Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Knee Sleeves are Ruining Your Squat

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | October 27, 2020

a lifter uses knees sleeves while squatting

Okay, so they’re probably not ruining your squat. But they may be affecting it in ways you didn’t expect. And knee sleeves are everywhere. I usually find that novice lifters assume they’ll need them along with shoes and a belt, and most people I see squatting at the gym are wearing them. Yet while weightlifting shoes are in my opinion essential to a novice barbell lifter, and the belt becomes necessary as the novice’s strength levels mature, knee sleeves are more of a gray area. Correct shoes provide unique stability and medial foot support. A belt allows the lifter to create a higher amount of intra-thoracic/abdominal pressure. Knee sleeves, on the other hand, usually just make a lifter “feel” good. They can help, but are not as much a factor in performance as a belt or shoes. You can still do fine without sleeves and get as strong as an ox.

Not that I’m knocking the placebo effect, of course: confidence in a scary lift like the squat is helpful for most people. For a novice or even intermediate lifter, taking the plunge into a heavy squat can feel like falling off a cliff. Sleeves can provide reassurance and make a lifter take that final leap of faith. There’s no shame in that.

My very first pair were SBDs, proudly made in the UK (SBD stands for squat, bench, deadlift, by the way – not everyone knows this, although I thought it was common knowledge). I’d heard great things via YouTube and barbell comrades alike. So I took the plunge and actually loved them. What I didn’t realize, however, is that the SBD knee sleeves were gradually altering my form. Bit by bit, I started dive bombing into my knees, subconsciously exploiting the sleeves to get a bigger stretch reflex. For many reasons, this is not ideal.

Crucially, when you dive bomb, you don’t usually maintain the correct horizontal back angle as described in vivid detail in the blue book. Often you don’t brace as hard either, since dive bombing gets you to the bottom position faster. This meant I was not as tight in my midsection, which is also no bueno for a correct squat (FYI, coaches aren’t perfect – I’ve always learned more from my mistakes than my PRs). In other words, while the SBDs did provide comfort and make me feel very secure, they came at a significant cost. Once I noticed this pattern in my own training, I started seeing it elsewhere too. When my clients first started using overbuilt knee sleeves like the SBDs, they often developed similar patterns of movement.

Now, before I go into detail here, I want to add a disclaimer: the following content is just my opinion. It reflects my own experience using and teaching people with knee sleeves. I think SBD is a great company and great for the sport of powerlifting – this is merely anecdotal evidence. Fundamentally, the important point is that technique and hard work are superior to any training gear you may use or think you need to use. My hope is that this article will offer you a broader perspective on the issue, that it will prompt you to think about what you really need instead of just going out and buying the latest, most expensive knee sleeves on the planet.

Sometimes I get the sense that people feel they need to make a beeline to buy whatever products national-level powerlifters or their favorite fitness influencers use, otherwise there’s no point showing up three days a week to squat. But this is not the case. You don’t need to spend all your hard-earned cash on gear to legitimize your training: it’s your attitude that matters, and your consistency in showing up and pushing yourself to be better each session. Those fancy new knee sleeves you’re pining for won’t make you or me lift like Larry Wheels.

The SBD knee sleeves are unique in that they are much longer and made from a much thicker material than equivalent products. They are much stiffer: if you put them upright on the floor, they stand up on their own. These sound like simple features, but when you compare them to previous iterations, you realize that SBD really bumped up the level of support significantly. In fact, they started changing our perception of what knee sleeves actually are: they have been profoundly influential on other companies, many of whom are now trying to copy their design and quality.

The increased length means greater surface area around the knee joint and the extra thickness means that when the lifter reaches the bottom of the squat, the flexed knee creates a lot more compression, aiding them as they return back to knee extension. In other words, the stiffness of the material creates more spring or “pop.”

As a side note, SBDs are also quite expensive compared to the alternatives available to a novice lifter. And after all, lifting is a cheap hobby compared to, say, triathlons. Even if you include all the basic equipment a person would need to make a home gym – rack, barbell, plates, deadlift platform and a place to do chins – it’s still one of the cheapest fitness activities you can do, and most of your equipment will last you from your twenties all the way into your senior years, if looked after properly.

Why do I like knee sleeves?

Now, knee sleeves certainly have their uses. A lot of people struggle with proprioception when it comes to hitting depth. I hear lots of newbie lifters ask how they’re supposed to know when they’ve reached it. This is a tough question, as there is no magic cue or one-size-fits-all sensation to watch out for. The answer I usually give is simply to do more correct reps. Practice, basically. However, there is another option: knee sleeves create greater compression around the knee towards the bottom of a rep, creating more tactile feedback than when a lifter squats with bare knees. This feedback helps the lifter to spot depth. This means knees sleeves can be immensely helpful for people who consistently struggle with correct depth in squats.

