Terminology And Description Of Human Movement Biology Essay

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If you have ever gone to the doctor's with an injured joint or muscle, you will notice that doctors use a special terminology. When referring to the patient, for example, they might report "limited range of motion" or "patient cannot flex forcefully" or "subject reports pain during abduction of the humerus." This scientific or medical type terminology has been developed over 100's of years to allow very precise and concise description of movement of human body parts. When used correctly it allows one to totally understand a movement pattern without actually being able to see it, but more importantly, it allows for correct describing of human movement. This same terminology is also used in the field of exercise science and kinesiology to describe the movements in sports, games and injuries. In this chapter we will take a detailed look at the language and terms used in human movement terminology.

As we aforementioned, this specific terminology is also used in the exercise science field and throughout all healthcare professions. This specific terminology, also called nomenclature, may sound a little technical, but it helps ensure that we know exactly what someone means and there is little room for discrepancy. For example, one could say the soccer player was swinging her leg. By this we could mean swinging front to back or side to side whereas if we say flexion and extension of the femur we would realize this meant swinging from front to back. There is a comprehensive list of movement terminology that basically allows us to describe every movement in our body and we even have specific terms that are used only with particular body parts. For example, our feet and hands have specific terminology such as plantar flexion and ulnar deviation. We will look at this terminology in detail to allow us to be able to fully describe the vast majority of basic human movements. However before we consider the details of specific movement terminology let us look at some related motion terminology.

Forms of Motion

Virtually all human movements are a combination of movements occurring in different directions. In the next section we will see that these directions are actually referred to as planes and there are three cardinal planes, namely, sagittal, frontal, and transverse. Our movements are in fact quite complex since we have multiple actions contributing to any movement. In other words, we rarely perform an isolated movement with one limb that is confined to a particular plane. Our movements also involve both 'straight' and 'rotational' movements which we refer to as linear and angular motion. Thus our movements combine both linear and angular motion components. Both linear and angular are "pure" forms of motion in their isolated state but most of our movements are not isolated. Therefore, since our movements require multiple joints and limbs to act together we also refer to a combination term as general movement.

The basic definition for linear motion is "motion along a straight line or a curved line with all body parts moving in the same direction at the same speed." If you think about this you'll realize this would be quite difficult because when a human runs, their arms and legs are swinging back and forth and the trunk simply moves forward. Therefore, we use some other terms to describe motion.

Rectilinear: motion a long a straight line. Imagine a skater gliding on the ice. All body parts are moving at same speed through same range of motion.

Curvilinear: motion along a curved line. Imagine the flight path of a javelin after release.

Angular: motion involving rotation around a fixed point. This is actually the type of motion that most of our limbs go through as we move. The difference between angular and curvilinear is that with angular motion any point on the rotating body is always the same distance from the axis of rotation.

General: this is a combination motion involving any two or more of the above types of motion.

Review Questions: Types of motion

1. Provide a one-word definition and provide two examples of the following (try to use different example from those previously used, or that I gave you):

a. Motion along a straight line:

b. Motion around a central/fixed point:

c. A complex combination of linear and angular motion:

d. Motion along a varied path:

2. Fit the following into motion categories:

a. A skimming stone on the lake: Curvilinear

b. A javelin throw (be careful): Curvilinear

c. Skater gliding on the ice: Rectilinear

d. A car accelerating on the highway: Rectilinear

e. A car decelerating on the highway: Rectilinear

f. A plane taking off: Curvilinear

g. A 10M platform dive: General

h. A soccer kick: Angular

3. In your own words provide a definition for each type of motion we discussed.

Basic Terminology

In order to correctly describe a movement pattern and end up in a specific position, there needs to be an agreed upon starting position for all basic movements. This agreed upon starting position is referred to as the Anatomical Reference Position.

Anatomical Reference Position (AP)

This AP is an erect (upright) standing position with feet about shoulder width apart and the palms of the hand facing forward. All body parts are facing forward in the AP position (Please see figure 1.)

