Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Knee Wraps and Knee Sleeves

by Mark Rippetoe | April 30, 2019

chase wearing knees sleeves in the squat

Believe it or not, there is a good reason for some people to consider the use of knee wraps or knee sleeves for general strength training. Knee compression devices are famous for their use in competitive powerlifting, since they can add quite a bit of weight to your squat by assisting with knee extension – if applied tightly enough they can store some of the force applied across the flexing knee during the descent phase and return it to the extension phase on the way up. But there is more to the story.

Some people just have shitty knees. I do, as the result of squatting incorrectly for years and lots of non-barbell-related bad decisions. Old knees can benefit from both warmth and a little compression. Warmth is provided by both wraps and knee sleeves, wraps being long pieces of elastic material wound around the knee, and sleeves being rubberized or cloth tubes that are pulled up over the foot and over the knee, like a sock. Some people are allergic to rubber or neoprene on the skin – I am, so I have to be careful about the substance of the wrap.

Wraps can be adjusted for tightness as they are wound around the knee. Knee sleeves are the same tightness every time they are used, unless they are worn over another garment or you gain a bunch of bodyweight. Both can provide warmth by insulating the knees to contain heat that would otherwise radiate away. Wraps can add both heat and varying levels of compression depending on how tightly they are applied. Both provide more compression than no support at all.

Warm knees tend to work better and feel better under a load than cold knees. Warm synovial fluid is less viscous than cold synovial fluid, and therefore flows more easily and provides better lubricity for knees ravaged by age and stupidity. Compression increases the internal pressure in the area under the wrap or sleeve, providing better stability for the structures moving in the joint during the flexion/extension cycle.

The degree of compression depends on the hoop tension provided by the wrap or sleeve. If it is sufficiently tight, the wrap itself becomes a loaded component of the joint complex – an “exoskeletal” load-bearing member of the flexion/extension mechanism. At this point, the wrap is participating in the mechanical relationship between you and the bar in a different way. For our purposes, we'd like for the wraps or sleeves to make your knees feel better so that you can lift more weight, as opposed to the wraps themselves mechanically increasing the force produced at the knees.

Used correctly, wraps or sleeves can enable the squat to become a productive exercise for an old guy again. Just be careful about getting too happy with the tension when you put them on.

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