Elbow sleeves are an excellent piece of apparel to consider for lifters across many strength sports such as Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting, Bodybuilding, and CrossFit.
But what exactly are they used for and what benefits do they offer?
In this article, we will look into the hows and whys of elbow sleeves and by the end of it, you should know everything you need to know to help you decide if elbow sleeves are right for you!
What do Elbow Sleeves do?
Elbow sleeves provide compression to the elbow joint and surrounding tissue and tendons. This compression translates into support to the joint and promotes blood flow and can provide several benefits such as injury prevention/reduction and improved performance.
Across many sports, the benefits of warming up are well understood when it comes to injury prevention, and elbow sleeves can help in this regard. As mentioned, having an extra layer of material covering the joint helps keep the warmth in, and this can be especially crucial for lifters.
As a lifter, it is common for me to be sitting inactive between sets for a good few minutes. This inactivity can cause my joints to cool and heightens the risk of injury if not properly managed. By wearing elbow sleeves, this mitigates the cooling down of my elbow joint and takes some of the risks of injury away.
Similarly, this warmth increases blood flow, which aids in joint movement, further increasing warmth and performance. Naturally, the ability to move the elbow joint more efficiently and freely is going to translate to better performance and may even increase pounds on the bar!
And speaking of pounds on the bar, you may be interested to hear that the compressive material of elbow sleeves might further boost your performance. Similar to knee sleeves, the elasticated neoprene material provides resistance when your elbow is in the flexed position.
In short, this resistance makes it harder to bend your elbow, and easier to straighten it again. In a lift such as the bench press, for example, this can mean a small increase to your max, or 1 or 2 more reps than you could have managed without the elbow sleeves.
Don’t expect miracles, but you will notice a small difference!
When to Use Elbow Sleeves
There’s no right or wrong time to use elbow sleeves (unless you compete in Powerlifting, but we’ll get into that!), if your sole aim is injury mitigation then you may want to consider wearing elbow sleeves throughout your entire workout.
However, if you’re mostly interested in their performance benefits then they are best used during pushing exercises such as the bench press or the shoulder press. Basically, any exercise that requires you to straighten your arm to complete the lift should see performance increases by wearing elbow sleeves.
Lifts where elbow sleeves may not be the most suitable option for the above reason are rows and curls for example. In exercises like this, you are bending your elbow to complete the lift and as mentioned earlier, elbow sleeves add a little bit of extra resistance to elbow flexion.
Granted, this is going to be tiny and I personally still wear elbow sleeves for movements such as these as I would rather make a lift a little bit harder than risk injuring myself. Basically, the risk of injury far outweighs being able to maybe add an extra 5lbs to the bar for me.
Of course, you may feel differently and if your only goal is to lift the most weight possible, then it’s worth bearing in mind that, for exercises such as rows, elbow sleeves may get in the way of that goal!
In general though, wear elbow sleeves as and when you require them.
Elbow Sleeves and Powerlifting
One key consideration is for those that compete, or want to compete, in Powerlifting.
I have read several differing opinions on the subject but most agree that wearing elbow sleeves is not permitted during the bench press.
Squats and Deadlifts are a bit more of a grey area though, however referencing the IPF rulebook, it states that sleeves are only permitted to be worn on the knees, nowhere else, regardless of the lift so that rules out elbow sleeves in Powerlifting, at least in this federation.
Elbow Sleeves and Olympic Weightlifting
Similarly, those looking to compete in Olympic Weightlifting may want to think about how they use elbow sleeves as, unfortunately, they are not permitted in Olympic Weightlifting either.
The IWF rulebook is quite similar to the IPF’s in that sleeves are only permitted on the knees. The IWF takes this a step further by explicitly stating that no bandages/wraps/sleeves etc should come within 10cm of the elbow.
Elbow Sleeves and CrossFit
The official rules regarding elbow sleeves are less clear when looking through the CrossFit rulebook, however, in general, it would appear that elbow sleeves are in fact permitted. Good news for lovers of their sleeves!
There is no distinction made for individual joints like with the IPF and IWF, however, reference is made to “neoprene joint sleeves” being allowed in competition so whether it be knee sleeves or elbow sleeves, they are in fact permitted.
How Tight Should Elbow Sleeves Be?
