September 29, 2021 10 min read
While it is true that there’s a lot of gimmicks in the fitness industry, there’s also equipment that can revamp the way you train and the gains you make. And when it comes to the largest joint in your body—the knee—it makes sense that you’re going to want to keep it healthy and functional.
This is where knee sleeves and knee wraps come in. Two popular methods of giving your knee added support and helping your lifts, these tools can be a boon to those who know how to use them in the correct situations.
However, they’re also extremely similar when you first approach them, which leads to some obvious questions. Which one’s better? Which one should I use? Are there any special considerations to make? Further below we’ll break down these questions and more to ensure that you don’t have any knee’d for trial-and-error approach.
As we mentioned, the knee is the largest joint in the body. And in this case, size does matter since you’re going to be using the knee for a very wide variety of movements in athletics and sports. Anything from a light jog to a heavy deadlift will hinge on a properly functioning knee. But how does a properly functioning knee, function?
Along with athletic feats, the knee allows us to jump, stand up, sit, and squat down. Made up of three bones (the femur, tibia, and shin), the knee is a hinge-type synovial joint allowing for flexion, extension, and a little bit of rotation. To keep everything in working order, there’s synovial fluid inside of the joint which lubricates things for easier movement.
Along with this already anatomy-heavy overlook of the knee, there are even more components that go into a functioning knee. The bottom line is that the knee is extremely complex and extremely important, meaning you should take extremely good care of it. Knee wraps and knee sleeves are two tools that can help in this regard.
We’ll briefly touch on the different methods of protecting your knee before going into each one in more detail. The knee brace deserves a mention as well, even if it’s not the focus of this article. It’s usually more structured than a sleeve or a wrap and used specifically to allow people to regain their knee strength and range of motion.
It limits the amount you can move and helps with knee issues such as:
However, make sure to talk to an orthopedic doctor before going the knee brace route. The knee wrap, on the other hand, is a longer strip of elastic material that is meant to wrap around the joint tightly.
This is used to improve squat performance since the wrap stores elastic energy in the downward phase of the lift. The energy is released as mechanical output during the upward phase of the lift. In some cases, it can improve your lift by 75 lbs.
Knee sleeves are slipped over the knee rather than wrapped around tightly, but they still provide some compression. This allows for an improvement in blood follow, and reduction in swelling and pain by keeping the joints warmed up. These are more versatile than wraps since they allow for a wider range of motion while also giving some additional stability (but not as much as wraps).
As we mentioned, wraps are used to restrict the movement in the knee joint and store elastic energy on the downward movement in the squat. At the bottom of the squat, your knees are going to want to spring back up due to the wrapping. This is also helpful in reducing the tension placed on knee joints and quadriceps.
You’ll often find that they’re made from polyester canvas material, with rubber interwoven throughout it. They’re also often 72 inches long and 3 inches wide, but different variations exist. Some versions will have Velcro to secure them in place, while others you can simply tuck in to stay in place. There are also different methods of tying them up, but it mostly comes down to personal preference.
There’s also a variation called Russian knee wraps. As the name suggests, you’ll often see Russian powerlifters using them. Along with Russian powerlifters, they’re also popular in Olympic weightlifting and squatting deeper. The material factors into this choice, since it’s much thinner and longer than the conventional knee wrap. This means you can get a wider range of motion, which is sometimes required, or wanted.
The biggest benefit of knee wraps is the improvement in squat performance. This is why they’re basically essential in powerlifting, and can be used to increase your 1 rep max. This is due to the tension that’s stored in the tightly bound wrap on the way down. As you press into the ground, that energy is released and allows you to stand up easier.
A study from 2012 looking at back squats showed significant improvements in the mechanics and the power output when using a knee wrap.
One of the key findings was that horizontal barbell displacement was cut by 39%. This is a big plus in terms of stability since you want the bar traveling in the most optimal path—vertically.
If the path of the bar varies significantly on the horizontal plane, you’re not going to get the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to power transfer. This added stability along with the storage of elastic energy makes knee wraps a terrific piece of equipment for heavier weights.
There’s also something to be said about injury prevention and knee wraps. Since the tightness reduces the space between your tendons, there’s a reduction in the chances of sustaining certain injuries. Wraps also reduce unnecessary stress on your quads. However, there are other things to consider when looking at the potential for injury.
The thing with wraps is that they’re only going to make you stronger when it comes to numbers—you’re not actually going to be stronger. Since they’re used as an aid to store energy and maintain stability, this won’t really have an effect on your muscular development.
Another thing to consider is that they’re very constrictive. Not only does this lead to additional friction between the patella and the cartilage in the knee, but it also changes the mechanics of the squat. This will slightly shift how your muscles are targeted, and therefore, which muscles develop. These two factors can potentially have some unwanted effects on the health of your knee joint.
Knee sleeves also go over your knees, but instead of being tightly wrapped, they’re slipped on like—you guessed it—a sleeve. Forgoing the restrictions of wraps, knee sleeves are made of Neoprene and opt for breathability and optimal comfort foremost. However, they’ll also offer some level of compression on the knee, but not as much as with knee wraps. Their main function is to keep the joint warm and slightly compressed, helping you avoid future injuries and more easily recover.
These usually come in two different thicknesses: 5mm and 7mm. You’ll want to opt for the thinner variant if you’re looking to use sleeves for activities that require more mobility and agility, such as running, basketball, or CrossFit. On the other hand, a thicker sleeve can be useful for additional compression and support when it comes to doing heavier lifts—either squatting or even deadlifting. However, watch out when it comes to choosing thick sleeves for deadlifts since they can get in the way of the bar.
