The Importance of Multiplanar Strength Exercises for Runners

Multiplanar Exercises for Runners

When you look at a runner on the move, their forward progress appears to happen in a straight line.

However, it’s important for us to appreciate that this linear movement is the output of a vast number of smaller movements happening in all three planes of motion, across the body.

You can see a good example of this is the positive torso rotation I highlighted in this video analysis of Shalane Flanagan’s running style.

Your running form is an expression of all these small segmental movements working together in concert. It’s as individual and unique as you are!

In this article, I’m going to take a closer look at how (and why) runners like you and I should be strengthening our bodies in all three planes of motion, rather than focusing simply on forwards-and-backwards movements.

What is Multiplanar Movement?

The concept of multiplanar movement is simply any action at a joint (or joints) which occurs in more than one of the three planes of motion.

The three planes of motion are:

  • Sagittal Plane
    Forward and backward movements
    (e.g. hip flexion and extension)
  • Frontal (Coronal) Plane
    Side-to-side movements
    (e.g. shoulder adduction and abduction)
  • Transverse Plane
    Rotational movements
    (e.g. torso rotation, or internal/external rotation of the hip)

Planes of Motion

Of course, in reality, all movements and exercises incorporate elements of all three planes of motion. However, in any given movement usually one of the three planes is most dominant.

The action of the hip when running, for example, is made up of lots of small multiplanar movements…

While the overall running motion appears to be linear, in the forward and back (sagittal) plane; if we look really analytically at the non-weight bearing hip as the knee drives forwards during the late swing phase of running gait, the movement of the pelvis above it means that the hip joint is abducting while also flexing.

Interestingly, I’ve seen time-after-time over the years that runners can experience significant improvements in strength and injury prevention when they start prioritising lateral (frontal plane) movements and rotational (transverse plane) movements into their training regimes!

Three Ways Training Multiplanar Movements Can Make You a Better Runner

Here are some of the reasons why you should be incorporating exercises that challenge all three planes of motion into your running strength workouts…

1. Find & Strengthen Your Weak Links to Prevent Running Injuries

Many common running injuries occur as a result of a lack of control and stability around a given joint.

This can either place undue stress on a joint, or place increased strain or demand on another muscle or tendon. Both of these situations can lead to overuse then you layer-on mile after mile of running.

Usually, the stability required around major joints such as the knee or hip as we run is in the frontal or transverse planes of motion. We need to be able to control these lateral and rotational movements so as to be able to move efficiently forward and back in the sagittal plane.

However, if we see a deficit in control of these planes of motion, like with a “hip drop” action in running gait, we often see problems manifest elsewhere in the body.

In the case of a hip drop (as featured in the video above), a lack of lateral stability around the standing hip, which should be controlled by gluteus medius, can lead to ITB syndrome, and lower back pain, amongst other potential issues.

Similar movement dysfunctions, such as poor control of hip internal rotation and adduction, leading to the knee drifting inwards towards the midline, can be responsible for other common running injuries. Dr Brad Neal describes patterns like these in his recent article about patellofemoral pain (runner’s knee).

The good news is that through practising exercises which focus on lateral movements and rotational control, like the crab walk featured in the video below, you can improve strength, control and stability in all three planes around these key joints.

If you would like to see examples of similar exercises you can integrate to your running schedule, check out this free download:

Strength Workouts for Distance Runners >>
Free Download [PDF]

3. Multiplanar Exercises Better Recreate “Real” Activities

In the controlled environment of the gym, the movements of our various exercises are pre-planned and specific. This isn’t truly how our every day activities happen!

Everything from picking a heavy parcel up off the floor, to running up a hilly section of trail incorporates movements in three planes of motion.

Multiplanar exercises allow us to better train for the almost infinite different combined movement patterns we’ll encounter in every day life.

For example, instead of performing traditional lunges in your injury prevention workouts, you could incorporate all three planes of motion by performing this 3D lunge matrix:

2. Develop All-Round Athleticism Through Adding Variety to Your Training

Running itself is both a linear and very repetitive activity. As mentioned above, many of the overuse injuries us runners experience come as a result of poor stability and muscular imbalances.

Often these imbalances are exacerbated through the reiterative nature of running. If we have a tendency to be particularly strong in certain areas and weak in others, strong through the quads and weak through the glutes for example, we will sometimes begin to run in such a way that effectively “plays to our strengths”.

A particularly quad dominant runner, will adapt to an increase in training load by potentially getting stronger through their quads, further emphasising the strength imbalance between their quads and glutes. This could potentially result in issues like runner’s knee further into their training.

Through a more balanced approach to training, and combining your running mileage with exercises which focus on some of the muscles that are less challenged by running, you will develop better all-round strength and stability.

This will ultimately make you more resilient as a runner, and able to train more consistently in the long-term, with fewer injuries.

To me, there’s no coincidence that in my experience, runners who have more of an all-round sporting background, especially those who play(ed) multidirectional sports involving twisting and turning, like football or hockey, seem to have more resilient bodies when it comes to training.

Perhaps because their all-round, multidirectional, multiplanar strength is more advanced than those who simply run mile-after-mile.

Read Next >>
How to Engage Your Glutes Before Running
Last updated on June 26th, 2019.
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10 Comments

  1. Great post! We often get way too caught up in the uni-directional. I love running trails to help mix up my routine and get some of the multi in there, but these exercises can help me to build on that and strengthen more around that. Thank you!

  2. Great stuff.

    Just be careful with Triathletes (particularly) that are suffering from ITB compression/friction symptoms at the knee. I’ve had to patch up patients that have been prescribed the reverse lunges for rehab. They significantly increase the pressure that is creating the irritation in the first place with this movement, and typically these patients have progressed onto this level of exercise before adequately correcting underlying deficiencies….like poor glut med function.

    Keep up the good posts!

    Ellis Taylor
    Senior Physio @ Tatami Health

    1. Thanks Ellis, I agree completely. In symptomatic athletes these are definitely a rehab progression, not a start point!

      Too frequently in general, I find athletes tending to go for (and being prescribed) exercises that they’re not ready for.

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