Knee sleeves are a popular addition to many strength athlete’s gym bags whether it be Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting, CrossFit, or any other strength sport or even just general strength training.
This article will provide a complete beginner’s guide to knee sleeves and by the end, you should know everything you need to know about knee sleeves.
Want to jump straight into my recommendations for the best knee sleeves for individual sports? Check out my article, “Best Knee Sleeves for Lifting“.
What Are Knee Sleeves? | What Do Knee Sleeves Do?
Knee sleeves are a piece of equipment that is predominantly worn over the knee (surprisingly). They are typically made from an elasticated material such as neoprene and offer compressive support to the knee joint during compound lifts such as the squat.
Knee sleeves come in various shapes and sizes, the most common range from 3mm up to 7mm in thickness, depending on the level of compression and support you require, and come in a variety of diameters and lengths to suit almost any leg size.
Knee sleeves offer several benefits to a lifter, for example, they aid in keeping the knee joint warm, promoting blood flow, and ultimately reducing the risk of injury.
I have always liked the analogy of a rubber band to explain why warmth is important for muscles/ligaments and joints. If you imagine you are stretching a rubber band when it is warm, it will stretch easily and won’t snap under tension, however, do the same when the band is really cold and the risk of it snapping goes right up.
The same can be said of our muscles and joints and knee sleeves are an extra measure to ensure we keep the knee suitably warm.
Knee sleeves will also add further stability and support to your knee joint. They can aid with correct alignment and tracking, helping to make sure you don’t bend at an unusual angle and risk putting yourself in a compromised position.
They won’t add pounds and pounds to your numbers, but knee sleeves can aid in your overall performance through a combination of the above as well as the added mental confidence they bring.
Are Knee Sleeves Worth It?
Knee sleeves are definitely worth it, if for nothing else than injury mitigation.
Strength sports can be tough on our joints and muscles, and if not properly managed, can lead to serious long term injuries.
I personally, want to continue lifting for many years to come so I will consider anything that will help keep my joints strong and healthy, and knee sleeves are a big part of that equation.
Injury prevention aside, knee sleeves are worth the added confidence they bring when dealing with weights close to our 1 rep max. Knowing that I have the added support from the sleeve does wonders for my confidence when I’m going for that new personal best.
Of all the equipment that lifters involved in strength sports such as Powerlifting typically end up buying, knee sleeves are one of the cheapest so there really aren’t many negatives to buying a good pair of knee sleeves!
Are Knee Sleeves Necessary?
Knee sleeves are not necessary. You will still be able to progress just fine without them and as long as you warm up well before any lifting session and keep your knees suitably warm throughout, then you should be at no less risk of injury.
That said, I would still recommend them if you have the means but if you’re not yet in a position to buy a pair of knee sleeves, it won’t stop you from training effectively.
Are Knee Sleeves Cheating?
Knee sleeves are not cheating. Most federations within Powerlifting and Weightlifting allow for knee sleeves within their rules.
Of course, you should always check with the manufacturer of the knee sleeves you are buying to ensure they are approved by whatever federation you are interested in competing in. For example, some manufacturers are approved with the IPF and IWF, the main Powerlifting and Weightlifting Federations respectively, whereas other knee sleeve manufacturers are not.
If you are not interested in competing then this is not something you need to worry about though!
When to Use Knee Sleeves?
Knee sleeves can be worn anytime, if you feel they will offer you benefit then, by all means, wear them!
Knee Sleeves are most commonly used for Squats and Squat variations such as lunges and many find benefit in wearing them during Deadlifts too.
Knee Sleeves can also be a great tool for rehabilitation work and recovery from an injury.
How to Wash Knee 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 recommended not 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. Knee sleeves are made from neoprene, the same material as a typical surfer or diver’s wetsuit, so cleaners that are made for this purpose work really well!
Knee Sleeves for Squats
Squats are perhaps the most common lift where knee sleeves will be used.
Knee sleeves are by no means a solution to these complaints, but they can help make squatting a lot more tolerable and can aid in recovery from these sorts of injuries while squatting.
Aside from injury-related benefits, knee sleeves also have performance-related benefits when squatting.
Knee sleeves can provide some added support, particularly when getting out of the ‘hole’ by providing a bit of rebound or bounce. Their compressive design is constantly trying to pull your knee joint back to a straight position so when your knees are bent at the bottom of the squat, the knee sleeves are stretched and fighting against this, ultimately providing a little bit of help to complete the squat.
The compression that knee sleeves provide also helps hold your knee cap in alignment and will aid in tracking and movement of the joint during the squat.
Overall, I would highly recommend considering knee sleeves for squatting as there are so many benefits whilst being very few negatives to speak of aside from cost!
Knee Sleeves for Deadlifts
I don’t wear Knee Sleeves for deadlifts all that often, and when I do its actually for a reason that you may not expect, which I’ll get into further down.
