Anatomical Movements

In This Blog:
- Contract & Relax
- Flexion & Extension
- Abduction & Adduction
- Elevation & Depression
- Protraction & Retraction
- Internal & External Rotation
- Pronation & Supination
- Dorsiflexion & Plantarflexion
- Eversion & Inversion
- Circumduction

Movements usually come in pairs, what goes up must come down after all. Here we’re going to go through some of the most common movements such as Flexion and Extension, and some less common, like Inversion and Eversion. Do you need to know about Inversion and Eversion? No, not really… but tough... you’re going to find out anyway.

As we saw in the Anatomical Directions blog, it’s not enough to just say you’re moving your arm “up”, or “out”, we need terms which are universal and define a movement no matter which way round you are!

Contract & Relax

We could do a whole blog post on how muscles Contract and Relax (maybe one day we will!) but a basic definition is:
Contract: When a muscle shortens
Relax: When a muscle lengthens

Many muscles work in pairs, and when one contracts, the paired muscle relaxes and vice versa. For example, when you contract your biceps to bend your elbow, your triceps relaxes.

When you want to straighten your arm again, your triceps contracts and your biceps relaxes.
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Flexion & Extension

Flexion & Extension are even more interesting than you’d think! You can read more about them in this more detailed post.

These two common terms crop up everywhere in training programs. Even the gym-bro call to “FLEX!” is just short for Flexion, but, these terms actually refer to your bones rather than your muscles.

Flexion: Closing a joint (decreasing the angle between two bones)
Extension: Opening a joint (increasing the angle between two bones)

How to Remember
As a really easy way to remember which one’s which, you can often just replace “flexing” with “bending” e.g. bending your elbow is flexing your elbow. Then extension is straightening, which you can relate to extending something, or making it longer/bigger.

Some examples:

your bicep
Bend your elbow (by contracting your biceps)

Lumbar Flexion
Rounding your lower back, closing the vertebrae anteriorly.

Thoracic Extension
Opening your thoracic spine.

Extend your hips!
Open your hip joint. Classic cue in exercises from Couch Stretch to Snatch!


Abduction & Adduction

For these guys to make sense, we need to think back to the Anatomical Position (the “default” position of the body which movements are defined by). Imagine there’s a line going straight down from the top of the head, finishing directly between the feet, this is called the Midline.

Abduction: Moving away from the midline
Adduction: Moving towards the midline

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How to remember

These words are so similar (just 1 letter different!) so I’ll just tell you how I remember then, and hopefully it helps. We’re going to use leg movement to help us and then apply what we remember to the rest of the body.

To adduct your leg (move it in, towards the midline), you use the adducting muscles on your inner thigh, which are called actually Adductors. So you can apply this knowledge to thre rest of your body, anything that adducts moves inwards toward your body.

But! The genius comes in with the abductors which I heard from a brilliant YouTube video by Corporis:

Abduction you're limb is being abducted by aliens! Being lifted away from your body!

Your leg abductor muscles are also lateral, higher up your body, closer to your abs, so the abductors move laterally - away from your body.

Once you remember that, you know that Abducting is the same outwardly direction anywhere on the body.
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Some examples

Adductor Brevis, Adductor Longus, Adductor Magnus
Three muscles on the inner thigh which help move your leg inwards – toward your midline.

A skater can increase their spinning speed by adducting their arms
A skater can increase their spinning speed by bringing their arms towards their midline.

Lateral Raises involve abducting your arms
Lateral raises involve lifting your arms away from your midline

Monster walks are a great abduction exercise
Monster walks involve moving your legs away from your midline under resistance.


Elevation & Depression

Elevation and Depression are quite unique movements that only really occur in the shoulders and jaw, but, still important to know!

Elevation: Lifting/moving upwards
Depression: Dropping/moving downwards

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How to Remember

These two are fairly easy as they’re words which are commonly used in everyday vocabulary. When you elevate something, you lift it up or increase it in some way, such as elevating your heartrate. Then you can say that when you depress a button, you are pushing it down.

Some examples

You shrug by elevating your shoulders.
You shrug by lifting your shoulders up.

Engage your lats by depressing your shoulders.
You engage your lats by dropping your shoulders down. 

Active-Passing Hangs involve shoulder elevation & depression.
Active-Passive hangs involve moving your shoulders up & down.


Protraction & Retraction

Again, this is a strange pair of movements that only occur in the jaw or shoulders.

Protraction: Moving Forwards & Out
Retraction: Moving Backwards & In

Referring just to the shoulders, you could also describe these movements as Anterolateral & Posteromedial movements of the scapula (remember these terms from this blog?)

Anterior = Forward, Lateral = Outwards… Anterolateral = Forwards & Out
Posterior = Back, Medial = Inwards… Posteromedial = Backwards & In

But I think Protraction and Retraction are easier…

How to Remember:
As I’m quite lazy, I often only remember one of a movement pair, and then you automatically know what the other is.

In this instance, I find it easier to remember Retraction (pulling your shoulders blades back and together) because it’s a word we use outside of anatomy, when you retract something, e.g. retract a statement, you pull it back. Then Protraction is just the opposite!


Some examples

Shoulder Protraction
Shoulder blades are forward & outwards on your back, often called “rounded shoulders”.

 Shoulder Retraction
Shoulder blades are backward & inwards on your back, often called “pinching your shoulder blades”.


Internal & External Rotation (Medial and Lateral Rotation)

Internal & External Rotation can also be called Medial and Lateral rotation. As you might remember from this blog, anything medial is towards the midline and anything lateral is away from the midline. But, Internal & External Rotation are more generally used by us common folk.

