extension straightens a joint; flexion bends the joint.

Supination vs pronation
Supination and pronation are used to describe action at the feet or forearm. In the feet, supination refers to excessive outward action; pronation refers to the ankle turning in. With the forearm, supination refers to turning the palm up; pronation refers to turning the palm down.

Medial vs lateral rotation
Medial rotation turns toward the center of the body as in internal rotation; lateral rotation turns away from the body externally.

Inversion vs eversion
Inversion turns the foot in; eversion turns the foot out.

Elevation vs depression
Elevation means upward; depression means downward. These terms are most often used to describe faulty scapula position, too high or too low.

Protraction vs retraction
Protraction moves a joint forward; retraction moves it backward.

Adduction vs abduction
Adduction brings the limb in toward the body; abduction moves it away.

Dorsiflexion vs plantar flexion
Dorsiflexion at the ankle is to bring the toes toward the shin; plantar flexion points the toes away.

Joint mobility vs flexibility
Joint mobility encompasses the ability of the joint to move through its full range of motion; flexibility is about muscles, not joints, and is about lengthening to optimum.

Stability vs mobility
Stability is the muscle, tendon and ligament action needed to hold a joint in position; mobility requires the correct muscle action on one side of a joint and the necessary muscular flexibility on the other to produce full movement through a joint’s range of motion.

Activation vs dormant
Activation means an action to trigger a muscle that’s not firing well; dormant refers to an inactive muscle group, at varying levels from fully inactive to fully engaged.

Tendons vs ligaments vs fascia vs myofascia
Tendons connect muscles to bones; ligaments connect bone to bone; fascia is connective tissue that covers soft tissue from head to toe, superficial to deep; myofascia is fascia covering muscle

Lordotic vs kyphotic vs lordosis vs kyphosis
Lordotic is the curve of the spine bending to the front; kyphotic bends toward the rear; lordosis describes the amount of lumbar curve (toward the front); kyphosis describes the amount of bend at the thoracic spine (to the rear)—hyperlordosis indicates too much lordotic curve

Bilateral vs unilateral
Bilateral refers to both sides of the body working together; unilateral is one side alone

Concentric vs eccentric
Concentric shortens the muscle; eccentric lengthens, ie in biceps curls the concentric action brings the wrist toward the shoulder; eccentric returns the weight to the side

Isometric vs isotonic
Isometric changes the muscle tension without changing the length; isotonic changes the muscle tension while changing the length

Origin vs insertion
Origin of a muscle is the stationary attachment site of muscle to bone; insertion is the mobile attachment end site

Primer mover vs synergist vs antagonist
Prime mover is the main muscle that carries out an action; synergist assists the prime mover; antagonist performs the opposite action

Planes of movement — Sagittal vs frontal vs transverse
Sagittal refers to forward or backward; frontal (aka coronal) refers to side to side; transverse refers to rotational — more on planes of motion here.

There ya go: the simplest movement cheatsheet on the ‘net.

Now, here’s a short human anatomy FAQ,

To continue your learning about human planes of motion, watch the preview clips of our Immaculate Dissection Functional Anatomy video.

In this article, Adam Wolf discusses the frontal plane lunge and integrated motion.

These two Gray Cook topics will probably be interesting to you:

What’s Behind a Mobility Problem?

Reactive Neuromuscular Training

Here Charlie Weingroff explains the “Joint by Joint Approach,”  which is your next step in learning about programming for human motion.



For much more on anatomy, check out this fabulous new way of learning anatomy using body painting.

Immaculate Dissection Anatomy Video


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