May 05, 2021 in DIS-TANZ-SOLO

This article looks at the anatomical terms of movement, which are used to describe the actions of muscles upon the skeleton. Our muscles contract to produce movement at joints, and the subsequent movements can be precisely described using this terminology. The terms used assume that the body begins in the anatomical position.

I chose the above écorché drawing not only as the title image because I find it particularly beautiful, but also to directly point to one thing that dancers may find contradictory. On the left we see someone who is bending the knees. Anatomically, this is a flexion of the knees and the hips. On the right side, we see someone bending their back. Anatomically, this is an extension of the spine.

If we want to analyze a movement in a targeted manner, we must therefore distinguish which terminology we are working with. A dancer’s terminology may not always match the correct anatomical terms. Of course this is not a problem as long as we make sure that we are using the same language as the person we are talking to. Nevertheless, it can be useful if we also look at the anatomical side of things.

So let’s get into the nitty gritty…

Terms of Direction / Location

Before we can begin to look at the different types of movement, we need to take a moment to clarify the terminology needed to describe the position of certain body parts or possible directions of motion:

Superior (or cranial) – upper; toward the head end of the body
Inferior (or caudal) – lower; away from the head
Anterior (or ventral) –forward; front
Posterior (or dorsal) – backward; back
Medial – toward the midline of the body
Lateral – away from the midline of the body
Proximal – toward or nearest the trunk or the point of origin of a part
Distal – away from or farthest from the trunk or the point or origin of a part
Central – close to the center
Peripheral – away from the center
External –outer; toward the surface; superficial
Internal – inner; away from the surface; deep

Anatomical Planes

Types of Body Movement - Anatomical Planes
The other thing we have to address are the different anatomical planes. An anatomical plane is a hypothetical plane that intersects the body to facilitate describing the direction of movements. The sagittal plane divides the body into left and right (a). The coronal plane divides the body into anterior and posterior portions (b). The transverse plane divides the body into superior and inferior portions (c). All three planes cross at a 90° angle.
Now that we have sorted out the necessary underlying definitions, we can finally move on to the main topic and look at the different types of movement that the human body is capable of.

Flexion and Extension

Flexion and extension are movements that take place within the sagittal plane and involve anterior (forward) or posterior (backward) movements of the body or limbs. For the vertebral column, flexion (anterior flexion) is a forward bending of the neck or body, while extension involves a posterior-directed motion, such as straightening from a flexed position or bending backward. Lateral flexion is the bending of the neck or body toward the right or left side.

In the limbs, flexion decreases the angle between the bones (bending of the joint), while extension increases the angle and straightens the joint. For the upper limb, all anterior motions are flexion and all posterior motions are extension. In the lower limb, bringing the thigh forward and upward is flexion at the hip joint, while any posterior-going motion of the thigh is extension. Knee flexion is the bending of the knee to bring the foot toward the posterior thigh, and extension is the straightening of the knee.

Types of Body Movement - Flexion & Extension

Abduction and Adduction

Abduction and adduction motions occur within the coronal plane and involve medial-lateral motions of the limbs, fingers, toes, or thumb. Abduction moves the limb laterally away from the midline of the body, while adduction is the opposing movement that brings the limb toward the body or across the midline.
Types of Body Movement - Abduction, Adduction, Circumduction

For example, abduction raises the arm at the shoulder joint and moves it laterally away from the body, while adduction brings the arm back down toward the side of the body (see figure e).

Similarly, abduction and adduction at the wrist move the hand away from or toward the midline of the body. Spreading the fingers or toes is also abduction, while bringing the fingers or toes together is adduction.

For the thumb, abduction is the anterior movement that brings the thumb to a 90° perpendicular position, pointing straight out from the palm. Adduction moves the thumb back to the anatomical position, next to the index finger.


Circumduction is the movement of a body region in a circular manner, in which one end of the body region being moved stays relatively stationary while the other end describes a circle. It involves the sequential combination of flexion, adduction, extension, and abduction at a joint.


Rotation can occur within the vertebral column, at a pivot joint, or at a ball-and-socket joint. Rotation of the neck or body is the twisting movement produced by the summation of the small rotational movements available between adjacent vertebrae.

