Athletes in knee sleeves are easy to find in a CrossFit box or serious lifting gym and for good reason … they work. They’re a simple yet effective piece of gear that most athletes can benefit from. Knee sleeves are a compression garment made from cloth or neoprene. They give small performance benefits as well as help reduce soreness in the knees and prevent injury — partially via subconscious awareness of knee positioning.
As a CrossFit coach, I’ve found longer neoprene sleeves are best because you can roll them down over your shins for added protection during things like deadlifts and rope climbs. A well-designed sleeve will be fairly easy to roll up and down during activity. Neoprene has good stretch so the sleeves compress, but not too much, and good ones won’t restrict your movement. Neoprene sleeves also have enough stiffness inherent in the material that they won’t roll or bunch up like most cloth sleeves.
Most of the benefits of knee sleeves come from the compression they create around the knee joint and in the muscles above and below it. This compression helps keep your knees warm during activity. This warmth and compression result in less joint stiffness and less discomfort during exercise. If you already have arthritis or any other type of degeneration in your knees or you’ve had previous surgery or knee injuries, you’ll benefit even more from wearing sleeves while training.
Compression stimulates certain types of proprioceptors in joints, skin, fascia and muscles. Proprioceptors are types of nerves that tell your brain where your body is oriented in space. Most of you can touch your nose with your eyes closed because of good proprioception. Anyone who has trained in CrossFit or any other squat-heavy program knows the importance of knee position. Knee sleeves enhance your brain’s awareness of your knee position, especially when you are fatigued. Considering that most CrossFit injuries occur when good position and movement are lost because of fatigue, this is a huge benefit for athletes! This is another reason to look for longer sleeves. More area compressed by the sleeves translates to more proprioceptive effects, greater activation of muscles and overall better results than shorter sleeves that cover less area.
While I don’t know of any studies looking specifically at the performance benefits of knee sleeves, there is some data that supports the fact that compression garments can give slight performance benefits. Compression garments are estimated to help you produce 1 to 2 percent greater power. While this isn’t much, it’s an important statistic because it also means that there are no performance losses from wearing compression sleeves.
Now that you know all this, the easy choice is the decision to use knee sleeves during WODs. The tougher choice is which ones to buy, with dozens on the market. My advice? Forget the weightlifting and powerlifting style of wraps altogether (unless that’s your activity) because they are super tight and restrict a lot of movement. They are great for lifting a ton of weight but not for CrossFit WODs. Cloth sleeves tend to rip easily, bunch up, slip and don’t offer much of an advantage over wearing nothing at all.
The clear winner in knee-sleeve technology are longer neoprene sleeves. They have enough structure to stay in place, and the neoprene keeps your knees and tissues warm. The material is also thicker, giving some nice padding to your knees during things like lunges and split jumps. Aim for longer sleeves to get more muscle activation around your knees and greater proprioceptive awareness. They also can be rolled down to protect your shins, giving you a more versatile product. Keep them dry and clean and you’ll have a piece of gym equipment that serves you for a long time!
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