Should Rotational Exercise Be Avoided in Favor of Sagittal Plane Work?

A panel of five fitness experts gathered their opinions and thoughts on a specific question for the Round Table Discussion. The panel was asked the following: “If it is safe to say that power lifters and athletes in strength/power positions that exhibit massive body structure have a history of weight-lifting like “bodybuilders”, and then is it acceptable to say that all athletes should have a base of sagital plane work? Does this put rotational work on the back burner? And/or does it put it further down the priority list of exercise design for athletes?

In no specific order, their answers are as follows:

Rick Karboviak, CSCS:

“Today’s athlete needs more than just a base program of strength training to get the job done. Unfortunately, the general mindset in today’s typical athlete is that “More muscle equals better performance, therefore I must gain muscle because Coach X says I need some on me.” Hence, their own training research usually digs up the bodybuilding books or magazines for their guidance. And the ads in there for Super Whey Protein Mass Gain 1000 Turbo Drink don’t help matters any. What they get caught up in is more time spent in the weight room on the weights will equal better performance, and that is not the case. I once had an athlete I was training for a combine tryout. He lifted 2x a day for 4-5 days a week, sometimes 6. He was on a high calorie diet, and the end result was in just after 3 weeks of this ‘gain weight now’ approach, his vertical height dropped by 10% and his 40 yard dash time increased by .3 seconds. Not the types of performance numbers you want to see when you’re trying to increase vertical height, and decrease the 40 yard time. He was so caught up in the ‘gain weight’ mindset with the lifting; he failed to spend the quality time on his performance needs. Today’s athlete needs more than just weight lifting, in any single or multiple planes of motion, to get the job done for overall conditioning. You can’t mimic a sprint without doing a sprint, for instance. So, regardless of what type of program you are doing for strength training, you still need ‘basic skill work done on conditioning your body for your sport’s demands. Weights won’t do it alone. I don’t think we will ever have athletes fully stay away from the bodybuilding genre, but with professional guidance and assistance, trainers and strength coaches can help them out to develop them into fully functional all-around athletes.”

Rob Pilger, CPT:

“If you look at the injuries sustained in sports, or daily activities, they happen mostly in the frontal and transverse plane. Why not the sagital? People train the most in this plane. So training should include frontal and transverse exercises. Or exercises that include all planes in one exercise, ex. supine lateral ball roll. One needs only to look at the requirements of the task, or sport, to see what planes predominate.

Maybe some trainers have overkill with the sagital plane, exercise, and tend to neglect the frontal and transverse plane exercises, or vise versa. If a person has trouble with a sagital plane exercise, descend it, teach it right, can’t do a push up, do a wall push up.

Sagital plane exercise should not be neglected, or down played, depending on the persons training age, background, preparedness, they will perform these exercises differently. They obviously should be able to perform sagital plane movements. People think they know how to lift, make sure their motor control is solid.

I think some trainers like to get ahead of themselves, just to seem cool, or innovative. Trainers need to do a movement pattern assessment to see what the client can or can’t do. I like Paul Chek’s method of looking at the Squat, Lunge, Bend, Twist, Pull, and Push. See how the client performs these, and ascend, or descend, accordingly.

Programs just need to be balanced, to keep clients strong, and stable. Neglecting planes to be trained can cause imbalance. Frontal, and transverse plain exercises need to be trained in for balance, and for avoidance of injury.

It makes no sense, to discard sagital plane exercise, or limit them, just make sure they do not make up the entire program,

I think this is the real issue to be dealt with. So, this is simple, look at the task the client uses, and look at what planes of motion the task is performed in. This will make up your program design. Just make sure there is balance, and the needs are addressed.”

Dr. Kwame Brown, CSCS:

“Bottom line: If an athlete has success because of his or her size, then that athlete will have greater success still if they actually know how to move!!! So, yes the athlete needs to be challenged in all planes. Sagittal plane work such as lunges is essential, because much of the time athletes must, at least briefly, support on one leg. Movements like lunges also assist in developing an athlete’s ability to use different muscle groups together to make a movement stronger, or more robust (known as synergy). Rotational work should be done as well, but this does not mean rotating the trunk through large ranges of motion. Most of what the trunk does during athletic movements is act as a resistive conductor of energy between the arms and legs. What I mean by this is that the trunk stores and transfers energy. Take the tennis serve for example. The power comes from the legs and keeping the arm loose like a whip the way that the trunk contributes to that power is to create torque. If one tries to use the trunk as the original source of power, the serve will lose power. So, including exercises that involve resisted rotation (which can be integrated with sagittal plane work) can be beneficial. Is size important in certain sports like football? Absolutely. Is it the only important factor? Absolutely not. Dwight Freeney is one of the premier defensive ends in the NFL, but he is mid-sized. He simply moves better and quicker than the offensive linemen he beats. He has great balance and agility. I am sure that he did not build that solely by “pumping iron” for the goal of gaining size.”

