In this anatomy lesson, I’m going to cover all of the major body movement terms for anatomy (also called the planes of motion) that can occur at the synovial joints. You’ll come across these in your anatomy or kinesiology courses, and if you pursue a career in healthcare, you’ll use these terms during documentation or patient assessments.
After you review these notes and the corresponding video, you can take a comprehensive quiz on anatomy body movement terms.
Categories of Body Movement Terms in Anatomy
There are four major categories of body movements that can occur at the synovial joints:
- Gliding movement
- Angular movements
- Rotational movements
- Special movements
Gliding Movement in Anatomy
What is gliding? Gliding occurs when the surfaces of bones slide past one another in a linear direction, but without significant rotary or angular movement.
An example of this movement is moving your hand back and forth (left to right) in a waving motion, which causes gliding to occur at the joints of the carpals (wrist bones). When you move your hand back and forth in a waving motion, it can help you remember that gliding joint movements primarily take place in the carpals of the wrist and the tarsals of the ankle.
However, gliding can also occur in the other plane joints (also called planar joints) of the body. Just as airplanes glide through the air, the plane joints of the body allow a gliding motion.
Other plane joints that allow gliding include the sacroiliac joint of the pelvis, the acromioclavicular joint of the shoulder, the femoropatellar joint, tibiofibular joint, sternocostal joints for ribs 2-7, vertebrocostal joints, and the intervertebral joints of the spine (at the articular processes).
Angular Movements in Anatomy
The next category of body movement terms consists of the angular movements, which consist of the following movements:
Flexion and Extension in Anatomy
Because flexion and extension are angular movements, I find it really helpful to visualize an angle during the actual movement. Flexion decreases the angle between two structures or joints as they bend or move closer together, whereas extension increases the angle between them as they straighten and move apart.
Elbow Flexion and Extension
Elbow flexion (also called forearm flexion) occurs when the angle between the forearm and arm decreases, allowing the ulna of the forearm to move closer to the humerus bone of the arm.
In contrast, elbow extension (forearm extension) occurs when the forearm moves away from the arm, increasing the angle between those bones.
Shoulder Flexion and Extension
Shoulder flexion, also called arm flexion, occurs when the angle at the humerus of the arm and the scapula decreases as the arms move anteriorly. In contrast, shoulder extension (or arm extension) occurs when the angle at the humerus of the arm and the scapula increases, causing the arm to move posteriorly. The joint here allows movement past the anatomical position. Some anatomists call arm movement beyond the anatomical position extension, whereas some call it hyperextension.
Wrist Flexion and Extension
Wrist flexion (also called hand flexion) occurs when the angle between the palm of the hand and the anterior surface of the forearm decreases, while wrist extension (or hand extension) is moving the palm of the hand away from the anterior surface of the forearm, hence the angle increases. This is another joint that can continue to move past the anatomical position in a posterior direction, which some anatomists call hyperextension.
Finger Flexion and Extension
Finger flexion occurs when the angle between the fingers and the palm decreases, as the fingers move toward the palm. When the angle between the fingers and the palm increases, finger extension occurs.
Flexion and extension also occur with the interphalangeal joints of the fingers (digits 2-5), including the distal interphalangeal joint (dip) and proximal interphalangeal joint (pip).
Thumb Flexion and Extension
The thumb (pollex) can confuse people because thumb flexion and extension occur in the frontal plane, which is a different direction than flexion of the fingers, which occurred in the sagittal plane. Thumb flexion moves the thumb toward the pinky finger, whereas extension moves the thumb away from the pinky finger. Think of your palm as a windshield and your thumb as the windshield wiper for this movement.
Flexion and extension can also occur at the interphalangeal joint of the thumb.
Hip Flexion and Extension
Hip flexion (or thigh flexion) occurs when the angle between the femur of the thigh and hipbone decreases as the thigh moves anteriorly (forward). Hip extension (thigh extension) occurs when the angle between the femur and the hip bone increases, as the hip joint straightens. This joint also allows posterior movement past the anatomical position, which some anatomists call hyperextension.
Knee Flexion and Extension
Knee flexion (leg flexion) occurs when the tibia bone moves toward the femur, causing the angle to decrease between those two structures. Knee extension (or leg extension) occurs as the angle between the leg bones increases, causing the leg to straighten.
