Do you use a belt, knee wraps, or knee sleeves while squatting? In the minds of many armchair commandos, the answers to these questions determine whether you are a weakling that should be eaten by larger, stronger men, or whether you are going to hell for trying to add 10 pounds to your PR by cheating.
As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. A recent article from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research investigated the effects of knee wraps on back squat technique and performance. Ten men were studied, each with a history of strength training and over a year’s experience with the back squat.
The study began with a full bro-session of 1RM testing. Seven days later, everyone returned to test the knee wraps. Each subject squatted 6 singles at 80% 1RM—3 singles with knee wraps and 3 singles without. All participants tested both the wrapped and unwrapped condition. Half went wrapped first, and half went unwrapped first.
The researchers were ready to analyze force production via load cells on the floor and barbell trajectory via video. After compiling the data, they found a solid conclusion: knee wraps increase your power output during squats. Participants using knee wraps performed their squats faster, and they put more force to the ground during the rep. This is due to elastic energy being stored in the wraps on descent and unleashed on the concentric drive upward. So you’re not really doing more work–the knee wraps are indeed providing mechanical assistance.
Watching the barbell also provided some interesting results. The barbell showed less forward and backward movement using knee wraps. Knee wraps caused lifters to use a more upright torso position, resulting in greater knee flexion and less use of the hip flexors and posterior chain. This change in barbell kinematics led the authors to recommend against using knee wraps during training. As I’ve written previously, an upright torso can be an advantage for athletes that are injury prone or have limited mobility.
Do you agree? I say it depends upon your goal. If you’re competing at back squat, and knee wraps are allowed, then you should use them—assuming you want to win. Alas, the authors have a good point about developing balanced musculature, so I wholeheartedly agree you probably shouldn’t wrap up every single time you squat. But there is also value to maximal skeletal loading, even if knee wraps are used to achieve that. In the end, the choice of whether to use knee wraps depends on your goals.