Of course, there are other cues that may help: I often advise my lifters to feel where their chest position is at the bottom of a squat and look to place their chest there every rep; or to notice the feeling of how much of their hamstrings are in light contact with their calves; or – for bigger chaps – to remember the position of their belly on their thighs. Pause squats or tempo box squats are also my go-to lifts for people who struggle with correct depth. But knee sleeves are a potential alternative for someone with a particularly stubborn depth-hitting problem. They’re also great for people who have current knee injuries or tweaks, as they help to keep the joint warm and add a nice boost of confidence. 

What don’t I like about knee sleeves?

Well, they altered my squat. Which is bizarre, as I have always prided myself on having decent squat form. The fact that they led to form creep was eye-opening, and a sobering lesson. It made me realize that heavy-duty knees sleeves take some time to get used to. Speaking more generally, switching training gear – including shoes and belts as well as sleeves – is a classic route by which form creep can set it. Form creep, in case you haven’t heard the term, refers to a series of subtle changes in technique that ultimately lead to a sub-optimal movement pattern. When these habits become ingrained they can be very hard to shake – or, at least, it takes a while to undo them.

Training gear can worsen the situation, partly because it can cause form creep and partly because it can mask it (if a lifter uses gear as a crutch, it can sometimes make bad technique less obvious). However, you can’t fool the bar: it will only be a matter of time before the lifter plateaus and doesn’t understand why. In fact, they’ve fallen into a classic trap – they invested too much in their gear and not enough in themselves. As Thoreau said, “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.” Or, as he might have put it in 2020, don’t be one of those lifters who’s “all gear and no idea.” Not cool. 

 I do think knees sleeves have their place. They can be extremely useful and, in certain situations, are sometimes essential. But they’re not the knee equivalent of the belt and the shoes. Every lifter should own a pair of weightlifting shoes, and will eventually need a belt as well. Oh, and when I say weightlifting shoes, I mean a solid shoe with a heel and a medial strap, not a pair of Converse All Stars, or – at risk of drawing yet more attention to this notorious fail of a shoe – the Vibram Five Fingers monstrosity. Cue horror-movie sound effect: dun dun duuuuuun! If I had my way, we would be burning the lot of them in Trafalgar Square and screaming, “Burn, foot gloves, burn!” I realize this is getting off-topic, but seriously. I get so pissed off when I tell someone to bring Olympic lifting shoes to their first session and they show up with those pieces of shit.

Me: “So where are your shoes?”

Them: “Oh, I wear these.”

Me: *Facepalm* 

These days I prefer thinner knee sleeves. Rehbands, for example, or a similar brand. Basically, I want a thin neoprene sleeve that’s easy to get on and off and easy to wash. Ease of use may sound like a minor issue, but it can be a workout in itself getting SDBs up my giant legs, which is pretty stupid really. And the smell. Oh my God. If you’ve got a pair of SBD knee sleeves, you know what I’m talking about. Some days I can tell who’s in the gym with my eyes closed, just from the stench of their gross, festering knee sleeves. For everyone’s sake, including yours, wash your fucking knee sleeves!

It’s even common for lifters to buy an extra pair a size tighter than the ones they train with, saving them for competitions so that they “get more” out of the sleeves. I’ve never understood this. Why do you need to “get more” from your sleeves? Don’t you know how to program for strength? I’m always very suspicious when people try to push expensive equipment on you when you can do just fine with just the basics. Which are: technique, programming, food. and recovery. And if you really want more compression for a meet, why not use knee wraps? Tighter knee sleeves won’t give you as much as you think they will. They’re usually more of a placebo, more likely to affect your confidence than the actual weight on the bar.

Rehbands and the more basic types of knee sleeves provide similar proprioceptive feedback and do give you a little something extra at the bottom of the squat compared to bare knees, although not to the extent that SBDs do. So ask yourself, do you really need them? If you’re Ray Williams squatting 1,000lbs then sure, crack on; or if you’re a national IPF lifter, sure. But you – yes, you – are squatting 225lbs in the corner of a globo gym for 3 sets of 5. Let’s be real here: you don’t need them, do you?

The bottom line, usually, is that solid technique is far more important than knee sleeves. Don’t go looking for expensive bells and whistles. Look deeper into refining your form. Knees sleeves may help, but they’re not the secret to squat utopia – and they may affect your movement patterns in ways you didn’t expect. Get a coach to inspect your lifts and buy training gear accordingly. That’s probably all you need. Happy knees make a happy lifter.

Discuss in Forums

Starting Strength Weekly Report

Highlights from the StartingStrength Community. Browse archives.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.