Planes and Axes of Movement … for Dummies

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Regardless of how “nerdy” you may consider yourself, talking about planes and axes of movement can make your brain twist into a thousand knots!  The concepts and the terminology are incredibly confusing and are sometimes backward from what you might expect. Attempting to categorize and explain the movement of the human body is NO easy task because movement in the human body involves orchestrating the relationship between approximately 640 muscles and 360 joints (each capable of a wide variety of movement types). That means there are thousands of different movements the body is capable of performing (one at a time or simultaneously) and the following planes and axes of movement have been designed to categorize movement:

Planes of Movement

A plane is an imaginary flat surface along which a movement takes place. The three planes of movement include:

  • Sagittal Plane – separates the left and right sides of the body
  • Frontal Plane – separates the front and back sides of the body
  • Transverse Plane – separates the top and bottom parts of the body

Tips for Dummies: Imagine that you have a very thin wall that is separating two halves of the body (i.e., left and right, front and back and top and bottom). Now envision the full length of the body part gliding along the wall throughout the entire movement, from start to finish. 

Axes of Movement

An axis is an imaginary line about which the body or limb rotates. The three axes of movement include:

  • Frontal Horizontal Axis – invisible line that travels from left to the right side of the body
  • Vertical Axis – invisible line that travels from the top of the head to the bottom of the feet
  • Sagittal Horizontal Axis – invisible line that travels from the front to the back side of the body

Tips for Dummies: Imagine a steel rod running through the joint (i.e., left to right, top to bottom and front to back) and your limbs rotating around that joint. It is similar to a bicycle wheel that rotates around a narrow axle. The axle represents the axis or rotation and the wheel represents the plane along which the limb moves.

Types of Movement

Depending on the type (i.e., fibrous, cartilaginous or synovial) and class of joint (i.e., gliding, hinge, saddle or ball and socket) it can perform one or more of the following actions:

  • Abduction – movement of a limb away from the midline of the body
  • Adduction – movement of a limb toward the midline of the body
  • Circumduction – movement about the shoulder or hip joint that draws a circle with the hand or foot (in a circular motion)
  • Dorsiflexion/Plantar Flexion – movement of the foot where the toes lift higher than the heel (dorsiflexion) or the heel lifts higher than the toes (plantar flexion)
  • Elevation/Depression – movement of a structure towards the head (elevation) or towards the feet (depression)
  • Extension – movement in the sagittal plane that increases the angle between two articulating limbs
  • Flexion – movement in the sagittal plane that decreases the angle between two articulating limbs
  • Hyperextension – movement in the sagittal plane that increases the angle between two articulating limbs that goes past anatomical position
  • Pronation/Supination – movement of the distal end of the radius across the anterior surface of the ulna (forearm) which rotates the wrist and hand from palm facing front (supination) to palm facing back (pronation)
  • Protraction – movement in the transverse plane that displaces a part of the body anteriorly (towards the front)
  • Retraction – movement in the transverse plane that displaces a part of the body posteriorly (towards the back)
  • Rotation – movement that turns the whole body or limb around the vertical axis

Examples of Movements In Three Planes

Sagittal Plane

Sagittal plane movements can involve the whole body or can occur at individual joints:

  • Whole Body movements (i.e., front tuck or back tuck)
  • Movements around a single joint (depending on the type of joint and its structure):
    • Flexion (i.e., bicep curl or lunge)
    • Extension (i.e., tricep kick back or leg extension)
    • Hyperextension (i.e., back bend or back bridge)
    • Dorsiflexion (i.e., heels pressing toward the floor in downward facing dog or standing toe raise)
    • Plantar flexion (i.e., calf raise)

Tips for Dummies: Sagittal plane movements typically include forward and backward movements.

Frontal Plane

Frontal plane movements can involve the whole body or can occur at individual joints:

  • Whole Body movements (i.e., left or right handed cartwheels)
  • Movements around a single joint (depending on the type of joint and its structure):
    • Abduction (i.e., raising straight leg out to the side)
    • Adduction (i.e., lowering straight arm out to the side and down beside the body)
    • Lateral flexion (i.e., bending sideways at the waist)
    • Elevation and depression of the scapula
    • Upward and downward rotation of the scapula
    • Radial flexion (movement bending the thumb closer to the wrist)
    • Ulnar flexion (movement bending the pinky finger closer to the wrist)

Tips for Dummies: Frontal plane movements typically include sideways or vertical (specifically the scapula) movements.

Transverse Plane

Transverse plane movements can involve the whole body or can occur at individual joints:

  • Whole Body movements (i.e., figure skater performing an upright spin or ballet dancer performing a pirouette)
  • Movements around a single joint (depending on the type of joint and its structure):
    • Medial rotation (aka. inward rotation; rotation towards the midline of the body)
    • Lateral rotation (aka. outward rotation; rotation away from the midline of the body)
    • Left or right rotation – head, neck or trunk
    • Supination – forearm (aka. outward rotation; palms rotate outward to face up)
    • Pronation – forearm (aka. inward rotation; palms rotate inward to face down)
    • Horizontal abduction – transverse flexion (i.e., rotating arm from shoulder height in front of the body to shoulder height to the side of the body)
    • Horizontal adduction – transverse extension (i.e., rotating arm from shoulder height out to the side of the body to shoulder height in front of the body)

Tips for Dummies: Transverse plane movements typically include rotational movements (turning or spinning around the center axis point of the body or of a single joint).

For more articles, videos and interactive education from TodaysFitnessTrainer.com on Planes and Axes of Movement, use the following links:

Written by TodaysFitnessTrainer (trainer@todaysfitnesstrainer.com).

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