Frontal Plane Exercises
By: Dr. Evan Osar
If you coach speed or agility you will undoubtedly encounter athletes that demonstrate frontal plane instability when running or performing agility drills. Frontal plane instability, more accurately this can be described as a loss of control in the frontal plane, can be a common yet overlooked cause of decreased speed and agility in your athletes. In this article, we will look at how loss of frontal plane control impedes many athletes from achieving optimal performance and how this relates to loss of speed and agility in your athletes. We will introduce an exercise progression specifically designed to improve frontal plane control so you can help your athletes maximize development of speed and agility while also reducing their risk of injury.
Control of Frontal Plane Motion
Frontal plane control (stability) is crucial to optimal force production and reduction in athletes. Optimal control in the frontal plane enables an athlete to plant their foot into the ground, decelerate their momentum, reduce ground reaction forces and generate force required to either propel their body forward, to change direction, or strike a ball.
Images 1-4: Examples of the need for frontal plane control – standing on one leg, changing direction, supporting on one leg to kick a ball, shifting body weight to strike a tennis ball
As mentioned in the introduction, a very common and often overlooked component of developing speed and agility is the loss of frontal plane control. When your athlete has lost front plane control you will notice either a pelvic drop or lateral shift (image 5) or the individual will side bend their trunk over their stance leg if they have compensated (image 6) when he/she stands on one leg. Loss of frontal plane control can alter force production in the hip complex resulting in slower speeds and/or reaction times, result in stress of the knee or in the ankle-foot complex, and can also manifest as chronic low back tightness and pelvic/sacroiliac dysfunction.
Non-optimal frontal plane control while standing on one leg; loss of pelvic control (left) and compensatory side bend for loss of control (right)
Often you will note a loss of speed and/or agility when the athlete is performing their drills because they have to compensate and overuse other muscle(s) and/or strategies to balance and produce/reduce force. Improving frontal plane control then becomes a priority for these athletes so they can both maximize performance and diminish the risk of injury.
Since it garners so much attention in both the rehabilitation and speed conditioning settings it is important to identify the role of the gluteus medius in providing frontal plane stability before addressing the specific exercises to improve control. As you are aware, the gluteus medius attaches to the lateral aspect of the pelvis and inserts onto the greater trochanter of the femur and is important in providing frontal plane pelvic and hip stability.
There is no lack of exercises addressing the gluteus medius – the muscle most blamed for the lack of frontal plane control. Clam shells, lying hip abduction, and lateral band walks are just three of the over dozen gluteus medius specific exercises athletes perform when rehabbing a current injury or as part of their dynamic warm up. While targeting the gluteus medius with these exercises works for some individuals, there are still many athletes that will not demonstrate improved frontal plane control using these types of exercises.
One of the biggest reasons these exercises fail to change control when standing one leg is that they don’t adequately address how the trunk and spine relate to hip and pelvic stability. The gluteus medius is part of the lateral kinetic chain and to improve its’ function, you must address the entire lateral chain including the trunk and spine.
The lateral chain, comprised of the ipsilateral (same side) oblique abdominals, quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi, serratus anterior, intercostals, lateral fibers of the gluteal complex, and vastus lateralis, connect the ipsilateral shoulder and hip complexes with the trunk and spine (image to left). While active in all movements, the lateral chain is most responsible for controlling frontal plane motion.
The Modified Side Lying Bridge for Frontal Plane Control
The modified side lying bridge – a modification of a DNS (Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization) pattern – is one of the most effective corrective exercise patterns we have found for developing frontal plane control in our athletes. What makes this pattern so effective is that it develops stability through the core while connecting both the ipsilateral shoulder and hip complexes to the trunk and pelvis.
The pattern is broken down into 3 phases and each level is designed to improve the components necessary to reach the next level. It is common for athletes to be progressed too quickly through the pattern without developing the prerequisite stability in the shoulder, trunk, and/or hip regions. Stability or control in these regions is necessary prior to progressing to the more advanced patterns which I will introduce in part II since these more advanced exercises will cause the athlete to break down and/or develop additional compensatory patterns if they can have not developed prior stability.
