Wander into any hardcore powerlifting gym and you’ll most likely see lifters donning knee sleeves during their squats. Not to be confused with a knee brace, which is used to prevent or alleviate an injury, these neoprene sleeves slide over your joints to add an element of compression.
Available in 3 millimeter, 5mm, and 7mm thicknesses, knee sleeves are worn to reduce swelling and improve blood flow to the knee area. But most powerlifters claim that they can also increase the amount you can squat. So, are knee sleeves the PR (personal record) hack we’ve been missing out on?
The answer: They’ll help you out…a little bit.
The idea is that knee sleeves garner tension at the bottom of the squat, and as the lifter ascends the extra tension can help to bounce them back up. This is why some powerlifters will squeeze themselves into a too-small pair. More compression means more tension.
“If you get heavier duty knee sleeves, like a ‘competition fit,’ which is going one size down from what you measure at, these can add up to 50lbs from what I’ve seen,” says Matt Mills, a competitive Strongman and owner of Lightning Fitness in South Windsor, CT.
Conversely, Brandon Smitley, C.S.C.S.—an elite powerlifter and owner of THIRST—says the claims of guys adding 50 or 60 pounds to their squat from sleeves are, “bullshit.” “They’re just trying to sell you something,” he says. “Some of the best powerlifters on the planet are getting 15 to 20 pounds, and that’s a stretch. For the average gym-goer, they will see next to no gains.”
To put these claims to the test, Grant Barnett, a powerlifter and YouTuber under the name FitGranticus, laid down, hooked a fish scale to his shoe, and measured the resistance of his leg bent past 90 degrees. He found that his leg without the sleeve produced 10 pounds of force. While wearing a tight knee sleeve, he clocked in at 20 pounds of force. Clearly, the tension yields some assistance but is more in-line with what Smitley asserted.
As far as science goes, there’s no evidence that directly links knee sleeves to a stronger squat. That said, one study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning studied how knee wraps—long pieces of elastic fabric that lifters wrap tightly around their knee, and are sometimes used to make knee sleeves with instead of neoprene—affected their squat output. They found that wearing knee wraps “significantly increased peak power.”
In conclusion, wear knee sleeves to help keep your knee joint stable and warm—not to try and add weight to your squat. They may help you out a little, but if you really want a big squat, nothing beats good old fashion consistency and progression.