Improve Performance Through Multi-Planar Training

Improve Performance Through Multi-Planar Training

Reading Improve Performance Through Multi-Planar Training 12 minutes

Since the beginning of the modern era of physical training, the accepted thought process on program organization has been a body part approach where the body is divided into its major muscle groups and trained accordingly I E. chest back legs shoulders etc. This arrangement has been an easy, understandable way to segment programs and has
brought good results, especially when applied towards a bodybuilding style program.

But has this organizational strategy come with the cost? Consider thefollowing:

  • The human body works to produce movement... period.To this end it makes every attempt to use many muscles in concert to create action as efficiently and effectively as possible.
  • Life demands that we are able move freely through space and not within the confines of a machine or other restrictive motor pattern. To this point, isolated exercises contradict the nature of how the body has evolved to move.
  • Most traditional strengthening programs heavily favor sagittal plane movement. This is a training environment that promotes one dimensional motor patterns, an inability to move effectively in any given direction, and in many cases joint dysfunction.
  • Muscle based programs in many cases, unwittingly contribute to muscle imbalances, poorly developed firing patterns, and general movement deficiency in the untrained planes.

Imagine for a moment that there are no individual muscles. No simple groups to target. What if all we had to work with were our various joints and the movements that they are capable of? Letting go of our traditional muscle-based approach to strength training and understanding how the body actually moves are the first steps to integrating a planar training approach to program design.

The central nervous system (CNS) coordinates the muscles in concert to produce specific movements. It does this by using something called motor engrams. These are movement programs that we have developed for all general actions. Familiar movements build detail ontothese programs, creating highly developed and refined motor engrams. These well-practiced programs run smoothly at many different speeds and can be executed successfully in changing environments (i.e. off balance, rushed, or form an unusual position).

Unfamiliar movements have incomplete or rough engrams. These programs are a work in progress and can often go awry. We have to slow down and be very cognitive about the action in order to control it properly and we tend to be much less successful. These unpracticed actions often feel "uncoordinated" and in the event that a situation demands that we run an unfamiliar program at higher speed, the chances of failure of injury increase dramatically.

Training using a movement or planar approach results in a complete workout that not only will involve every muscle group around the major joints (the goal of those looking for aesthetics), but will also work though every motor plane, giving balanced training that will help to improve many of our traditionally rough movement patterns, increase overall function and reduce the chance of injury. Integrating more complex and coordinative multi-planar movements into the program will build further on this new foundation to stimulate the CNS to create and refine motor engrams that will then be applied to sport and life.

Let's go back and review the planes of motion. These elements are often the first things taught in basic fitness courses but sadly are promptly forgotten as there was no emphasis placed on applying them.  As the body moves through space, it uses any combination of three planes of motion. These are as follows.

Sagittal Plane of Motion:

Movement forward and back, or through the mid-line of the body. An example of sagittal plane movement is a biceps curl or a step forward lunge.

Frontal Plane of Motion:

Movement side to side or along the frontal plane, such as abduction and adduction. Exercises that work through the frontal plane are the dumbbell lateral raise or side lunge.

Transverse plane of Motion:

Movements that include horizontal abduction or adduction or rotational actions. Examples here are the bench press or a cable wood chop.

Below is an example of a traditional, full body strength training program that is representative of the industry standard. It is comprised of 22 exercises (5 for legs, 3 for chest, 3 for back, 3 for shoulders, 2 for biceps, 2 for triceps and 4 for the core). It could be divided up by muscle group over a two or three day period. The point is to evaluate the exercise selection. View the program while considering only the first two columns.


"Body Part" Based Training Program

Exercise   Primary
Legs Squats Hip, Knee & Spine Sagittal
Legs Lunges Hip & Knee Sagittal
Quadriceps Leg Extension Knee Sagittal
Hamstrings Leg Curl Knee Sagittal
Calves Standing Calf Raise Ankle Sagittal
Chest Bench Press Shoulder & Elbow Transverse
Chest Incline Dumbbell Press Shoulder & Elbow Transverse
Chest Dumbbell Flies Shoulder Transverse
Back Close Grip Pull Up Shoulder & Elbow Sagittal
Back Seated High Row Shoulder & Elbow Transverse
Back Bent Dumbbell Row Shoulder & Elbow Sagittal
Shoulders Military Press Shoulder & Elbow Frontal
Shoulders Lateral Dumbbell Raise Shoulder Frontal
Shoulders Front Dumbbell Raise Shoulder Sagittal
Biceps Dumbbell Curl Elbow Sagittal
Biceps Preacher Curl Elbow Sagittal
Triceps Lying Triceps Extension Elbow Sagittal
Triceps Cable Press Down Elbow Sagittal
Core Stability Ball Crunch Spine Sagittal
Core Oblique Crunch Spine Transverse
Core Leg Raise Spine Sagittal
Core Chest Raise Spine Sagittal

On the surface it appears to be well-balanced and would result in good aesthetic results. Now take into consideration the last 2 columns of information. The key stats are as follows:

  • Hip is primarily involved in only 2 of 22 exercises
  • Shoulder is primarily involved in 9 of 22 exercises
  • Spine is primarily involved in only 5 of 23 exercises
  • Elbow is primarily involved in 9 of 23 exercises more than the Hip and theSpine combined
  • 15 (68%) occur in the sagittal plane
  • 2 (9%) occur in the frontal plane, both at the shoulder joint.
  • 5 (23%) occur in the transverse plane, but the majority of these were also at
  • the shoulder and none at the hip.

