Anatomical Terminology

By Nanoxyde [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons, modified by Richard Munson

Anatomical Relationships

Assume for the moment that a person is standing at attention with the back straight. This is the standard model of the body and forms the basis for the following terms.

Superior (Cranial)Something is superior to another portion of the body if it is located further from the feet (or closer to the top of the head). The term Cranial is used in the same context
Inferior (Caudal)Something is inferior to another part of the body if it is located closer to the feet (or further from the top of the head). The term Caudal is a synonym.
Anterior (Ventral)One part of the body is anterior to another if it is closer to what you would normally consider the front of the body. Ventral has the same meaning.
Posterior (Dorsal) One part of the body is posterior to another if it is closer to what you would normally consider the back of the body. Dorsal is used in the same context.
MedialToward the middle. Toward the mother line. The medial side of the foot is the side with the big toe.
LateralAway from the middle. Away from the mother line. The little toe is on the lateral side of the foot.
Proximal Closer to the body. Nearest the mother line. The elbow is proximal to the hand.
DistalFurther from the body. Further from the mother line. The hand is distal to the elbow.
SuperficialCloser to the surface of the body. The ribs are superficial to the lungs.
DeepFurther from the surface of the body. The lungs are deep to the ribs.
PalmarToward or relating to the palm side of the hand.
DorsalToward or relating to the back of some portion of the anatomy. Commonly the back of the hand or top of the foot.
PlantarBottom surface of the feet.
VentralToward or relating to the front of some portion of the anatomy.

So using these definitions we can assert that the tip of your nose is anterior to your ears, regardless of the head position. We may also assert that your shoulders are superior to your hips, even if you are standing on your hands. Similarly, your knees are inferior to your hips, regardless of your body’s orientation.

These are relative terms and only have meaning when comparing the relative positions in the body of two different organs or structures.

Anatomical Movements

There are numerous anatomical terms related to body movements. You will encounter these movements quite often during your training.

FlexionFlexion occurs when a joint is bending. The elbow is in flexion if the hand is moving closer to the shoulder. When you make a fist the fingers are in flexion. The next moves forward in flexion. It can also move to the side in what is called lateral flexion.
ExtensionExtension occurs when a joint is opening. The elbow is moving in extension when the hand moves further from the shoulder. The knee is moving in extension as the foot moves toward the opponent during Mae Geri. The index finger has moved in extension when you point at something. The neck can straighten from lateral flexion via lateral extension.
PronationRotation of the hand and forearm causing the palm to turn upward and slightly backward. Rotation of the hand causing the thumb to move toward the lateral side of the body.
SupinationRotation of the hand and forearm causing the palm to turn downward and slightly forward. Rotation of the hand to cause the thumb to move toward the medial side of the body.

Movement of a limb away from the mid-line of the body. Moving a limb away from the mother line. If your arms rest at your sides and you then raise them up toward your shoulders the arms are moving in abduction.
AdductionMovement of a limb in the direction of the mid-line of the body. Moving your raised arms down to your sides is the process of moving the arms in adduction.
OppositionOpposition is the process of moving the thumb toward one or more of the fingers of the same hand.
RepositionReposition is the process of moving the thumb away from one or more other fingers so that it moves back toward its natural position at the side of the hand.
CircumductionRotation of a body part in a circular manner. This describes a situation where on part of the anatomy remains relatively fixed in position while another rotates around that fixed position. If your shoulder joint remains fixed but you rotate your entire arm in a circular manner then the arm is moving in circumduction.
RotationMovement of a vertical component about a pivot point. The humerus rotates within the shoulder joint. The neck rotates when you turn your head left or right. Rotation that moves an anterior surface toward the center of the body is referred to as medial rotation (or sometimes internal rotation). Rotation that moves an anterior surface away from the center of the body is referred to as lateral rotation (or sometimes exterior rotation).
DorsiflexionDorsiflexion is movement of the ankle joint. Bending the ankle so the toes move toward the shin is dorsiflexion. Dorsiflexion is commonly used during Yoko Kekomi Geri so that the toes move back and the heel is projected into the target.
Plantar FlexionPlantar flexion is movement of the ankle joint such the toes extend forward and away from the shin. This is the movement you would use during Mae Geri to project the ball of the foot forward and into the target.
InversionInversion is a rotation of the foot so that the bottom of the foot moves toward the mid-line. This is the foot position used in Deashi Barai Nage to sweep the opponent's foot.
EversionEversion is the opposing movement to Inversion. The bottom of the foot moves toward the lateral side of the body. This movement is very limited in its range; the foot can seldom move very far in the lateral direction. Therefore, eversion is often simply the movement that occurs following a prior Inversion so that the foot returns to is normal position.
ProtractionThis is a movement of the mandible or scapula the anterior direction. The scapula moves both anteriorly and laterally during protraction.
RetractionRetraction is posterior movement of the mandible or scapula. The scapula moves move posteriorly and medially during retraction.
DepressionDepression is the downward movement of either the mandible or scapula. Your mandible will move in depression if you yell. Depression is the return movement of the scapula following a shoulder shrug.
ElevationThis involves an upward movement of the mandible or scapula. Elevation is involved in shrugging the shoulders and biting something.
Superior RotationThis is rotation of the scapula such that the inferior angle (bottom) of the scapula moves both laterally and superiorly. The medial border of the scapula rotates in an inferior direction. This is the movement of the scapula that occurs when your raise your hands over your head.
Inferior RotationInferior rotation is rotation in opposition to superior rotation. The scapula rotates such that the inferior angle of the scapula moves inferiorly and medially.
ExcursionExcursion is movement of mandible from side to side. Lateral excursion moves the mandible away from the mid-line (center line) to either the left or right side. Medial excursion moves the mandible toward the body's mid-line (center line).

The following image may provide some additional clarification for some of these movements.

By Tonye Ogele CNX [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Additional Terms and Considerations

When counting similar body parts (for example ribs and vertebrae) the most superior part is number one. Each additional part, moving inferiorly, is given the next sequential number.

Another term that cannot be avoided when speaking about the skeletal system is “articulation”. When two bones meet and form a joint they “articulate” with one another.

When discussing the relationship between the skeletal and muscular systems you will often find two common terms. The first term, ‘origin’, refers to where a muscle connects to one or more bones. Origins are usually larger area attachments that may occupy a substantial area on a bone surface. The term ‘insertion’ refers to the place where (typically the opposite end of the muscle) connects to (commonly) another bone. For example, the triceps originate on both the scapula and the humerus. The muscle inserts via a large tendon on the ulna of the forearm. The triceps are essentially ‘rooted’ at the scapula and humerus by the large surface area attachments. When the triceps contract the ulna is the most easily moved portion of the anatomy and the elbow pulls into extension.

Two other terms that are applicable to most areas of the body include innervated and vascular. An organ is highly innervated if it contains a high concentration of nerves.  Something is non-innervated if it contains no nerves at all. Something is vascular if it contains blood vessels (normally arteries, capillaries, and veins). Tissue is highly vascular if it has an ample blood supply.

There are also several prefixes and suffixes used in anatomical descriptions. These include:

  • ad – a suffix indicating something is found in some direction relative to another structure. ‘Distad of the elbow’ would mean some portion of the anatomy distal to the elbow.
  • Hypo – a prefix indicating some body part is below something else. Hypodermal would indicate something is found below the skin.
  • Infra – a prefix meaning below
  • Inter – a prefix meaning something resides between two other structures
  • Sub – a prefix meaning something is below another structure. It may also mean something is almost or approaching some other state of condition.
  • Super (Supra) – a prefix meaning some body part resides above or on top of something else.

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