Why I Stopped Wearing Knee Sleeves
(And Then STARTED Again!)
by Alec Enkiri | 9/22/23
Your Lifting Equipment is a Crutch
You should never let your lifting equipment become a crutch.
This is a commonly parroted mantra in the strength and conditioning world, that has led to other brilliant adages such as "there are no weightlifting belts in the jungle."
Or weight classes. Or CPAPs
No weight classes (or CPAPs) in the jungle, baby
You get the point.
Basically, lifting equipment (belts, sleeves, wraps, straps, etc. etc.) EXISTS, and we can use that equipment to enhance our results. But for some of us this reliance goes too far and eventually these things (supposedly) become "a crutch" for these people, thereby holding back their potential in some fashion.
And while there are certainly potential issues that can occur with the over-reliance on supportive equipment (especially the more supportive said equipment becomes) most of us simply take this assertion at face value without ever really questioning the veracity of it.
Most people actually think belt usage makes your abs weak even though that is a fallacy and proper belt usage actually enhances long term weight training results. Cue Mario Rios disparaging anyone who dares consider what the potential benefits of wearing a belt could be.
But is it REALLY a Crutch?
But what really determines whether a particular piece of equipment is a crutch for somebody or not? Let's look at lifting belts, for example. Is a belt "a crutch" if you can squat your max with the belt but not without it? That would be an odd way of making the determination because anybody skilled in belt usage will be able to squat more weight with the belt than without it courtesy of the enhanced intra-abdominal pressure it allows you to create.
Is a belt crutch if you can ONLY squat anything remotely impressive at all with the belt on but not with the belt off? This is probably closer to the tool becoming an actual crutch - somebody having a massive discrepancy between their belted and beltless capacity.
But is this even something that really happens in the real world? In my experience, not really. In my experience, as the capability to handle weights with the belt increases, so too, pretty much proportionally, does the ability to handle weights without the belt. I guess if somebody truly had the issue where their belted capacity kept increasing but their unbelted capacity didn't increase then that would mean the belt had truly become a crutch for that person. In having coached hundreds of athletes I've never actually seen this happen, but I suppose it could.
Is a belt a crutch if you can only squat pain free with the belt on but not with the belt off? Or put another way, is a belt a crutch if your reliance on its use causes you to be in pain after the fact?
This would probably be the most accurate way of determining something like a belt or sleeves or wraps to be a crutch or not. If you are constantly in pain to such an extent that you can't even do something reasonably pain free unless you introduce the piece of equipment (band-aid) - or if using the piece of equipment creates a "kicking the can down the road" effect that causes you to be in pain later because you are using it to mask some issue rather than actually address the issue - then, perhaps, the tool has become a crutch after all.
In this case the prudent course of action becomes readying the body to exist in the absence of the crutch as at that point the crutch is probably a contributing factor to your ailment! Something is missing intrinsically, but that intrinsic factor cannot be bolstered because the crutch prevents that from occurring.
Why I STOPPED Wearing Knee Sleeves
However, even this becomes a potentially dubious assertion if we put it under deeper scrutiny. Looking at something like knee sleeves, for example, sleeves provide a small amount of compression around the knee joint. The slight compressive effect itself can often make the joint feel happier in general, as well, the warmth that this effect creates can enhance circulation in the joint which is something that can actually be therapeutic.
I had been wearing knee sleeves during my squatting exercises for YEARS, not because my knees hurt, but simply because I wanted that little bit of rebound out of the hole that you can get from the compressive effect. The slight rebound can help you get a little bit more weight on the bar. I started chasing numbers in my early 20s and this led to me adding in, at first, light knee sleeves, and eventually, what were then considered to be the crème de la crème (from a "how much weight you can lift" perspective) knee sleeves that were still legal in powerlifting competition, the good old SBDs.
After I stopped worrying about powerlifting I kept the sleeves around in my training, fluttering between various brands and models but always using a moderately supportive sleeve with the intent of being able to (hopefully) lift a little bit more weight than I could without them.
Recently, however, I decided that I wanted to be a little bit more hardcore and go back to naked knees on my heavy squats. Weight on the bar had become less important to me than overall movement capacity and mobility under load, so for the first time in many years I stopped wearing knee sleeves! As noted, I had been moving towards trying to improve my range of motion and my general mobility levels on a host of exercises, and with that I ended up really liking the freedom of movement that bare knees provided me.
I felt strong, limber, and unimpeded this way, and I really enjoyed training my heavy squats with no supportive equipment beyond my trusty old belt (we'll save the belt usage deep dive for another article!).
No sleeves, early 2023. I preferred this.
Why I STARTED Wearing Knee Sleeves (Again)
Unfortunately, however, all good things must come to an end. After a little while I started to notice an insidious pain building up in my knees, right at the front on the patella. I had never experienced knee pain before in about a decade and a half of lifting, so this was new for me.
