Knee sleeves are a staple in the lifting world, not only in powerlifting but body building, strongman, Olympic weightlifting and in strength training in general. But why do we wear them? I started wearing knee sleeves about 6 months into lifting seriously because:
A. Michael told me I needed to keep my knees warm, blah, blah, blah.
B. He said they would add weight to my squats. SOLD.
Now is there more to knee sleeves than keeping your knees warm and adding strength? And do they really do these things? I have heard more than a few times that lifters are too dependent on their knee sleeves and become dependent on them. Is this true?
The idea behind knee sleeves and wraps is that the elastic material stretches during the eccentric phase/lowering and stores energy. This energy is then returned during the concentric phase/lifting and will assist with standing from the squat.
What’s out there
They make my knees feel better
A study by Mazzuca, et al. looked at the effects of wearing knee sleeves that retained heat and joint pain and stiffness. The subjects reported a significant decrease in pain throughout the trial. However, the study had participants wear the sleeves for 12 hours a day so this can not be directly correlated to lifting. This same affect was found in a study by Bryk, et al. where the participants experienced significant pain decrease during the tasks of a stair climb test, the TUG and a 8 meter walk test. Again unfortunately not entirely relatable to powerlifting.
They make me stronger
The research here varies depending on what you look at. Knee wraps have been shown to store energy resulting in an increase of approximately 22% in force during the concentric phase. This translated to an increase in approximately 10% of peak power with a decrease in the lowering and lifting phase duration as shown in a study by Lake, et al.
In a different study by Gomes, et al. 2014, they found an increase in maximal isometric force regardless if soft or hard wraps were used when compared to a non wrapped condition. However, these squats were performed without weight and used isometric forces for measurement.
In a study by Gomes, et al. 2015, they found that the use of knee wraps decreased muscle activation of the vastus lateralis at 90% as compared to a no wrap condition. This could be hypothelated that the knee wraps can assist in the ascent with less stress placed on the vastus lateralis (quadriceps). Additionally they found that there was no difference in RPE in knee wrap v. non wrapped conditions across the same loads.
My squat form is better
It is hypothesized that knee wraps and sleeves can assist with form by decreasing the amount of horizontal displacement due to the wedge-like force behind the knees cause the participant to remain more upright. However, others consider the force behind the knees to greatly alter normal squat mechanics of the lifter. Lake et al. found a significant change in the horizontal displacement during the lowering and the lifting phase resulting in the participant squatting with a more upright trunk posture and increased knee flexion. They found this was a significant change in form from the non wrapped condition and may result in decreased muscle mass of the hips due to less stress on these areas.
A study by Van Tiggelen, et al. looked at joint proprioception (where your joints are in space) and fatigue. They found that in fatigued conditions, those that were braced with a neoprene knee sleeve experienced improved joint position sense. Furthermore, those with poor baseline proprioception activity benefited from the sleeves in all conditions.
**It is important to note that there was difficulty finding research on just knee sleeves. Much of the research was based off wearing knee wraps. Those studies that did look at knee sleeves did such in a way that was not super applicable to powerlifting. Thus take it all with a grain of salt.
While the research out there varies, I have personally found a huge benefit to wearing knee sleeves.
Yes my knees feel better.
Not only do they stay “warmer” but the compression also relieves a lot of popping I get in my knees.
I can squat more.
Maybe some of it’s placebo BUT I also use the rebound to my benefit. While I don’t bounce heavily out of the bottom, I will get a small bounce in the hole from the sleeves to help the concentric phase.
Training v. Competition Sleeves
So we’re left with the question, do you wear sleeves or not? My personal thought is that the new lifter should focus on learning correct form without adding assistance from knee sleeves. As form becomes more cemented, knee sleeves can be gradually introduced. I personally don’t buy into knee sleeves are a crutch. I can still squat without knee sleeves and warm-up regularly without them.
Now one thing we haven’t discussed is the use of tighter sleeves for competitions. The idea is the tighter the sleeve, the more rebound you’re going to get and potentially more weight lifted.
Again, newbie lifters should worry about getting used to wearing sleeves and use that same pair for competition. As you progress you can transition to a training pair and a competition pair. Which is good because let me tell you my training pair smellllls.
I have only trained in SBD sleeves so I will tell you I am automatically biased towards them. But I find them to be a great thick pair at reasonable price. My training pair is one size smaller than I measured and my competition pair is two sizes down. I typically wear my competition sleeves starting a week prior to the meet to get used to them because they do have the tendency to make my feet go numb. I have found wearing deadlift socks and folding the sleeve in half has been the most successful for me in getting them on.
One last note. I just discussed knee sleeves and my preferences. In regards to knee wraps I have not personally tried wrapping my knees at this point. The biggest tip I can give on wraps is to please please practice with them prior to a meet. This seems like common sense but you’d be surprised.
Let me know what you thought of this article and what you’d like to see next!
*Citations available upon request*