knee wraps vs knee sleeves

Everything you 'K'NEED to know about knee wraps and knee sleeves

June 06, 2021

Now that gyms are opening up again, it’s time for me to get back to the squat rack. I’m noticing more and more people these days wearing some type of wrap or sleeves on their knees, it got me thinking a few things.

  • Which are better knee wraps or knees sleeves?
  • What are the differences between knee wraps and knee sleeves?
  • What are the benefits of knee wraps and knee sleeves?
  • Should I use knee wraps or knee sleeves for squats?

Well, I did some digging and long story short, knee wraps can boost your squat while knee sleeves are used to keep the muscles warm, increase blood flow, improve stability and reduce knee pain/swelling.

This article will take a deeper dive into these lifting accessories and explore the pros and cons, plus give some tips of how to use them best.

WHAT IS THE KNEE AND HOW DOES IT WORK?

Before we get into the nitty gritty of knee wraps and knee sleeves, we should probably go over the anatomy of the knee and how it works. The knee joint is the largest joint in the human body. It is a hinge type synovial joint that allows for flexion and extension as well as a small amount of medial and lateral rotation. The knee enables us to sit, stand up, squat, run and jump. There are three bones in the knee including the femur, tibia and shin bone. The synovial fluid in the knee joint provides the much-needed lubrication and nutrient delivery of this extremely active joint.

Besides the three bones that comprise the knee, there are articulating surfaces, menisci, bursae and ligaments. We won’t get into a full anatomy lesson but there are many components that keep the knee functioning properly. The two lifting accessories we will cover; knee wraps and knee sleeves have drastically different effects on the knee.

are knee wraps or sleeves better

ARE KNEE WRAPS, KNEE SLEEVES AND KNEE BRACES THE SAME THING?

No, all three of these accessories aren’t the same and they should be used in different circumstances. Although they may look similar and are all used on the knee, they have some major differences.

Let’s take a quick look at how knee wraps, knee sleeves and knee braces shouldn’t be confused.  

Knee Wraps: A long strip of elastic canvas that is wrapped around the knee joint to improve squat performance, sometimes up to as much as 75lbs. Knee wraps have a very specific usage;  add power and strength to your back squat aiding you in setting a new 1 rep max.

Knee Sleeves: A sleeve that slips over the knee to provide heat and compression. This helps to improve blood flow, reduce pain and swelling and keep the joint warmed up. Knee sleeves can help prevent injury and are a versatile tool as they allow for more movement while also providing extra stability. Some people use knee sleeves to alleviate mild pain like arthritis.

Knee Braces: A brace that comes in different shapes and designs. There are various types of knee braces, some with rigid structures like hinges that help protect knees after previous injuries or surgeries. Knee braces usually provide limited range of motion to help people slowly regain their knee strength. If you need a knee brace then your orthopedic doctor can recommend the best knee brace for your situation.

KNEE WRAPS VS KNEE SLEEVES

Time to get to the good stuff, battle of the knee accessories, which reigns supreme. The short answer; if you are trying to set a new PR or max back squats then knee wraps should be the go to choice. One the other hand (or knee) if you're looking for a weightlifting accessory to help prevent injury, improve stability and reduce pain then knee sleeves are for you.

Knee Wraps:

WHAT ARE KNEE WRAPS?

Knee wraps are usually made of a polyester canvas with interlaced with rubber filaments. Most knee wraps you will find online these days are around 72 inches or longer and have a width of around 3 inches. Knee wraps can be wrapped in a number of ways. Knee wrapping methods are usually based on personal preference although there are some common practices. To complete the wrapping, they will be secured by Velcro (hook & loop) or by tucking in or tying the loose end. Knee wraps restrict movement of the knee joint and give an extra boost of power on the back side of a squat. They also can help to reduce the stress and tension placed on the knee joint and the quadriceps during back squats.

BENEFITS OF KNEE WRAPS

  • Improve your squat: A study done in 2012 showed that wearing knee wraps improved the performance and mechanical output of back squats. This study had 10 men perform 6 single back squats, 3 reps wearing knee wraps and 3 reps without them at 80% of their 1 rep max.

    Using the footage of a high-speed camera the researchers found that the wraps helped to reduce the horizontal barbell displacement by 39%. A lower horizontal barbell displacement is good because it will increase the squat efficiency, because it means as the bar is being lowered there is less range in the horizontal movement. The knee wraps also helped to increase the eccentric portion of the squat by 45%; most likely due to the transfer of elastic energy from the knee wrap. Lastly, the there was an increase in peak power of 10%.

    Knee wraps should not be worn during the strength and conditioning process, and perceived weakness in the knee joint should be assessed and treated.

    *One thing they noted was that knee wraps change back squat technique so it can potentially lead to injury.

