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PT School Anatomy Study Hacks

by Kelsey Hattersley SPT

young-woman-doctor-older-man-patient-smiling-2When it comes to anatomy, putting the work in early is essential in order to build a solid foundation for the rest of your career. Anatomy is relevant to every class in PT school and will remain relevant throughout your a career as a physical therapist. It takes years of constant repetition to really get to know the ins and outs of the human body, but the more work you put in early, the easier it will be to recall things down the road. Anatomy can seem daunting, but there are plenty of anatomy study hacks you can use to conquer this class and set yourself up for success.

My wake up call

I started PT school two weeks after I completed my undergrad degree. I took anatomy in college, but I retained almost nothing from it. I spent a lot of time cramming last minute and then forgot most of the information after each exam. I experienced a very rude awakening during my first couple of days in anatomy because I realized just how little I had retained. Unfortunately, my old study habits were not going to cut it in PT school (and for anatomy in particular) because anatomy is a building block to becoming a movement expert.

I spent my semester in anatomy figuring out ways to learn AND retain as much information as I could. It really is a lot to take in and I know it can be overwhelming at first. That's why I'm sharing some of my own anatomy study hacks that helped me be more effective in PT school.

Anatomy class struggle meme

Relationships and landmarks

One of the best ways to start familiarizing yourself with the muscles, bones, and nerves is by using specific landmarks. Think about popular, well-known landmarks in the world like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty, which are major attractions that are large and recognizable. These are the same kind of landmarks you should try to find in different regions of the body.

Think about how you give directions. Do you use landmarks to give someone else directions or to orient yourself while you are driving? I tend to give people directions that sound something like this: “Take a right by the big arch, then keep going until you pass the warehouse, take a left then keep going until you see the house with Texas painted mailbox on your right…”. I find it easier to remember landmarks as opposed to specific names of streets or highways, and I prefer to follow directions in this way as well. So, this is how I navigated my way through the body!

For example, if you are looking at the cubital fossa (also known less anatomically as the elbow pit), you may be trying to figure out which structure is which…everything may look the same to you. Here is a mnemonic that will help: “n-TAN” which is meant to be read from lateral to medial: radial nerve, biceps Tendon, brachial Artery, median Nerve. In this scenario, you can use the biceps tendon as your landmark because it is obvious and you can’t miss it.

By using the mnemonic, you can find the radial nerve lateral to the biceps tendon and the brachial artery medial to it. Additionally, this can also be useful when taking someone’s blood pressure. Since you can easily find the biceps tendon, you can also quickly identify the brachial artery - it will be just medial to the biceps tendon. Just another example of how important it is to know anatomy!

The value of mnemonics and repetition

Mnemonics are awesome for anatomy! It is very difficult to remember everything the first time around, so mnemonics can be a life saver. Just think about all of the structures that a physical therapist needs to distinguish: bones, muscles (and their actions, origins, insertions), nerves, blood supply, the list goes on and on! The extensive list of structures and functions is a lot of single items to store in your memory.

anatomy terms

To demonstrate the value of mnemonics, let's use the cubital fossa example from earlier. You can learn each structure separately (as 4 separate items stored in your memory), or you can learn the mnemonic (which would allow you to store only one item in your memory). The mnemonic allows you to store the region as one item, it gives you information about the order of structures in that region, and it helps you recall the individual structures. If you can come up with different mnemonics that help you recall specific pieces of information in each region of the body, you can learn the information faster and store it in a more meaningful way.

Repetition is also important early on when learning new information because you will have to recall this information for the rest of your career. When it comes to repetition, the technique I always used was writing out AOI’s (action, origin, and insertions) repeatedly on a whiteboard. AOI’s require more of a pure memorization approach, so I struggled using mnemonics for this type of information.

I liked using whiteboards because I could write things out and erase it over and over without wasting a lot of paper. It was also easier on my wrist/hand when writing on dry erase board as opposed to writing on paper. I know many people created notecards and repeatedly went through them to memorize AOI’s. Notecards didn’t do the trick for me because I would just passively read through them instead of actively trying to recall the information. However, if you are better at memorization with notecards, use them. Do whatever method works best for YOU!

Small groups: become the teacher

Another effective way to study is in small groups. Find a group of people with the same learning style and/or different learning styles as you, and form a small study group. This is a great study tool that I would suggest you use throughout PT school because it can allow each of you to learn from one another. Someone may have a great way of remembering something, or a different way to explain their thoughts that you might find helpful.

For anatomy, I used small groups to learn AOIs as well as to help identify structures in the cadaver lab. When learning AOIs in anatomy, become the teacher. You can do this in many ways: teach members of your group by showing them on a skeleton where each muscle originates and where it inserts, teach them by identifying muscles, nerves, or bony landmarks, teach them the actions of the muscles and the joints they cross, etc.

Time management: soak up as much as possible!

Time management is key for PT school in general, but especially for anatomy. There is not enough time in the day to memorize every detail during one semester of anatomy. However, you can use this time to take advantage of cadaver lab (many never get the chance again) and to nail down the basics so that you do not have to relearn everything for each class.

Having to go back and relearn basic anatomy could potentially suck up a major portion of your time, which could be detrimental to your success in other classes. PT school is too short; there is no time to get behind because each semester builds off of the previous semesters. Use your time wisely and learn this information in a way that sets you up for success in future classes.


Bottom line: find out which anatomy study hacks work best for you

Physical therapists are considered the movement experts. In order to live up to that title, you have to be an expert at the basics (anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, etc.) before you can even begin to become an expert of the whole body moving as one unit.

Find a study method that works for you. Stick with it and use it to get the most out of your anatomy class!


After all of your studying pays off, it's time to find your first PT job! Download our guide to find out the different PT jobs available to you after graduation. 

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