How to study for anatomy like a pro

How To Study For Anatomy Like A Pro [Step-by-Step]

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Are you wondering how to study for anatomy? Well, in the post, I’m going to give you 5 steps on how to do it like a pro!

So when you’re studying for anatomy, you have to understand that it’s a very unique type of class because you don’t only need to memorize, but anatomy is also something you have to apply as a physician. And so how you prepare for anatomy really should account for the uniqueness of the topic itself.

Personally, I think the traditional way of how we learn anatomy is incorrect. When I was serving as an anatomy teaching assistant (TA) in my fourth year of medical school, I taught these tips to the medical students and it worked for them.

But wait a minute! If you want this post in a video format, you can check out my YouTube video below! Make sure to subscribe for weekly content if you enjoy this one!

And so whenever I teach new medical students in my coaching programs or my books, I always break down anatomy into different phases.

Bonus: Want a full library of free medical school eBooks, video courses, and training? Click here to get access to your free med school advice library!

Step #1 Get An Overview

The first step is to get an overview.

Getting an overview means that instead of exposing yourself to a text that has a bunch of details, like the names of muscles and organs that you may not be familiar with, why not focus on watching or reading overviews created by other people who are going to help you better distinguish the important aspects.

How you do this is completely up to you. But my favorite is to watch videos on YouTube, on whatever topic I’m about to learn the next day in class or in the lab.

For example, if you’re learning about the anatomy of the back and you’re about to do a dissection of the back, you could watch a YouTube video that’s about 5-10 minutes long and get exposed to what that person considers to be important regarding the anatomy of the back.

And then choose however you wish to create notes. Whether it be in a Word document, OneNote, Evernote, Notion, or by making flashcards.

If watching a video is not for you, you can also read high yield resources or guides. Check out my review of the 20 Best Anatomy Books.

Step #2 Create A Mental Model

how to study for anatomy

Once you have your overview, the next thing is to create a mental model.

Now, compared to your other classes, anatomy is very positional as well as very factual. So not only do you need to know what each organ or muscle does, but you also have to know the relationships between muscles, bones, tendons, and other body parts.

That process becomes easier if you can use mental models. And here are the three good ways to create a mental model.

Mental Model

The first one is simply to create a mental model after you watch an overview.

So let’s say you are about to go into the dissection for the back muscles. After watching the video overview, you can ask yourself: What muscles will I see on the cadaver? And where are they placed?

So you know about the latissimus, the rhomboids, the teres major or minor, and subscapularis. Simply ask: Where would I see this structure or this nerve when I do the dissection?

That’s creating your initial mental model.

Now, when you go into lab or lecture, it is possible that you have misconceptions in your mental model. You may have flipped two muscles, or one body part is closer to another than you thought, or it is not exactly how you pictured it. Here is where your mental model gets refined.

But sometimes we don’t appreciate that this small correction of the mental model is an important part of learning.

Imagine your classmates who don’t use this approach and are just gonna learn about the anatomy of the back then and there. Well, they have nothing to rely on. So whatever they see is what they’re expecting.

They don’t learn as effectively from the lab or the lecture compared to you because you already have an idea of what would happen, and you have refined it further.

Now if creating a mental model doesn’t work, there are plenty of other options.

Bonus: Want a full library of free medical school eBooks, video courses, and training? Click here to get access to your free med school advice library!

Pre-made Anki Card

My second favorite is to use pre-made Anki cards. Anki is an amazing tool!

Check out this blog post where I showed how to use Anki for med school like a pro.

It is amazing for anatomy because the human body doesn’t really change. And so plenty of people have created pre-made cards from actual cadavers and labeled structures or illustrations.

So after watching a video overview, and knowing what back muscles look like, you can use a pre-made deck on Anki and you’ll get more information and practice.

And again, you get to refine your initial mental model and you become more experienced.

You might also want to check out the keys to studying for Anki in med school.

Drawing Rough Sketches

how to study for anatomy

And finally, my third favorite way to create a mental model is by drawing rough sketches on a blank piece of paper.

Some people would like to be great artists when it comes to anatomy. But we don’t really have to do that.

