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3 Problems with Gross Anatomy

Why We Teach Functional Anatomy?

When most students learn anatomy for the first time they are introduced to what is called “Gross

Anatomy.” Gross anatomy was invented by a doctor who used cadavers to find out the muscle

function and also to learn where they attached inside your body. Gross Anatomy is a very good

name for it. If you are not into the forensic sciences, it is really gross to work on a cadaver. Unfortunately, there are some glaring problems with trying to determine the function of a muscle on a dead person. First, most of the clients you will work with as a personal trainer are not dead. (Yes, that was our attempt at humor!) 

Let’s list some of the biggest problems with gross anatomy  and go over each one by one:


1. Position of the body, only looking at “open chain” movements

First, the position of the body can really be a big factor—and a big issue. To understand how a

muscle worked, the scientist would cut the muscle closest to one of the attachments (usually the

origin) and pull on it. Whichever direction the limb or part of the body moved, they would label

that movement as the muscle’s function. If we look at someone lying down, it means their feet are not in contact with the ground, or an “open kinetic chain.” When an individual is standing, the foot is in contact with the ground and thus, when a muscle contracts it is a completely different outcome. Let’s look at the upper body as an example. In an open chain (i.e., “Lat pull down”), the pulling movement would bring an object towards the body. In a closed chain (i.e., “pull up”) the pulling would bring the body up to the stationary bar. It doesn’t sound like there is a big difference, but the body recognizes it as a night and day difference. That is why some non-functional people can pull down amazing amounts of weight but cannot even complete one single pull up.

2. Only measures the concentric contraction

Second, when a scientist pulls on one end of the muscle it is creating a shortening of the muscle,

also known as a concentric contraction. We know from our physiology chapter that there are

three types of contractions: concentric, eccentric and isometric. Th row in to the equation that

there are three planes of motion as well: saggital, frontal and transverse, and now we need to

know the function of the muscle for at least nine different possibilities. Unfortunately, gross

anatomy is limiting: it typically only tells us one function of the muscle in one plane of movement. Often times the one function gross anatomy tells you is not even the one that is used most often. For example, the gross anatomy function of the gluteus medius is to concentrically abduct the hip. The most dominant function of the gluteus medius is to isometrically stabilize the hip and to eccentrically decelerate femoral internal rotation during heel strike in the gait cycle.

3. Brain is not working

Third, the last and possibly most definitive problem with Gross Anatomy is that the brain has

stopped functioning or sending signals to the muscles. There is no muscle in the human body that works in isolation. In other words, when the brain sends a signal for movement to occur, it alerts all the muscles in the entire body that the movement will be occurring and every muscle prepares for the movement either by assisting in the actual movement or by stabilizing a part of the body so it does not move. As you know, the mind and body work together, and studying cadavers—and not considering how muscles work in unison with each other in living, active people—does not make much sense. 

Overall, we just wanted to give you a brief synopsis of why Gross Anatomy is just not sufficient for exercise professionals and why we teach Functional Anatomy and Functional Training.  

If you want to learn more about how to incorporate more of this knowledge in to your workouts we offer a full weekend class of Functional Anatomy.


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