The planes of the body are anatomical concepts often used by health professionals to describe how your body moves during exercise or other activities.
You can visualize them as flat surfaces that divide the body into front and back, side-to-side, and top to bottom.
Knowing the different body planes can be useful in designing your workout program to ensure you’re moving and strengthening your body in all directions.
This article tells you all you need to know about the three planes of the body, their movements, and other useful anatomical terms.
There are three planes of the body:
- Coronal (frontal) plane: separates the front (anterior) and back (posterior) of the body
- Sagittal (longitudinal) plane: separates the left and right sides of the body
- Transverse (axial) plane: separates the upper (superior) and lower (inferior) halves of the body
To imagine each, it’s useful to visualize a large sheet of glass that runs through your body.
Imagine the coronal (frontal) plane as a vertical sheet that runs through the side of your body, so that the sheet separates the front part of your body from the back.
Imagine the sagittal (longitudinal) plane as a vertical sheet that runs through your body from front to back, so that it divides your body into left and right sides.
Finally, imagine the axial (transverse) plane as a horizontal sheet that runs through your torso, dividing the upper and lower halves of your body.
When imagining the way your body moves, it’s useful to think of your body moving along the glass sheets (or planes) but not through them.
The coronal plane is often referred to as the frontal plane. This divides the body into the front (anterior) and back (posterior) sections.
Movements that occur in the coronal (frontal) plane are lateral or side-to-side. These include:
- Abduction: moving your limbs laterally, away from the midline of the body (e.g., lifting your leg to the side)
- Adduction: moving your limbs medially, toward the midline of the body (e.g., lowering your arm down to the side of your body)
- Elevation: raising your scapula (shoulder blade) upward
- Depression: lowering your scapula (shoulder blade) downward
- Inversion of the ankle: sole of your foot turns inward toward the midline of the body (a component of supination
- Eversion of the ankle: sole of your foot turns outward away from the body’s midline (a component of pronation)
Using the glass sheet example, imagine you lift your arms out to the sides (abduction). If there was a glass sheet, your arms would glide along it, meaning you’re moving your arms along the coronal (frontal) plane.
However, if you were to lift your arm straight in front of you, it would “break” the glass sheet, meaning you’re moving in a different body plane (the sagittal plane).
Moving in the coronal (frontal) plane is less common in day-to-day life. However, it’s important to include some of these movements in your fitness routine. Examples include jumping jacks, side lunges, side shuffles, side bends, and lateral arm and leg raises.
The sagittal plane, also known as the longitudinal plane, divides the body into left and right halves.
Movements that occur in the sagittal (longitudinal) plane involve forward and backward movements. Our day-to-day activities usually occur in this plane since we usually move by swinging our arms and legs in front of us.
The movements of the sagittal (longitudinal) plane include:
- Flexion: bending a limb to decrease the angle at a joint (e.g., lifting a dumbbell during a bicep curl flexes the elbow)
- Extension: movement that increases the angle at a joint (e.g., lifting your leg behind you when standing extends the hip joint)
- Dorsiflexion: bending the ankle so the top of the foot and your toes move toward your shin
- Plantar flexion: bending the ankle so the foot pushes down and your toes point away
Considering it’s one of the most common planes of motion, there are many exercises that move in the sagittal (longitudinal) plane. Examples include bicep curls, forward or reverse lunges, squats, deadlifts, walking, and running.
The transverse plane, or the axial plane, divides the body into upper (superior) and lower (inferior) halves.
Movements that occur in this plane involve rotation or horizontal movement, which include:
- Rotation: rotating the torso or a limb around its vertical axis (e.g., turning your head to the left or right)
- Horizontal abduction: moving the arm away from the midline of the body when it’s at a 90-degree angle in front of you
- Horizontal adduction: moving the arm toward the midline of the body when it’s at a 90-degree angle to the side
Besides turning your neck or slightly rotating your torso, movements in the axial (transverse) plane are less common but do play an important role in certain exercises and sports activities.
Examples of exercises in the transverse (or axial) plane include swinging a golf club or baseball bat, seated hip abduction/adduction, chest flys, seated twists, or any move that involves rotation of the torso.
Anatomical position is a specific body position used when describing human anatomy. It’s often used by healthcare professionals to help discuss parts of the body in a clear and consistent manner.
To be in anatomical position, a person should be standing upright with their arms at their sides and feet pointing forward. Their forearms should be supinated (turned out) so that their palms are facing forward.
Anatomical terms are often based on their positioning or direction in relation to a standard position. To ensure consistent communication and understanding, we base all anatomical terms on a human body in anatomical position.
Most anatomical terms are based on location, size, or purpose. Though, it takes time to learn what the terms mean and how they apply to movement or body positions. To help, here are some common anatomical direction terms:
- Medial: movement toward the midline of the body
- Lateral: movement away from the midline of the body
- Proximal: in proximity or closer to (often with reference to the center of the body or a specific extremity, i.e., the knee is proximal to the ankle)
- Distal: distant or further away (often with reference to the center of the body or a specific extremity, i.e., the wrist is distal to the elbow)
- Superior (cranial): upper or above
- Inferior (caudal): lower or below
- Anterior (ventral): front of the body
- Posterior (dorsal): back of the body
Learning these terms can help you better understand movement patterns as well as anatomy since these terms give “clues.” For example, you should now know that the superior vena cava sits above the inferior vena cava.
Another example would be the serratus anterior, which suggests the muscle sits on the anterior (front) side of the body. Finally, the vastus lateralis sits on the outside of the quadriceps (thigh) while the vastus medialis sits on the inner part.
In addition to the body’s musculature, the body holds important organs — or viscera — in various fluid-filled cavities or spaces to keep them safe.
The two main body cavities include the ventral and dorsal cavities. The ventral cavity can be further divided into the thoracic and abdominopelvic cavity, which is separated by the diaphragm.
The thoracic cavity sits above the diaphragm and contains the lungs, heart, esophagus, trachea, and various blood vessels and nerves.
The abdominopelvic cavity sits below the diaphragm and is usually divided into two smaller cavities: the abdominal and pelvic cavities.
The abdominal cavity contains the digestive tract (small and large intestines), kidneys, and adrenal glands.
The pelvic cavity contains most of the urogenital system and the rectum.
The dorsal cavity is smaller than the ventral cavity but can still be divided into two smaller sections: the cranial (upper) cavity and the spinal (lower) cavity.
The cranial cavity contains the brain while the spinal cavity contains the spinal cord.
Whether we’re exercising or just doing our day-to-day activities, our bodies move in many directions, along planes.
The three planes of motion include coronal (frontal), sagittal (longitudinal), and transverse (axial) planes. These planes involve moving side-to-side, front and back, or rotationally, respectively.
By learning the way our bodies move in relation to anatomical directions, you can begin to better understand how the body works, and how to program effective workouts to develop well-balanced strength.