For example, if I am are trying to label the muscles of the back, I would simply use a line to represent the muscles, little squiggly lines to represent arteries and veins, and a zigzag to represent a nerve.

By using these lines and figures, I can simply illustrate the rough orientation and relationships between muscles.

For example, I could say: The lats are on the outside. Here is the artery that’s going to supply it. And then I have some thin muscles right here, right around the spine, and some few muscles here. And then you have your traps in the back. And here are all the arteries going to each and every single one.

Knowing those relationships means that when you go into the cadaver lab, you know how these things should look like. You’re creating your mental model. If you draw something, and you feel like something is missing but you don’t know what it is, then that is a form of correction on your mental model.

Now, all we’ve done so far is to obtain some information by watching a video or reading some text overview, and now you’ve created a mental model of what you think to be true. But we are just starting the actual learning on this part.

Bonus: Want a full library of free medical school eBooks, video courses, and training? Click here to get access to your free med school advice library!

Step #3 Create A Checklist

how to study for anatomy

Step number three is to create a checklist of all the topics you need to know.

Now, many institutions may give you a hit list of things that they expect you to know. But in case they don’t, you can do this yourself on a Word document or Excel sheet.

My current personal favorite way of doing it is in Notion.

One thing you can do is to create a folder for anatomy that is going to be an inline table that could be split based on your different exams or quizzes.

And then you include the different concepts that show up in your lecture topics and actual discussions for your labs. These can be the nerves, the muscles, and other parts, which you can label however you want.

The nice thing about this is you’re essentially creating a very complex database. But it’s very simple for you to create. You can even label it if it’s something you learned from the lab or from the lecture. 

how to study for anatomy

And then when you want to review, you can go ahead and filter. For example, if you only want it to show topics from the lab and about back muscles, it is easy to filter the results. And so after filtering the results, it only shows the structures that you need to know in the meantime.

You can keep this as a list of things on your phone or you can print this out and take it to the lab. (But don’t touch your phone during dissection labs, that’s disgusting.)

So for example, if I know where the rhomboids are, I can just check it off and then go down the lesson. And if you can spot everything on different cadavers, then you know you are doing an amazing job in your lab. And then you do the same process for the next labs. 

If you are studying for your lecture component and you have questions, you can add them to your list. For example, if you don’t know about a certain structure and you want to know essentially what the structure does, how it moves, or how things are related, just add them to your list.

You can even make a different column where you put the answers. And if you don’t know something, the list forces you to go back to the lecture slides and learn not only about that piece of information, but also other information surrounding that topic.

This is just one way of how you can use checklists.

For a short video demo on how I use Notion, watch the video above and start at 5:47, or simply click here.

I like Notion because it gives you the ability to do multiple things at once.

But you can make this very simple and just have a Word document of the list of things you need to know from each of your lectures and labs. That’s what I did when medical school, before Notion came out and it worked just fine.

Step #4 Test Your Knowledge And Apply Second Order Thinking

how to study for anatomy

Now the next step is to test your knowledge and also apply the functions of things.

Going back, the first step is to create mental models to understand where everything is and the relationship between different parts. You can say something like: These are the muscles and these are the nerves that are related to it.

But then you can also start attributing the functions to things. So if you know a specific vessel and where it is in the body. The next questions could be: What muscles and organs does it go to? If there’s a nerve, what organs does it innervate?

If it’s a muscle, what movement does it do? If it’s a joint, what directions in different movements can you do at that joint? There’s a lot of different questions you can ask.

But before you can identify the function of a thing, of course you have to identify the thing first. You can’t really identify the function of the latissimus if you don’t know what the latissimus is or where it is.

As another example, it’s very easy to know what the bicep does and where it connects. The next questions could be: What movements does it make? What innervates this muscle? And you start to ask questions that combine things together.

And again, how you do the testing part is really up to you. You can use those pre-made Anki cards. You can say: This muscle that is on these cadavers is latissimus. The latissimus does these four functions. And there can be a first order, second order, or third order question that you can ask and answer for yourself every time you see that muscle.

If flashcards don’t do it for you then working with classmates might. Group studying is amazing because you could go into cadaver lab, for example, and work with your classmates. 

