In sport, we aim to optimise performance and minimise the risk of injury – both of these concepts require us to have a fundamental understanding of the human skeleton.
In this article, we’ll be exploring the 206 bones that make up the human skeleton, their different shapes and functions. We’ll also look at how the skeletal system provides support and stability, stores minerals and fat, produces blood cells, and enables us to move. By understanding these concepts more deeply, you can develop a better appreciation for the human body and begin to understand how it works.
Picture of the human skeleton
The main bones of the human skeleton are:
The 206 bones the human skeleton is made up of include:
- Head – also called the skull, is made up of cranium bones (i.e. those that protect the skull) and facial bones.
- Neck – this is made up of the first 7 vertebrae bones of your spine (i.e. the cervical spine) and hyoid bone (a small bone that sits in the front of the neck, above the adam’s apple and below the chin that doesn’t connect to any other bones).
- Spine – also called the vertebral column, the spine is made up of 33 individual vertebrae, which are divided into three areas: cervical (neck), thoracic (chest) and lumbar (lower back).
- Chest – the chest, also called the thoracic, is made up of 12 pairs of ribs and the sternum (which is in the middle of the chest).
- Shoulder – this is made up of the scapula (shoulder blade), clavicle (collar bone) and humerus (upper arm bone).
- Elbow – this is made up of the humerus (upper arm bone), ulna and radius (both which form the forearm.
- Hand – this is made up of 27 bones, which are divided into three parts: carpals (8 bones that make up the wrist), metacarpals (5 bones that make up the palm) and phalanges (14 bones that make up the fingers and thumb).
- Hip – the hip is made up of the femur (thighbone) and the pelvis (this is formed by three bones called the ilium, ischium and pubis).
- Knee – the knee is made up of the femur (thighbone), tibia (shin bone) and the patella (knee cap) which sits in front of the knee joint.
- Ankle – this is made up of the tibia (shin bone), fibula (thinner bone that runs next to the tibia) and talus (sits just above the heel bone).
- Foot – the foot is made up of 26 bones, which are divided into three parts: tarsals (7 bones that make up the ankle and heal), metatarsals (5 bones that make up the arch and ball of the foot) and phalanges (14 bones that make up the toes).
For more information on types of joints check out this article.
The axial and the Appendicular skeleton
The main bones of the human skeleton are divided into two categories, the (1) axial skeleton and (3) appendicular skeleton.
Bones of the Axial Skeleton
The axial skeleton is made up of 80 bones that make up the skull, vertebral column, ribs and sternum.
Function of the Axial Skeleton
Your axial skeleton provides support for the head, neck, and trunk, and helps to protect the vital organs including the brain, spinal cord and internal organs.
Protection from the axial skeleton is important in sports because it helps to prevent injuries such as concussion, spinal cord injuries and internal organ injuries that can occur from impact or contact e.g. rugby tackle or a kick in taekwondo.
Bones of the Appendicular Skeleton
The appendicular skeleton is composed of 126 bones that consists of the bones of the upper and lower extremities (the arms, hands, legs and feet) and the bones of the shoulder girdle and the pelvis.
Function of the Appendicular Skeleton
The appendicular skeleton is essential for movement of the upper and lower limbs of the human body as well as providing stability to the body.
This is important in sport because the bones of the upper limbs or the appendicular skeleton, such as the humorous, radius and ulna in the arm and the bones of the hand, allow for precise and controlled movements necessary for throwing, catching and hitting in sports such as baseball.
Similarly, the bones of the lower limbs of the appendicular skeleton, such as the femur, tibia and fibula in the leg and the bones of the foot, allow for power, balance and agility needed for running, jumping and kicking in sports such as football.
What are the 4 different types of bones?
Bones can be categorised according to their general shape, there are four different types of bones in the human body based on shape:
Long bones have a long thin shape, and are classified by having a longer body (shaft) than they are wide along with two bulky ends.
Examples of long bones include the tibia, fibula, femur, humerus, radius, ulna, clavicle, metatarsals, metacarpals and phalanges.
