What’s the Difference Between Knee Wraps and Knee Sleeves?

Our fitness gear wish list is as long as Mat Fraser’s Fran time is short. Can you blame us? There’s no shortage of high-tech gear promising to help us move, sweat, and recover better. Some trends (like knee-length compression socks and waterproof earbuds, for example) come and then go a few years (or even months) later. Other’s stick around and get even not-so-serious lifters to invest. Two of these gear trends it seems literally everyone is wearing? Knee sleeves and knee wraps.

Your familiar with knee sleeves and wraps. Look around the weight room or CrossFit box and half the people are sporting one of the two. Both hit the market with promises of making you work out better, faster, and feel (and in some cases, look) cool while doing it.

But do they actually work? And what do they do for your knees and lifts your plain and naked knobbers can’t?

Knee Sleeves: Pros & Cons

If you’ve ever worn sleeves, or tried to put them on, it won’t surprise you that their main role is to compress. (That’s why we made this tip sheet for putting on knee sleeves, they’re tight and tricky to get on.) If can’t visualize, think about very tight (neoprene) mini-skirt for your knees. Or a knee tube-top, if you will. These knee skirts, (okay, fine, sleeves) work by constricting the joint, which helps to stabilize it.  

The compression from the sleeve may increase blood flow to the area, which not only warms the knee joint, but may also help deliver the nutrients your knee needs to repair after a workout. And if you’re recovering more quickly, you may be able to perform better on the day to day, which could in theory ultimately lead to heavier lifts over time. (What’s that saying? There’s such a thing as over-training, but there’s no such thing as over-recovering.)

[Check out our list of the top knee sleeves on the market!]

Knee sleeves also help the mechanics of a given movement by limiting patella movement, provide lateral stability and according to research, can increase your proprioception which is your sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body. However, Paul Ochoa P.T., D.P.T., O.C.S., C.M.P.T., L.M.T., owner of F Squared Physical Therapy, notes that it isn’t the proprioception that’s important, it’s what the athlete does with this “new found” body awareness.  

Ochoa also emphasizes that knee sleeves are not knee braces. “They cannot protect a knee with a previous injury from further injury in any way,” he says. They simply offer a degree of joint protection by increasing the knees stability.

The biggest disadvantage of knee sleeves can be avoided with a little smarts. People mistakenly assume that wearing knee sleeves will automatically improve their technique and make them a better, stronger squatter. Put on your Trump voice because this is wrong. Even if you’re using knee sleeves, you still need to work on your form. This squat exercise guide may help.

Got it. So what about knee wraps?

Knee Wraps: Pros & Cons

The use of knee wraps didn’t start with metcon-maniacs or bicep-curling gym goers. No, it started with the big guys. We’re talking big-name powerlifters who, in competition, sheath their knees in knee wraps for stability and slay weight during 600+ pound back squats. But now average Joe’s and Moe’s are sporting them to CrossFit class and run-of-the-mill power-lifters are wearing them, too.

Instead of being made from neoprene, these are typically made out of the same material as wrist wraps. If you can’t visualize them, think about a cloth bandage and then think about if that bandage was made with thicker, more durable material, and you’ve likely got it. The wraps, which can stretch up to 19-20 feet, and wrap around the knee over and over (and over) again, take some knowledge to put on. There are a few ways to fixate the wrap, but most athletes use a spiral or diagonal pattern for squatting.

Sounds complicated, and what’s the point? It may take some finesse to put on but the reason they are so highly valued by powerlifters is that they allow more weight to be lifted in the squat. Woah, is it magic? Not exactly. During the downward phase of the squat, (the eccentric) the wrap gets tighter, which instead of hindering the athlete actually allows elastic energy to be stored. Then, when the athlete enters the upward phase of the squat (the concentric), that energy releases, adding what some lifters call a “spring”  to their lift. And all of this can lead to heavier lifts.

Another benefit is improved bar movement, according to research. Let me explains: one study examined the impact of wearing of knee wraps on what the researchers called the mechanical output and performance characteristics of the back squat. In the study, 10 men with resistance training experience (presumably, dudes who have squatted before) performed back squats at 80% of their 1 rep max. The men did 3 reps wearing knee wraps, 3 without them and researchers found that wearing knee wraps provided a 39% reduction in horizontal barbell displacement.

Horizontal what…? Think about it. When you do a back squat, the barbell doesn’t *just* travel up and down. It also moves backwards and forwards (horizontal), depending on how upright your chest is. Low horizontal barbell displacement when squatting to a sign of good form and high efficiency. So the decrease in horizontal movement when in wraps suggests that the wraps help improve the movement pattern of the lift, and therefore increase the lifts efficiency.

Their findings suggest that the knee wraps actually altered the technique of the lift because they force you into a specific movement pattern. While that movement pattern may be okay for some people, you’d be hard pressed to find a Coach who things it’s a good idea for bodies to be forced into a position that may or may not work with their given mobility while under tension. So while the wraps may help, it’s important to make sure the accessory isn’t negatively alter or compromise the way your body moves.

It’s also worth noting that the study found that when the lifters performed the eccentric portion of the lift 45% faster while wearing knee wraps, as opposed to when their knees were naked. 45% faster. Um, okay. That’s a lot.

Here’s the catch: But just because they help you lift heavier and faster, doesn’t mean that they help you get stronger.

One study found that squatting in knee wraps actually leads to almost a 20 percent decline in quad muscle activation. Why? The wraps essentially “take over,” the job of your quads. (This is similar to the way a sling shot takes over the work of your chest during a bench press.) The problem with that decrease muscle activation is that it actually makes your workout less effective from a calorie burn, muscle growth, and fat loss standpoint.

Not to mention, wearing wraps all the time could actually cause you to lose some stability in you do have in your knee. (It’s for this exact reason that physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of mobility company Movement Vault, says they should be saved for competition and 1 rep max days.)

The Verdict

Does every athlete needs to use knee gear? No. But they can be beneficial under the right circumstances. Ultimately, whether you go for knee wraps or knee sleeves will depend on your particular fitness level and goals. But whichever you choose, both come with their own advantages and disadvantages, and neither is an excuse to attempt squatting weight you have no business attempting.

Featured image: @steficohen on Instagram

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