You can say: Okay, John, what is that?

And John’s says: Well, it’s latissimus, bro.

And you say: Latissimus? No, that’s up here.

Then you can start correcting each other and making those connections and mental models to really gain that knowledge.

And if group studying doesn’t work and you’re really particularly struggling with what most students struggle with, which is the multiple choice and lecture component, then try different high yield resources for medical school.

I love USMLE-RX, which combines high yield question banks and information from things like First Aid in the form of clinical vignettes.

usmle rx - question banks for step 1

So not only are you forced to understand what the parts of the brachial plexus are, but also what happens if something goes wrong. What does a patient look like? What functions will they not have? What will they have more of? And really be able to create those patterns.

But again, you can’t make it this far until you understand where something is and how it relates to the things around it. And then ask yourself: what does it do? What happens if it doesn’t work?

To really test your knowledge and grow your understanding and foundation of anatomy, you can do things like Anki and start to ask yourself second and third-order questions, even when you see a basic flashcard.

You can also participate in group studying and go to the cadaver lab, you can use practice questions, or a combination of these to truly get a nice full-rounded understanding of how anatomy works.

Bonus: Want a full library of free medical school eBooks, video courses, and training? Click here to get access to your free med school advice library!

Step #5 Increase Repetition Near Test Day

And then my final step is simply to make more repetitions of your checklist as you get closer to test day.

So if you have a week before your anatomy lab, I’ve made a full video on the schedule that I used in medical school. I talked about how I would study for anatomy, and tips that I gave as a fourth year med student and as a TA. So check this video out!

If you like this video, hit the subscribe button here to join the community for more videos like this one.

I talked about how I would prepare for the test if it was coming in a week, when I would do certain labs, and how I would do it.

But it really surrounds this idea of having a checklist and reminding yourself to do the things on the checklist. When you go to a cadaver, you can say: I can identify all of these things? And then, I’m gonna go to a different cadaver and say: Can I still identify all those things? If you can, then you can check it off the list and then keep moving and moving and moving.

You can do the same for the multiple choice portion or the actual lecture portion of your exam. So again, if you want to understand that full schedule, check out the video above.

how to study for anatomy


Let’s review how to better study and prepare for anatomy:

Step #1 is to get an overview using a high-yield resource. I love videos. But use text if you want.

Then, use that for step #2, which is to create a mental model. So then you can make an adjustment to your mental model during your first pass of the material. Whether it’s you going to lecture and saying that’s actually not what you thought it would be, or when you go to lab and say that it’s definitely not where that organ’s located, and then making that correction.

Step #3 is to create a checklist of all those things. Now, after you’ve done a few passes of your overview and going to lecture, you can list the things that you need to know. Use a tool like Notion or something else to keep track of it.

And then step #4 is to make multiple repetitions through whatever methods that we talked about in this video to ask yourself those second and third-level questions, and then check off topics as you feel like you’ve mastered them.

And then finally, step #5, as you get closer to the test, repeat the process and do it more frequently. For example, you can say: Not only do I know where the latissimus is on this body and this body, but I can spot it on any body that I will be presented with.

If you want to know the best resource that you can use to study anatomy, check out my article here: Best Resource For Anatomy In Medical School [Full Breakdown]

With that being said, guys, thank you so much for reading this article until the very end. Hopefully, I was a little help to you on your anatomy journey and your medical journey. Thanks for always being a part of mine.

Whenever you’re ready, there are 4 ways I can help you:

1. The Med School Handbook:  Join thousands of other students who have taken advantage of the hundreds of FREE tips & strategies I wish I were given on the first day of medical school to crush it with less stress. 

2. The Med School BlueprintJoin the hundreds of students who have used our A-Z blueprint and playbook for EVERY phase of the medical journey so you can start to see grades like these. 

3. Med Ignite Study ProgramGet personalized help to create the perfect study system for yourself so you can see better grades ASAP on your medical journey & see results like these. 

4. Learn the one study strategy that saved my grades in medical school here (viewed by more than a million students like you). 

If you enjoyed this blog post, then check out these other related posts:

But until then, I’ll see you guys on the next one.

Until next time my friend…

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