I recently made a mistake, the type of mistake I rarely make. I decided to change something about my routine without doing the proper research first. I’m hoping my experience and mistake can help stop you from making the same mistake. From the title of this article I’m sure you can figure out that I started wearing knee wraps. The reason I decided to start is because my squats were increasing in poundage to a level I never thought I’d be able to perform and I wanted to protect my knees under the heavy weight. Due to suffering a partial PCL tear playing baseball two summers ago, knee protection is important to me.
Initially I really liked the wraps. They felt good during the lifts, and I felt strong and stable wearing them. What ended up happening after the first time I wore them, however, was I finished my session and my knees had never been so sore. I thought perhaps I wasn’t wearing them right and I set off to do a little research as I should have done in the first place. What I found was rather alarming. I was wearing them correctly, but what knee wraps potentially do to your knees was not the kind of support I thought I’d be getting.
While knee wraps do appear to be capable of helping you generate more power (1) it does so at a hefty price. What happens when you wear knee wraps is pressure is placed on your patella (knee cap.) This could cause friction between the patella and the cartilage underneath because the patella is compressed into the thighbone which can increase the risk of injury to the knee or even long-term effects such as arthritis.
Researchers out of the University of Chichester recently took ten experienced males and had them squat with our without knee wraps. They discovered there was a significant difference in the way the movement was performed between the two trials. Wearing wraps reduced the horizontal movement considerably. While the weight was lowered the horizontal movement was decreased by 39 percent. Also the lowering phase was performed 45% faster with wraps than without. This demonstrated that vertical force applied to the center of mass during the lowering phase was considerably larger and was likely the result of the generation and storage of elastic energy in the knee wraps.
Subsequent vertical impulse was 10% greater and the mechanical work involved in vertically displacing the center of mass was performed 20% faster and was reflected by a 10% increase in peak power. So while the knee wraps increased mechanical output, they also altered the squatting technique in a way that altered the musculature targeted. That lead the researchers to believe wearing knee wraps compromises the integrity of the knee-joint. They also went on to say perceived weakness in the knee-joint should be treated instead of using knee wraps. In summary knee wraps help you go through the movement faster and more explosively but likely at the compromise of knee health. (2)
If you aren’t going to use knee wraps what should you use? Perhaps a knee sleeve could do the trick. One study looked at performance comparing prophylactic knee braces and neoprene knee sleeves. Thirty-one healthy males volunteered to use the braces during isokinetic and functional tests. All subjects were tested in random order using either no brace, a neoprene knee sleeve, a sleeve with four bilateral metals supports and using a prophylactic knee brace. (Pictures of each knee brace available in the link to the study.)
Subjects completed single leg vertical jump, cross-over hop and the isokinetic knee flexion and extension. When comparing the 4 different conditions there was no significant statistical difference in performance results. That, however, means it also showed none of the braces significantly inhibited athletic performance which could verify that the structure of the braces did not cause a complication in the normal function of the knee joint. (3)
So unlike knee wraps, knee sleeves likely won’t compromise knee-joint function although it also won’t improve performance the way knee wraps can. However, knee sleeves will keep the knees warm and potentially provide slight support, without compromising the integrity of your knee. In my opinion it’s worth having a slight drop in power (technically not a drop but normal performance) instead of being able to move a little more weight at the risk of damaging your knees.
I don’t know if the knee pain I felt after using wraps had anything to do with this research or not, but it’s probably a good thing for me it did happen, otherwise I probably would have continued to use them and potentially damaged my knees further. If you currently use knee wraps and wish to continue, just know the potential risks. Perhaps for some it’s worth the risk.