Although compression sleeves don’t offer the same amount of compression as wraps, they still provide enough for them to be noticeably useful. Wearing knee sleeves works to increase blood flow to the area, which in turn helps to reduce any swelling and knee pain during or after the exertion.
The blood flow will also help to keep the knee warmer than it otherwise would be. Both these factors together make the sleeve a great way to ward off potential injuries while weightlifting.
Because of this compression, knee sleeves will also improve your stability during lifts and offer some knee support. Once again, this is due to the restriction placed on patella movement, which will give you some added support when moving laterally in terms of improved balance.
Due to these factors, knee sleeves can also help to slightly boost your performance, but nowhere near the amount offered by knee wraps. Regardless, they’re a very popular choice with all kinds of athletes for a reason.
Since they don’t add anything that revamps the mechanics of movement, there really aren’t any cons to using knee sleeves. The only thing to keep in mind is that they’re not meant to be used on an already injured knee—they’re only a tool to preventing potential injuries. For this, a brace is probably a better idea. Also, keep in mind that this isn’t going to boost your performance meteorically, so don’t attempt lifts that would otherwise be too heavy for you.
Now that we’ve looked at the pros and cons of each, you already probably have a better idea of which one is best for you and your fitness goals. Let’s start off with the knee wraps.
The key with knee wraps is to remember that they don’t make you stronger, and in fact, they’ll make your training less effective due to the added mechanical advantages. Although you might hit a new PR, your muscles won’t be working as hard to achieve the standard results.
However, this also means knee wraps are extremely useful if you’re either going for a big lift (such as your 1 rep max) or are training for a powerlifting competition. While their usage is much more niche than other pieces of equipment, knee wraps do have a very important place to fill in any gym rat’s toolbelt.
There are many different ways of tying wraps around your knees, and it mostly comes down to comfort. However, you are going to want to ensure that you’re doing it correctly. Having a large amount of tension across your knee at all times is essential for properly using this tool. The most popular methods of wrapping include the Sub X Method, the Spiral Method, and the Figure 8.
Knee wraps were built for squats, and they’ve been a mainstay in this area for a very long time. However, even professionals usually don’t put them on until they’re just about ready to lift since the added pressure is usually too much for extended periods of time.
If you’re squatting more casually or bodybuilding, knee wraps aren’t really necessary or even useful, in most circumstances. If you’re bodybuilding, you’ll be focusing on lower to mid weights with more reps, which isn’t what wraps were meant for.
You’ll also want to avoid knee wraps when you’re deadlifting because of all of the added restrictions in the knee joint. For one, they’ll prove to be a barrier as you’re trying to move the bar upward along your shins and over your knee. And secondly, they’ll likely store too much power, locking out your knees too fast when you reach the top of the movement.
The one exception to this rule is with sumo deadlifts since the wider stance and mechanics are more similar to a squat. Nevertheless, this is still usually not the way it’s done.
While knee wraps are specialized, knee sleeves are useful for their versatility. And unlike wraps, these can be used by simply slipping them over your leg instead of doing any tying. Although they are versatile, you should be using them for specific reasons instead of a general idea of added stability. They also shouldn’t be used with the assumption that they’ll fix a knee injury—you’ll likely need a knee brace for that.
This versatility allows knee sleeves to be used for a variety of fitness needs, however. They’re allowed in powerlifting competitions, although certain restrictions can apply depending on the meet and the regulations.
Knee sleeves are also extremely popular in CrossFit, largely due to the fact that they help people recover faster from brutal workout routines. You’ll also find a lot of basketball players using them for the same reason, with the sport being particularly detrimental to the knee joint. Runners can also use sleeves, but this will largely be a question of comfort. More than likely, you’ll want to opt for a thinner variation that gives you more range of motion.
And while knee sleeves shouldn’t be used for the sole purpose of fixing an already injured knee, they can be used for pain relief since the compression helps. This even extends to relieving arthritis, but a doctor should be consulted before going down this route.
Although you shouldn’t expect knee wrap-level results with knee sleeves, they can also help you when it comes to squatting. This help mostly comes down to the added lateral stability which prevents you from moving from side to side. And as we mentioned, they’ll keep your joints warm which will increase mobility, recovery, and decrease the risks of injury.
The placebo effect should also be mentioned: even though they don’t store the elastic energy of wraps, they can give you the impression of added strength when squatting.
The same restrictions to deadlifting with knee wraps don’t apply to the sleeves. However, much like with running, you will want to choose a type that’s on the thinner side of things. You can even go as far as wrapping your shins with knee sleeves in order to add some comfort when the bar comes up across your shins. Either way, the versatility of sleeves depends largely on their thickness.
While wraps tend to come in a one-size-fits-all, knee sleeves are a different matter. For optimal performance and comfort, it’s therefore important to get the right size. If you find that you’re between sizes, go for the lower one. Measuring the right knee sleeve size comes down to measuring the circumference of your leg.
You’ll need to bend your knee at about a 30-degree angle, and using a measuring tape, measure the circumference of your leg around 4 inches below the knee cap. This should give you a good idea of which knee sleeve to buy when comparing this measurement to the sizing chart of the brand.
By now you should have a fairly good idea of whether knee wraps or knee sleeves are the way to go for you. The best knee sleeves or wraps for you are going to come down to your specific goals and where you are right now, in terms of athletic ability.
If you’re looking to lift heavy weights and max out your squats, knee wraps are the obvious choice. But a more versatile training approach will find a lot of use with the knee sleeves.
Your knee joint is important, and it’s therefore important to take good care of it. With these tools and a proper training routine that emphasizes nutrition and your personal athletic goals, you’ll be lifting far into the future.