The Key to Athletic, Pain Free Movement (Part One)
By Adam Vogel
The vast majority of people in the gym want a strong, lean, athletic body that isn’t constantly breaking down or feeling tight and sore.
Yet, most training programs are terribly mismatched for these outcomes. The problem is that modern strength and performance programs often rely on outdated concepts rooted in the highly specific sports of bodybuilding and powerlifting.
As a result, they’re great for packing on muscle and adding weight to the bar, but awful at building the type of athletic, pain free bodies that most people actually want and think they’re working towards in the gym.
Effectively training your body as an integrated unit, rather than a collection of disconnected parts, requires breaking away from the training concepts mentioned above and adopting a holistic, functional approach.
If you want to move well, with speed, coordination, accuracy, and the ability to produce and absorb force across a variety of movement tasks without injury, you need to think three-dimensionally.
Because, despite the reductionist viewpoint taught in anatomy textbooks, human movement doesn’t occur in isolation. Rather, we move in coordinated patterns, across a continuum of three-dimensional planes:
Sagittal – forward/backward
Frontal – side-to-side
Transverse – rotational
Although each plane has specific joint positions, muscles, and sensory references associated with it, each affects the other. Put differently, to move well in any plane requires you move well in every plane.
Unfortunately, most training programs are horribly imbalanced, with the vast majority of exercises occurring in the sagittal plane only. Squats, deadlifts, bench presses, pull-ups, rows, and overhead presses all live in this one plane.
The same goes for most cardio exercises: running, biking, rowing, box jumps, burpees, sled pushes, and whatever it is that people do on elliptical machines are all primarily sagittal plane exercises.
Here’s why this can become a problem:
The more we consolidate training in one plane, the less proficient we become in the other two planes, leading to imbalances and opening the door for injury.
Transverse plane exercises, especially among rotational sport athletes, seem to have found a home in many strength programs, which is why chop variations and medicine ball throws have become commonplace.
But what about the frontal plane?
Besides the odd side plank, lateral band walk, or not-nearly-heavy-enough-to-do-anything suitcase carry, most people have basically abandoned an entire trainable plane of movement, one that is essential for normal, alternating, reciprocal functioning of the body.
Most people don’t know what the frontal plane is, why it matters, or how to effectively train it. As a result, you see a lot of weightlifters who move around like human cinder blocks, unable to shift their weight effectively from side-to-side, twist, bend, or rotate.
It’s time to change that.
A Case for the Frontal Plane
Movements that involve flexion and extension occur in the sagittal plane, while rotation is the hallmark of the transverse plane.
The frontal plane, by contrast, is the land of abduction—movement away from the body—and adduction—movement toward the body. It doesn’t do much to inspire if you’re picturing people lying on their sides doing hip exercises with yellow bands around their ankles or tepidly side shuffling between orange cones.
That’s your grandmother’s version of the frontal plane.
Picture Barry Sanders instead. Arguably the best running back to ever play football, Barry wasn’t so damn good because he steamrolled everything in his path with his massive size or whizzed past defenders with his incredible speed.
Barry was unstoppable because he made people miss. He was the ultimate cutting machine, able to switch directions on a dime, stacking his body on one side, drawing defenders with him, and then accelerating in the opposite direction as they clumsily grasped at his shadow.
Barry owned the frontal plane.
Training in the frontal plane is how we shift our weight and center of gravity from one foot to the other, accelerate and decelerate, change direction, and reinforce stable mechanics while we move in the other planes. This is dynamic, feed-forward, athletic movement.
In Part Two, I’ll show you exactly how to use frontal plane mechanics and exercises in your own training to develop these qualities, so you can build a body that not only looks great, but performs at high levels, and actually feels good.