The athlete lies on his side with the ipsilateral shoulder and hip flexed to 90 degrees and 75 degrees respectively. His shoulder and hips are stacked and his spine is in neutral alignment. He contracts isometrically to push his left elbow and knee into the floor. This contraction activates the latissimus dorsi and serratus anterior of his support shoulder (the one he is lying on) and the gluteal complex of his support hip (the one he is lying on). It also helps connect the shoulder and hip with the trunk and spine. He holds this contraction for 5 seconds and repeats for 3 sets of 5-10 repetitions. Throughout each of the progressions, the athlete’s core should be activated and their spine should remain neutral.
Level 1 (isometric shoulder-trunk, hip-knee support)
The athlete then assumes the position and activation from above however in this version he is supported upon his forearm and hip-knee. Similarly he pushes his knee down into the floor and maintains a neutral alignment of his trunk and spine while holding this position for 5 seconds and then relaxes for 10 seconds. He repeats the pattern for 3 sets of 5-10 repetitions of 5-second holds.
Level 2 (isometric forearm and hip-knee support)
The client assumes the position and activation from level 2. He then lifts himself up so that he is supported on both his elbow and knee. He holds for 3 seconds and slowly returns to the starting position. He repeats for 2-3 sets 5-10 repetitions.
Regardless of the level your client has achieved, this pattern is a great way to activate the lateral chain prior to walking, running, or performing agility drills. In other words, even the level 1 pattern can be effective at activating the lateral chain for those athletes that don’t have the shoulder, trunk, or hip stability required for the higher patterns.
Many of your athletes require improved frontal plane stability. As we have discussed, the gluteus medius is an important part of the lateral chain responsible for frontal plane control. By helping your athletes improve activation of the gluteus medius as part of the lateral chain and integrate this function with the trunk and pelvis they will begin to demonstrate improved control when you get them into the upright position. In part II of this series, we will introduce a more advanced version of this pattern and demonstrate a progression to incorporate the lateral chain into the upright position.
Earlier in this article we discussed how many athletes lose speed and/or agility from the lack of optimal frontal plane control (stability). We discussed that while the gluteus medius is an important muscle of frontal plane control, it is part of the lateral chain which is responsible for control especially in single leg support and when shifting the body through the frontal plane. Loss of frontal plane control manifests not only as decreases in speed and/or agility but can also present as a common cause of overuse injuries of the low back, hip, knee, and/or ankle-foot complex.
We introduced the side lying isometric pattern to improve activation of the gluteus medius and incorporate its’ function into the lateral chain. In this article I will show you an advanced progression of that exercise and demonstrate how to transition your athlete into the upright position so that they can develop improved integration of the lateral chain.
Advanced Modified Side Lying Bridge Pattern
In the advanced progression, the client assumes the position and activation from the previous patterns. He lifts himself so that he is supported completely upon his forearm and knee. He holds this position for 2 seconds while reaching out with his free arm and then returns to the starting position. He repeats this exercise for 2-3 sets of 5-10 repetitions. In this pattern, the athlete is supported on his knee rather than on his ankle and foot since this enables activation of the hip complex rather than bypassing this region which occurs in the traditional side bridge patterns.
Modified Side Lying Bridge Pattern – Advanced
Now that the athlete has developed improved control it is important to incorporate this function into the upright position. While there are a number of patterns that can be used, we generally use the split squat position as it helps the athlete identify and feel where they should have control. The focus is primarily on the front leg mechanics during the pattern.
The athlete begins in the split stance position where approximately 70-80% of their weight is on their forward leg and 20-30% is on the rear leg.
- The individual first aligns their TPC (thoracopelvic canister) so that their trunk is positioned over the pelvis and the spine and pelvis are neutral. The pelvis is neutral when it is in a slight anterior pelvic tilt.
- Next they position the foot of the front leg so that it is in the tripod position where there is the most contact under digit #1 (big toe), digit #5 (small toe), and the calcaneus (heel).
- Finally they ensure that their hip, knee and ankle-foot complex are aligned. From the front you should be able to draw a relatively straight line through the hip, knee, and first two digits of the foot when the athlete is in ideal alignment.
See images below for examples of optimal and non-optimal alignment in the split stance position.
