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Anatomical Terminology

Anatomy is a topic that is usually covered in semester-long courses, so here we will only give a basic overview.

Anatomy is a topic that is usually covered in semester-long courses, so here we will only give a basic overview.

In the video, we focused on the more visual aspects of anatomy. This article will provide some more detail, introducing some of the anatomical terminology used in movement analysis.

Anatomical Position

Anatomy is the study of the structure of the body. When we describe the body and relationships between parts within the body, it is done in the anatomical position. It is the standard position to view and describe the body consistently. The same way maps are oriented north; the anatomical position helps to avoid confusion.

A body in the standard anatomical position.

In the anatomical position shown above, the body stands upright with the head and eyes facing forward. The arms hang straight down with the hands near the hips and palms facing forward. The legs are close together, with feet parallel and toes pointing forward.

Regional Anatomy

We usually separate between two approaches to studying anatomy: regional or systemic. A regional approach looks at everything within a certain part of the body, say the lower limbs. Systemic anatomy focuses on one system throughout the whole body.

The basic regions of the body are the head, neck, trunk, upper limb, and lower limb. Each of these main regions can be further divided into subregions. Some of these subregions are shown in the figure below. For movement analysis, it is essential to know the difference between arm and forearm and thigh and leg.

Anatomical Planes

There are a few ways to describe position, orientation, and location in three dimensions using the anatomical position. The first is what is called anatomical planes. As shown in the figure below, we can think about the anatomical planes as imaginary “sheets” used to divide the body. When we talk about the whole body, the reference point or origin is the belly button. When discussing a small segment of the body, like the foot, the reference point can be placed in another meaningful position.

A picture of a body. The three anatomical planes are shown.

The three anatomical planes are sagittal, frontal, and transverse. The sagittal plane is a big vertical line that divides the body into the left and right sections. If it is in the actual middle of the body, it is sometimes also called the median plane. The frontal plane, also called the coronal plane, divides the body into the front and back sections. Finally, the transverse plane divides the body horizontally into upper and lower portions. It is the plane that is used when making cross-sectional images.


There is also a standardized vocabulary for describing the directions of the body. These directional terms are arranged in pairs to describe where something is in relation to something else.

Just like for the anatomical planes, the default origin of the directional terms is the belly button. However, you can also describe directions from other points. Below is a table listing some of the most common directions.

Directional Term Meaning
Medial Toward the midline
Lateral Away from midline
Anterior Toward the front
Posterior Toward the back
Superior Above, higher, or toward the head
Inferior Below, lower, or toward the feet
Proximal Closer to the attachment, origin, or trunk
Distal Farther from the attachment, origin, or trunk
Superficial External or toward the surface
Deep Internal or away from the surface

Summing up

If we put all of this together, we arrive at the figure below showing a woman standing in the anatomical position overlaid with a directional map.

A picture of the same body in an anatomical position and sideways. The directional terms are shown.

You may not remember all of the terms we have discussed in this section. Still, it is good to know about the vocabulary used to describe the body. You can always refer back to this post for reference.

Looking for a textbook on anatomy? We can recommend these:

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Motion Capture: The Art of Studying Human Activity

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