If you assume this standing position you will notice it is not a natural, relaxed standing position as you must turn your palms outwards. You will notice that you palms naturally want to turn inwards towards your thighs. If you stand in this position with your hands forward it is referred to as the "fundamental standing position." It is essentially the same as the anatomical reference position except the palms face inwards. (See figure 2.) When our bodies are in the anatomical reference position, we consider our joints and body parts to be in the neutral or zero degrees position. Therefore, any movement from this AP constitutes a rotation around some joint. The movement away from the AP is then classified or named appropriately. All of the motion that occurs will occur in one (or a combination) of the planes of motion we described earlier in the chapter, i.e., sagittal, frontal, or transverse. Therefore, we can learn body movements according to the plane of motion in which they occur. For example, any extension movement usually occurs in the sagittal plane, abduction or adduction movements occur in the frontal plane and rotational movements occur in the transverse plane. There are numerous types of movement. Let's take a look at these movements according to the plane in which they occur and then we can look at some movements with unique terms due to their particular association with a specific joint.

Cardinal Reference Planes

Now that we have an agreed starting position we need to look at dividing the body into sections or segments. Some of these segments, such as upper and lower body, will be reviewed later in the chapter. We divide the body into segments so that we can more accurately describe the direction of movements or actions. In the human body we refer to these as cardinal reference planes. These planes are all imaginary lines. A plane is a two dimensional surface with orientation defined by spatial coordinates. Each plane has a corresponding axis around which movements in that plane take place. Having this arrangement allows us further clarity in describing movements.

There are three planes in the body that correspond to the three dimensions of space. The orientation is such that each plane is perpendicular to the other two. There is also a relationship between the intersection of these planes and the center of gravity of the body. Since each plane bisects the body, it therefore must pass through the center of gravity. Thus, the center of gravity is defined as that point where the three planes intersect each other. The line of gravity which is slightly different from the center of gravity is simply a vertical line that passes through the center of gravity.

Insert figure of planes. Note: All planes could be shown in same figure.

A plane is simply a flat surface that divides the body into two parts. All planes are also imaginary lines that divide the body.

The sagittal plane is an imaginary line that divides the body vertically into right and left halves of equal mass. This plane is also sometimes referred to as the anteroposterior plane. The imaginary line runs from the front (anterior) to the back (posterior) and also from the top (superior) to the bottom (inferior) of the body. (Please see figure 3.) If you can imagine cutting a bagel in half so you have two semi-circle halves, this would be a sagittal plane cut. Certain movement types, such as flexion and extension movements, are examples of movements occurring in the sagittal plane. These movement patterns will be discussed in more detail later.

Sagittal Plane Movements

Extension - a straightening movement resulting in an increased joint angle. Bones move apart.

Flexion - a bending movement that results in a decreased joint angle. Bones move closer together.

Hyperextension - a straightening movement where joint extends beyond starting or neutral position.

Unique Sagittal Plane Movements

Dorsi Flexion - flexion movement of the ankle where the top of the foot moves toward the anterior tibia.

Plantar Flexion - extension movement of the ankle where the toes move away from the body (pointing your toes).

The frontal plane divides the body vertically into front and back halves of equal mass. This plane is also sometimes referred to as the lateral or coronal plane and runs side to side dividing the body into anterior and posterior parts. (See figure 4.) If you can imagine slicing your bagel in half to put in the toaster you would make the cut along the frontal plane. Certain movement types, such as abduction and adduction movements, are examples of movements occurring in the frontal plane. These movement patterns will be discussed in more detail later.