(Actually side note, as a teenage athlete my knees used to KILL ME. It took a lot of warming up for me to be able to run and jump pain free when I was 16-20 years old. Then I discovered squats and built stronger legs, and with that, my knee pain vanished entirely.)
(Side side note, looks like I missed the opportunity to build a multi-million follower brand around knee pain that was magically cured by lifting weights. Call me AssApproachingFloorGuy!)
Now however, after each lower body workout, within just an hour or so after wrapping up my knees would be killing me, man! Sore as hell. Walking up and down stairs started to become cumbersome to say the least. After a few days the pain would subside, but then I would hit legs again and it would come right back in full force. Being as how I hit my lower body hard 2x per week, well, that meant that my knees were basically hurting 98% of the time.
Then I got COVID (for the 3rd time?) earlier this year and my knees started absolutely SCREAMING at me for weeks, man. The workouts would make it even worse, and then it would improve only slightly in the few days after, but it never went back to a pain free baseline like it had been. Just constant, persistent pain now. This went on for weeks and weeks, long after I had kicked the virus. I simply could not get back to a pain free baseline anymore and I even resorted to trying a topical NSAID (diclofenac, which has recently been made available as an OTC topical NSAID in the United States). This helped a little, but the pain persisted, and upon stopping the anti-inflammatory it bounced right back up to peak levels again.
At this point I decided to revisit an old friend just to see what would happen. I once again started wearing my trusty knee sleeves again for all my heavy squats as well for any volume work that I would do on squatting and lunging variations afterwards.
Sure enough, after a couple weeks the pain started to fade. And then after a couple more weeks it had dissipated enitrely. No NSAID's required. No workload modification required. Just the simple, but judicious addition of a valuable tool that I had once relied on for years and years without really giving much thought.
More recent 2023. Still deep squats, but the sleeves are back on.
So now I wear my knee sleeves when I squat heavy, and then later on I can run and jump completely pain free without wearing the knee sleeves. Contrast this with when I was squatting bare knees and it was painful and cumbersome to run and jump. Those first few steps were always owie and it took me longer than I am comfortable with to get warmed-up and primed and ready to go full bore without having to think about if I'm going to ache in the process.
So does this make the sleeves a crutch for me? Am I just coping for my crutch like an alcoholic who can "totally stop drinking any time they want?"
I can perform better now without the sleeves by selectively wearing the sleeves than I could perform without wearing the sleeves at all. By selectively wearing the sleeves my general readiness level is much higher without them on than it was when I didn't wear them at all. I am in far less pain during my athletic endeavors and overall (zero pain actually) by wearing the sleeves during heavy and high volume bouts of leg training in the gym than I was when I skipped wearing the sleeves in the gym.
Going sleeveless in the gym my knees would be sore warming up, they would ache like hell after the workout, and they would ache like hell warming up for sprints, jumps, sports, etc.
Going sleeved in the gym my knees do not ache during warm-ups, they do not ache after the workout, and they do not ache when I am running, jumping, and playing sports (all in the absence of sleeves altogether).
So does this make the sleeves a crutch for me?
I don't think it does. I think I am toeing the line of where many people would consider a tool to have become a crutch because I am in pain without the tool (my so called "natural state"), and my pain goes away when the tool is utilized judiciously (an "unnatural state").
But then I have to argue that if, by using the sleeves, my overall pain levels are drastically reduced across a broad of spectrum of activities, and my overall functionality and level of performance is unimpeded, and my joint health is not negatively impacted by using the tool...
THEN WHO THE FUCK CARES!
(Quick side note: this point about joint health would not be the case with over-use of something like knee wraps, as opposed to sleeves, which would actually cause the strength of ligaments and tendons in the knee to not be able to keep proportional pace with other structures because the wrap actually does the job for the knee instead of the knee having to do it itself - same idea as an overreliance on ankle support. High ankle sprains are freaking endemic these days because the kids wear high top sneakers from pee wee to the pros and their ankles are weak because of it).
Let it be a crutch. I'll be Crutchy Freaking McGee over here and I do not give a shit. Laugh at me, point fingers, call me a weak-minded lil' bitch who's not hardcore enough to keep it RAWWWW BRAHHH. I don't care at all, man!
Ya know why? Because my knees feel like a million bucks again! I'm as strong as ever, I'm as fast as ever, I can jump as high and far as ever, I'm agile as ever, and I'm 35 years old and I can jump off the damn roof of my house for fun without a hitch and without any pain before, during, or after. If that's what using a crutch gets me then I'll take that all day every day and twice on motherfucking Sunday.
If using a tool actually enhances your readiness, decreases your pain, and improves your health and well-being then who really cares if somebody else thinks it's a crutch or not? It's objectively making you better.
There are no knee sleeves in the jungle, bro. Well, good thing I don't live in the jungle you Liverking sympathizing lemming.
So that's why I stopped wearing knee sleeves....and then started wearing them again!
Pink man wants to remind you that there are no steroids in the jungle.
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