The Three Planes Of Motion Explained In Detail

The three planes of motion describe movements that occur in three anatomical planes.

You can visualize the planes as flat surfaces of slices of space that divide the body or movements of the body as occurring in the front and back direction, side-to-side direction, and rotational direction.

Even if you are just an average gym goer looking to strengthen your body and get in good shape, it can be helpful to understand the three planes of motion because your workout routine should include exercises that involve moving in each of the three planes of motion to build balanced, functional strength.

With that in mind, keep reading to learn all about the three planes of motion and what types of exercises for movement occur in each plane.

We will cover: 

  • What Are the Three Planes of the Body?
  • What Movements Occur In Each of the Three Planes of Motion?

Let’s get started!

A class at the gym doing lunges.

What Are the Three Planes of the Body?

Although we will discuss the three planes of motion specifically in a bit, the body can also be divided into three planes, known as the three planes of the body, and it is often quite helpful to understand them before we add the concept of movement on top of that. 

The three planes of the body are the sagittal plane, the frontal plane, and the transverse plane. 

Again, you can visualize these planes as a flat pane of glass that divides the body in half.

Sagittal Plane

The sagittal plane of the body is a longitudinal slice that divides the body into right and left halves.

You can picture this by taking your hand, straightening all your fingers so that it is flat, and then placing it on the top of the crown of your head with your fingers pointing forward. 

If your hand is a knife, you would slice down the center of your body, down through your trunk, past your belly button, to your groin, separating your whole body into a right and left path. (Perhaps a gruesome visualization, but helpful to picture nonetheless.)

A class at the gym lifting their arms above their head.

Frontal (Coronal) Plane

The frontal plane of the body is often called the coronal plane. The frontal plane divides the body into front and back sections. 

To visualize this plane of the body, take your same flattened hand and turn it 90° so that you’re hand is going right to left across the crown of your head. As you slice down your body, you have your chest and stomach going towards one half, and you are separating out your back and bottom into the other half.

Transverse (Axial) Plane

The transverse plane of the body and the transverse plane of motion are a little different. The transverse plane of the body divides the body into a top half and a bottom half, so it is a slice through the middle of your abdomen.

What Movements Occur In Each Plane of Motion?

When we move to the concept of the three planes of motion, we want to visualize the body moving in the directions dictated by the panes of glass. 

Rather than moving through the pane of glass, the body is moving along the pane of glass. For example, in the sagittal plane of motion, the body is moving forward and backward.

It can be very difficult to understand these concepts from a theoretical perspective; it is much more helpful to have some practical examples, so let’s look at each of the three planes of motion and the movements that occur in each.

A class at the gym doing renegade rows.

What Movements Occur In the Sagittal Plane?

Movements in the sagittal plane are what we tend to think of and focus on during exercise. They occur in the front and back directions. 

Here are the different movements that occur in the sagittal plane:

Flexion

Flexion is probably the most familiar anatomical movement involved in strength training exercises. Flexion involves bending a limb to decrease the angle of the joint. For example, in the biceps curl exercise, flexion of the elbow occurs when you begin the exercise, bringing the weight in your extended arm up towards your shoulder.

It is possible to flex almost all of the movable joints in the body, such as the joints in your fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, spine, hips, knees, ankles, your toes.

Extension

Extension is the counter-movement to flexion, so it involves straightening a joint or increasing the angle of the joint. In the biceps curl exercise, extension of the elbow occurs when you lower the weight back down, straightening your elbow to return your arm to the fully extended/straight position.

Like flexion, extension can occur in nearly all of the mobile joints in the body.

People in a barre class lifting up on their toes.

Dorsiflexion

Dorsiflexion is a movement that occurs in the sagittal plane, specifically at the ankle. It involves bending the ankle such that your toes lift up toward the ceiling, away from the floor, bringing the top of your foot closer to your shin.

Plantarflexion

Like dorsiflexion, plantarflexion uniquely describes a movement at the ankle. It is the opposite motion seen in dorsiflexion, so it involves bending the ankle to point the toes away from the body, as you do when pressing on the gas pedal of a car.

Examples of cardio exercises that occur in the sagittal plane include walking, running, cycling, climbing stairs, using the elliptical machine, hiking, and rowing.

Many strength training exercises also occur in the sagittal plane. Examples include lunges or split squats, bicep curls, calf raises (plantarflexion and dorsiflexion), and rows.

What Movements Occur In the Frontal (Coronal) Plane?

The frontal plane is one of the often underutilized planes of motion in terms of exercise and workout plans.

We tend to put a lot of emphasis on sagittal plane exercises, often neglecting the important frontal plane movements that should occur. This can create muscle imbalances and compromise functional movement strength, stability, and performance.

Movement in the frontal plane occurs in a side-to-side or lateral direction.

Let’s look at the specific coronal, or, frontal plane movements:

People in a movement class with their arms spread in a T formation.

Abduction

Abduction involves moving a limb out to the side, away from the midline of your body. If you imagine yourself standing upright with your arms at your side, abduction of your shoulders would involve lifting your straightened arms out to the sides so that you form a giant T.

Abduction can occur at certain joints in the body, such as the shoulders and hips. However, certain types of joints do not permit abduction. For example, you can’t abduct your knee and bring your shin out to the side while keeping your thigh pointing straight ahead.

Adduction

Adduction is the opposite of abduction, so it involves bringing a limb toward the midline of your body. In our example of standing in a giant T, you would adduct your shoulder to return your arm to your side.

Elevation

Elevation involves lifting your shoulder blades (scapula) up toward the sky. 

Depression

Depression is the opposite of elevation, so it involves lowering your shoulder blades back down.

People doing aerobics in a class.

Inversion

Like plantarflexion and dorsiflexion, inversion is a motion unique to the ankle. It involves turning the sole of your foot inward toward the midline of your body, sort of facing upward so that you can see the bottom of the sole of your foot between your legs.

Eversion

Eversion is the opposite motion of inversion at the ankle. It involves turning the sole of the foot away from the midline of the body. The range of motion with eversion is usually pretty small, but you can imagine eversion of the right foot would turn your ankle so that the pinky toe side of the foot would lift upwards.

Examples of exercises that occur in the frontal plane include jumping jacks, slide board lateral slides, the hips during rollerblading, side lunges, side bends, and lateral arm raises.

What Movements Occur In the Transverse Plane?

Although the transverse plane of the body divides the body into top and bottom halves, transverse plane movements are best imagined by viewing the body from above like a birds-eye view.

Transverse plane movements include:

People doing sit-ups with rotation, one of the three planes of motion.

Rotation

Rotation involves turning a limb or the trunk around a vertical axis, such as when doing trunk twists or turning your head to look to one side.

Horizontal Abduction

Horizontal abduction is moving the limb out to the side parallel to the floor. Picture standing upright with your arms straight in front of your body parallel to the floor. Then, bring your arm out to the side to make the letter T.

Horizontal Adduction

Horizontal adduction is the reverse of horizontal abduction, bringing your arms from a position out to your sides to straight in front of your body.

There aren’t as many exercises that occur in the transverse plane, but examples include swinging a golf club, doing trunk twists, and performing chest flies. Internal and external rotation of the hip also occur in the transverse plane.

Ultimately, understanding the three planes of motion can help ensure you are moving your body in all the right ways and approaching your workout routine from a balanced perspective. 

Take a look at our long list of compound exercises to determine which planes of motion are used in each!

People in a gym class.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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