Anatomy for Average Joes #1: Anatomical Position and Reference Terms

This article will explain the first anatomical concepts you should know to understand ‘Anatomy for Average Joes’, a series I’m doing to help the every-man get his teeth sunk into understanding anatomy, and by extension, fitness as a whole. Check out the main page for the series here for more articles of this nature.

Anatomical Position:

The Anatomical Position is standing upright, your face pointing forward, your toes facing forward, with your arms at your side and your palms facing forward, like so;

This is the basic position we will be using when discussing anatomy from here on out, and it is important that you remember, so as to not mix things up in the future (It will make sense why, by the end of the article). From here, we are going to split the body into 6 rough categories to go with the 6 reference terms I’m about to teach you.

Medial and Lateral:

The first pair of terms (you’ll find they all come in pairs) is Medial and Lateral. Medial simply refers to something that is closer to the midline of the body. Imagine you drew a line vertically down the middle of your body, running between your eyes, down your nose, and past your belly button. Everything closer to that line is medial and everything farther away from that line is lateral.

An important point to make now is you might notice I am using ‘-er’ quite a lot. This is because certain reference terminology is used to refer to things relative to others. You refer to things as being ‘medial to the’ which means, ‘closer to the midline than’. For example, the Nose is medial to the Eyes, and the Eyes are medial to the Ears. Because they are closer to the midline! You would not say ‘The nose is a medial part of the body’, because medial and lateral aren’t absolute positions.

A proper explanation of why the anatomical position is important can now be given. If, for example, you wanted to determine which side of your elbow was the ‘medial side of the elbow’, without the anatomical position, there would be no consensus as to what that is. This is because you might notice peoples forearms and hands naturally sit in different positions.

Some people’s forearms point in (Especially if they have rounded shoulders from sitting at a computer all day), and some people’s don’t. Depending on the position of your forearm, EITHER side could be the ‘medial’ elbow, but that’s not specific or helpful. The anatomical position helps us with that. Palms face forward, so that means the elbow is always in the same orientation. Therefore, the ‘medial side of the elbow’ is the one on the side of your pinky finger, because in the anatomical position, this is medial to the other side of your elbow.

Alternately, Lateral means something that is further away from the midline. The Ears are Lateral to the Eyes, which are lateral to the nose! Same system, but backwards.

Anterior and Posterior:

Anterior/Posterior are terms used to describe the front and back of your body. Anterior is front. Think A is the first letter of the alphabet. A is at the front of the alphabet. Anterior means front! Posterior is back. This one is a little less convoluted, because your ‘posterior’ is another word for your butt. And where’s your butt? On the back of you!

As we learned, Medial and Lateral are relative reference terms. Anterior and Posterior, conversely are mostly absolute terms. By that I mean things are rarely described as ‘more anterior than . . .’ or ‘anterior to the . . .’.

Examples here include, your face is the ‘anterior part’ of your head. your shins are the ‘anterior part’ of your lower leg.  Conversely, your calves are the posterior part of your lower leg. Biceps are anterior (remember the anatomic position!) and Triceps are Posterior!

Now you might be thinking, why don’t we just use the terms ‘front and back’? Surely every example so far could be easily explained with those words instead and they are much easier. That is true for MOST cases, but it gets tricky when you are describing more complicated things. For example; your shoulder blade (otherwise known as your scapula). When most people think the ‘front’ surface of the scapula they tend to think of the on facing out; the one you can see. However, the side of the scapula you can see on your back is the posterior surface. The anterior surface is actually sitting against your ribcage, because that is the side of the scapula that is facing the FRONT of your body.

What sounds easier?

a. ‘The front surface of your scapula, and by that I dont mean the bit you can see if you are looking at someones back but I mean like, front as in the side thats pointing to the front of your body, so the under side bit that you can’t see’


b. ‘Anterior surface of the Scapula’

Situations like this are perfect examples of why anatomical reference terms exist!

Superior and Inferior:

Superior and Inferior refer to positions that are closer and further away from the top of the head, respectively. If you think you’ll have difficulty remembering that, think of it like a hierarchy. Your brain is the most important bit of you (arguably), so its the most superior part. Everything is inferior to the brain, because the brain is most important. that’s the how I remembered when I was learning, at least.

Example here is, your Head is superior to your belly button. Your shin is inferior to your thigh. Your foot is inferior to your shin!

The reason we don’t just use the terms ‘Above’ and ‘below’ are pretty simple. If you are upside down, or say you are looking at someone lying flat on a bed, in the first case, above means the opposite of superior! In the second case, above could mean way too many things (e.g. slightly forwards of where you are pointing, on top of something, etc.). Superior/Inferior is exact, and can’t be misinterpreted!


That was just a few reference terms to get you started. Hopefully that was a manageable dose and it all made sense! I’ll see you next time, for the last few essential reference terms you’ll need to learn!

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