So, compelled by Pete’s twerk videos, my own curiosity, and the spirit of my ancestors, I set out to explore what’s actually happening when people twerk and whether or not I could plausibly overcome my knee injuries (and lack of rhythm) to embrace my inner ‘Tia Thee Stallion.
For starters, I got official confirmation that knees aren’t the only star of the show here. Twerking essentially involves whole-body movements, Lauren McIntyre, a certified athletic trainer and clinical specialist at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center, tells SELF. “A lot of it does center on the lumbar spine, or the lower back region,” she says, explaining that this kind of deep squat also taxes the core muscles, glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, and even ankles. “Everything is either working in a supporting role or working in a movement role,” she explains.
Still, it makes sense that I’m so impressed with Pete’s knees in particular.“There’s quite a bit of force that’s put into the knee joint when it’s [in that position] for long periods of time,” McIntyre says. That force can easily lead to discomfort in people not used to prolonged deep squats. (Over time, it can even lead to knee pain and other issues in people who adopt this position a lot, like baseball catchers.) Even if you are often in a deep squat due to, say, your workouts, it’s another thing entirely to hold it while dancing with the ease of someone who is lounging on the sofa.
If you’ve experienced persistent knee pain, like me, you might be even more in awe of Pete because she can do something that your body would wholly reject, McIntyre adds. I asked the experts what I could do if I, theoretically, wanted to drop low without winding up in traction. McIntyre, who graciously didn’t laugh at me, says that stretching before and after a twerk session could help reduce some pain and increase mobility, although she also added that this isn’t exactly realistic for the average person. (Nor is her suggestion of foam rolling post-twerk if I were a real overachiever.) But, to be fair, she’s a professional who’s seen with her own eyes what a difference this diligence can make. “Our dancers [who are patients] also struggle with this,” she says. “They might finish a show late at night, and they don’t want to take the time to stretch after. They want to go home and go to bed, the same way that people who are out clubbing until 3 A.M. do.” Fair.
Beyond that, McIntyre says I could try “using the principles of exercise training and slowly progressing to build strength and function” to get better at twerking. Working on all of the aforementioned muscle groups through cross-training activities like yoga and Pilates could be a start, she explains. I could also take a few dance classes to brush up on my actual skills since my twerk deficiencies extend beyond strength and endurance.
Another way to help my struggle-twerk? Surprisingly, slipping on some high heels, which McIntyre says can make it easier to squat. Heels aren’t recommended for daily wear (or regular squats, obviously), since they place unnecessary force on the feet, ankles, knees, hips, and low back. But McIntyre says that grabbing a pair with a wider base, like a wedge, could help for short twerking spurts. Some experts posit that the way heels shift weight and body alignment can create a more pronounced curve of the lower back. (Basically, they’d make my butt stick out.) McIntyre does provide a few caveats: Wearing heels that are too high for me might actually work against me by making it harder to get into a squat and retain balance, and wearing heels does increase the chance of ankle injury overall.
Ultimately, whether you’re a spectator, a participant, or you’re not entirely sure what I’m talking about, it’s wise to respect the athleticism involved in Pete’s performance. She makes it look easy when she bends down, shakes, and tells us all to put our hands on our knees. Knowing what I’d have to do to make that a reality, instead of dropping low, I might just choose to stan.