Tightness of elbow sleeves is going to come down to personal preference but some guidelines should be followed to ensure the most optimal fit. Going too tight may restrict blood flow altogether and do more harm than good and conversely, too loose may result in performance losses.
The best way to ensure the best fit and tightness of your elbow sleeves is to follow the manufacturer’s sizing guidelines.
Each manufacturer may have different measuring requirements, but generally, you will need to measure the circumference of your arm. This could be the circumference of your bicep, forearm or the elbow itself, or any number of these.
So long as you measure correctly based on the manufacturer’s guidelines, you should be guaranteed to have the correct tightness.
How to Wash Elbow Sleeves
In most cases, simply rinsing the sleeves in cold to lukewarm water should be sufficient. A light scrub or agitation with your hands will also help. It is not recommended to use warm water as this can cause the sleeves to wear out quicker.
Once rinsed, leave to air dry out of direct sunlight.
For a deeper clean, an organic laundry detergent or other mild cleaner can be used.
If you really want to go the extra mile, I would recommend a wetsuit cleaner. Elbow sleeves are typically made from neoprene, the same material as a surfer or diver’s wetsuit, so cleaners that are made for this purpose work really well!
Be sure to check the material of your elbow sleeves though as a wetsuit cleaner should only be used on neoprene based sleeves.
Best Elbow Sleeves
So you’ve decided that elbow sleeves will be a good addition to your lifting arsenal? Great! But which elbow sleeves are the best?
For most lifters, I would recommend one of the brands listed below.
Rehband Elbow Sleeves
Rehband Elbow sleeves would be my pick as the best all-rounders. The Rehband sleeves are 5mm in thickness and are shaped to match the natural bend of the elbow joint.
These are best suited to general-purpose workouts and offer the most comfort when worn for longer durations. The natural bend in their design however will offer slightly less resistance than a straight design, so lifters won’t get the most optimal performance benefits here.
Measurement requirements for Rehband sleeves are around the elbow directly, with the joint slightly bent (around 30°).
Note that these are sold individually, so the price you see is for one elbow sleeve only.
STrong Elbow Sleeves
STrong Elbow Sleeves by Mark Bell are another great option and also come in at 5mm thickness.
The design is straight so may offer a bit more resistance to elbow flexion, ultimately aiding movements such as the bench press a little more than the Rehband sleeve would.
The sizing guide recommends that measurements are taken on the flexed bicep in this case.
These sleeves are sold in a pair so are more convenient and work out cheaper overall.
SBD Elbow Sleeves
SBD Elbow Sleeves are my third recommendation and have the added advantage of coming in both 5mm and 7mm thicknesses.
If your focus is strength and you’re looking for absolute performance in your pressing movements then the SBD sleeves would be my pick of the litter. This, of course, comes at a cost and they will feel a little more restrictive than the Rehbands and the STrong sleeves, so are perhaps not ideal for wearing for an entire workout.
Measurement for sizing is a little more in-depth in the case of the SBD sleeves. You will need to measure both your bicep and your forearm circumference with your arm fully extended or locked out.
Like the STrong sleeves, the SBDs are sold as a pair, however, are a little more expensive than the STrong sleeves.
Mava Sports Elbow Sleeves
Depending on your needs, the above choices can be a bit pricey, so if you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, I would recommend the Mava Sports Sleeves.
The Mava Sports sleeves are completely different from the other elbow sleeves above in that they are not made from neoprene. Instead, they are a bamboo, charcoal fiber, spandex, and latex blend.
This material choice allows them to be a lot more lightweight and breathable than the neoprene alternatives so most lifters will find them a lot more comfortable.
This, unfortunately, comes at a cost, making them a lot less supportive. If you’re looking for strength gains, these may not be the best choice. However, if your focus is injury mitigation then, for the price, you can’t go wrong with these sleeves!
Sizing correctly will require you to measure the circumference of your bicep, approximately 5″ up from your elbow.
Conveniently, these are sold as a pair and are significantly cheaper than the alternatives.
Elbow sleeves are a great option to consider for those looking to reduce the risk of injury, inflammation, or tendonitis to their elbow joint and can offer further benefits to performance for the majority of lifters.
They are by no means an essential piece of equipment and many lifters are perfectly happy without them, however, if you are serious about prolonging your lifting career, then elbow sleeves will go a long way to helping keep your elbow joints in top condition for many years to come.