| Planes, Axes and Primal Movements

Author / John

One of the first things covered (and equally forgotten) in any anatomy book are the planes of motion and axis of rotation for all human movement.  Not as sexy as energy systems or squatting position, it’s almost as if the reason these are forgotten is because no one can argue about their purpose or function.

The past months have been filled with a ton of research and discussions with coaches, physical therapists and other professionals over an array of training topics, including plyometrics, assessments or limiting factors.  But there was a common theme? Multiplane movement, and lack there of in training.

Planes-of-motion-axis-of-rotation-power-athlete@Cali brought up a coaching limiting factor in her article, Shitty Coaching Trifecta’, that truly can put an athlete in danger, Lack of Knowledge!  I have personally witnessed this limiting factor in coaches who have applied programs that lead to movement pattern overuse injuries. This experience introduced me to problems that may develop through training primarily in one plane of motion. These include repetitive stress disorder and cumulative trauma disorder.

Limiting an athlete’s field performance by exclusively training to a single plane of motion, which then leads to overload or overuse injuries, earns the ‘first one fired’ stigma that plagues the industry.  All from forgetting one of the first lessons in anatomy!

If the following information is new to you, and you are responsible for developing athletes, please invest in further education and get on Field Strong immediately.
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planes-of-motion-and-axis-of-rotation-power-athlete Planes of Motion

A plane of motion is an imaginary two-dimensional surface through which a limb or body segment is moved.  There are three specific planes of motion in which the various joint movements are classified.  These three planes are derived from the dimensions in space and are at right angles of each other.  The point at which the three planes of the body intersect is the center of gravity of the athlete.

The planes that divide the body exactly into two halves are referred to as cardinal planes, which are further subdivided into the sagittal, frontal, and transverse planes.  There are an infinite number of planes within each half that run parallel to the cardinal planes.

Sagittal Plane
The sagittal plane bisects the body from front to back, dividing it into right and left symmetrical halves.  Generally, flexion and extension movements such as sit-ups, Olympic lifts, and bicep curls occur in this plane.

Sit-ups involve the spine and are performed in the cardinal sagittal plane, also known as the mid-sagittal plane.  Bicep curls and knee extensions are performed in para-sagittal planes, which are parallel to the mid-sagittal plane.  Even though the latter examples are not in the cardinal plane they are still considered movements in the sagittal plane.

As Seen in Field Strong: 4 Way Dead Bugs , See Saw Walk to Burpee

Frontal Plane
The frontal plane bisects the body laterally from side to side, dividing it into front and back halves.  Abduction and adduction movements include jumping jacks, spinal lateral flexion, and the body moving laterally through space.

As Seen in Field Strong: Standing Teapot , Banded Lateral WalksLateral Plyo Skiers

Transverse-Plane-Movement-Power-AthleteTransverse Plane
The transverse plane divides the body into superior and inferior halves.  Generally, rotational movements of the trunk plus internal and external rotation of the hips and shoulders occur here.

As Seen in Field Strong: Scap Pull Up Hold with Hip Twist, Spiderman Complex to Horizontal RotationKnee Hug to Horizontal Lunge Twist

Diagonal Planes of Motion

Although each joint movement can be classified within one of the three planes of motion, movements are usually not plane-specific, and occur within multiple planes.  Movements in combined planes are described as diagonal planes of motion.  Most sporting movements fall somewhere between parallel and perpendicular to the previously described planes and thus occur in a diagonal plane.

diagonal-planes-of-motion-power-athletePhoto Source: Manual of Structural Kinesiology, 19th Edition. (McGraw-Hill Education, 2012.)

To breakdown further, diagonal plane movement occurs in a high diagonal plane or one of two low diagonal planes.  The high diagonal plane is utilized for overhand movements in the upper extremity, such as hitting a volleyball or a football toss.  The two low diagonal planes include upper-extremity underhand movements, like bowling or a golf swing, and lower-extremity diagonal movements like a kicking (soccer) or field goals in football.

Axes of Rotation and Primal Movements

Axes are lines, real or imaginary, along which movement takes place, and are named in relation to their orientation.  As movement occurs in a given plane, the joint moves or turns about an axis 90-degrees to that plane.

At Power Athlete we pay particular attention to how the pelvis rotates along these axes. The pelvis is the major link between the spinal column and the lower extremities, and plays a vital role in the athlete’s ability to produce strength efficiently and safely.  We generally refer to movements involving pelvic rotation along the X-Axis as squats, movements with Y-Axis rotation as lunges, and movements with Z-Axis rotation as step ups.  Inappropriate orientation of the pelvis can lead spine or hip joint accommodations which provide an unstable base for activities through any plane of motion.

Frontal (X) Axis: Squat
If the frontal plane runs from anterior to posterior, its axis must run from side to side.  The movements of flexion and extension take place about this axis.

The action of the pelvis along the X-Axis includes posterior and anterior tilt through the sagittal plane, and the rotation along the axis is found in movements such as the squat, deadlift, and power clean.

