Knee sleeves are useful pieces of supportive strength equipment for a variety of reasons. First, they can help keep the knee joint warm, which is a plus for those using longer rest periods. Second, they provide additional support to the knees, and can help provide additional stability in squatting movements. And lastly, they offer a degree of joint protection, especially with heavier weights and longer workouts.
Does every athlete needs to use a knee sleeve? Likely not, but there’s no denying that they can be beneficial in the right circumstances. Also, knee sleeves are nice because unlike some of the newer model shoes, they’re relatively easier on the wallet, so owning a couple pairs isn’t unreasonable.
This article will focus on a couple different characteristics a strength athlete can consider before investing in another or a new pair of the best knee sleeves for their sport and goals.
Do You Compete?
First and foremost, one of the top questions an athlete should consider with knee sleeves is if they plan to compete in them. In this respect, not all sleeves are created equal. Every organization has their own rules on sleeves, and an athlete should look into the rulebooks before investing only to realize they can’t wear a sleeve for their initial purpose.
There are multiple federations within the sport of powerlifting, and it would take quite some time to go through every single one and list each one’s approved sleeves. For this article, we’re going to focus on the IPF and the USAPL, which follow the same technical rules when it comes to equipment.
These organizations provide a full list of what’s suitable for competition in a PDF, and allow up to a 7mm thick neoprene sleeve from select companies. If you’re competing at a local meet with a smaller federation, then it’s always wise to double check their rules, or even ask the meet coordinator what’s permitted.
The IWF doesn’t have a formal list of companies they permit in terms of sleeves, but they do have a couple sleeve qualifications. One, the sleeves have to be made fully out of neoprene, so any form of blend is not permitted. Two, the maximal length for a knee sleeve has be at or under 30cm, so longer/stiffer sleeves are not permitted.
Functional Fitness and CrossFit® Competitions
If you’re competing in a CrossFit sanctioned event, then it’s up a head judge to decide whether a sleeve can be worn or not. From CrossFit’s rulebook they write, “Subject to CrossFit Inc.’s prior approval, non-branded belts, non-tacky gloves, hand tape, neoprene joint sleeves and common fitness wear may be allowed during competition. However, no grip assistance or weight support may be derived from any device worn. In general, gear is
allowed that improves safety and/or comfort, but does not confer advantage. The Head Judge has final say on what attire, gear or equipment is allowed on the competition floor.”
Of all the strength sports, strongman typically tends to be the most relaxed with knee sleeves. There isn’t a true standard to base an approved strongman sleeve off of, but some federations may have specific rules in regards to equipment. We recommend asking your meet coordinator, or looking into their federation’s specific rules when deciding on the use of a sleeve.
What Type of Workout Do You Need Them For?
If you’re not competing, but still want a sleeve for their warmth, support, and stability, then you should also consider what type of activities you’ll them most for. Some sleeves are designed differently to support different activities. For example, you wouldn’t want to use an extremely stiff sleeve for a cardio-based functional fitness workout.
Check out the chart below for a quick visual of the most common types of sleeves used for a variety of activities. Then scroll down for descriptive reasoning behind each portion of our chart. There will always be some sleeve exceptions for activities due to personal preference, so this chart is meant to act as a suggestion with rationale, not a definitive.
Heavy Compound Movements
Someone who wants to use a sleeve for support in heavy compound movements will typically benefit best with a thicker 7mm neoprene. An athlete performing heavy compounds will typically be most concerned about knee protection and the feeling coming out of the hole in the squat, which is why a thicker 7mm is often their go-to choice.
This type of sleeve can come in your standard cylinder-esque design, or feature the four panel design. Regardless, what’s most important for this activity ask is usually the thickness and tightness the sleeve provides for the joint.
[What’s the best knee sleeve for heavy squats? Check out our top picks!]
Functional Fitness Workouts
An athlete performing functional fitness workouts will have a little more to consider compared to performing one type of exercise. This athlete’s workouts all vary, and some will focus on strength & power, while others include more cardio based movements. Both a 5mm and 7mm neoprene sleeve can be beneficial, but a 5mm neoprene sleeve will usually be the most versatile.
If an athlete wants extra support, then they can use a 7mm neoprene sleeve with no issue, but they should consider how it feels being worn for an extended amount of time. For example, some stiffer sleeves won’t be comfortable to wear for something like a 20-minute workout, or an activity like running.
Weightlifting & Power Movements
This athlete will typically seek out a sleeve for all of their benefits, which include joint warmth, support, and stability without hindering their mobility. Both a 5mm and 7mm neoprene sleeve can benefit this type athlete. When deciding on a weightlifting sleeve, then a sleeve’s mobility should be the major consideration.
For example, a stiff sleeve may hinder an athlete’s ability to drop into the hole of the snatch, or even push them forward if full knee flexion can’t be achieved.
For the athlete who wants a sleeve strictly for warmth, then a 5mm or lower thickness will fair best. Keep in mind, joint warmth for heavy compounds will often be different than general joint warmth. This is why we recommend using a lighter sleeve, which will be more versatile for the exact ask of general joint warmth.
How Important Is Durability to You?
Another important factor strength athletes ask about when purchasing sleeves are their durability. Every sleeve’s durability will vary depending on the construction a company uses, but there are a few ways you can recognize what’s going to last, and what’s going to degrade quickly.
Neoprene and Material
The type of neoprene or material a company uses should be one of your first durability concerns. Typically, a stiffer 7mm sleeve will have a better response to maintaining its original form when stretched. That’s not to say a 5mm sleeve will stretch quicker, but it’s something to consider when shopping around.
It’s also wise to look at how a company talks about their neoprene and material. If they have multiple levels of material within their products, then look at how they may differ, as the better quality neoprene will often have a higher level, or rating.
An overlooked indication of a sleeve’s durability is how the sleeve’s pieces and ends are stitched together. More durable sleeves will have reinforced stitching, which can come in the form of double, triple, or even different forms of hooked stitching. Any time a sleeve is single stitched, then you should consider how quickly it could fray, as it’s the only level of security binding it together. Another think to look at is the placement of stitching, as anterior sleeve stitching has a higher chance of catching on a barbell and fraying quicker.
What’s Should You Expect to Pay?
The price range for knee sleeves varies pretty greatly and you can expect to pay around $50.00 for your average pair of sleeves. Some sleeves can cost upward to $90.00, and these sleeves are often made with a level of specificity such as competition, or durability. For example, something like a Rehband sleeve is a little more pricey, but they’re competition approved and have a proven track record of lasting a while, so the price can be somewhat justified.
Sleeves that cost less than the average $50.00 price point are still okay sleeves, but if you’re considering them as your go-to, then be ready to possibly run into durability issues. Then again, the lower price point usually remedies this concern because getting a second pair is still relatively easy on the wallet.
Buying a knee sleeve isn’t a crazy complex process, and this article may dive into details most athletes don’t care about. Yet, for those who need something specific, then hopefully this piece of content can add a level of direction into your next knee sleeve investment. With so many sleeves on the market, then it’s nearly impossible to not find one that matches your asks and wants for your knee sleeve needs.