Steve Payne, CSCS, CPT:

“I train predominately baseball players, most of which do not have a correct understanding of lifting principles, techniques or theories. Most have been overtrained in high school by typical bodybuilding methods, which leave them largely ineffective, or less effective, in their chosen sport than if they hadn’t lifted at all.

I do believe that a well planned regimen for strength training should include sagittal plane work. However, there are two motivating factors which, I feel, must be addressed in this regard. 1) Lifting heavily in the sagittal is a necessary component for strength gains, but not like a bodybuilder would train. Strength gains are good, but excess bodyweight and the wear and tear of bodybuilder routines are counterproductive to the athletes I see. 2) Because baseball is highly motivated by rotational ability at the plate and on the field, it must be a priority in the training regime. However, the one (sagittal plane development and proficiency) compliments the other (rotational strength and ability) if the two are melded together correctly.

Let me also add this addendum: most baseball players do not understand the explosive nature of the game, and therefore lift much too heavily and train much too slowly for their strength training programs to be effective. Whether lifting in the sagittal, frontal or transverse plane, movement should reflect the explosive nature of the game, when relevant. Barry Binds may have had the most power at the plate, but he wasn’t a real threat on the bases or in the field. His size was also his downfall.”

Brian Nolan, NSCA-CPT:

“Great question. I don’t think it’s fair to necessarily look at the success certain people have had in spite of their training. The question begs the question, “How good would they have been if” There will always be genetic freaks that respond to anything and will have a certain level of success regardless of their training intensity, or appropriateness of their training protocol. In fact, we can probably look at most professional athletes falling into this category. We all know the level of strength and conditioning is below where it should be, yet athletes keep getting bigger and stronger.

I’ve heard the statement that sagittal work should be mastered before rotary and coronal training, and on the surface I think it makes sense. But, I think you need to know the root reason for a statement like that. It’s not necessarily that frontal and transverse work isn’t as important, it is just much more difficult to quantify and control. To this point, there isn’t much ground work to define

become a reach (hip dominant)? If someone is a control freak such as much as myself, it’s easy to see why they would chose to stick to more definable and controllable exercises with a clearly defined progressive pattern.

Now, that is not necessarily MY school of thought, “but I understand.” I have always approached training from all three planes and have just tried to control the variables and measurements as much as possible. Does it work, yes. Could it work better with more information? Probably. However, I can’t help but feel that there are many instances when sagittal work may be limited by ones functionality in the frontal and transverse planes. If the rotational and counter rotational qualities aren’t inherent or the abilities to adduct and abduct aren’t nurtured one will never reach their athletic potential on the field or in the gym. Also, when do we actually consider someone proficient in the sagittal plane? How do we define when someone is fit to be trained in the coronal or transverse planes? It appears the argument against using multidirectional work also works against the idea of mastering sagittal plane exercises first. There can’t be a “first” if there is nothing to follow. Many of us have abandoned squats, deadlifting, pressing, and rowing in favor of the fancier, “functional” version instead of integrating both.”

Wes Norris, CSCS:

“I believe that exercises in all three planes of motion should take place when training athletes. Most athletic events require movement in all three planes, so it is important to train the athlete to be able to react and perform in multiple directions. I think that most athletes probably have a pretty good base of sagittal plane strength from years of performing in their sport and unsupervised weight training. I have not heard anyone claiming that sagittal plane exercises should be steered away from. They are critical to enhancing performance.

But at the same time, frontal and transverse exercises should not be placed on the back burner, but should be trained equally with sagittal plane movements. Training in these planes is also important, as most sports will require strength and agility in multiple planes, and training in the frontal and transverse planes can help prevent against serious injury. A properly periodized program should incorporate training in all 3 planes with a proper balance of compound movement strength training, plyometrics and game-specific drills and exercises.”

Chaney Weiner, CSCS, CPT:

“I would say yes and no. There are some people who move better in the frontal plane than they do in the sagittal plane. I would say to train the sagittal plane first and the frontal plane second. Since we move in multiple planes, whether it is in athletics or just everyday activities then doesn’t it make sense to train all planes of movement? I say to train all planes from day one and just have the client do whatever they can do. Obviously if they are collapsing during a sagittal plane movement then you may want to stay away from other movements outside of the sagittal plane. Most of this is situational and depends on the individual.”