Learning Gross Anatomy and Making It Fun

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How We Move: The Gross Anatomy of Motion

By Elizabeth A. MurrayMount St. Joseph University

In many ways, the human body is so detailed that it seems almost fragile. Even after years of learning anatomy, one may still find themselves in awe at the complexity of the human body. One might hope that a course on gross anatomy and movement will lead to a greater appreciation of our body, how it works, and maybe, even how we can take better care of it.

Model of human anatomy in an anatomy room
Gross anatomy doesn’t actually mean gross in the usual sense we use the word for. (Image: Jesada Sabai/Shutterstock)

Gross Anatomy Vs Typical Anatomy

Gross anatomy refers to the structures that we can see with the naked or unaided eye. So, it does not focus on cells and other microscopic components of human anatomy; instead, it focuses on bones, muscles, and nerves.

Another thing that makes gross anatomy different from typical anatomy and physiology courses: Gross anatomy uses a regional approach. Anatomy and physiology study by systems: the skeletal system, nervous system, digestive system, reproductive system, and so forth.

But gross anatomy examines a particular region of the body—such as the back, thigh, abdomen, hand. And, as it does, it integrates the bones, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and other structures or organs in that given region. So, in this sense, gross anatomy is far more integrative as compared to systemic anatomy, in which body systems are covered but not usually combined as a whole within a region.

With that said, ultimately, gross anatomy requires the regions studied to be put together for a full understanding of the body relationships. This includes the interactions between regions and the overall pathways of structures that travel from one region to another—like blood vessels or nerve pathways. But the regions are studied first.

Why Learn the Terminology?

This article comes directly from content in the video series How We Move: The Gross Anatomy of MotionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

So, we study regionally, like pieces of a puzzle. Some of us may not fully understand the connections between body regions until we bridge those areas together later, after studying both. In other words, studying the upper limb and studying the chest requires us to ultimately connect the two—particularly when structures, like nerves and vessels, span those regions. 

In doing so, we often see name changes as the structures pass a given anatomical landmark, or after they give off a particular branch, somewhat like street names may change when traveling from one part of town to another. And as with any field of study, we will need to learn some terminology. 

Students examining an anatomical model in the classroom
Students study anatomy regionally and afterward they understand how those regions work relative to each other. (Image: NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock)

Many people think of terminology as somewhat dry or boring but learning anatomical terminology is quite literally learning more about ourselves and, in combination with other medical terminology, makes us more informed patients, caregivers, workout partners, and sports enthusiasts.

Learning Anatomy Can Be Fun, No Seriously

While anatomical terminology does require some memorization, that doesn’t mean the subject is automatically boring. For example, one could have their students stand on lab benches and do pose-downs, while other students describe what actions are happening at what joints, and what muscles are being used. They can label muscles and bony landmarks on photos of bodybuilders and dancers. They can also dissect human and non-human organs to better understand the anatomy. 

You could look at your own body, too—so that what you learn is more meaningful to you, and is actually fun.

Another tool one can specifically use in a musculoskeletal anatomy course, is palpation—to examine by touch. So on certain days, the students can sit or lay on the lab benches and use their hands to find certain ‘not too personal’ bones and muscles on each other. Most are going into healthcare fields and will need to learn to do that kind of hands-on work with their patients, anyway.

Compared to looking at pictures, it’s so much more realistic to actually feel body features, and really appreciate that the structures one is learning about are all inside us. So, when possible, musculoskeletal anatomy is best studied in action!

Common Questions about Learning Gross Anatomy

Q: What is gross anatomy?  

Gross anatomy is when one studies the parts of the body that can be seen by the naked eye. So muscles, nerves, and organs count, but cells and microscopic structures don’t. When one is learning anatomy, the study of muscles and nerves and how these structures come together and function relative to each other is gross anatomy.

Q: Why is learning anatomical terminology important?

A part of learning anatomy is learning about anatomical terms that are used in the field. Though this requires some memorization, it should not be viewed as a chore, rather as an opportunity to learn more about oneself and become more informed, which is especially valuable if one is an athlete, or works in a field where injuries are common.

Q: What are some ways of making the learning process of anatomy fun?

Learning anatomy can be fun, especially if the teacher has students physically participate in the learning process. For example, some students could move their muscles while other students tell them what joints are moving. It’s also fun to name the muscles on a picture of a bodybuilder or an athlete.

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