Toe Flexion and Extension
Like the fingers, toe flexion and extension can also occur. Toe flexion involves bending the toes toward the sole of the foot, decreasing the angle between these two structures, while toe extension involves increasing the angle and straightening the toes.
Neck Flexion and Extension
Neck flexion occurs as the angle between the head and the trunk of the body decreases as those two structures move closer together, whereas neck extension occurs as the head moves away from the trunk of the body, thus increasing the angle. The neck is another structure that can continue posteriorly, beyond the anatomical position, which some anatomists call hyperextension of the neck.
Vertebral Column Flexion and Extension
Vertebral column flexion at the trunk, (spine flexion) occurs when the angle between the trunk and the hip joint decreases. Vertebral column (spine) extension at the trunk occurs as the spine straightens and the angle between the hip joint and spine increases.
By the way, you might have noticed that most of these movements so far are occurring within (or parallel to) the sagittal plane. However, just like the thumb, flexion can also occur in the frontal (coronal) plane for the vertebral column. For example, if you bend the spine to the left or right, that’s called lateral flexion, and movement back toward the anatomical position is called lateral extension.
Note: you might want to watch our other lecture if you are unfamiliar with the different body planes.
Finally, when extension of a structure moves beyond a certain point, anatomists call it hyperextension. However, anatomists differ on what constitutes hyperextension when it comes to body movement terms.
For example, some anatomists say that when the arm, neck, wrist, or thigh moves past the anatomical position in a posterior motion, it becomes hyperextension. Other anatomists only consider these movements hyperextension if the movement exceeds the normal range of motion permitted by the joint. For test-taking purposes, follow your anatomy teacher’s definition!
Abduction and Adduction in Anatomy
Unlike flexion and extension movements, which mostly take place within the sagittal plane, you’ll notice that abduction and adduction motions mostly take place within the frontal, or coronal, plane. However, the thumb is a notable exception to this rule, as it moves within the sagittal plane during abduction and adduction when in the anatomical position.
What is Abduction?
Abduction (think: ABDUCTion) is the movement of a structure away from its midline reference point. Let the name help you out. What does “abduct” mean? When you hear on the news that a man was abducted, you know it means that someone took him away. That’s exactly what’s going on with this movement. The structure is being moved away from its midline reference point.
What is Adduction?
Adduction (think: ADDuction) occurs as the structure is ADDED back toward its midline reference point.
Let’s take a look at examples of abduction and adduction on the body.
Arm Abduction and Adduction
During arm abduction (also called shoulder abduction), the arms move away from the body’s midline. During arm adduction (or shoulder adduction), you ADD them right back toward the midline.
Finger Abduction and Adduction
Finger abduction occurs when the fingers move away from the midline reference of the hand, whereas finger adduction occurs when you add them back toward the hand’s midline reference.
When the middle finger (3rd digit), which serves as the midline reference of the hand, deviates to the away from the body, it’s called lateral abduction. When it deviates toward the body, it’s called medial abduction.
Thumb Abduction and Adduction
The thumb (pollex) is different from the fingers. Abduction of the thumb has it moving within the sagittal plane, in an anterior motion. Adduction of the thumb has it added back to the hand.
Wrist Abduction and Adduction (Ulnar Deviation & Radial Deviation)
When determining abduction and adduction of the wrist, I find that it helps to stand in the anatomical position. Abduction of the wrist has it moving away from the body’s midline, in the same direction as arm abduction. Adduction of the wrist has it going in the opposite direction, toward the body’s midline.
These movements are also referred to as radial deviation and ulnar deviation. Remember, the radius is on the thumb side, which where you check the radial pulse. So radial deviation is movement on the radial side, whereas ulnar deviation occurs on the opposite side.
Thigh Abduction and Adduction
During thigh abduction (also called hip abduction or leg abduction), the lower limb moves away from the body’s midline. During adduction of the thigh, you ADD the lower limb right back toward the body’s midline.
Toes Abduction and Adduction
When the toes move away from the midline of the foot, toe abduction occurs. Toe adduction adds them right back together.