  • Reduce Stress on Quadriceps: This study in 2015 had men in their 20’s complete 3 reps of back squats at 60% of their 1 rep max and 90% of their 1 rep max, with and without knee wraps. The concluded results showed that using knee wraps led to a decrease of the muscle activation of the vastus lateralis muscle in the quads by 90%!

ARE KNEE WRAPS BAD FOR YOU?

As in most things in life you have to take the good with the bad. Knee wraps can help you lift more weight as they aid in bouncing back from the bottom position of the squat as they store and release elastic energy helping to push you up.

Knee wraps don’t actually make you stronger and can be dangerous in certain situations because they are restrictive, adding to more friction between the cartilage and the patella. If you have weak knees or knee pain, these wraps can make it worst, possibly even creating joint issues such as arthritis. Also, as mentioned above knee wraps can drastically change the mechanics of a squat, altering the targeted musculature, therefore knee wraps can have some negative effects on the knee joint.

WHAT ARE RUSSIAN KNEE WRAPS?

Russian knee wraps are usually made from a mix of cotton PAN, PEF or PES and Lycra. These wraps are much thinner usually a bit longer than traditional knee wraps. Russian knee wraps are good for Olympic lifts and deeper squats where the thinner more flexible material will allow for a wider range of motion. And as in the namesake, you will often see the Russian powerlifters using these types of knee wraps.

HOW AND WHEN TO USE KNEE WRAPS?

Knee wraps should be used when you are trying to go for big lift, preparing for a powerlifting competition or trying for your 1 rep max. Knee wraps for most people aren’t necessary as they don’t make you stronger and will make your workouts less effective. Your muscles don’t have to work as hard when you’re using knee wraps so you will burn less calories as well.  

knee wraps for squats

HOW TO USE KNEE WRAPS

Everyone has their own preference when wrapping their knees but some common methods include the Spiral Method, Sub X Method, Cross Method. It is important to keep tension on the wraps the whole time you’re wrapping your knees.

Spiral Method:

  • Start with the wraps rolled up
  • Sit down on a bench and extend your leg
  • Hold one end of the knee wraps on your leg just under your extended leg’s knee cap
  • Start wrapping around your leg, tightly overlapping (half the width) of each layer as you go up your leg
  • Once you get to the top at your lower thigh you can either use the Velcro to secure them of you can tuck the loose end under the last layer.
  • Repeat with the other leg

Sub X Method:

  • Start with the wraps rolled up
  • Sit down on a bench and extend your leg
  • Hold one end of the knee wraps on your leg just under your extended leg’s knee cap
  • Wrap around your upper calf then bring up and across your knee then around the back of your knee then down across making an X in the front of your knee
  • Then spiral wrap back up to the top
  • Secure with Velcro or tuck in loose end
  • Switch Sides

Cross or Figure 8 Method:

  • Start with the wraps rolled up
  • Sit down on a bench and extend your leg
  • Hold one end of the knee wraps on your leg just under your extended leg’s knee cap
  • Start wrapping around your leg, tightly overlapping each layer as you go up your leg
  • Finish wrapping your knee by crossing over the wrap making a big X then loop over one more time and secure with Velcro or tuck in the loose end

NOTE: Either way you choose to wrap your knees you are aiming for the most stretch across the front of your knee and the most compression in the back. Try to wrap them going inwards towards the opposite leg.

knee wraps for lifting

WHAT'S THE BEST METHOD TO WRAP YOUR KNEES?

The best way to wrap your knees for squats is considered the cross method as it has been shown to improve the peak torque. Powerlifters might disagree on the best way to wrap the knees for heavier squats as it comes down to personal preference and results for the specific person. Although it is generally agreed up the the normal spiral method of knee wrapping without any crossover produces inferior results.

SQUATTING WITH KNEE WRAPS

Most professional powerlifters won’t wrap their knees until they are ready to start squatting as the pressure on the leg is too much to leave them on for long periods of time.

Knee wraps for lifting has been a mainstay in the powerlifting world for a long time as they can help boost squat performance. Bodybuilders generally don’t rely on using knee wraps for squats because their goal isn’t to add power or overall weight to their squat.

Related: Front Squats vs Back Squats

KNEE WRAPS FOR DEADLIFTS

Knee wraps aren't good for deadlifts because they produce too much compression that can negatively impact the form of the lift. The knee wraps can become an obstacle when moving the bar past your knees and might generate too much energy in propelling you upwards thus locking your knees too fast. Generally, powerlifters don’t use knee wraps for deadlifts but every once in a while, you might see a powerlifter using knee wraps for sumo deadlifts as the mechanics are a little closer to a squat.

ARE KNEE WRAPS ALLOWED IN POWERLIFTING?