For most people, the deadlift shouldn’t require a whole lot of knee flexion so, from a performance standpoint, wearing knee sleeves for deadlifts will only help a little.
As previously mentioned though, they will help to keep your knee joint warm and this is always a major plus when lifting.
If you choose to wear knee sleeves for deadlifts, I recommend thinner knee sleeves as this will reduce the chances of the barbell ‘catching’ the bottom of the sleeve as you lift.
One alternative use for knee sleeves that many lifters do in the deadlift, is to wear them over their shins, almost like a shin guard.
The most efficient way to deadlift is of course by keeping the bar as close to your center of gravity as possible. This usually means that the bar scrapes or drags across your shins and can lead to bruising and even bleeding.
By wearing knee sleeves like shin guards, it is possible to drag the bar across the knee sleeve and protect your shins and this is actually what I will sometimes use my knee sleeves for when my shins are particularly beat up or sore.
This does come at a cost though, as it will wear down and ultimately ruin your knee sleeves. I would, therefore, only recommend using cheaper knee sleeves for this.
For deadlifts, I can take it or leave it when it comes to knee sleeves.
I would recommend experimenting with and without knee sleeves. If you prefer to wear them then, great. If not then that’s perfectly fine too!
Knee Sleeves vs Wraps
Knee wraps are a long length of elasticated material and, as the name would suggest, are wrapped around the knee joint much like applying a bandage.
They offer similar benefits to knee sleeves but at a much more significant level and also require a lot more effort and know how to put them on correctly (it’s not uncommon to have a lifting partner to help you put them on).
Due to this, knee wraps will offer significantly more performance benefits over knee sleeves. They are designed to provide a lot more compression and it is typical to find it very hard to bend your knee at all when wearing them!
This inability to bend your knee translates directly to being able to move more weight when squatting adding a lot more support and rebound out of the hole.
A point to note is that knee wraps are commonly used in Equipped Powerlifting for the squat and are not permitted in standard or ‘raw’ competition whereas knee sleeves are permitted in Raw Powerlifting.
I would consider knee wraps to be an advanced piece of Powerlifting Equipment and as this article is aimed at beginner and intermediate lifters, I would recommend you do not concern yourself with these for now.
How to Measure for Knee Sleeves
Knee Sleeves come in a wide range of sizes to suit a wide variety of leg shapes that are out there. it is therefore important to know how to measure yourself to ensure you buy the correct size.
Every knee sleeve manufacturer will typically provide a chart to help you with sizing. Usually, the measurement required will be one of two methods:
Around the Kneecap
This method is used when sizing knee sleeves from manufacturers such as SBD, STrong, and Titan.
Straighten your knee and wrap a measuring tape around the circumference of your knee joint at the center of the kneecap. Take a note of the measurement and apply it to the relevant manufacturer’s sizing chart.
For example, SBD recommends that a measurement of 14-15 inches or 33-35cm would require a medium knee sleeve for a regular fit or a small for a tight fit.
Around the Calf
The second method is used when sizing knee sleeves from manufacturers such as Rehband.
For this method, bend your knee approximately 30° and measure down 0.5 inches or 10-15cm from your kneecap. Measure around the circumference of your leg here and apply this measurement to the relevant sizing chart to determine the most appropriate knee sleeve for you.
Determining the Best Fit
If you are new to knee sleeves or have no intention of competing any time soon, I would recommend sticking with a standard fitting knee sleeve based on each individual manufacturer’s provided sizing chart.
An advanced technique that can be used is to go one size down from the recommended fit. This will provide more compression to the knee joint and ultimately provide an advantage to your performance and could result in being able to add a few extra pounds to the bar.
I would only recommend considering this for competition. For regular training, stick to the recommended size.
How to Put on Knee Sleeves
Knee Sleeves are designed to be tight around our knee joint, however, to get them on in the first place we have to pull them past our calf, which for most people is wider than our knee joint. I’m sure you can see the problem that this presents!
Luckily, there are a few techniques we can use to help make putting on knee sleeves that little bit easier.
- Start by pulling the knee sleeve past your foot so it is covering your shin.
- Take the top of the knee sleeve and fold it in half over itself.
- Using both hands, grab either side under the bottom of the knee sleeve and begin sliding it up your leg.
- Stop once the top of the knee sleeve is over your knee cap.
- Now just flip the top half of the knee sleeve back over so that it is now covering the bottom of your quads/hamstrings.
- Removing your knee sleeve should be as simple as grabbing the top and peeling it off your leg, flipping the knee sleeve inside out in the process, and then just sliding it down the remainder of your leg.
If you are a Powerlifter or take part in other strength sports such as Weightlifting or CrossFit, knee sleeves can be a great addition to your gym bag that is well worth considering.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you are now armed with all the tools you will need to decide whether knee sleeves are right for you!
For further info on the best knee sleeves brands and manufacturers, check out my article where I discuss some of the top brands and their pros and cons. For more supportive gear, check out my articles on lifting belts and elbow sleeves.