By: Coach Samantha Bencomo
Knee sleeves can be a touchy subject in the gym. Some athletes swear by them- you won’t see them doing an air squat without them; while others see them more as a fashion statement than a solution for knee pain. Some also question whether wearing a knee sleeve prevents the knee from getting stronger by providing additional support. The truth is that there are multiple benefits to using knee sleeves for CrossFit – the key is determining whether or not you actually need knee sleeves and understanding when it is appropriate to wear them.
Before You Resort to Knee Sleeves:
For the athlete experiencing discomfort or knee pain, it’s best to identify what is triggering the pain first. Can it be fixed with rolling out? Are you using improper mechanics while squatting? Do you have minor tendonitis? If the answer is yes to any of these, those fancy blue sleeves aren’t going to magically solve your problem. They may for a short period of time alleviate some pressure from the knee, but as you become stronger and more conditioned the problem will only worsen. It may surprise some that knee pain is only sometimes caused by a literal knee problem. In many cases, muscle imbalances, tightness, or bad conditioning in the quadriceps and the hips is the issue. Focus on strengthening and mobilizing the surrounding muscles, particularly the quadriceps. Building up your quads makes your knees more stable and less susceptible to injury. Secondly, work on improving your form and engaging your hamstrings when you squat- disengaging at the bottom will put additional stress on the knee. In other cases simple solutions such as fish oil or glucosamine-chondroitin supplementation can help, as can anti-inflammatories, mobility balls, ice therapy, and dynamic rest (continuing workout while avoiding loading of the knee.)
When & Why to Use Knee Wraps:
If you have had prior knee injuries, bad knees in general, and have increased your squat load and volume, sleeves can help prevent injury and provide overall support by eliminating unwanted gliding and twisting at the knee. In addition to stability, they also keep muscles and connective tissue warm- helping to promote healing and reduce swelling and pain after a WOD or strength session. The blue knee wraps you typically see around the gym are also made of a material called “neoprene” the same material used in wet suits. This material is designed to retain heat and insulate the joint even during periods of inactivity. The only downside of this design feature is that sweat tends to accumulate around the knee instead of evaporating- causing a smelly knee sleeve, especially if they aren’t regularly washed. The most popular brand of knee sleeves in CrossFit is Rehband.
Overall, if used for the right reasons, knee sleeves can be beneficial to your strength and performance – but they shouldn’t be your first solution to knee pain. It’s always best to ask a coach to look at your squat form and evaluate your mobility when experiencing knee pain. If even after self-therapy (ice, stretching, foam rolling and form correction) you are still experiencing knee pain, its time to visit a doctor and get a more accurate diagnosis.