Frontal Plane Movements


Abduction - movement away from the body

Adduction - movement towards the body

For example - performing a jumping back would require both of these movements


Lateral flexion of the trunk right/left

Radial/ulnar deviation (wrist)

Elevation/depression (scapula)

Inversion/eversion (subtalar - foot)

The transverse plane is the final plane and divides the body into top (superior) and bottom (inferior) halves of equal mass. It is sometimes referred to as the horizontal plane and runs from side to side and anterior to posterior. Most actions that involve rotation of the whole body (or part of it) occur in the transverse plane. For example, throwing a discus or executing a tennis serve are examples of movements in the transverse plane. Other specific movements also exist. Certain movement types, such as supination and pronation movements, are additional examples of movements occurring in the transverse plane. These movement patterns will be discussed in more detail later.

Transverse Plane Movements


Internal (medial) rotation

External (lateral) rotation


Right/left rotation (head, neck and trunk)

Supination/pronation (forearm and whole body)

Horizontal adduction/flexion (shoulder joint)

Horizontal abduction/extension (shoulder joint)

Note 1: All sagittal planes are perpendicular to all frontal planes which, in turn, are perpendicular to all transverse planes.

Note 2: One can make many sagittal plane, or frontal plane or transverse plane dissections through the body, but only those that dissect the center of gravity or the mid-point are referred to as cardinal planes.

Cardinal Axes

Any time a joint moves it moves in a particular plane or combination of planes. At the same time the joint in question is also rotating around an axis. The axis refers to the type of movement of the joint and is directly related to the plane of movement. So, the cardinal axes refer to lines that are perpendicular to a particular cardinal plane. Therefore a movement that occurs in a particular plane always occurs in the same axis, so it is a good idea to learn planes and axes in pairs.

The transverse axis is always associated with the sagittal plane. Imagine an axis running perpendicular to the sagtittal plane. It sometimes helps to visualize movements. For example, if someone were to perform a leg extension exercise, this movement would be in the sagittal plane. If you were to insert a bar through the knee and still allow the motion to occur it would have to be placed in the anteroposterior axis, in other words, inserted from the side. This would allow the perpendicular axis to be performed. (See figure ?.) Other terms used for this axis include lateral, medial, or somersault axis.

Using the same logic we can now determine the positioning of the axis for the frontal and transverse planes.

All frontal plane movements occur in the anteroposterior axis. (This is sometimes called the sagittal, or cartwheel axis.) Using our visual and a cartwheel, we can see the wheel rotates around an axis that would go through the belly somewhere from front to back. (See figure?)

All transverse plane movements occur in the longitudinal axis (or vertical or twist axis). This axis runs from top to bottom or the length of the body segment. Again using the visual of a figure skater doing a pirouette, the pirouette takes place in the transverse plane with a longitudinal axis. Therefore the axis runs through the body from top to bottom. (See figure?)

Try these practice problems

Planes of Motion

1. Identify three simple movements that occur predominantly in each of the following planes:

a: sagittal

b: frontal

c: transverse

2. Identify three different movement actions that occur in each axis:

a: transverse

b: anterioposterior

c: longitudinal

3. Give the names of the planes and axes in which the following motions occur!

a. Stepping up a step? - Sagittal, transverse axis.

b. Side step with the right leg? - Frontal, s anteroposterior axis.

c. Shaking your head "no"? - Transverse, longitudinal axis.

d. Straight sit-up? - Sagittal, transverse axis.

e. Side bending of the trunk? - Frontal, anteroposterior axis.

f. Cartwheel? - Frontal, anteroposterior axis.

g. Throwing a discus? - Transverse, longitudinal axis.

h. Throwing a dart? - Sagittal, transverse axis.

The Plane-Axis Relationship

So remember, if we learn our planes and axis in pairs we will easily remember that:

All sagittal plane movements occur in the transverse axis!

All frontal plane movements occur in the anteroposterior axis!

All transverse plane movements occur in the longitudinal axis!

This consistent relationship between planes and axis allows you to remember planes and axis more easily. If you can identify either the plane or the axis for a particular movement then you will automatically have figured out the other (provided you remember the pairing). For example, if one evaluates the movement plane and axis of the bicep curl you might easily determine that the movement plane is sagittal. If you identify this correctly then the axis of rotation is automatically the transverse axis.

