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The Planar Training Method

A movement-based approach to training prepares clients for sports and the activities of daily living.

Since the beginning of the modern era of physical training, programs have typically been organized around a body part
approach: The body is divided into its major muscle groups (chest, back, legs, shoulders, etc.) and trained accordingly. This arrangement has been an easy,
understandable way to segment programs—and has brought good results, especially when applied in a bodybuilding program.

But does this organizational strategy come at a cost? Consider these facts:

  • The human body works to produce movement—period. To this end, the body makes every attempt to use muscles in concert to create action efficiently and effectively.
  • Life demands that the body move freely through space, not within the confines of a machine or some restrictive motor pattern.
  • Most traditional strengthening programs heavily favor sagittal-plane movement in a training environment that promotes one-dimensional motor patterns. These factors can undermine the body’s ability to move effectively in any given direction, and, in many cases, may lead to joint dysfunction.
  • Muscle-based programs can unwittingly contribute to muscle imbalances, poorly developed firing patterns and general movement deficiency in the untrained planes.

Imagine for a moment that the body had no individual muscles—no simple groups to target. What if all you had to work with were the various joints and the movements they were capable of performing? Letting go of the 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 Formation of Movement “Programs”

The central nervous system (CNS) coordinates the muscles in concert to produce specific movements by means of motor engrams, movement programs the body develops for all general actions. Familiar, frequently performed movements, such as forward lunges, have highly developed and refined motor engrams. These well-practiced programs run smoothly at many different speeds and can be executed successfully in changing environments, for example, when you are off balance, rushed or in an unusual position.

Less frequently performed movements, such as the side lunge, have incomplete or rough engrams. The programs for these movements are a work in progress and can often go awry. To control these movements properly, you have to slow down and be very conscious of what you are doing. These unpracticed actions often feel uncoordinated, and if a situation demands that they be performed at a higher speed, the chances of failure and injury increase dramatically.

The Benefits of
a Planar Approach

The movement, or planar, approach to training provides a complete workout that not only involves every major muscle group (fulfilling the goal of clients looking for aesthetic results) but also incorporates movement at each joint through every plane of motion. This balanced training helps to improve many traditionally rough movement patterns, to increase overall function and to decrease the risk of injury. Integrating more complex and coordinated multiplanar movements into the program will build further on this foundation and stimulate the CNS to create and refine motor engrams that can then be applied to sport and life.

Planes of Motion

The planes of motion are often the first things taught in basic fitness courses, but they can be promptly forgotten when you don’t apply them. To review: As the body moves through space, it uses any combination of three planes of motion: sagittal, frontal and transverse.

Movements forward and backward or through the midline of the body take place in the sagittal plane. Examples include the biceps curl and forward lunge. Movements from side to side, such as abduction and adduction, occur in the frontal plane. The traditional jumping jack is a classic example. Finally, movements that involve rotational actions or horizontal abduction or adduction, such as the bench press and cable wood chop, are in the transverse plane.

The Body-Part-Based Program

On the surface, the typical full-body strength training program, which is usually divided by muscle group over a 2- or 3-day period, may appear to be well balanced. But a deeper investigation reveals potential problems.

Look at the exercises outlined in the “Traditional Body-Part-Based Training Program” sidebar, left. When you consider only the first two columns—the muscle groups worked and the chosen
exercises—the program may seem well-rounded. But when you view the last two columns through a “planar lens,” glaring imbalances become apparent. Consider the following elements:

Joint Involvement. The hip is primarily involved in only two of the 22 exercises, the shoulder in nine, and the spine in five. The elbow is primarily involved in 10 exercises—more than the hip and spine combined.

Movement Plane. Fifteen (68%) of the exercises occur in the sagittal plane, and two (9%) in the frontal plane, both at the shoulder joint. Five (23%) occur in the transverse plane, but the majority of these are also at the shoulder, and none are at the hip.

Because this program fails to use a movement-based approach, it may lead to—or reinforce—an inability to move effectively in the frontal or transverse plane with the lower body, or to act in the frontal plane with the trunk. The program is also likely to contribute to muscle imbalances, joint tightness and movement dysfunction.

A Planar Training Program

Using a planar approach when designing a workout program ensures balanced training for every joint across all planes
of movement. The program outlined in the “Planar Training Program” sidebar, above, integrates traditional exercises with functional actions—and utilizes some
innovative equipment. The approach not only promotes aesthetic improvements but also creates a heightened state of bodily readiness and function for movement in both sports and everyday life.

Consider the following statistics:

Joint Involvement. The hip, shoulder, trunk and elbow are primarily involved in six of the 18 exercises; and the knee is primarily involved in five of them. (The muscles that act on the smaller joints, such as the elbow and knee, are generally trained in conjunction with the major joints that are more proximal.) In addition, the
ankle is secondarily involved in all the lower-body movements except one.

Movement Plane. Six (33%) of the
exercises occur in the sagittal plane; seven (39%) have frontal-plane elements; and seven (39%) have transverse-plane elements.

When you view this program through a body-part-based lens, you find an even distribution of exercises for all body parts, using four fewer exercises than in the traditional program outlined on page 31. While the biceps, triceps and calves are not specifically targeted, they are very much involved in many of the compound movements. To address these body parts directly, you could add targeted exercises after the main part of the program is complete.

Comparing the two programs clarifies how a planar approach results in much more complete and effective training. Integrating more multijoint and multiplanar exercises would make the planar program shorter, as well as more challenging and functional.

Program Guidelines

To plan a planar program, follow these basic guidelines:

  • Base the program around the major joints of the body. Begin with joints that have significant multiplanar movement capabilities (hips, shoulders, trunk). In most cases the uniplanar joints (knees, ankles, elbows) will be trained as part of the bigger movements associated with the multijoint actions. Fill in any gaps in the program with smaller, more targeted exercises.
  • Focus on providing an exercise for every plane of motion and in every
    direction a joint is capable of moving (e.g., use flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, right rotation, left rotation).
  • Emphasize movements that integrate multiple joints.
  • Integrate functional actions that require full-body and joint stabilization.
  • As your client’s ability improves, increase the number of multijoint and multiplanar movements or movement combinations. Complex actions require a more coordinated effort, but result in highly trained movement abilities, as well as time-efficient programs.
  • To ensure that each joint is moving through all planes of motion, or to target a specific area, add isolation exercises after complex actions have been programmed.
  • Integrate different equipment modalities if possible. An increasingly amazing array of functional training tools emphasize multiplanar movement. Strategically utilizing a variety of these tools maximizes your client’s strength while providing varying training environments.
  • Do not think about muscle groups. If you focus on the joints and planes of motion, the muscle groups will take care of themselves.

Taking a planar approach when organizing a training program is challenging at first. The move requires a major shift away from the way you have probably been conditioned to think. But remember this adage of functional training: “The body knows only movement, not muscle.” Then ask yourself, “Why should I use a muscle-based approach to train clients?”

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

Muscle Group Exercise Primary Joint(s) Plane(s) of Motion

Exercise Primary Joint(s) Plane(s) of Motion Direction Muscle Group(s)

sidebar: traditional body-part-based training program

sidebar: planar training program

sidebar: sample exercises


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Fraser Quelch

Fraser Quelch is the director of training and development for Fitness Anywhere® and the creator of the TRX® training program. An expert in functional training and endurance athletics, Fraser has presented at events worldwide and is featured in 19 fitness DVDs. Fraser holds a bachelor's degree in physical education.

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