The first kinesiologist comes to Vancouver. What Leonardo DaVinci knew about human movement.

In celebration of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver B.C., Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has loaned Leonardo DaVinci’s Anatomical Manuscript A to the Vancouver Art Gallery for showing in its entirety for the first time ever.

The Anatomical Manuscript A is a collection of anatomical drawings and study notes made by DaVinci in 1510. DaVinci dissected as many as 30 cadavers (unclaimed bodies from a charitable hospital) as part of his study for a treatise on the human body, a work that never came to fruition.

Knowledge lost

Exactly 5 centuries ago DaVinci’s exploration of the structure and function of the musculoskeletal system produced a knowledge base that would certainly have served as a definitive guide to human movement for centuries to come. But it didn’t.  After DaVinci’s death in 1519 the 18 sheets of paper, or folios, that make up Anatomical Manuscript A fell into private possession and were subsequently held in private collection until 1898 when the entire manuscript was published.

What could have been

DaVinci’s mirror image notes to himself throughout the 18 folios reveal an impressive  anatomical volume he intended to produce. The following memos demonstrate DaVinci’s phenomenal commitment to detail and his excitement to share his findings (DaVinci, as in Clayton & Philo, 2010).

‘Remember to depict the origin of the two tendon a b by exposing the muscles that engage them. And do the same for all muscles, leaving each one on its own, naked on the bone, so that besides seeing its beginning and end, it is shown in which way it moves the bone to which it is dedicated; and of this , the scientific explanation is to be provided with lines alone’ (Folio 6V)

Which are the muscles that relax or contract in movement of any limb in any movement (Folio 3R)

Describe how much each muscle can be lengthened or shortened, or thinned and thickened and which are more or less strong. (Folio 14V)

What he knew

It can only be imagined what modern kinesiology, physiotherapy, chiriopractic and other modalities would be like today with a 500 year head start as DaVinci intended.  Although the terminology was not yet developed in his time, DaVinci’s understanding of human movement is clear. The following folio notes describe human movement remarkably similar to a modern textbook (DaVinci, as in Clayton & Philo, 2010).

Agonist/Antagonist relationship

‘When the two muscles a r pull the leg, it is raised forwards, and the two muscles b c are relaxed and d is elongated; and describe this rule for the operation of all the muscles, and you will be able to make out, without study from life, almost every action without fail’ (Folio 15 V)

Line of Pull

‘Every muscle moves the member to which it is joined along the line of the threads of which this muscle is composed’ (Folio 16 R)


‘The arm, which has two bones between the hand and the elbow, will be somewhat shorter when the palm faces the ground than when it faces the sky, with the man standing and his arm extended. And this happens because these two bones, in turning the hand towards the gorund, come to be crossed in such a way that the bones that arises on the right part of the elbow goes to the left part of the palm, and the bone that arises on the left part of the elbow ends on the right part of the palm’ (Folio 1 V)

Origins and insertions

‘The aforementioned muscles are not fixed except at the edges of their receptacle and at the ends of their tendons, and this the master has done so that those muscles are readily able to thicken and shorten, and grow thin and elongate, according to the need of the part moved by them’ (Folio 2 R)

Joint stability

‘a n m has a connection at n of the two thin muscles a n and n m which help (or oppose) each other when the clavicle might be pulled out of place by one or the other of these muscles’ (Folio 4 R)


‘The principal and the greatest and most powerful muscles in man are his buttocks-these are of marvellous strength, as is demonstrated by the force exerted by a man when lifting weights’ (Folio 6 V)


‘And to such movements should be assigned the tendons and muscles that cause these movements, such that, if some wound has caused on of these movements to be lacking in a man, it may be understood with certainty which tendon or muscle is impeded’

Shoulder stabilization

‘Here is demonstrated how far the hand can turn without moving the shoulder bone, and similarly the increase in the arm from the shoulder to the elbow in complete bending of the arm is explained’ (Folio 5 R)

‘The muscles n m are the cause of circular movement of the humerus’ (Folio 4 V)


‘The muscle m is bigger than p because it has to endure more work’ (Folio    )

‘In all the places where a man exerts himself with great effort, there nature has made the muscles and tendons of greater size and width’ (Folio 16 R)

Spinal Stabilization

‘The vertbrae of the spine in the fifth diagram have muscles that pull them in contrary direction to that made by the muscles in the fourth diagram; and this is done because those vertebrae would come apart in bending the head if the muscles below did not make a contrary force’ (Folio 16 R)

‘Every muscle of the neck that pulls in one direction has one that pulls in the contrary’ (Folio 16R)

Core strength

‘All these same muscles hold straight the spine of the neck when the power of the lower muscles arising from the pelvis prevails; these muscles, terminating on the ribs, when these exert force, they act to resist and support the roots of the muscles that hold the neck straight’ (Folio 16 V)

Health tips

‘And strive to preserve your health, in which you will be more successful to keep away from physicians, for their compounds are a sort of alchemy, on which there are no fewer books than there are on medicine’ (Folio 2 R)

Book Review: Leonardo DaVinci: The Mechanics of Man

For those not fortunate enough to visit this once in a lifetime exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Leonardo DaVinci: the Mechanics of Man by Martin Clayton and Ron Philo has been published to coincide with the exhibition. This amazing publication catalogues each folio in full size with DaVinci’s original handwriting accompanied by a second version of each folio complete with english translations on the sheet in the same place and manner as they were written by DaVinci himself. The author’s discussion of each folio makes for an insightful and enriching look into the world and mind of this great artist and anatomist.


Clayton, M., & Philo, R. (2010) Leonardo DaVinci: The mechanics of man. London, UK: Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd..

Author: Shari Zisk

Shari Zisk B.A., has been a fitness professional for over 20 years. She was born, raised and spent most of her fitness career in British Columbia, Canada. She now lives in the United States splitting time between Los Angeles and Atlanta. Shari writes full time about how to sweat, nourish and glow!

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