Just like with the hand, devation of the 2nd toe away from the body’s midline is called lateral abduction, whereas movement toward the midline is called medial abduction.
Circumduction in Anatomy
The final body movement term in this category is circumduction, which is an angular movement that blends the motions of flexion, abduction, extension, and adduction to create a circular or conical motion of the attached structure.
The word circumduction starts with the same letters as the word “circle,” so that will tip you off that this movement creates a circular, or conical, movement in the structure extending beyond the joint.
Circumduction Movement Demonstrated
Because circumduction is a combined movement, I find it helpful to think about the individual movements in slow motion. Looking at the shoulder joint, I’ll begin with arm flexion and then arm abduction. Next is arm extension, followed by arm adduction. When you combine those movements into one smooth motion, you can see how it forms a cone or circle.
The mnemonic “FABEA” might help you remember the order:
You could also reverse that order, but the movements have to alternate in a similar succession to create the circular motion that characterizes the circumduction movement.
Joints Capable of Circumduction
Where can circumduction occur on the body? Because it requires the motions of flexion, extension, abduction, and adduction, the joint will generally have to be capable of all four of those sequential movements. Below are examples of joints/structures that can perform the circumduction movement.
Circumduction of the Hip Joint (Thigh)
Circumduction of the Shoulder Joint (Arm)
Circumduction of the Wrist Joint (Hand)
Circumduction of the Thumb (Pollex)
Circumduction of the Fingers
Circumduction of the Toes
Circumduction of the Ankle Joint (Foot)
Circumduction of the Head
Rotation in Anatomy
The next category of the body planes of motion is rotation, which is a body movement term that describes a bone moving around a central axis.
Rotation Body Movement Term in Anatomy
When I think of the rotation body movement, I like to picture a screw turning to either the right or left, as that is similar to the rotation movement that can occur in the body.
Rotation can occur at the head/neck, vertebral column, and the ball-and-socket joints of the upper and lower limbs (shoulder joint and hip joint). Let’s take a look at these movements, starting with the head.
Head and Neck Rotation
The head can rotate laterally to either the left or right, thanks to the pivot joint between vertebrae C1 (atlas) and C2 (axis). Moving the head back toward the anatomical position is medial rotation of the head.
Arm Rotation (Medial and Lateral)
The ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder allows the humerus of the arm to rotate laterally, or away from the body’s midline, which is also called external rotation. It can also rotate medially, or toward the body’s midline, which is also called internal rotation.
Thigh/Leg Rotation (Medial and Lateral)
The ball-and-socket joint of the hip allows rotation of the thigh’s femur. Like the humerus, it can rotate laterally, or away from the body’s midline, which is also called external rotation. It can also rotate medially, or toward the body’s midline, creating an internal rotation movement.
Tip for Medial vs Lateral Limb Rotation
Be sure to focus on the anterior surface of the femur or humerus when you do this movement, because that’s the focal point for determining medial vs lateral rotation.
Special Body Movement Terms in Anatomy
The final category of body movement terms include the “special movements.” These movements don’t fall neatly into the categories I’ve already listed, so they are placed in their own unique category. The special movements involve the following:
- Supination and Pronation
- Dorsiflexion and Plantarflexion (also spelled plantar flexion)
- Inversion and Eversion
- Elevation and Depression
- Protraction and Retraction
- Protrusion, Retrusion, and Excursion
- Opposition and Reposition
Supination and Pronation
Supination and pronation are special movements involving rotation of the forearm.
Supination of Forearm and Hand
During supination, the distal end of the radius bone rotates over the ulna bone in a lateral direction. Lateral rotation means it is rotating away from the body’s midline.
I like to watch the thumb during this movement, because it is on the same side as the radius (hence, the radial pulse is located below the thumb). When the thumb is rotating away from the body’s midline, supination is occurring.
Pronation of Forearm and Hand
In contrast, pronation is the opposite movement: the distal end of the radius rotates over the ulna medially, and the two bones cross. Medial rotation is toward the body’s midline. So when the thumbs point toward the middle of the body, you know that pronation has occurred.
Palm Orientation During Supination and Pronation
You can also look at the orientation of the palms. During supination, the palms will face anteriorly (forward), which is their natural orientation in the anatomical position. However, if you flex the elbow about 90 degrees, the palms would then be facing up (superiorly).