Movement Plane  automatic  Axis of rotation

Sagittal Transverse

Frontal Anteroposterior

Transverse Longitudinal

An additional way to help identify planes and axis is to remember that certain anatomical movements are usually associated with a corresponding plane and axis. For example, flexion and extension movements occur in the sagittal plane around the transverse axis. Abduction and adduction occur in the frontal plane around the anteroposterior axis and finally, rotational movements like pronation and supination occur in the transverse plan around the longitudinal axis. We will look more specifically at these movement actions in the next section.

Basic Movement Pattern Terminology

In each of the three planes several distinct movement patterns occur. However, what is lacking in these descriptive terms is any reference to direction. In other words, if someone performs arm flexion, we don't really know the direction. For that reason we have numerous other terms that we refer to as "anatomical directional terminology" that provide us with more detailed information about the orientation of a particular movement. These terms have clear cut "word root" origins. If you can learn these "word root" meanings, you will be able to piece together the meanings for most of these terms. There are some unique terms like ventral (relating specifically to the belly or abdomen) which you'll just have to learn. The list below contains the relevant terms you you learn.

Anatomical Directional Terminology I

Can you fill in the meaning of each term?

Anterior: Front

Anteroinferior: Front below

Anterolateral: Front side

Anteromedial: Front middle

Anteroposterior / Anterosuperior: Front rear/ front top

Contralateral: Opposite side

Distal: Away from origin

Dorsal: Back

Inferior: (infra) Below

Ipsilateral: Same side

Lateral: side

Medial: Midline

Posterior: behind

Posteroinferior: / Posterolateral: Behind below/ behind beside

Posteromedial: / Posterosuperior: Behind inside/ behind upper

Prone: Face down

Proximal: Near origin

Superior: Above

Supine: Face up

Ventral: Relating to the belly or abdomen (can also be use mean 'deep').

Anatomical Directional Terminology II

Below are some other terms that fall into a general category.

Protraction: forward movement of the shoulder girdle away from the spine.

Retraction: backward movement of the shoulder girdle away from the spine.

Horizontal abduction: movement of the humerus in the horizontal plane away from the midline.

Horizontal adduction: movement of the humerus in the horizontal plane towards the midline

Opposition of the thumb: diagonal movement of the thumb across the palmar surface.

Upward rotation: Superior movement of the shoulders.

Lateral flexion: sideways bending.

Hyperextension: Extension beyond normal resting position.

Cervical rotation: turning your head left or right.

Plane specific movements

Sagittal plane movements

Dorsiflexion: bringing the top of your foot towards your lower leg.

Plantarflexion: extending or planting your foot (pointing your toes away from you).

Frontal plane movements

Elevation: moving your shoulder girdle (blades) upwards/superior.

Depression: moving your girdles downwards/inferior.

Eversion: rotating the sole of your foot outwards.

Inversion: rotating the sole of your foot inwards.

Radial deviation: rotating your hand at the wrist towards your thumb (like hitchhiking).

Transverse plane movements

Supination: outward rotation of the forearm so palm faces outwards or upwards.

Pronation: opposite of supination where forearm rotates so palm faces downward or inwards.

Ulnar deviation: rotating your hand towards your ulna (opposite of radial deviation).

Whole body Movement Terminology

In this category we can consider other terms that apply more generally.

Circumduction: circular movement of a body segment. Circumduction involves flexion, extension, abduction and adduction.

Reduction: a return to the normal resting position.