The IPF doesn’t allow knee wraps to be used in raw powerlifting competitions. However, some federations may allow the use of knee wraps in competition the rules and specifications can differ place to place. If allowed, most powerlifting competitions don’t allow the knee wrap to go higher than 10cm (4in) above the patella.

KNEE WRAPS FOR PAIN

Knee wraps are not meant to be used to help alleviate any knee pain. The main function of knee wraps is to add weight to your squat. Knee wraps can actually cause pain for some because of the high compression and tension on the knee joint. Knee wraps can aggravate arthritis of the knees, be mindful of using knee wraps if you suffer from any knee issues.

KNEE WRAPS FOR SPORTS

Knee wraps aren’t meant for sports except for powerlifting. Some people might see athletes with something on their knees that they mistake for knee wraps but most likely these are knee sleeves, which we will get into soon. Knee wraps are very restrictive and hinder the range of movement of the knee joint, they apply a high amount of force and pressure leaving little to no benefits using them other than squatting.

SHOULD I WEAR MY KNEE WRAPS FOR MY ENTIRE WORKOUT?

No, you shouldn’t. As mentioned above knee wraps are equipment that should only be used to boost your performance in squats and only at a very specific time. If you’re trying to beat a personal record or are competing in a competition that allow knee wraps then you can use knee wraps to increase your squat. There's no need to use knee wraps for warming up or walking around the gym between exercises.

KNEE SLEEVES:

WHAT ARE KNEE SLEEVES?

Knee sleeves, are just that; Neoprene sleeves that you slide the leg into and pull up over the knees. Knee sleeves are made to allow for maximum comfort and breathe-ability while providing compression on the knee. Knee sleeves don’t put as much pressure or tension on your legs, instead they are meant to keep the joint warm while also providing some compression.

knee sleeves for lifting

BENEFITS OF KNEE SLEEVES

Knee sleeves have multiple benefits to wearing them. The main function and purpose of knee sleeves is to protect your knees from potential injuries.

  • Provide Compression: Knee sleeves fit snug on your knee joint resulting in a compression that helps to increase blood flow as well as reduce pain and swelling either during or after a workout; helping you to recover quicker. This compression also keeps your knee joint warm aiding in the prevention of possible injuries.
  • Improve Stability: Knee sleeves support and help to stabilize your knee by restraining the movement of the patella. This is why you will see many athletes wearing knee sleeves while training. Knee sleeves also give extra support for lateral movements and can improve your proprioception (balance).

DOWNFALLS OF KNEE SLEEVES

There really aren’t any downsides of knee sleeves unless you try to over exert yourself thinking that the knee sleeves will turn you into an Olympic athlete. Something important to note about knee sleeves are that they can help prevent injuries but they aren’t intended to be used for an already injured or unstable knee.

HOW AND WHEN TO USE KNEE SLEEVES

There isn’t much of a learning curve in using knee sleeves as you simply slide your leg in then pull them up until they cover your knee. You should use knees sleeves for specific purposes and not to just use as a buttress of added stability. Knee sleeves are NOT knee braces so use them accordingly. Knee sleeves are good tools for certain sports and weightlifting.

KNEE SLEEVES FOR SQUATS

Yes, you can use knee sleeves while squatting but they won't increase your squat the same extent knee wraps can. Knee sleeves can give you extra support and stability during squats helping to prevent lateral movement. Knee sleeves can help your knee joints stay warm and mobile between squats sets. Beginner to intermediate lifters can use knee sleeves for squats to aid in form and technique. Knee sleeve may act as a placebo for giving you added strength thus increasing the amount you lift.

KNEE SLEEVES FOR DEADLIFTS

Wearing knee sleeves for deadlifts can give the same benefits; keep your knee joints warm, improve blood flow, help with recovery and give extra stability. However, you should be mindful when using knee sleeves for deadlifting because you will want to choose thinner knee sleeves so the bar can clear your knees with ease. Some lifters even use knee sleeves on their shins to protect their shins from scraping against the barbell. And in some cases, people use knee sleeves to game the system during competition as it’s hard to tell if the knees are completely locked out at the top of the deadlift. Overall, knees sleeves can be a great tool to use when deadlifting.

Related: 11 Deadlift Variations

knee sleeves for squats

CAN KNEE SLEEVES BE USED IN POWERLIFTING?

Yes, the IPF allows certain knee sleeves in raw powerlifting competitions. Knee sleeves should be made of Neoprene and shouldn’t exceed 30 cm(11.8in) in length or be thicker than 7mm. Rules can vary between different federations and competitions so it’s best to check the regulations on a case-by-case basis.

KNEE SLEEVES FOR CROSSFIT

You could probably walk into any Crossfit box in the world and you will se a few people using knee sleeves. Knee sleeves have the same benefits for Crossfit, they will help to warm up your knee joint faster and can provide faster recovery after a brutal WOD.

