There’s that old joke about ask a guy how much he benches and he’ll give you a specific number, but ask him how much he squats and he’ll give you a history of knee injuries. This article is to explain the uses and nuances of knee support within lifting – whether you’re a CrossFitter, powerlifter, bodybuilder or Olympic lifter. Also, whether you’re using knee sleeves or knee wraps.
Knees and Sleeves
Obviously, the knee joint is a very important part of your body. If it is not functioning correctly you are unlikely to be able to walk; squat down, or even; bear your own weight.
Regardless of what faction of lifting you are from (e.g. Functional Fitness, powerlifting, bodybuilding or Olympic), you should always be training with the idea of looking after you and your body. Your knees are important and therefore should be looked after.
So, why would one choose to use sleeves? As a powerlifter, the answer is generally because I am allowed to do so in my federation, and if it helps me add more KGs to my total then hell, yes, I’m going to do it. However, for this article, I’ll try and be more informative.
Knee sleeves are a neoprene sleeve which you slide up your calves and over your knees for during squatting and its variations. They help to compress and warm the joint. The increased warmth and pressure can help avoid any tendon pain caused by cooling down too quickly.
If they are sized so that they fit and are comfortable they will help with this warming of the joint but won’t necessarily add anything to your squat. It isn’t unheard of for competitors to wear sleeves that are a size or two too small for them. This basically gives them a little bit of a spring at the bottom of the squat. This is uncomfortable, and will restrict blood flow in that area if you are going to do this you’re likely to wear regular sized ones for training and then tighter ones for competition.
You could see them a little bit like wrist wraps which you remove in between bench press attempts to regain some blood flow to your hands, however, knee sleeves would be incredibly hard to get on and off due to your quadriceps pumping up and the amount of sweat on your legs and that has been absorbed by the sleeves themselves.
In this sense, wearing them can save you some pain by keeping them warm, but wearing them tactically could also squeeze a few more kilos out of your squat.
Before we move on from knee sleeves, I want to touch upon a couple more points. The psychological element of them, and what they do not help with.
Firstly, some people will find that the feeling of something literally hugging their knees makes them feel more secure and removes a niggling feeling of concern about their knees from their thoughts when going for a heavy squat. This psychological element is massive, if they mean the difference between concentrating on a lift and worrying during the attempt then the hundred-odd dollars you would spend on a pair SBD sleeves could be a cheap investment.
Secondly, what they don’t help with: People who suffer from valgus knees, or when their knee tracks inwards during a squat will think that knee sleeves will help with this. It can’t.
Think about it, if your knee is coming inwards it is not the knee that is at fault, it is something higher up, closer to the pivot point of your hip. It is much more likely to be a weakness in the glute muscles or hips. If you do suffer from this, you need to see a physiotherapist rather than buy a pair of sleeves.
Knee wraps are a different kettle of fish entirely to knee sleeves. They’re long, thick, uncomfortable and a nightmare to get on and off. They are also only allowed in certain competitions and federations. In the IPF Sleeves would be Raw/Classic, while Wraps would be Equipped.
They are made of a stiffer, stretchy material that is usually in the region of 2 metres to 2.5 metres in length, usually about 8cm in width also. These are pulled and wrapped around the lifter’s knee incredibly tightly and can improve a squat by a considerable number. It is hard to compare how much weight a pair of knee wraps can add as they are often accompanied by a squat suit and other equipment. However, it wouldn’t be unheard of for it to add 30-35kg on to a person’s squat.
Should you use them? – And if so, which ones?
With things like knee sleeves, or any supportive equipment, it’s always best for the individual to trial them and then go from there. If you’re getting knee pain, or if you want to add some KGs to your squat then it could be worth you are trialling either wraps or sleeves.
Which you use could be dependent upon many factors, such as –
- Are you a competitor? Which does your federation allow? Wraps or sleeves? Which brands/styles do they allow?
- Do you train alone? – Knee wraps are hard to do by yourself, maybe go for sleeves if you’re uninitiated.
- Do you have enough time to put them on during a workout?
The last point may seem a little facetious, however, knee wraps take a while to put on properly, and they hurt when done correctly. Sleeves on the other hand, particularly if sized smaller as discussed above, can be hard just get over your calves, never mind your knees. This is even more of an issue if you have any kind of pump in your legs.
Where to look for them
How to Pick
If you’re a competitor and you go for sleeves you will need to check which ones are on your federation’s approved list. Normally the 7mm thick ones would be competition standard, whereas the 3mm or 5mm options are more suited for recreational gym use.
Beyond this, it would just be trial and error over which you find the most beneficial and comfortable (unlikely to find ones you’d call comfortable though…).
To Sum Up
Your knees are important, they’re great, so make sure you look after them. If you find that using sleeves or wraps makes them feel a little nicer during training then use them. If you’re after the most strength possible then you go for wraps and deal with the discomfort of having them correctly wrapped.
If you are having knee pain, wraps and sleeves can help, but you’re better off getting this checked out first. Your knee pain may be related to a muscle imbalance or injury elsewhere rather than the knee itself.
About the Author:
Danny Lee is a Powerlifting Coach based in Liverpool, England. He is the Manager/Head Coach of Taylor’s Strength Training, which houses two of the largest Powerlifting Teams in the Northwest Division of British Powerlifting.
He has been coaching since 2013 and competing since 2014. When not competing, he spends his time writing and has been featured on websites across the UK and Canada.