Pronation has the palms facing the opposite direction: posteriorly (toward the back) when in the anatomical position, or down (inferiorly) when the elbow flexes to around 90 degrees. This is another reason why I like to look at the thumbs during this movement. Thumbs will point away from the body’s midline during supination, and toward the body during pronation, regardless of how the elbow is flexed.
Supination vs Pronation Mnemonic
Here’s a simple mnemonic (memory trick) to help you remember pronation vs supination special movements:
At the grocery store, you pronate to pick up your produce, and you supinate to eat it for supper.
Also, if you want to take your vitamins, you pronate to pour, and you supinate to take your supplements.
Plantarflexion and Dorsiflexion
In this continued series on body movements of anatomy, I’m going to demonstrate dorsiflexion and plantarflexion (or plantar flexion), which are special movements involving the foot and ankle joint.
Dorsiflexion vs Plantarflexion
To help you understand this special movement, let’s break down the words.
Dorsal Side of the Foot (Dorsum)
Dorsal refers to the back (or upper) side of something. In my video on body cavities and membranes, I used the example of a dorsal fin of a dolphin to help you remember that dorsal refers to the backside of a surface. Your toenails are on the dorsal side of the foot, because they are on the back (or upper) side of it.
Plantar Side of Foot (Sole)
In contrast, plantar refers to the sole (or bottom) of the foot. If you’ve ever had a plantar wart, then you’ve had a wart on the sole of your foot (ouch!).
Flexion refers to the movement that decreases the angle between two surfaces or joints, usually within the sagittal plane of the body. Now, let’s put all these words together, and you’ll be able to remember the difference between plantarflexion vs dorsiflexion.
During dorsiflexion, the back (upper) side of the foot moves toward the shin, decreasing the angle between these two surfaces, leaving the toes pointing closer toward your head. When you try to walk on your heels only, you dorsiflex the foot.
Plantar Flexion (Plantarflexion) Example
During plantar flexion, the sole of the foot angles downward toward the calf, decreasing the angle between those two surfaces, leaving the toes pointing farther away from the body. When you perform calf raises in the gym or walk on your tip toes, you plantar flex the foot. If you need help remember the direction of this movement, just remember this phrase: “Plantarflexion helps you stand on your toes and walk in any direction!”
Inversion and Eversion
Next, I’m going to demonstrate inversion and eversion, which are special movements that cause the foot to move relative to the body’s midline.
Inversion of the Foot
During inversion, the bottom of the foot (sole) turns so that it faces toward the body’s midline, in a medial orientation. Inversion starts with the word “in,” so that’s the dead giveaway that the sole is pointing inwardly (medially).
Eversion of the Foot
During eversion, the opposition motion occurs: the bottom of the foot turns so that it faces away from the body’s midline (laterally). The word “evert” literally means to “turn outward,” which is exactly what happens during eversion!
Elevation and Depression
Now lets’s examine elevation and depression, which are special body movement terms that describe motion in a superior (up) or inferior (down) direction.
Elevation in Anatomy
Elevation refers to movement of a body part in a superior direction, or moving upward. When you walk into a hotel lobby, you have to get on the elevator to go up, right? We’d also say that a mountain has a peak “elevation” of 20,000 feet. Therefore, the term is pretty self-explanatory: elevation has a structure moving up, or superiorly.
Depression in Anatomy
Depression refers to movement of a body part in an inferior direction, or moving downward. When you are depressed, you feel down in the dumps, right? Therefore, depression is easy to remember as movement in an inferior, or downward direction.
Elevation and Depression in Anatomy
In anatomy, elevation and depression most commonly describe movements of the mandible (lower jaw) or scapulae (shoulder blades) within the frontal plane. When you move your lower jaw (mandible) in a downward direction, depression occurs. When you move your mandible upward, elevation occurs.
Similarly, when you move your scapulae up, elevation of the shoulder girdle occurs. When you move them back down, depression of the shoulder girdle occurs.
Protraction and Retraction in Anatomy
Now let’s discuss protraction and retraction, which are special body movements in anatomy that most commonly involve the scapulae (shoulder blades).
