Triplanar Exercise for Functional Recovery

It is widely known that an exercise routine is an important component of any physical rehabilitation program. However, the type of exercise that is performed is just as crucial, especially when a person wants to regain normal function. Following an injury or when initiating an exercise program, it may be prudent to keep exercises more basic. Single muscles or small groups of muscles may be isolated. Linear, or single plane, movements are often preferable for comfort and to activate specific muscles. Resistance may vary, but it is often quite minimal in the beginning and only gradually increases. When a person is ready to progress toward more functional exercises – that is, exercises that mimic movements he or she might perform throughout the day – it is essential to consider all three planes of movement, as that is how our bodies truly function.


The three planes of movement are the frontal plane (also known as the coronal plane), the sagittal plane, and the transverse plane. Movement in the frontal plane is from side to side, or lateral movement, movement in the sagittal plane is forward and backward, and movement in the transverse plane is rotational. All sorts of daily activities, such as unloading the dishwasher and placing dishes into cabinets, getting into and out of a car, and swinging a golf club, involve movement in all three of these planes. Therefore, once a patient is properly prepared, it is important for rehab programs to include exercises that work in all three planes so that full rehabilitation can be achieved.


Examples of triplanar exercises that can be performed include:

  1. Cable Chops – Hold a cable column handle in both hands with arms outstretched and pull the cable across the body, perhaps twisting at the trunk slightly. This can be varied by setting the cable column handle up high to pull downward or setting the handle down low in order to pull upward. Resistance can also be progressed.
  2. Shoulder Diagonal Patterns – Holding a resistance band or a cable column handle in one hand, move that hand across the body, making sure to keep the elbow straight. Again, variations can include downward pulling and upward pulling, depending on the anchor of the resistance band or cable column handle. Positioning the body on either side of the anchor can also work different muscles. Resistance can also be progressed.
  3. Weighted Ball Diagonal Lifts – Hold a weighted ball, such as a medicine ball, in both hands. Turn slowly and bend down, placing the ball on the outside of one knee. Next straighten up and lift the ball up over the shoulder on the opposite side. This can be done in the other diagonal to ensure balanced muscle activation.


These are just a few examples of possible triplanar exercises. If you are engaged in a physical therapy program, it will be up to both you and your physical therapist to decide when you are ready for such exercises and which exercises are appropriate for your case. Triplanar exercises are also important to incorporate into independent exercise – both as part of the home exercise program while still engaged in physical therapy treatment and as part of an independent exercise program once discharged from physical therapy. In this way, exercise will work multiple muscle groups simultaneously and will be much more functional in nature.


Rob Kohutanycz, PT, DPT

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