How to Learn Functional Anatomy

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Q: I need to improve my knowledge of functional anatomy (who doesn’t?). I know Cressey took a very comprehensive gross anatomy course down at UCONN as a grad student, but I was wondering how you approached improving this area in your based of knowledge?

Was there a specific text that you used? Did you go to town on memorizing points of origin, insertion, and anatomical structures in a musculoskeletal anatomy index? There’s a ton of information out there for me to access, but I’m trying to get a handle on what the best approach to take is to avoid spinning my wheels.

Thanks in advance for any help you might be able to offer.

A: This is actually a really good question, and something I feel is a monkey wrench for a lot of new and upcoming trainers out there.

Functional anatomy is STILL something I’m trying to get a good handle on, and by far is one of my weaker areas. Well, that, and the bench press. God, I suck at that.

Anyways, while I DO feel I can hold my own with regards to anatomy – boys have boy down there parts, and girls have girl down there parts – I’d be lying if I said I was in any way an expert on it. I mean, all I have to do is sit in on EC discussing shoulder kinematics for ten minutes and I’ll instantly feel like an anatomy asshat.

Often I feel like there’s nothing going on in my head except crickets chirping when I try to have a conversation with him.

Usually I “get” what he’s saying, but sometimes I just end up looking like this:

Seriously. Dude is Robocop when it comes to  anatomy. I’m still playing with Crayola while he’s using the iPad.

Which, when you really think about it, that’s actually one way to get better:  surround yourself with people who are smarter than you!

I’ve long been an advocate of telling people to actively seek out mentors or local coaches/therapists that they can observe.  Most are more than willing to allow someone to come in and “shadow” them for a day or two (maybe even on a weekly basis), assuming you’re not some sociopathic social filter moron who’s going to inundate them with non-stop questions and inquiries at inappropriate times while they work.

Trust me:  there’s a time and place to “talk shop.” Doing so while they’re trying to coach four athletes at once or treat a patient is not that time.

You have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth.  Use them in that order.

For me, though, it’s a matter of repeated exposures to the material.  It isn’t necessarily about what book or what article you read, or who you observe, but just consistently giving yourself exposure to the material. Variety is the spice of life, right?

If given the choice, however, I’d pick various blogs and articles over text books. I definitely tend to gravitate towards those resources which are able to “dumb down” anatomy into simpler forms and contexts that I can easily digest.

Sure, we have our gold standard texts like Shirley Sahrmann’s Diagnosis of and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, Kendall’s Muscles: Testing and Function, Thomas Myers’ Anatomy Trains, and Gray Cook’s Movement which every trainer and coach should read and have in their collection.

I’ve read those books – but can only take them a few pages at a time before my brain turns into soggy cereal. There’s just soooo much information packed into those pages that it sometimes feels overwhelming more than helpful.

Instead, I prefer things such as Mike Robertson’s Functional Anatomy for Bad Asses parts ONE and TWO.

Granted Mike wrote those two articles close to six years ago – and I’m sure he’d go back and change a few things given the amount he’s learned since then – but I defy anyone to find a more well written, informative, and precise “overview” of functional anatomy than those two pieces.

Another EXCELLENT resource would be both Robertson’s and Eric Cressey’s Building the Efficient Athlete DVD series, which not only includes all the geeky anatomy stuff but also applies it to how to develop sound programming.

I’d keep going, but don’t want to spend an entire hour searching and linking back to various things.  Just do yourself a favor and bookmark the following websites:

Those dudes will definitely keep you occupied as far as learning functional anatomy is concerned.

Note:  if anyone reading wants to share their “go to” resources, please feel free to share them in the comments section below.

Likewise, for further ideas on what other resources I like check out my Recommended Resources page.

Also, to add to everything – and this is something that I feel a lot of trainers neglect – I can’t stress the importance of just becoming a better COACH!

It’s funny:  whenever a new batch of interns start at the facility and we ask them what they’d like for us to cover during our weekly staff inservices, they always want to talk about anatomy and assessment.

That’s great and all, and we definitely DO cover both, but in truth, many struggle just to

teach a proper push-up!

While I do feel it’s important to know origins and insertions of muscles, and can appreciate the desire to come off as the next Rain Man when it comes to spewing out anatomy knowledge bombs, I think it’s equally as important to possess the ability to coach well.

More to the point, actually honing in on your coaching skills is a sure fire way to better learn anatomy.

Become a REALLY good coach, and I can promise you you’ll become very successful in this industry.

Of course, I’m not saying this is the case with you – I have to assume you can teach a push-up – but it’s just some food for thought.

