Walk into any CrossFit box, Olympic weightlifting or powerlifting gym today and you’ll be sure to find a few athletes wearing knee sleeves or wraps while they workout. Wraps and sleeves are some of the most common accessories for barbell training. However, when it comes to how and when to actually use them, most people are left clueless.
- Do knee sleeves decrease knee pain?
- Do knee wraps help you lift more weight?
- Does the technique of wrapping your knees affect your performance?
If you’ve asked yourself any of these questions before, than you’ve come to the right place. Today we are going to set the bar straight and tell you everything you need to know about these commonly misunderstood training tools.
What is the Difference?
Lets start by clearing up the most common question people have: what is the difference between knee sleeves and knee wraps?
Knee sleeves are compression garments (often made from a soft neoprene material) that surround the entire knee joint. They come in a variety of thicknesses and the snug design allow your knees to stay warm throughout the training session. There are some that believe that the physical sensation of wearing knee sleeves can help give the athlete better awareness of their knee positioning while lifting and therefore potentially improve technique.
Today there are a number of different manufactures of knee sleeves, however Rehband sleeves are often the most poplar amongst athletes.
Knee wraps are constructed from a thick polyester canvas that is interwoven with small rubber filaments (1). These wraps, which are often 2 meters (78.7 inches) in length and roughly 8 cm (3.1 inches) in width, are wrapped around the athlete’s knees as tight as possible (either in a spiral or figure 8 technique).
What makes the wrap different than a sleeve is the mechanical advantage that is created as the elastic material (rubber filament) is stretched during the lowering phase of the squat. (2) Just like a spring being pulled into a stretched position, the elastic properties of the wraps store this energy and then transfer it to the lifter during the ascent of the lift. In fact, research has shown that wearing knee wraps can lead to 20% more speed out of the bottom of the squat (2).
*Revised comment: There are some knee new sleeves on the market that are manufactured to fit extremely tight around your knee and can give a small amount of elastic rebound compared to wraps (the majority of sleeves however do not).
The use of these wraps is common in the sport of powerlifting but not in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, as they can be very restricting for receiving the barbell in the deep bottom of the snatch and clean movements. While you may see some Olympic weightlifters use a knee wrap that resembles those of traditional thick powerlifting style, they are often constructed from a much softer cotton blend that only keeps the knees warm and do not add any mechanical advantage to the lift.
Does it matter how you wrap your knees?
There are two traditional methods used when wrapping the knees: a “spiral” and “x technique” or “cross over figure-8”. In 2015, a study was carried out that examined if there was any significant difference in the amount of mechanical assistance (called “carry-over”) between the two wrapping methods. Interestingly, they did NOT find any difference between the two! (3)
Here’s a great video from Mark Bell and Matt Vincent demonstrating how to wrap your knees.
When Should You Wear Them?
Because knee sleeves do not directly improve performance (like the tightly worn knee wrap) they may be worn as often as you like. However, they should NOT be worn to cover up pain. I often find athletes will resort to buying a pair of sleeves in an attempt to fix aches and pains of the knee joint. This is NOT what they are meant for. If you are dealing with knee pain, I suggest finding WHY the issue started instead of trying to cover it up with sleeves or other methods (medication, ice, warming ointments, etc).
Knee wraps on the other hand, need to be worn sparingly. Research shows that using wraps may change your squatting technique by forcing you into a more upright position (2). What this means is that there may be less contribution during the lift from your powerful hip extensors (glutes). With extended use it is theorized this could restrict the development of these muscles and potentially lead to compromised stability of the knee joint itself (2). For this reason, it is recommended that athletes who want to use knee wraps only use them for their heaviest training sessions and/or during powerlifting meets.
Using knee wraps or sleeves are going to be personal decision. There are many great barbell athletes who do not use either, and there are some that use either wraps or sleeves depending on the goal of their training session.
Knee wraps can be a great accessory to help you lift heavy weight. If you do decide to use wraps, I recommend using it only during your heaviest sessions. The knee wraps should not be used as a crutch to every day training.
Until next time,
- Harman E & Frykman P. The effects of knee wraps on weightlifting performance and injury. J Strength Cond Res. 1990; 12:30-35
- Lake JP, Carden PJC, Shorter KA. Wearing knee wraps affects mechanical output and performance characteristics of back squat exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2012; 26(10):2844-2849
- Marchetti PH, Matos VJP, Soares EG, Silva JJ et al. Can the technique of knee wrap placement affect the maximal isometric force during back squat exercise? Int J Sports Sci. 2015; 5:1-5