At a pivot joint, one bone rotates in relation to another bone. For example, at the atlantoaxial joint, the first cervical (C1) vertebra (atlas) rotates around the dens, the upward projection from the second cervical (C2) vertebra (axis). This allows the head to rotate from side to side as when shaking the head “no.” The proximal radioulnar joint is a pivot joint formed by the head of the radius and its articulation with the ulna. This joint allows for the radius to rotate along its length during pronation and supination movements of the forearm.

Types of Body Movement - Flexion & Extension
Rotation can also occur at the ball-and-socket joints of the shoulder and hip. Here, the humerus and femur rotate around their long axis, which moves the anterior surface of the arm or thigh either toward or away from the midline of the body.

Movement that brings the anterior surface of the limb toward the midline of the body is called medial (internal) rotation. Conversely, rotation of the limb so that the anterior surface moves away from the midline is lateral (external) rotation (see figure f).

Supination and Pronation

Supination and pronation are terms used to describe the up or down orientation of your hand, arm, or foot. In the anatomical position, the upper limb is held next to the body with the palm facing forward. This is the supinated position of the forearm. In this position, the radius and ulna are parallel to each other. When the palm of the hand faces backward, the forearm is in the pronated position, and the radius and ulna form an X-shape.

Supination and pronation are the movements of the forearm that go between these two positions. Pronation is the motion that moves the forearm from the supinated (anatomical) position to the pronated (palm backward) position. This motion is produced by rotation of the radius at the proximal radioulnar joint, accompanied by movement of the radius at the distal radioulnar joint. The proximal radioulnar joint is a pivot joint that allows for rotation of the head of the radius. Because of the slight curvature of the shaft of the radius, this rotation causes the distal end of the radius to cross over the distal ulna at the distal radioulnar joint. This crossing over brings the radius and ulna into an X-shape position. Supination is the opposite motion, in which rotation of the radius returns the bones to their parallel positions and moves the palm to the anterior facing (supinated) position.

When it comes to the feet, things get a bit complicated, as the terms supination/pronation are often interchangeably used with inversion/eversion (see definition further below). It would be more correct to say that supination of the foot is a combined movement of inversion, adduction, and plantar flexion, while pronation of the foot is a combined eversion, abduction, and dorsiflexion.

Types of Body Movement - Supination, Pronation, Plantar flexion, Dorsiflexion, Inversion, Eversion

Dorsiflexion and Plantar Flexion

Dorsiflexion and plantar flexion are movements at the ankle joint, which is a hinge joint. Lifting the front of the foot, so that the top of the foot moves toward the anterior leg is dorsiflexion, while lifting the heel of the foot from the ground or pointing the toes downward is plantar flexion. Accordingly, plantarflexion is what we as dancers call stretching the feet, dorsiflexion is what we call flexing. These are the only movements available at the ankle joint (see figure h).

Inversion and Eversion

Inversion and eversion are complex movements that involve the multiple plane joints among the tarsal bones of the posterior foot (intertarsal joints) and thus are not motions that take place at the ankle joint. Inversion is the turning of the foot to angle the bottom of the foot toward the midline, while eversion turns the bottom of the foot away from the midline. The foot has a greater range of inversion than eversion motion. These are important motions that help to stabilize the foot when walking or running on an uneven surface and aid in the quick side-to-side changes in direction (see figure i).

Protraction and Retraction

Protraction and retraction are anterior-posterior movements of the scapula or mandible. Protraction of the scapula occurs when the shoulder is moved forward, as when pushing against something or throwing a ball. Retraction is the opposite motion, with the scapula being pulled posteriorly and medially, toward the vertebral column. For the mandible, protraction occurs when the lower jaw is pushed forward, to stick out the chin, while retraction pulls the lower jaw backward. (See figure j.)
Types of Body Movement - Retraction, Protraction, Elevation, Depression

Elevation and Depression

Depression and elevation are downward and upward movements of the scapula or mandible. The upward movement of the scapula and shoulder is elevation, while a downward movement is depression. These movements are used to shrug your shoulders. Similarly, elevation of the mandible is the upward movement of the lower jaw used to close the mouth or bite on something, and depression is the downward movement that produces opening of the mouth (see figure k).

Header photo (Muscles of the lower limbs and the trunk: two écorché figures. Pencil and ink wash drawing, after an unidentified work on anatomy, ca. 1830) courtesy of Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Anatomical planes illustrations by SciencePro on Shutterstock, Edited by Michael Loehr

Types of movement illustrations & Anatomy & Physiology content courtesy of Open Stax College, Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0), Edited by Michael Loehr



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