Understanding The Planes Of Motion

The human body moves in a multitude of ways, particularly within sports and recreational activity.

There are three primary planes of motion, known as the sagittal plane, the frontal plane, and the transverse plane. These involve flexion/extension, abduction/adduction, and rotation, respectively.

Unfortunately, many strength and conditioning programs fail to address all three planes of motion, as well as provide a variety of movements. It is essential to move through every plane of motion, especially in a loaded manner, to assist with athletic performance as well as injury prevention.


Many training programs are founded on three basic lifts: squatting, bench pressing and deadlifting. These are undoubtedly fantastic contributors to the development of overall strength; however if done alone, they fail to address movement in all three planes of motion.


To gain a firm understanding of why this important, one must take a step back to perform further analysis. In a broad sense, sport is a collection of unpredictable movements that are variable in nature. Kinematic angles are ever-changing, and no one movement is ever the exact same, despite the perception that they are.

A jump shot in basketball is never the same within a game situation — hence why some are made — and some are missed. At times, a player may be wide open, while at others he may be fading left or right to avoid a defender. The intention to make the basket is constant; however the execution is where the variety lies.

What this tells us is that movement must be done in every plane of motion to accommodate for variety.

Take a back squat for example: Rather than back squatting at the same depth week after week, variety should take place. One phase should include a lateral lunge, the next a box step up and the last a rotational box jump. This allows for the athlete to receive new stimuli and adjust accordingly. Not only will this elicit greater strength and power gains, but it also will assist in injury prevention due to the fact that mobility through a wider range of motion is necessary for execution.


If humans quit jumping, skipping and hopping in multiple directions, their ability to execute those movements quickly atrophies. We were made to move in variety ways on a frequent basis — plain and simple.

An important point I must contend, however, is that strength and conditioning are not simply a collection of randomized movement for the sake of doing so. Variety in movement is an art form that must be carefully crafted by a qualified strength-and-conditioning professional.

Early stages of preparation are typically very general and meant to be an adaption period when performing a program, whereas later stages requiring “peaking” become extremely specific. Proper progression of movement must first be understood so that injury is not at stake.

My greatest piece of advice is to look at your weekly program and ensure that you have at least one movement for both the upper and lower extremities that addresses each plane of motion. From there, analyze your sport or activity of choice and tailor the program to what’s necessary. Last, honestly assess areas of weakness you may have or need to work on and include extra movement within those motions.

As previously mentioned, look at program design as art, backed by science to ensure its effectiveness.

Breaking Through Strength Plateaus


Novice trainees will often benefit from substantial performance increases at the onset of properly periodized programming. Week after week, cycle after cycle, their absolute strength climbs effortlessly.

Unfortunately, this slows quite quickly after a few months of foundational training. This phenomenon can be attributed to the learning phase that all new trainees endure, in which neuromuscular coordination rapidly increases, equating to elevated strength gains. Once the initial neuromuscular system adaptions occur, further enhancement requires a lengthy period of time for physiological adaptions. These include increased muscle cross sectional area, increased ligament and tendon strength, and increased stability.

Obviously, these do not happen overnight, and intelligent programming is necessary to achieve these results.


The issue most trainees run into is an inability to move a heavy resistance after a certain load. Attempting to squat heavy weight week after week simply will not do the trick; the body needs alternative stimulus to aid in change.

Different exercises targeting the same muscle groups can have entirely different implications.

One 2015 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, titled “Regional Differences in Muscle Activation During Hamstrings Exercise,” examined the difference between muscle activation in a hamstring curl exercise, and then compared it to activation in a single leg RDL exercise. It is well known that both exercises heavily target the posterior chain, but the author found through EMG analysis that the hamstring curl heavily targeted the lower medial portion of the hamstring, whereas the single leg RDL targeted the upper lateral portion.

Although this may seem trivial, the implications are rather important. Varying exercise selection allows for greater activation of the entire muscle group, specifically those that may be holding a trainee back in one area. Returning to the situation discussed about squatting, this could simply mean adding in single leg, lunging and lateral variations to break through the plateau.


Additionally, there are many other ways to break through a strength plateau. If you’re sticking with one movement, the way in which it is executed can vary greatly.

Implementing tempo changes, using bands or chains and increasing or decreasing range of motion are just a few ways to alter an exercise. They all return to the previously mentioned factor of variety in training; varying exercise stimulus allows for greater adaption.

One of the best pieces of literature to gain greater understanding about this concept is the book titled “Supertraining” by Mel Siff. In it, Siff describes countless methods to overcome strength plateaus as well as how to properly structure training.

A final point to consider is that no matter how much variation you aim to employ, consistency and fundamentally sound programming is key. It is easy to get carried away with variation and not understand its true function. Aim to change your exercise selection every two to three weeks within a program, without being too drastic. Simply changing an incline press from 15 degrees to 30 degrees is enough to elicit change.

I hope this article finds you well and assists in your understanding of how and why to vary your exercise selection as well as how it aids in breaking through strength plateaus. As always, thanks for reading.