Every week I meet many people trying to improve their knowledge and understanding; both newly qualified individuals hoping to move into the fitness industry and the already well established. I too am an avid learner and permanent student so every few years I upgrade or retake many of my qualifications to stay sharp and keep up to date with what those new to the business are experiencing. 

Often those studying to be a gym instructor, a personal trainer, sports therapist or those trying to do their level 3 anatomy are confronted with the anatomy chart. They will find themselves staring somewhat blankly at it, desperately trying to memorise all the new body parts they have just been exposed to. 

This is painfully tedious and an inefficient way to learn. It reminds me when I was at school and we had to recite our times-tables in a sort of monotone group chant. I didn’t actually know why we were learning it or how to apply it and I forget them all as soon as I stopped practicing.

I tried to come up with ways to work them out, such as using my fingers or counting up in multiples but was told this was cheating. Fast forward to the present day and aspiring fitness professionals are doing the same thing with their anatomy and physiology (A&P).

Firstly I think it is wrong that we are often only taught what we will be tested on. Learning the bare minimum leaves too many gaps in our knowledge. Because we do not fully understand what is being taught we resort to learning by rote.

Maybe the courses and text books feel ‘a scholar made is a soldier lost’, i.e. requiring proper understanding would deter all but the most committed learners and the majority of those seeking such a career would give up long before they got their hands on a client. I believe the risk is worth it and all students should be required to understand their subject. Granted, the oversimplified training advice would go and we would be held to account for our naive exercise prescriptions or artless clinical assessments. But we would also eliminate the voids in our knowledge. We would be taught to understand instead of being made to memorise. 

Only bringing students to this superficial juncture does them a huge disservice – it undermines their future education. Such shaky foundations are ill-suited to support advanced learning – without a grasp of the fundamentals, building on the information they have been given makes future learning difficult. The incorrect information students have been fed must be replaced.

Much of the existing course material and teaching is perfectly adequate, and easily accessible and so it doesn’t need repeating. Instead this short series goes deeper and slightly beyond what is normally taught, but only where I think it will improve learning or understanding. 

The language in anatomy seems needlessly elaborate, but is necessary. It provides a standard and helps avoid confusion (once past what it initially causes!). Once you realise things are mostly named by shape, size, location or action, it feels like a magician has just explained how their trick works.

First is the anatomical position. This is the pose typically used on anatomy charts and diagrams. 

anatomical position

The body is standing upright, feet parallel and hip distance apart and arms close to the sides with palms facing forward. This is the standard for describing where body parts are in relation to each other. Here are common anatomical terms which use the midline of the body or structure as a reference point.

Term Meaning
Anterior Front (of the body or structure)
Posterior Back (of the body or structure)
Medial Midline (of the body or structure)
Lateral Side (of body or structure)
Distal Further (from the body)
Proximal Nearer (to the body)
Superior Above (a structure)
Inferior Below (a structure)
Sub Underneath (a structure)

Sometimes these terms are jazzed up a bit-maybe you’ll hear ‘medius’ instead of medial or ‘supra’ and ‘infra’ instead of superior and inferior, but you’ll quickly learn spot these and others like it.

This anatomical position is used to describe people. With four legged animals anterior is replaced with ventral, posterior with dorsal, the head end is called cranial and the tail end caudal. It is worth mentioning here as these terms do occasionally sneak in when discussing humans. 

The anatomical position is our reference point when we discuss planes of movement. Confusingly and rarely explained is when describing planes of movement of the arms we use something called the ‘Fundamental position’. Essentially it is exactly the same as the anatomical position with one crucial difference, the palms will be assumed to be facing the sides of the body.

There are some subtle difference in a some planes of motion that get glossed over and can trip people up (literally). For example, technically when you roll onto the outside of your foot, you have supinated the foot but inverted the ankle. When you roll onto the inside of your foot your foot has pronated but the ankle has everted.

Also watch out for when the arm is abducted (lifted out to the sides). If it is directly out to the side then this indeed is abduction but if it is in line with the shoulder blades, it sneakily becomes ‘scaption’. 

In the next section I will be sharing what I have found to be the best way to learn the skeletal system and joints.