Avoid wearing knee wraps when squatting for better, more complete strength development. Knee wraps are commonly worn by powerlifters and occasionally by athletes and trainees, but they should be avoided. Knee wraps are worn because they increase the amount of maximal weight that can be lifted by increasing the speed with which the lift is performed and storing elastic energy in the wrap. But new research shows they compromise the training of the hip musculature, which can have a negative effect on the integrity of the knee making it critical that athletes avoid them.
The study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, compared mechanical output and performance characteristics of squats performed with and without knee wraps at 80 percent of the 1 RM. Trained college-age men were used and they performed three single repetitions of a back squat. The knee wraps provided a mechanical advantage, which was represented by the fact that the reps performed with wraps were completed faster. This resulted in a very high amount of elastic energy to be stored in the wraps during the down phase of the squat. That energy is then released during the up phase, resulting in greater peak power output and is the reason more weight can be lifted with wraps.
There was also a large reduction in horizontal displacement of the barbell when knee wraps were worn; indicating that the participants’ traditional squat form was changed dramatically and different muscles were used. The knee wraps led to a restricted motion around the hip joint, which caused a more upright posture and forced greater flexion at the knee joint. The restricted motion meant that the powerful hip flexors and extensors were not activated to the same extent as in a normal squat, putting trainees at greater risk of injury and underdevelopment of these muscles. This could result in compromised integrity of the knee joint.
Another possible effect of knee wraps is the development of osteoarthritis and tendinitis. One study found that elite powerlifters had a 31 percent incidence of osteoarthritis of the knee compared to runners who had only a 14 percent incidence. Researchers suggest that although knee wraps are frequently worn to protect the knee joint, this may in fact increase the friction between the patella and the underlying cartilage because the wraps compress the knee cap into the thighbone, increasing the risk of injury and knee pathologies such as arthritis.
Take note that one reason given for wearing knee wraps besides the greater amount of weight that can be lifted is that they keep the knee warm, which increases the synovial fluid present, better lubricating them. Instead of wearing knee wraps you can get neoprene knee pads to keep the knee warm that do not alter movement mechanics or affect the amount of weight lifted. Unless you are a powerlifter, avoid using knee wraps and you will have a more balanced, stronger lower body.
Lake, J., Carden, P., et al. Wearing Knee Wraps Affects Mechanical Output and Performance Characteristics of Back Squat Exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. December 2011. Published Ahead of Print.
Bogduk, N., Twomey, L. Clinical Anatomy of the Lumbar Spine. New York: Churchill Livingstone. 1991.
Baechle, T.R., ed. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 1994.