What Knee Sleeves Do, Why You Need Them, and Which Ones to Get
This is an awesome time to be alive and be a meathead. Recreational fitness trends have really moved away from machines and steady-state cardio, making a drastic shift towards heavier barbell oriented training and higher intensity interval modalities. This paradigm is quickly emerging in the mainstream “normies” everyday life. You know them. Those people that originally just joined the gym for a way to stave off old age, death, and weakness for as long as possible. Common gym small talk that used to be about how many plates were utilized on the stack for overhead concentration curl machine is now technical conversations about transitioning to second pulls and max hang clean weight. With this massive surge of heavy lifting popularity, we have access to more options than ever for lifting accessories. In no market is that growth more apparent than with the newest generation of knee sleeves.
For clarification's sake, I want to make the distinction between knee sleeves and knee wraps. The similarities between these two common accessories lead to some misconceptions about both. Both are used during training and both cover the knees for added safety. Knee wraps are typically 1 to 2 meters long and made out of stretchy/elastic material. Lifters wrap these tightly around their knees for safety and performance enhancement reasons. Sleeves are typically made from neoprene and simply slide on the knee without any wrapping or too much effort involved. Here are some more quick and dirty differences
- Require wrapping
- Require skill to use correctly
- Stored elastic properties allow for more weight to be lifted
- Only limited for use on knee dominant lower body movements (squats, leg press, etc.)
- Numerous different wrapping techniques
- Slide on
- Require no skill to use
- Do not help the lifter move more weight
- Can be used on every lower body exercise
- Keep the knees warm
- Proprioceptive feedback helps with proper knee tracking during numerous hip and knee dominant exercises
Hopefully, that helps to clear up that common misunderstanding. With that figured out, the next logical question is, “Do I need knee sleeves?” The answer is 100%, YES. Any serious heavy lifter and gym newbie alike can benefit from the host of positive effects that goes with wearing a good pair of sleeves.
Knee sleeves keep your knees warm
I know this point probably has most people saying, “Well, duh! Neoprene is the same stuff they use to make wetsuits. Of course, it’s warm.” A warm knee is a knee less likely to get injured. Hopefully, everyone reading this takes their training seriously enough that they engage in some kind of structured full-body warm-up before getting after it in the weight room. Good sleeves will help trap in that heat from the warm-up and keep locked in the whole session. The muscles around the knee move smoothly and at a reduced risk of injury when they are warm. Also, warmth stimulates synovial fluid in the knee. This is the body’s natural 10w-40. More synovial fluid ensures all the muscular and tendinous sliding surfaces don’t catch and cause undue wear and tear.
Knee sleeves don’t mess with your movement
Unlike knee wraps, knee sleeves do not impede movements like running, jumping, dragging or carrying heavy stuff, and basically every other modality. Knee sleeves stretch over the knee capsule and bunch up in on the posterior side as you descend in a squat, leg press, and basically every time you flex at the knee when it’s wrapped tight. This bunching effect helps spring out of the hole in a squat but is incredibly limiting during running, moving, and carrying exercises. Contrary to popular internet opinions, sleeves do not store and elastic energy. In layman terms, since most neoprene sleeves don’t stretch/bunch, they don’t limit the functional range of motion and they don’t directly result in lifting more weight on movements like squats and leg presses. In terms of versatility, sleeves have almost infinite applications for your exercise selections.
Sleeves reinforce good movement patterns
Proprioception. No, it’s not just a 22 point word in scrabble. Proprioception is basically your body's awareness of space when doing a given movement. Knee sleeves have been reported to drastically improve a lifters awareness of where his or her knees are tracking during squats. If you’ve made it this far into the post, I’ll assume you understand the importance of proper knee tracking during the back squat exercise. Too much knee travel forward, out to the sides (varus), or, worst of all, in towards each other (valgus) can spell disaster. Getting stronger, leaner, and/or fitter takes time and energy. You definitely don’t want to spend most of that time with your knees moving in the wrong direction. Tactile cues (i.e. touching) works wonders for teaching, improving, and reinforcing good technique. The compression of the sleeve around your knee acts as an excellent tactile stimulus to keep you aware of exactly what your knee is doing.
Knee sleeves make more work feel easier
One of the lesser mentioned (probably because it’s not well known) benefits of using knee sleeves is the effect it has on the perceived amount of physical exertion during exercise. Basically, all compression garments, in general, can have a significant psychological performance enhancement effect on a lifter/athlete. Numerous studies have suggested these types of garments, including knee sleeves, can lower the self-reported perceived exertion of a given exercise/series of exercises. This means that simply putting on accessories like these can make hard work in the gym and under a bar feel less hard for you. Your ability to do more quality hard work without tiring out is key to continued progress.
I know there are hundreds of options available for different knee sleeves. For simplicities sake, I am going to break them down into two groups: 5mm and 7mm sleeves. The “mm” refers to how many millimetres thick the neoprene of the sleeve is. It may not sound like much, but that extra 2mm makes a HUGE difference in deciding which kind you need. All of the above information covered above applies to both styles of sleeves, but here are some key activity related differences:
5mm sleeve activities:
- Longer distance heavy object carrying or dragging
- Workouts requiring a lot of jumping reps
- Running/jogging sessions
- Team sport activities
7mm sleeve activities:
- Short distance object carrying or dragging
- Max effort squats and deadlifts
- Powerlifting, Strongman, and Weightlifting
Even though either style of sleeve works great for pretty much any physical modality, picking the correct one appropriate for the task you are trying to complete is key. A good rule of thumb for most gym-goers:
If your workouts typically resemble more of a CrossFit style workout and/or you aren’t hitting the weights heavy all the time and/or are just a regular gym-goer who just likes some more intense work once in a while, the 5mm sleeve is perfect for you. Do you live for pushing the weights and smashing personal bests as often as possible? Get the 7mm sleeves and your knees will thank you in the long run.