Review Problems: Directional terminology

1. What is the term when one stands erect with palms facing outward? Anatomical reference position

From this position what do you call the movement when you:-

2. Bend your elbow from a fully straight to a 90o bent position? Elbow flexion

3. Maintain the 90o elbow bent position, but turn your palm down? Pronation

4. Maintain the 90o elbow bent position, but turn your palm up? Supination

5. Maintain the 90o elbow bent position, keep your elbow touching your side, turn your arm out so your fingers are pointing directly away from your side? External/ lateral (outward) rotation

6. Maintain the 90o elbow bent position, keep your elbow touching your side, and turn your arm back so that your fingers are pointing directly forward? Internal/ medial (inward) rotation

7. Straighten your elbow? Extension

8. Move your arm laterally away from your side until it is parallel to the floor? Abduction

9. Move your arm back down to your side? Adduction

10. Turn your head to the right?

11. Bend forward at the waist?

12. Return to starting position?

Review questions: Synonyms

Give the synonyms that are used for ankle, spine, and wrist movements in the following list. Also describe using the rule of three and identify the primary cardinal axis!


1. Dorsiflexion? Foot flexion

2. Plantarflexion? Foot extension


3. Flexion? Bending forward

4. Extension? Standing up

5. Lateral flexion?Bending to side


6. Radial deviation? Lateral deviation

7. Ulnar deviation? Medial deviation

8. Can you think of any other anatomical movement synonyms?

The Rule of Three: Motion - Bone - Joint

The rule of three is a simple anatomical guideline for describing a movement pattern. It allows us to describe a movement in a specific order sequence to allow accurate movement. In the rule of three we refer to the movement type first, for example, flexion or extension. Secondly, we refer to the bone that moves. Thirdly, we refer to the joint around which the action occurs. Hence, we refer to the movement in this sequenced order, i.e., movement  bone  joint. Using this approach really helps with the clarification of particular movement. Look at this example. If you asked your friend to extend their leg they could actually do a couple of things and still extend their leg. They could:

Lift their entire leg straight out in front.

Push their entire leg straight back.

Sit on a chair and straighten out the lower leg.

So you see there are several options and it can become confusing. If we use the rule of three we can give very specific instructions. For this movement sequence we would actualy say, "Extend your (right) leg at the knee," which would require they perform a knee extension action described in #3 above. This way there is no lack of clarity around which movement is needed.

You try the following:

Let's use the data from above again. Describe the following movements using the rule of three. The first one is done for you. Start in the AP position. It might be a good idea to briefly define the rule of three here first.

From this position how do you describe the movement when you:-

1. Bend your elbow from a fully straight to a 90o bent position? The correct answer is flexion of the forearm at the elbow not flexion of the elbow.

2. Maintain the 90o elbow bent position, but turn your palm down?

3. Maintain the 90o elbow bent position, but turn your palm up?

4. Maintain the 90o elbow bent position, keep your elbow touching your side, and turn your arm out so that your fingers are pointing directly away from your side?

5. Maintain the 90o elbow bent position, keep your elbow touching your side, and turn your arm back so that your fingers are pointing directly forward?

6. Straighten your elbow?

7. Move your arm laterally away from your side until it is parallel to the floor?

8. Move your arm back down to your side?

9. Turn your head to the right?

10. Bend forward at the waist?

11. Return to starting position?


In this chapter we have reviewed planes of motions, axis of rotations, the rule of three and some basic anatomical reference terminology. We have also learned that when describing movements we assume a universal starting position that is referred to as the anatomical reference position where one stands erect with hand by one's a side and palms facing inwards. Humans move in one, or a combination of three planes of movement and they are the sagittal, frontal, or transverse planes. Each movement in these planes is associated with the same axis of rotation, either transverse, anteroposterior, or longitudinal. There is a plane-axis relationship whereby each plane of motion is always associated with the same axis of rotation and this allows us to remember the planes and axis more easily. When we describe human movement we also use what is called the rule of three. In the rule of three we describe movement using the sequence of bone, movement, and joint. Using this approach a bicep curl would be 'flexion of the forearm and the elbow'. Using this basic language and the above guidelines we can ore accurately describe human movements.

You will notice that there is often more than one term to describe a particular movement. Over the years different terminology has evolved and it is wise to learn the different terms that imply the same thing. For example, external rotation is the same as lateral rotation. In this text we provide you with the most accurate terms first but we will provide the alternative terminology where appropriate.