Despite its funny name, the popliteus muscle has an important role in internally rotating your knee. Popliteus muscle exercises may help rehabilitate knee function when this muscle has been damaged. Over time, they may improve compromised movement and relieve pain at the back of the knee.
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Popliteus Muscle Overview
The popliteus muscle provides dynamic and static stability of the joint when you walk or run, explains a small study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science in March 2016. It originates at the bottom of your femur, the large thigh bone, and inserts at the tibia, or shinbone.
This muscle allows you to maintain good posture when you're walking and stabilizes the meniscus, a C-shaped piece of cartilage that cushions the space between your shinbone and thighbone.
In many ways, the popliteus muscle is key to knee function. It's small and triangularly shaped, located just at the back of the knee joint. It internally rotates the shin bone and is intrinsic to your ability to unlock, or begin to bend, your knee from a straight position.
Injury to this muscle may be caused to a blow, fall or twist, but it may also result from chronic overuse injuries. Like any muscle, the popliteus muscle can tear or suffer a strain. Symptoms of injury include:
- Pain at the back of the knee joint.
- Tenderness when the back of the knee is pressed.
- Pain while bending your knee against resistance while your shin bone is rotated outward.
- Tight hamstrings.
- Difficulty or inability to straighten the knee fully.
Injury often occurs to people who run or train on hills or banked trails. Hyperpronation of your feet, or excessive inward turning, may also compromise the popliteus muscle.
Role of Popliteus Muscle Exercises
Rehabilitation to the popliteal muscle eases knee pain and restores function when this muscle is injured or damaged. The goal of the exercises is, of course, to reduce pain and inflammation. Exercises can also strengthen the muscles around your knee so the popliteus muscle doesn't bear all of your weight and the burden of walking or running movements.
By strengthening other muscles in your lower limbs, including your calves, hips and pelvic muscles, popliteus muscle exercises may enhance proprioception, balance and agility. Strengthening and rehabbing this muscle can also improve your technique and function when you return to full activity in running, squatting, hopping and walking. Furthermore, it may help prevent future injuries, explains the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
If you had other injuries in conjunction with a popliteus muscle injury, such as a posterior cruciate ligament tear or an anterior cruciate ligament rupture, your exercise plan may need to be tailored to that major condition first. Always review your exercise plan with your doctor and follow his advice when it comes to your rehabilitation.
Read more: Can You Work Out With Knee Pain?
Popliteus Muscle Exercises
Popliteus muscle exercises are not focused solely on this small muscle. They strengthen the entire leg, including your calves and thighs. Ultimately, a muscle rehab program should be customized to you, explains a September 2018 case study published in Knee Surgery & Related Research.
Particularly helpful in this published case were quadriceps-strengthening movements, outer thigh exercises and isometric exercises targeting the gastrocnemius-soleus muscles of the calf and hamstring muscles at the back of the thigh, explains Sports Injury Clinic. Here are some movements you may try at home for general knee conditioning, as recommended by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:
Move 1: Supine Hamstring Stretch
- Lie on your back on the floor or an exercise mat with both knees bent and your feet planted.
- Bring your right knee in toward your chest and hold on to the back of your thigh with both hands.
- Lengthen the leg up toward the ceiling as you gently pull the leg toward your head.
- Hold for 30 to 60 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
Move 2: Half Squats
- Stand with your feet about hip distance apart. If you feel unstable, hold onto a wall or back of a chair for balance.
- Maintain a long spine and lifted chest as you bend gently through your hips and knees. Let the hips bend just about 10 inches as if you're sitting toward a chair. Keep your feet planted, weight in your heels.
- Pause for three to five counts and straighten back up to a stand.
- Repeat 10 to 12 times.
Move 3: Heel Cord Stretch
- Stand facing a wall.
- Place your healthy leg forward and bend the knee slightly.
- Place the injured leg straight behind you with the heel flat and the toes pointed in a little bit.
- Keep your heels flat on the floor and press your hip complex forward, toward the wall.
- Hold for 30 seconds.
Move 4: Standing Quadriceps Stretch
- Stand behind the back of a chair and place your hands on it for stability.
- Bend your right knee and pull the heel up toward your right buttock.
- Grab your ankle with your right hand and pull it closer to your body.
- Hold 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Move 5: Leg Extensions
- Sit at the edge of a firm chair with a straight spine.
- Straighten your right leg and contract the muscles of your thigh as you raise the leg up as high as you can.
- Hold the lifted leg up for about five seconds.
- Relax the leg and lower back toward the floor.
- Repeat 10 to 15 times; perform on the opposite side.
Move 6: Hamstring Curls
- Stand facing the back of a chair. Hold on for support.
- Bend your right knee behind you and raise the heel toward the ceiling as far as possible. Stop if you feel pain.
- Hold for five seconds. Repeat 10 to 15 times. Perform on the opposite leg.
Move 7: Calf Raises
- Stand and face the back of a chair; hold on for balance.
- Distribute your weight evenly over both feet.
- Bend your left knee behind you and place all your weight on your right foot.
- Raise your right heel as high as you can and then lower it slowly.
- Repeat 10 times.
For Move 5: Leg Extension and Move 6: Hamstring Curls, add ankle weights when using just your body weight feels easy to perform. Start with just 5 pounds and progress up to as much as 10 pounds.
Read more: Rehab for Sprained or Twisted Knee Injuries
- Knee Surgery & Related Research: "Non-Operative Rehabilitation of Isolated Popliteus Tendon Rupture in a Rugby Player"
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Knee Conditioning Program"
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: "In Vivo Ultrasound Imaging of the Popliteus Muscle: Investigation of Functional Characteristics"
- Sports Injury Clinic: "Popliteus Muscle Injury"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.