As Seen in Field Strong: Squat, Deadlift to Power Clean Complex

Vertical (Y) Axis: Lunge
The vertical axis runs straight down through the top of the head and is at a right angle of the transverse plane of motion.  The movements of medial and lateral rotation, and horizontal abduction and adduction occur on this axis.

The action of the pelvis along the Y-Axis includes posterior and anterior tilt through the sagittal plane.  The rotation along the Y-axis is found in movements such as running, kicking, and lunging.

As Seen in Field Strong: High Knee Lunge, Sandbag Walking Lunges

LFL-Amanda-Ruller-Chelsey-Haardt-Power-AthleteSagittal (Z) Axis: Movement occurring in the frontal plane rotates about a sagittal axis. The movements of abduction and adduction take place about this axis.

The rotation of the pelvis about the Z-axis is associated with the tilting up or down of the left and right iliac crests.  This rocking action of the pelvis is found in movements such as walking, climbing stairs, and Step Ups.

As Seen in Field Strong: CPT Morgan with Vertical Support,  KB Step Ups

Primal Training

There are optimal patterns, principles and timing sequences of pelvic stabilization and movement in training.  Many of you have experienced this while working through Field Strong. Take this same approach to building Power Athletes.

Ensure Primal movement deficiency is not a limiting factor for on-field performance.  Develop mobility, stability and competency in all three Primals during the warm ups and dynamic movement prep.  These should include movements through all three planes of motion, not just the sagittal plane.

Once competency and control are established, load spine and rotate the pelvis over all three axis of rotation.  Movements over the X-Axis will likely load the heaviest and fastest, but never neglect the other two!

Lunge-Sandbag-Power-Athlete-Luke-SummersPrimals and the pelvic rotation through the X-Y-Z Axes embraces skill transfer from the weightroom to the field.  These different pelvic rotations occur at different phases of athlete action in all dimensions and planes they experience on the arena of competition.  Mastering these Primals, then building strength, power and speed through each provide the capacity to withstand the unstable patterns and volume of forces athletes face to make a play.


Improve the proficiency of all three Primals through the three planes of motion.  Continue to challenge athletes using resistance, reaction and combining/re-sequencing Primals and planes of motion.  The CrossFit Football Coach’s Course features a lecture on how to optimally program these Primals for developing Power Athletes and the application of the Primal strength template.

Too much training is stuck in the sagittal plane, either not knowing how else to move or solely focusing on big numbers.  Even if an athlete does not have to move through the other planes of motion or axes of rotation in their sport, these elements must still be included into training to avoid overuse and overload injuries.

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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.


  1. haenzn on December 2, 2014 at 2:01 am

    Great in-depth analysis of lower body primals here, Tex! I wish this would have been posted earlier since I could never really make sense of these concepts until you used the medball example during the CFFB Coach’s Course – that’s when it finally clicked for me.
    What’s next? Upper body primals (especially presses since you already explained pulling dynamics https://powerathletehq.com/2014/05/13/posture-and-pull-ups/)?

  2. Denny K on December 2, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Great article. Understanding the specifics with the three planes of motion is something that I have wanting to improve upon. You break it down well and adding the Field Strong examples helps with learning.

  3. Nick on December 3, 2014 at 6:08 am

    For athletes they have to have that balance and coordination through all three planes…very basic and simple, but so important and not often understood from paying $1k for a weekend. I really look forward to reading these.

  4. shredalert on December 4, 2014 at 5:12 am

    Good read @tex. You mentioned the development of mobility, stability and competency within the xyz’s. I’m down with that.

    Do you have any suggestions for stretches and other “mobility type” movements beyond the programmed warm ups in Fieldstrong? Mostly a post workout / cool down type of thing. Any suggestions there? Example: I experience really really tight hips and hamstrings.

    • CALI on December 4, 2014 at 4:05 pm

      Great question. We actually have a great post workout sequence that we do at the seminar. I’ll see if we can a longer vid up on FS.

  5. Aaron White on December 17, 2014 at 8:50 am

    nice @mcquilkin

  6. slezak on December 25, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Great write up. I’m wondering now though, on days where we just do large volumes of squats, should we incorporate the primal movements before and/or after the high volume of squats?

    • Tex McQuilkin on December 25, 2014 at 5:31 pm

      The squat is a primal in itself. If your training day has volume squats, include unweighted lunges or step ups through different planes in your warm up. Don’t worry about loading them unless they are your strength of the day or have an intensity squats and want volume on the back end.

  7. louis209 on July 29, 2015 at 8:19 am

    whats a good book for reference on this subject

  8. […] maximum speed for your sport is a long term process directly related to how well one controls their Primal movement patterns. Adding resistance here will hinder performance. In top end speed movements, development of force […]

  9. Daryl Wafford on May 28, 2016 at 10:35 pm

    Really enjoyed this read, Tex.

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