Your knees can go through a lot in training, especially on leg day. And if you're unlucky enough to pick up an injury, that could carry far further into your daily life than other aches and pains. While no injury is ideal, the fear of limping around on a bum knee after a less than stellar squat day is enough to have you second guessing your fitness regimen.
Fortunately, though, there are accessories like knee sleeves and knee wraps out there that can help bolster this pivotal joint during a workout. Despite the similar placement and aesthetics, though, there's a lot that separates these wearables from one another. Before you gear up for your next heavy leg day, it's vital that you understand the differences between knee sleeves and knee wraps, as well as scenarios where each accessory is most efficient.
Crucially, neither wraps nor sleeves should be used to mask over an already present injury. So if you have one, speak to your personal physician about proper recovery and healing practices. Your squat total can wait until you're back to full strength.
What are knee sleeves?
Knee sleeves resemble a tube or open cylinder and are designed to be slid over the knee for proper wear. They compress the knee, providing stability and comfort to your joints, as well as some increased elasticity when squatting through the use of neoprene and other springy materials like nylon and Spandex. Knee sleeves can vary in thickness, which can provide different levels of support. Athletes that want maximum rigidity and structure when taking on massive PRs can opt for a 7mm knee sleeve, while those wanting some support with better mobility can search for 5mm or 3mm sleeves.
Regardless of which thickness you choose, knee sleeves are still pretty versatile when it comes to in-gym use. Getting into and out of knee sleeves is much easier than the process involved with knee wraps. Additionally, while the compression is present and does limit mobility to a degree, it's not a major compromise to your overall ability to walk around the gym. Knee sleeves can be worn for the entire duration of your workout, providing ample support in a number of lifts and movements — although it's good practice to roll them down from time to time to let your sweat dissipate (neoprene isn't the most breathable material).
What are knee wraps?
As the name suggests, knee wraps are long strips of elastic canvas that are designed to be, well, wrapped around your knee. Length and width can vary by brand, but it's common to see most knee wraps measuring 72 inches long with a 3-inch width for maximum coverage. Some models come equipped with a hook-and-loop patch for securing them in-place, while others require a tying or tucking method that ultimately comes down to personal preference. Many powerlifters — the main audience that knee wraps cater to — employ a coach or lifting partner to get their accessories as locked in as possible ahead of a monster squat.
When worn correctly, the tightly-wound bands are designed to provide maximum rigidity at the joint and greater elasticity at the bottom of a squat. Essentially, they act as an aide to get out of the hole more efficiently, instead of getting buried under the intense weights. This is why knee wraps are more specific tools when viewed through the lens of a whole workout regimen. Your leg is essentially braced entirely when wearing knee wraps, which isn't the most practical positioning if you need to complete more dynamic movements. Additionally, the compression is so taut that wearing knee wraps over an extended period can quickly become uncomfortable when you're not under a heavy barbell. For this reason, it's common to see athletes wrapping knee wraps just before their lift and immediately getting out of the accessory once the set is complete.
When to Use Knee Sleeves or Knee Wraps
Going for a one-rep squat max.
- Best Option: Knee Wraps
While it's perfectly possible to achieve your next best PR with or without accessories, if you're chasing a hefty one-rep max, knee wraps can give you your best shot. The elastic energy stored when descending into a squat is greater with wraps than sleeves, which in turn, makes locking out that multi-plated barbell more feasible. Plus, the numbers don't lie — a 2012 study found that wearing knee wraps can help increase the eccentric portion of your squat by 45%.
Just a general leg workout.
- Best Option: Knee Sleeves
Because of the amount of time it takes to get into knee wraps, as well as the super rigid profile, those just looking for support and some elasticity to complement their leg days will be better off with knee sleeves. The added warmth and blood flow can be great for keeping your joints ready to tackle a variety of movements, and the compression still gives you some support without forcing you to waddle from station to station. This is why knee sleeves are popular amongst CrossFit athletes, as well as other gym-goers that take part in a variety of movements in a given session.
On competition day.
- Best Option: Varies
If you're more of an advanced athlete that monitors PRs based off of gold medals and first-place finishes, you can confidently step to the platform adorned with either knee sleeves or knee wraps — provided your governing body allows such accessories during a meet. Organizations like the International Powerlifting Federation and International Weightlifting Federation have a set list of approved equipment that can be used by competitors based off the perceived boost the gear can give to a performance. Knee sleeves are more accepted across divisions, but can only measure certain thicknesses and lengths. Knee wraps, thanks to the squat-enhancing features of the increased energy return, are restricted to equipped divisions only and cannot be longer than 2 meters or wider than 8 centimeters. Other stipulations are present, so if you have aspirations to compete one day, make sure to read up on your governing body's rules and regulations prior to purchase.
Now that you have a better grip on which fitness accessory is right for your in-gym needs, it's time to get equipped for that next big leg day. Below are a handful of our favorite knee sleeves and wraps for boosted support, amplified energy and more.