If you have caught the other parts of this series on Weightlifting Shoes and Weightlifting Belts, you know there are ideal times to wear weightlifting shoes and belts, but learning to train without them most times is the best case scenario.
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The purpose of knee sleeves is to help provide joint warmth, to stabilize the knee, as well as give it some neuromuscular input/feedback to the area. These are great benefits to knee sleeves. Unfortunately because of the added stability and input, just like weightlifting belts, the more you wear knee sleeves, the more the muscles that stabilize your knees learn they don’t have to do their job, ultimately getting weaker rather than stronger. Long term effects of this? Decreased control and stability in your knees when you are not wearing them.
But you wear them for all your exercise activities, so why should his matter to you? Because most likely you do not wear knee sleeves for 100% of your day. Therefore, your body needs to be able to stabilize and control the knees on its own, without the external support. If your body doesn’t know how to control and stabilize your knees on their own, then it sets you up for easy injury when doing simple lifting and dynamic tasks throughout your day.
For normal daily activities, not having the natural stability and control is not necessarily a bad thing. But, once you need to lift a 40# bag of dog food or water softener salt, it could cause problems. Or what about when you need to move quickly to catch a child or pet about to run into the street? Is your knee going to be able to support itself with that quick motion?
What I suggest, is when doing workouts with fairly light weight or body weight, wean yourself out of the knee sleeves. Teach your body to move properly without the support. If you have pain in your knees without them, that is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong and needs to be addressed. Take care of it rather than covering it up with a knee sleeve!
When is wearing knee sleeves acceptable? It depends if you are in the CrossFit world, Olympic lifting world, or strength sports, such as Strongman. In CrossFit, what I normally suggest is putting the sleeves on when you are getting to 85% of your known 1RM of your heaviest squatting lift. If you are an Olympic Lifter or in strength sports and you know you will be wearing them at all times at every competition, it may be a good idea to train in them consistently for both the mental and physical aspects. After all, we do want simulate as much of our competition environment as we can when we train.
Because I am a CrossFitter who does Olympic lifting, I will wear knee sleeves when getting to 85% of my back squat and front squat since those are my two heaviest lifts, but rarely wear them for any other lifts because I know the knees don’t need the support.
If you want to start weaning out of knee sleeves, begin to strengthen your hips and knees appropriately. Some great drills and accessory work I love to work on to improve strength, stability, and control in my legs and give my clients to work on are single leg RDLs, Bulgarian splits squats, tempo squats, and box squats.
Questions or comments regarding this? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written in collaboration with Joshua Walters. Joshua Walters is a Physical Therapist for Samaritan Health Services and owner of The Human Movement Rehab and Training. He has a Bachelor’s of Science in Kinesiology from Abilene Christian University and completed his Doctorate of Physical Therapy at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in Austin, Texas. Josh has been a personal trainer or fitness instructor for 8 years. He is a CrossFit Level 1 Certified Coach and Certified Clinical Weightlifting Coach with a background in weightlifting and powerlifting. He is currently competing as a 105+ kg lifter in USAW and is on the USAW medical team. His hobbies include anything that includes a barbell, food, sports, music, or good people. To contact, email email@example.com or @thehumanmovementrehab on Instagram.