I can see it now: you just won the official twist off on the dance floor at your Aunt Susan’s third wedding reception. She always said third time’s a charm and you were determined to prove your dedication to the celebration by showing all the guests your slick synovial moves. So there you are, ready to pop a calcaneus for your Dee Dee Sharp showdown, when all of a sudden a mysterious pain at the back of your popliteal fossa stopped you in your potato smashing tracks!

Well, it’s happened to the best of us, my friend. You knew you had to take a moment to sit this one out between asthmatic Cousin Jimmy and arthritic Grandpa Joe to palpate the reasons of potato smashing stress. Here’s what you found:

Sitting down in a chair with a flexed tibiofemoral joint, better known as your knee, you locate the lateral condyle of the right femur bone. The distal end of the femur has two knuckles called condyles and the lateral side is located to the outside of the knee. Directly below the lateral condyle is a protuberance,or tuberosity of a bone called the tibia, the bigger of the two lower leg bones. Follow the tuberosity to the proximal posterior aspect of the tibia better known as back of the upper calf.  The back of the knee can be a very confusing proprioceptively, but it is a place that with little understanding and exploration can be figured out.

Superficially the gastrocnemius, like two big squishy worms stuck together, lies vertically down the back of the calf, deep to the soleus (also known as ‘the second heart’ that pumps blood from the leg to the heart. These two muscles along with the plantaris, a short bellied muscle with the longest tendon in the body, converge into the calcaneal tendon, or Achilles’ heel, to make up the musculature of the posterior inferior tibiofemoral joint. They create flexion of the knee and plantar flexion of the ankle. Behind these three flexors lies the potato culprit that mashed your dreams of twisting and 1960’s liberation: none other than the likes of the deep, short-bellied popliteus!

As the muscle’s name suggests, this triangular-like shaped muscle is located in the popliteal fossa at the posterior side of the knee. Though difficult to palpate one can attempt to maneuver around the gastrocnemius and soleus to strum at the diagonal fibers that stretch to its tendinous insertion on the posterior tibia. The popliteus has the important function of keeping your thigh bones connected to your shin bones, when the knee is in flexion during activities such as walking down hill, stairs, squatting, skiing, wearing high heels, practicing chair pose and doing any mid century dance moves.

The action of the popliteus is to flex the knee along with the other three flexors but most notably medially rotates the flexed knee just like in dance moves such as the twist or the mashed potato. When the muscle contracts, it medially rotates the lower leg and can assist to draw the heel toward the lateral side of the gluteal muscles in a swinging like motion just like this:

To find out how to get your groove back on stay tuned for my next article: How To Get The Pop In Your Popliteus!

Watch more free Yoga Tune Up® Quickfix Videos Here.

Read more about the popliteus.

Discover exercises for your knees.

Giancarla Griffith-Boyle

Giancarla is a lover of sound, breath and movement. She began teaching in 2008 after the completion of her 200hr with Om Yoga®. Since then she has studied at The Institute for Integrative Nutrition® as a Holistic Health Coach, completed her 300hr with Laughing Lotus Yoga School®, studied with Relax and Renew®'s Restorative Guru Judith Lasater, gotten her Anatomy Geek and Therapeutics on with Yoga Tune Up®'s Jill Miller, traveled to India with the luminous Raghuanath Cappo, chanted with His Divine Grace Radhanath Swami, and has toured with some of her favorite bands as a wellness coach and tour manager. Her classes are sweaty, fun, alignment and movement based with inspiring music, mudras, meditations and positive affirmations. Her mission is to inspire you to stay true to yourself and your own divine body; to offer the space to cultivate health, wellness, understanding, and a love for human connection and sustainable movement.

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Julia R Bledsoe

As someone staving off a knee replacement, a gift and constant reminder of my horseback riding days, I am interested in all things “knee”. Albeit starting a little late, I think this little muscle is helping to do the work of my absent ACL? I’m not sure it can fully do the job in a downhill hike but it is nice to know a little more about it’s role in knee movement and stabilization.

Kammy Fung

This article totally illustrated the knee’s function. Learn 2 deep muscles with the knee joints, plantaris & popliteus. I will always remember the polluters funtion (flex knee medial rotation). I’ll use the smash potatoe move to describe the popliteus movement function in my future.

Erin Kintzing

Great description and introduction for me to the popliteus muscle! I am curious if it is “tightness” in this muscle that would cause the “pop” feeling caused by the wedding potato smash dancing in your article. Similarly, I wonder if this muscle plays a large role in the tearing of the ACL– if people were more aware of this muscle and how to keep it supple and happy would this prevent those types of injuries? Is there a stretch or Therapy Ball sequence that can target this small and deep muscle?

Rachel T.

What a fun and informative article! I had ACL surgery coming up on 15 years ago and have recently been experiencing soreness in the back f my knee which I came to find out was the popliteus. Apparently, after that kind of surgery, it can try to work extra had and become inflamed. I can’t wait to try this mashed potato move and see if it helps!

Georgia Lowe

Most delightful knee-related article of all time! I wanted to check it out because the popliteus is my favorite massage therapist’s favorite muscle, and I knew you would have something fantastic to say about it. Now I really grove to it. Please write an entire anatomy book. That is all.


A great description of how to palpate and better understand the popliteus! I am investigating an injury of mine and think the popliteus could be a significant culprit, so it is great to find a good of what it does- I find this guy doesnt get as much press as he should, so I’m delighted to be coming across more material detailing it. Im looking forward to exploring and strengthening it further to see how my knee feels/ changes. A great help indeed!!


Excellent description of both the anatomy and function, and some great visuals!. As a chirpractor who does a form of Applied Kinesiology, I’m often testing this muscle and finding it off or not functioning as part of cheif complaint from my patients associated with knee pain. The Sartorious is also often involved with medial knee pain. After “mashing” around on it with my hands I can usually get it to start functioning again and it will then provide knee stability. Neat stuff. Thank you for the great info!

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rie katagiri

I loved the video of the dancing you posted. i never really understood that muscle until seeing the mashed potato!