Long bones provide support (i.e. the tibia and femur are large to support the weight of the body), structure (i.e. they form the framework of the appendicular skeleton) and movement (i.e. the humerus, radius and ulna are small and light to provide ease of big movement).
Long bones are also important for the production of blood cells, we’ll discuss more on this later on in this article.
Short bones are roughly cube-shaped, and are typically classified as being wide as they are long. This means they are very strong, which allows them to provide support – they have been referred to as small “jigsaw pieces” as they bridge the gap between bones that allow movement. These bones themselves are limited in movement, but allow some gliding movements.
Examples of short bones include the carpals (wrist bones), tarsals (ankle and heel bones) and the patella (kneecap).
These bones can be important in sporting activities such as handstands in gymnastics with the carpal bones withstanding the weight of the body and enabling fine controlled movements for the gymnast to maintain balance.
Flat bones are thin and flat, which is why they have been given their name. The large surface area provides two functions: (1) provides an effective method to protect vital organs and soft tissue and (2) provides a large area for muscles and ligaments to attach too.
Examples of flat bones include the skull, sternum, pelvis, scapula and rib cage.
Irregular bones vary in shape and structure, they don’t fit into any other classification. They tend to have more complex shapes and structures, which protect internal structures.
An example of an irregular bone includes the vertebrae, which supports and protects the spinal cord.
What are the functions of the skeleton?
The functions of the human skeleton is to provide support, structure, protection, storage of minerals and production of red blood cells. These functions are important for everyday functioning and in sport. We’ll go into more detail below:
Support and Structure
The bones of the human skeleton provide support and structure by forming a framework for the body – think of it as a type of scaffolding. It gives us shape, allows us to stand up right, and provides the sites for the attachment for muscles and tissues.
The human skeleton allows the body to move, as the bones act as the attachment sites for muscles and tissues, which act as levers when the muscles pull on them.
This allows us to perform intricate movements such as throwing a dart or performing big movements such as a somersault (or flip) in gymnastics.
The human skeleton helps protect vital organs including the brain, spinal cord and internal organs by surrounding them with bone – almost like acting as a shield. Protection is important in sport / physical activity because it helps to prevent injuries such as concussion, spinal cord injuries and internal organ injuries that can occur from high impacts of contacts e.g. rugby tackle or kick to the torso or head in taekwondo.
The human skeleton stores minerals including calcium, iron, potassium and phosphorus for when our body needs them – they will be released into the bloodstream when necessary.
Minerals such as calcium are important for strong bones, which is important in sport to minimise the risk of bone related injuries such as stress fractures or breaks.
Blood Cell Production
In some of our bones in the skeletal system, we have bone marrow, which produces red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
Red blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen around the body, white blood cells act as defenders against disease and infection, and platelets aid in clotting when skin is broken.
Why you should know about the human skeleton as a sport coach / scientist
In sport we aim to optimise performance and minimise any risk of injury – both of these concepts require a fundamental understanding of the human skeleton, including its anatomy and function. By understanding these concepts more deeply, you can develop a better appreciation for the human body and begin to understand how it works.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many bones are there in the human skeleton?
The human skeleton of an adult typically has 206 bones, although this number can vary between 206 to 213 as some individuals may have an extra rib, vertebrae or digits.
The number of bones in the human body is different at adolescents, where we are born with approximately 270 bones. As we age, these bones start fusing together until the skeletal system matures so that most of us end up having around 206 bones.
The human skeleton is a remarkable and complex structure that is essential in our daily lives and allows us to perform in sport. Knowledge of the different bones, how they are categorised and their functions can help students, athletes and practitioners appreciate the human body and how it works; with further understanding keeping important to keeping healthy, injury-free and optimising performance.
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Will is a sport scientist and golf professional who specialises in motor control and motor learning. Will lecturers part-time in motor control and biomechanics, runs Golf Insider UK and consults elite athletes who are interested in optimising their training and performance.