Optimal alignment in the split stance position – neutral pelvis (slight anterior pelvic tilt when viewed from the side and level when viewed from the front and back), hip-knee-ankle-foot tripod aligned (left); optimal alignment of the lower extremity however non-optimal alignment of the pelvis – it is laterally tilted in the frontal plane and the trunk and spine are not aligned (middle); optimal alignment of the pelvis however non-optimal alignment of lower extremity – knee is excessively abducted (right)
Once the athlete has achieved optimal alignment, they perform the split squat where the focus remains on the mechanics of the forward leg in frontal plane control. The athlete focus on eccentric control as they lower their body and then lifting their body up and over their front foot during the concentric phase. It is important to pay close attention to ensure that the athlete’s pelvis remains level and in an anterior pelvic tilt and their spine remains straight through the pattern as loss of frontal plane control can manifest even in these relatively low level patterns. This pattern can be challenged by loading it with weight and/or by elevating the rear leg.
Once the athlete can perform 3-5 sets of 10-20 reps progress them on to patterns that will begin to really challenge their frontal plane control such as the lunge, reverse lunge, and lateral lunge. These patterns teach the athlete how to control frontal plane mechanics as they move through varying functional movement patterns and planes of motion.
Ultimately you will want your athlete to develop control while in single leg stance. Begin to incorporate single leg squats and step up to single leg (images 10 and11) to train this control once your athlete has developed optimal control with the previous patterns. Again be sure to pay attention for the loss of frontal plane control and common compensations such as the pelvis not being level, side bending of the trunk, or loss of lower extremity alignment. Do not allow an athlete to perform any exercise pattern where they can not maintain the optimal alignment and mechanics discussed previously or they will simply be strengthening a non-optimal strategy that will cause them to develop or perpetuate frontal plane control issues.
You will also want to include sport-specific patterns once they have developed the requisite frontal plane control through the aforementioned patterns.
In this article we identified the loss of frontal plane control as a common cause of the loss of speed and agility and a contributor to injuries of the low back, pelvis, and lower extremity in our athletes. While at times it can be beneficial to isolate the gluteus medius, it is far more efficient to condition this muscle as part of the lateral chain. In part I we introduced the modified side lying bridge as an important pattern for developing coordination between the gluteus medius and the other muscles of the lateral chain. In part II, we progressed this pattern and then incorporated the lateral chain into the upright position via the split squat. The split squat pattern is a great pattern to incorporate the control the athlete requires – alignment of the lower extremity and activation of the lateral chain – once they get into single leg stance. When your athlete achieves control in the split squat and lunge patterns, progress them through the appropriate sport-specific patterns they need to develop speed and agility. When the athlete has develop frontal plane control, they will often demonstrate faster speed, greater agility, and reduced incidence of injury.
Kolar, P. (2009). Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization: A Developmental Kinesiology Approach. Chicago, IL: Course handouts.
Kobesova, A. and Jezkova, M. Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization According to Kolar. Course B. St. Louis, MO: Course handouts.
Lee, LJ. and Lee, D. (2013). Treating the Whole Person with The Integrated Systems Model. Vancouver, CA: Discovery Physio Course handouts.
Osar, E. (2012). Corrective Exercise Solutions to Common Movement Dysfunction of the Hip and Shoulder. Chinchester, UK: Lotus Publishing.
Osar, E. (2015). Integrative Movement Specialist™ Certification. Chicago, IL: Course handouts.
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About the Author
Audiences around the world have seen Dr. Evan Osar’s dynamic and original presentations. His passion for improving human movement and helping health and fitness professionals think bigger about their roles can be seen and felt in every course he teaches. His 20-year background in fitness and experience as a chiropractic physician and manual therapist provide an unique perspective on corrective exercise and fundamental training principles for the fitness professional. Dr. Osar has become known for taking challenging information and putting it into useable information the fitness professional can apply immediately with their athletes. He is the creator of over a dozen resources including the highly acclaimed Corrective Exercise Solutions to Common Hip and Shoulder Dysfunction. He is the developer of the Integrative Movement System™ – a principle-based system for assessing and correcting movement dysfunction. For more information please visit www.fitnesseducationseminars.com.
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