Protraction moves the scapula forward (anteriorly) and toward the side of the body (laterally) in an anterolateral direction.
Retraction is the opposite movement. It causes the shoulder blades to move back (posteriorly) and toward the body’s midline (medially). This movement is known as a posteromedial movement.
Protraction and Retraction Mnemonic
Here’s a simple way to remember protraction and retraction body movements in anatomy:
- You Retract when you Reach Back!
- You Punch to Protract! In fact, the serratus anterior muscles assist with protraction of the scapulae, and they even call this muscle the boxer’s muscle for that very reason.
Protrusion, Retrusion, and Excursion in Anatomy
In this anatomy lesson, I’m going to demonstrate protrusion, retrusion, and excursion, which are special body movement terms in anatomy that refer to forward (anterior), backward (posterior), or side to side movements.
Protrusion in Anatomy
Protrusion refers to the movement of a structure in an anterior (forward) direction. In fact, the word protrude means “projecting something forward.”
I call protrusion the kissing movement because it occurs when you pucker your lips like you’re going to give someone a kiss or stick out your tongue. Moving the mandible (lower jaw) forward is also an example of protrusion.
Retrusion in Anatomy
Retrusion is the opposite of protrusion. It refers to the movement of a structure in a posterior, or backward, direction. Putting your tongue back in your mouth, moving the lips back, or moving the mandible back are all examples of retrusion in anatomy.
Excursion in Anatomy
Finally, we have excursion, which refers to the side-to-side movement of the lower jaw (mandible). If you’ve ever heard of a character named Ernest P. Worrell, then you’ve definitely seen the excursion movement. He’s the character in those movies such as Ernest Goes to Camp, Ernest Goes to Jail, etc. When Ernest saw something nasty, he’d move his jaw back and forth and say, “Ewwww.”
Excursion can occur in either direction, and anatomists use directional terms to specify the type of excursion. When the mandible moves to either the left or right, it’s moving away from the body’s midline, so it’s called lateral excursion. When the mandible moves closer to the midline of the body, it’s called medial excursion.
Protrusion and Retrusion vs Protraction and Retraction
What about protraction and retraction? Some anatomy textbooks will refer to the forward movement of the mandible, lips, or tongue as protraction (instead of protrusion), and the backward (posterior) movement will be called retraction (instead of retrusion). The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, so use whatever method your anatomy professor suggests (they give you the grade, not me!).
However, some anatomists today use protraction and retraction to refer almost exclusively to the scapulae, as it is a combined movement (protraction is anterolateral, and retraction is posteromedial). In contrast, protrusion and retrusion are more of an anterior/posterior movement. Then again, some anatomists prefer not to use protraction and retraction at all, even when describing shoulder blade movement.
Opposition and Reposition of the Thumb: Anatomy
Finally, I’ll demonstrate opposition and reposition, which are special movements involving the thumb.
The thumb, also known as the pollex or digit one, articulates (forms a joint) with the trapezium bone of the wrist (carpus) via a saddle joint, which is a type of synovial joint featuring interlocking convex and concave surfaces. They call it a saddle joint because, well, it kinda looks like a saddle (yee-haw, cowboy!).
Thanks to this saddle joint, the thumb can perform circumduction, flexion and extension, abduction and adduction, as well as special movements called opposition and reposition.
Opposition of the Thumb
Opposition of the thumb occurs when the tip of the thumb comes to meet (and oppose) the tip of another finger from the same hand. A super easy way to remember this is that you’ve probably heard someone say that humans have opposable thumbs. Opposition is the special movement of our opposable thumbs.
In fact, think about this: when the opposition movement occurs, what happens? In the picture above, did you notice how the thumb and finger created a shape similar to the letter ‘O’? The ‘O’ stands for opposition! Now you can easily remember this motion of our opposable thumbs!
Reposition of the Thumb
Reposition is the opposite action of opposition. During reposition, the thumb and finger return to their original position.
Free Quiz and More Anatomy Videos
Take a free comprehensive quiz on body movement terms to test your knowledge, or review our anatomy body movement terms video. In addition, you might want to watch our anatomy and physiology lectures on YouTube, or check our anatomy and physiology notes.