KNEE SLEEVES FOR BASKETBALL

You might see many NBA players wearing knee sleeves or leg sleeves these days because of the benefits of protecting knee from injury and helping to improve blood flow and stability. The amount of running and jumping can really take a toll on basketball player’s knees, so it’s no wonder why these accessories have become so popular.

KNEE SLEEVES FOR RUNNING

Similar to the benefits of using knee sleeves for Crossfit, using knee sleeves for running is good because they can give you added support and improve the blood flow in your joints thus aiding in quicker recovery after a long run. There are many types of knee sleeves with different thicknesses, and design so if you  use knee sleeves to run in then make sure you read various reviews before purchasing.

KNEE SLEEVES FOR PAIN

Knee sleeves can help reduce pain and swelling as the compression they offer improves blood flow to the knee joint. Some people with mild knee pain or arthritis use knee sleeves for pain management because of the compression on the patella tendon. Knee sleeves aren’t meant to treat serious injuries or help to rehabilitate people after surgeries.

KNEE SLEEVES FOR ARTHRITIS

Many people find relief from some arthritis pain by using knee sleeves. You should consult with your doctor before purchasing knee sleeves to help with arthritis. Your doctor or orthopedic doctor can better point you in the right direction on the type of knee sleeve you should use, how often you should use it or if you need a knee brace rather than a knee sleeve.

HOW OFTEN SHOULD I WASH MY KNEE SLEEVES?

Knee sleeves are notorious for creating some unpleasant odors. One of the benefits of knee sleeves is that they keep your knee joints warm which means they create more sweat and more sweat tends to equal more stench. Depending on your training frequency, training location and training intensity you should use your best judgment on when it’s time to wash your knee sleeves.

In my experience, my knee sleeves get washed after every workout, but I sweat like a pig in heat. You should be able to throw your knee sleeves into the washing machine and wash with detergent on a gentle cycle. Once washed, air dry your knee sleeves as a cycle in the dryer can damage the integrity of the Neoprene.

WHAT THICKNESS KNEE SLEEVE IS BETTER 5MM OR 7MM?

Knee sleeves usually come in two thicknesses, 5mm and 7mm. You should choose the 5mm thickness if the intended use is for sports or Crossfit as they give support but also let you stay mobile and agile. You should buy the 7mm thick knee sleeve if you are using them to lift heavier weights, trying to beat your PR or competing in a powerlifting contest.

difference between knee wraps and knee sleeves

HOW DO I CHOOSE THE RIGHT SIZE KNEE SLEEVES?

When buying knee sleeves, it’s import that you know what size is right for you. Unlike knee wraps that are a one size fits all product, you should measure your leg to choose the right knee sleeve.

Follow this simple 4 step process to get the best knee sleeve for you.

  1. Get a measuring tape that you can wrap around your leg easily
  2. Bend your leg at a 30-degree angle
  3. Measure the circumference of your leg 4in (10cm) below your knee cap
  4. Compare with the knee sleeve chart of your chosen brand

Note: If between sizes you should usually choose the lower size

KNEE PAIN WHEN SQUATTING

One common problem weightlifters suffer from is joint pain. With the knees being the biggest joint in the body and squats being one of the most taxing but necessary exercises in the gym it’s no wonder why so many people experience knee pain from squatting.  If you have any of these knee problems you should consult your doctor to see if a knee brace or knee sleeve might help.

Some of the frequent knee problems are:

  • Crepitus: Grating noise caused by friction between bone and cartilage.
  • Tightness/Inflammation: Usually some type of internal injury.
  • Locked Knee: Possible torn meniscus or a loose body in the joint capsule.
  • Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS): Pain in the knee cap during exercise or long periods of siting or walking up stairs. Sometimes this will be accompanied by noises.
  • Unstable Knee Joint: Damaged or overstretched knee ligaments can lead to the knee giving out.
  • Chrondromalacia Patellae: Tight quads or overuse can lead to the softening of the articular cartilage of the knee cap.
  • Petallar Tendonitis: Pain and/or tenderness at the bottom of the knee cap.

KNEE WRAPS OR KNEE SLEEVES, WHICH SHOULD I GET? 

Choosing the right knee accessory comes down to your knee health the specific fitness goal you have. Simply put, if you’re a powerlifter trying to max out on back squats then knee wraps will be preferred. If you’re an athlete, running a 5K or completing a WOD then you should probably choose the knee sleeves. If you have more severe pain or are recovering from an injury a knee brace might be your best bet. All in all, your knee health is vital to enjoying many everyday activities. We hope this article helped to inform you and make a better decision on whether you should use knee wraps, knee sleeves or knee braces.

***This article may contain affiliate links where we might make a small commission from any purchase you make.

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