While this program seems well-put together at first glance, the glaring imbalances are apparent under the "planar lens". While likely to create great aesthetics, by not utilizing a planar approach during the planning phase, this program is also poised to reinforce an inability to move effectively in the frontal or transverse plane with the lower body, act in the frontal plane with the trunk and contribute to muscle imbalances, joint tightness and movement dysfunction.

So how is a planar program planned?

Below are the basic guidelines.

  • Base the program around the major joints of the body. Begin with joints that have significant multi-planar movement capabilities (hips, shoulders, and trunk) and progress through to the uni-planar joints (knees, ankles, elbows).
  • In most cases the uni-planar joints will be trained as part of the bigger movements associated with the multi-joint actions used to train the hips, shoulders and trunk. Any gaps left in the program can be filled in using smaller more targeted exercises that are normally associated with movements at the knees, ankles and elbows.
  • Focus on providing an exercise for every plane of motion (sagittal, frontal, transverse), in every direction (flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, R-rotation, L-rotation) in which a joint is capable of moving.
  • Emphasize movements that integrate multiple joints
  • Integrate functional actions that require full body and joint stabilization.
  • As the ability of the client increases, use an increasing number of multi-joint and multi-planar movements or movement combinations. These complex actions require a more coordinative effort from the client but will result in highly trained movement abilities and time efficient programs.
  • Add isolation exercises after complex actions have been programmed to ensure that all planes of motion at each joint are being moved through, or to target a specific area of weakness / focus.
  • Integrate different equipment modalities if possible. There are increasingly amazing arrays of functional training tools that emphasize multi-planar movement. Strategically utilizing a variety of these maximizes their strengths while providing varying environments for the body to work in.
  • Do not think about muscle groups. If you focus on the joints and planes of motion, the muscle groups will take care of themselves.

The program below uses a planar approach to break down the body, ensuring balanced training for every joint across all planes of movement. The program is written to integrate traditional exercises with functional actions, and utilizes some of the innovative equipment mentioned above. The approach promotes the aesthetic improvements that are associated with first traditional program and creates a heightened state of bodily readiness and function for movement in sport and in life. Below the program is an easy to use checklist to track what movements have been included in the program.


Training Program

Exercise Major Joint(s) Plane(s) of Motion Direction Body Part(s)
Squat Hip Sagittal flexion / extension Legs
TRX Suspended Lunge Hip Sagittal flexion / extension Legs
Lateral Lunge Hip Frontal adduction Legs
Hip Abduction Hip Frontal abduction Legs
Lateral Step Up Hip Frontal, Transverse adduction, horizontal. exten. Legs
Transverse Plane Lunge Hip Transverse horizontal flexion / exten. Legs
Close Grip Chin Up Shoulder Sagittal extension Back
Incline Dumbbell Press (narrow) Shoulder Sagittal flexion Chest
Wide Grip Pull Up Shoulder Frontal adduction Back
Military Dumbbell Press Shoulder Frontal abduction Shoulders
TRX High Row Shoulder Transverse horizontal extension Back
Chest Press Shoulder Transverse horizontal flexion Chest
Prone Chest Raise Trunk Sagittal extension Core
TRX Suspended Pike Trunk Sagittal flexion Core
Lateral Trunk Flexions Trunk Frontal lateral flexion Core
TRX Side Plank with Reach Trunk Frontal, Transverse lateral flexion & rotation Core
Cable Wood Chops Trunk Transverse R & L rotation Core
Heavy Ball Diagonal Rotations Trunk Transverse R & L rotation Core


Training Program Movement Checklist

Joint Plane
of Motion
Movement Check
Hip Sagittal Flexion ??
Extension ??
Frontal Abduction ?
Adduction ??
Transverse Horizontal Flexion ?
Horizontal Extension ??
Shoulder Sagittal Flexion ?
Extension ?
Frontal Abduction ?
Adduction ?
Transverse Horizontal Flexion ?
Horizontal Extension ?
Trunk Sagittal Flexion ?
Extension ?
Frontal Right Lateral Flexion ??
Left Lateral Flexion ??
Transverse Right Rotation ???
Left   Rotation ???

The key stats are listed below:

  • The hip is primarily involved in 6 of 18 exercises
  • The shoulder is primarily involved in 6 of 18 exercises
  • The trunk is primarily involved in 6 of 18 exercises
  • The knee is involved in 5 of 18 exercises
  • The elbow is involved in 6 of 18 exercises
  • The ankle is secondarily involved with all of the lower body movements exceptone
  • 6 (33%) occur in the sagittal plane
  • 7 (39%) have frontal plane elements
  • 7 (39%) have transverse plane elements

If this planar training program is evaluated under a body part based lens, we find an even distribution of exercises for all body parts using 4 less exercises. The exception to this is while the biceps, triceps and calves are not targeted specifically, they are very much involved in many of the more compound movements. If we wanted to address these components specifically it is very easy to add in specific exercises after the main part of the program is complete.

In comparison to the first sample program, it is clear how a planar approach results in a much more complete and effective training plan that facilitates both aesthetic improvement and supports human movement and improves athletic development and functional fitness. This program could easily be made shorter and more coordinatively challenging and functional by integrating more multi-joint and multi-planar exercises. In this case the approach and evaluation process is the same but made a little more complicated due to the complexity of these types of actions.

A planar approach to training organization is challenging at first. It represents a major shift away from the way the fitness industry as a whole has been conditioned to think. While considering its validity, it is important to remember the adage of functional training... "The body knows only movement, not muscle." ...and ask the question "Why then are we training using a muscle based approach?"

Those who attempt this shift will be rewarded with effective programming that works on an entirely new level.