To Review:

  • The gold standard texts are the gold standard texts for a reason. I think if you’re really serious about mastering anatomy, you’d be wise to invest in them – if for nothing else as a reference point. Or as something to put on your bookshelf to make you seem really smart and interesting.
  • Lets be real, even though those are the gold standards, they make our heads hurt. Repeated exposure from various sources is the key here.  Try to read as many different blogs and articles as you can. I provided a few above, but that certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds (if not thousands) of other great resources as well.
  • Rain Man is a film from the mid-80s starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman that won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Just wanted to throw that one out there  for those who didn’t really get the joke earlier. You should watch it.
  • Coach your ass off!  Nothing irritates me more (and I’m NOT saying this is you) than when some internet warrior who lives in his parent’s basement spews off about how this program is wrong and how this muscle doesn’t do that, blah blah blah…….yet he’s never trained a person in his life.  Become a really good coach, actually apply what you learn to a real, live person, and you’ll do very well.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Chris

    Awesome follow-up to your email response. Thanks again, Tony. 

    June 28, 2012 at 10:23 am | Reply to this comment

  • Stephen Reed

    Awesome post Tony, well said on all accounts (especially the COACHING part). I can't recommend "Building the Efficient Athlete," by Cressey and Robertson, highly enough to your readers. It's the first resource I have all our interns at SAPT go to for functional anatomy, and I remember Kevin Neeld saying something along the lines of him learning more PRACTICAL insights from that seminar than he did from forking a few thousand dollars to enroll in a functional anatomy course that was part of a university's doctorate of physical therapy program. Not to mention, there's a pretty svelte, swarthy and supple dude (he was bald though) performing some of the exercise demos in the weightroom portion of the seminar. Can't imagine who that was ;)

    June 28, 2012 at 10:36 am | Reply to this comment

  • Fonwoke

    1) a copy of Frederic Delavier's strength training anatomy doesn't hurt, or Netter's ( which can confuse you if you don't care about blood supply or nerve supply. 2) Nova muscle pro's app for IPAD is worth the price, it was developed at stanford med and is AWESOME, I have the one for bone structure and for muscles ( by isolating each system you can learn bony land marks then move on the muscles), it allows you to rotate the body, and strip layers which really helps with seeing relationships. It also will give you info for origin, insertion, nerve innervation and action, and has media which will show you how each muscle functions. 3) I find it helpful to remember basic synergistic pairings when dealing with motion, so the gluts, hamstrings and adductor magnus role as hip extensors or the rectus, illopsoas, and sartorius working as hip flexors. 4) I however as a physical therapy student took gross anatomy, and a bunch of other classes so I have had this stuff repeatedly emphasized.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Mike A.

    I find that one of the most effective ways for me to learn anatomy was to actually use the right names for things when I was in conversation with other trainers. If everyone says things like "lumbar erectors" and "internal rotation of the humerus" you have no choice but to learn it. Good ol' fashioned immersion.

    June 28, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Nick Efthimiou

    The question is (which you sorta answered Tony): how much functional anatomy knowledge does a trainer/coach need? You would hope that a trainer thinks about more than just muscle groups or body parts, but knowing that a supinated foot usually causes implications up the kinetic chain versus a pronated foot coming from the hips (i.e. down the kinetic chain) [from Sahrmann] is probably not necessary for most trainers whose job is to help people be healthier and happier by getting them stronger, "fitter", leaner or whatever else their goals are. It can't hurt to know, but as you said Tony, understanding that at the expense of knowing how to change clients habits, having a high EQ and delivering quality sessions and programs day in day out isn't going to help you as a trainer. Great post. As an aside, I hear good things about Lon Kilgore's "Anatomy Without A Scalpel".

    June 28, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Functional anatomy with Tony G | James Gore

    [...] After uni I kept learning anatomy and physiology through injury and training. Tony G gives some insight [...]

    June 28, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply to this comment

  • RS

    Tony, I'm about as far from a trainer as anyone who reads this site, but I steal names/links from resource pages, then spend hours learning everything I can. It has been a HUGELY beneficial endeavor, and one that pays off daily.  Aside from making me smarter, I also save money as well, in not having a cable TV bill.  RS

    June 29, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Yep. I went that route for about a year and a half, too. Having NO cable bill was huge. There's so much crap on tv, that I really never felt I was missing anything. Although I have cable now, I'm still not one to sit down and watch a TON of it. Sure, I have my favs: The Daily Show, Sox games, etc.......but all in all, I'd rather watch a movie or read a book.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:16 am | Reply to this comment

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    July 1, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Melly

    I am nowhere near the level you guys are, I have just started out on my fitness journey, but I bought an app called IMuscle by Nova. It is a great entry level start to learning muscle group, potential exercises for each muscle, and although I have not used that part yet, you can also make exercise lists and track your progress.

    July 4, 2012 at 5:57 am | Reply to this comment

  • Sonca

    Hi! Great article! I also found a page that was very helpful for me when learning anatomy – Give it a try, I hope it will help! Good luck with exams and anatomy!

    July 10, 2016 at 5:27 pm | Reply to this comment

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