Internal Rotation: Rotating in, towards the midline.
External Rotation: Rotating out, away from the midline.

How to Remember
As these are two familiar words (where internal means anything inside and external means anything outside) it’s quite easy to remember that internal rotation rotates inward, and that external rotation rotates outward!

Some Examples

Internally Rotate your arms as you hold the barbell.
Rotate your arms inwards as you hold the barbell.

Check your hip Internal & External Rotation with the 90/90 position.
Check how well your hips rotate inwards and outwards with the 90/90 position.

Externally Rotate your shoulders to improve your posture
Move your shoulders out, away from your midline to improve your posture.

Pronation & Supination

Pronation & Supination should be fairly superfluous, as they only really occur in two locations that affect our training & movement: forearms & feet.. and yet they do seem to pop up fairly frequently. If you’re a runner you may have heard the terms “pronate” and “supinate” a lot – especially when someone is trying to sell you running shoes. So, let’s clear up what they both mean:

Pronation: To rotate in/down
Supination: To rotate out/up
Movements-Forearm-Prone.jpg 92.24 KB

If you’ve just read about internal and external rotation above, then you might be a bit confused why we now have two ways to define rotating in & out. It comes down to nuance: Internal & External Rotation are relative to the midline; you can think that pronation and supination are relative to the floor. Easy when referring to the feet, but for this to work for the forearm, always imagine your elbow is bent at 90 degrees so the forearm is parallel to the floor.

Movements-Foot-Supinate.jpg 130.71 KB

When your foot pronates it “rolls” in and down towards the floor, similarly if you had your elbow bent at 90 degrees and you pronate your forearm, your palm “rolls” in and down towards the floor. Then when you supinate, you’re rolling your foot or palm up away from the floor!

How to remember
You may remember prone and supine from our Anatomical Position blog, where prone is lying on your front and supine is lying on your back.

When your forearm is parallel to the ground, and the back of your hand faces the ground it’s supine = your forearm is supinated. Therefore, when the palm (front) of your hand faces the ground, it’s prone = pronated.

Or, another way to remember, is that Supinated has the word “up” in it. Thinking only about the palm, when your palm is facing “up” your forearm is supinated!


Some Examples

Pull Ups use a Pronated Grip.
Pull ups use a grip where your forearm is rotated in (or down if your forearm was parallel to the floor). Palms face away from you.

Chin Ups use a Supinated Grip.
Chin ups use a grip where your forearm is rotated out (or up if your forearm was parallel to the floor). Palms face towards you.

People with flat feet often have pronated feet
People with flat feet often have feet/ankles rolling in/down. 

People with high arches often have supinated feet
People with flat feet often have feet/ankles rolling out/up.


Dorsiflexion & Plantarflexion

Don’t get me started on why these two opposite movements are both called “-flexion”, you can read a little bit more about my confusion at the end of this blog. This movement pair is exclusive to the ankles:

Dorsiflexion: The top of the foot moving towards your shin/shin moves towards the top of your foot

Plantarflexion: The top of your foot moves away from your shin and toes point towards the floor

You can remember plantarflexion is pointed toes – they both start with the letter ‘p’! Then… dorsiflexion is the opposite!

Some examples

Gymnasts and dancers have great plantarflexion
Gymnastics and dancers can point their foot/toes really well.

Poor dorsiflexion will hinder your squat
Inability to bring your shin towards the top of your foot will hinder your squat


Eversion & Inversion

Oh boy, we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel now. I almost didn’t want to include this pair because it seems they’re contentious even amongst medical professionals. On the surface, they’re the same as Pronation & Supination of the feet, but I’ll try to explain why they’re not:

Eversion: Tilting the sole of your foot to face outwards (laterally)
Inversion: Tilting the sole of your foot to face inwards (medially)

So, eversion looks incredibly like pronation and inversion looks like supination… and they are, except, pronation & supination refer to a more global movement of your foot & ankle, which includes eversion & inversion.


Pronation = Eversion + Abduction + Dorsiflexion

Supination = Inversion + Adduction + Plantarflexion

Inversion & Eversion are often confined just to the movement of the Subtalar Joint and occurs only in the frontal plane, and pronation & supination are triplanar.
Phew, glad we cleared that up.


How to Remember

Inversion is pointing the sole of your foot in, and Eversion is pointing the sole of your foot evout.. oh... just remember Inversion is in, and Eversion is the opposite!

Some examples

An inversion injury.
You “rolled your ankle” when the sole of your foot tilted inwards.

I’m sorry I can’t think of an example for eversion… when you press the inside of your foot into the ground and lift the outside, you’re everting! It’s the best you’re gonna get.



Finally, one of the most fun movements, you can’t be sad when you’re circumducting! Do you remember what proximal and distal mean? That’ll be handy for this one. For a quick recap, proximal is the end of a limb that’s closest to the torso and distal is furthest away, e.g. your shoulder is proximal and your hand is distal.

Circumduction: Rotation of a limb where the proximal end is staying still, and the distal end is rotating.

Technically, it is a mix of adduction/abduction, flexion/extension and rotation, but having 1 word is much neater. Only your arms, legs, fingers & thumbs can circumduct, i.e. you can make circles with your foot, hand, fingertips & thumb tip (though technically Circumduction isn't circle, it's a conical rotation because one end is mostly stationary).

Some examples

There aren’t really any sentences or exercises I can think of that this will come up in, but any time you make circles with a limb you can say that your circumducting, just to sound smart.


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