Optimal health and performance is absolutely paramount when it comes to the world of sports. Staying healthy and pain free typically goes hand in hand with success when it comes to athletes and sports performance. This article will continue to build off of a recent article published, “Examining the Efficacy of Knee Braces for Pain Relief and Performance” by delving into how athletic performance is impacted by knee braces.
The habitual use of knee braces for things such as meniscus and ACL tears can be seen all around us as professional athletes and public figures tend to be the catalyst for trends and narratives in the fitness world. The utilization of knee braces in sports is definitely a trend that has been picked up by the public and hasn’t seemed to budge in recent times. Braces for runner's knee, jumper's knee, and post ACL injuries are common and seen to “help” with joint stability. We are here to break down the misconceptions and explain how the benefits do not outweigh the drawbacks.
We will be breaking down multiple studies that showcase how inefficient this modality truly is. On top of this, you will be learning how to get the most out of your sports performance training without having to rely on such primitive tools like copper and hinged knee braces.
Knee braces are a common sight among athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike. Their supposed utility lies in providing support and stability to the knee joint, and many people believe that wearing a knee brace can enhance their performance during physical activity. However there are several misconceptions about utilizing knee braces for performance that need to be addressed.
Firstly, knee braces are not a magic solution for knee problems. While they can be beneficial in certain contexts, they cannot completely eliminate the risk of knee damage. As knee braces are typically most effective when used directly pre and post surgery, a study conducted in the journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise examined knee bracing after ACL reconstruction and its effects on postural control and proprioception. Throughout this study they were able to see small improvements in limited tasks although there was an apparent lack of carry over to more difficult and functionally relevant tasks. This ultimately left them questioning the clinical benefit of the present effects of bracing. (1)
Secondly, knee braces may actually limit performance in most cases. Some studies have suggested that wearing a knee brace can alter the mechanics of the knee joint and increase the risk of certain types of knee injuries, such as ACL tears. Additionally, wearing a knee brace can reduce proprioception, or the ability to sense the position and movement of the knee joint, which can affect balance and coordination. A study conducted in the journal of Biomechanics demonstrated how functional knee braces actually alter joint torque and power patterns during walking and running. By observing more motion from the hip and ankle and less from the knee, they concluded that the mechanics of individuals with an ACL injury mimics the mechanics of individuals who utilize functional knee braces. (2)
Finally, knee braces are not necessary for everyone. They have contextual use and while they may seem to be beneficial for individuals with existing knee injuries or chronic conditions, such as arthritis or ACL injuries, bracing only continues to exacerbate the poor mechanics that are happening in the body. In fact, a study from the journal of Clinical Orthopedics and Related Research showcased a meta-analysis of bracing after ACL reconstruction in which all the studies demonstrated substantial weaknesses. They found no evidence supporting the routine use of functional or rehabilitative bracing in a patient with a reconstructed ACL. In particular no study demonstrated a clinically important finding of improved range of motion, decreased pain, improved graft stability or decreased complications and reinjuries. (3) Similarly, when individuals without any direct injury or surgery decide to utilize hinged and copper knee braces, they may actually weaken the muscles around the knee joint and increase the risk of injury in the long term.
Effects of Bracing on Muscle Performance
In the world of sports, performance is everything. We often see athletes slap on a knee brace when they get injured and continue playing with the hope that it will provide them with some sort of stability so the injury can regenerate. A study published in the journal of Sports Medicine examined the effects of functional knee bracing on muscle function and performance and found functional knee braces do not improve performance and may even inhibit performance in asymptomatic athletes. They determined this because the compression of a knee brace actually decreases local blood flow, oxygen and results in premature muscle fatigue. (4) This means that although athletes may think their joints are protected due to the external pressure, their muscles are actually beginning to atrophy in real time.
This correlates directly to a study published in the journal of American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, where they tested the effect of three different functional knee braces on muscular pressure in the leg of 8 individuals. They concluded almost the exact same result, that functional knee braces forced muscles to overwork when resting and underwork when active, which indicates a significant decrease of muscle blood flow. Therefore due to knee bracing creating a lack of blood flow in the area, this can lead to muscles getting tired much quicker than they actually should. (5) As you can see, it is naive to believe that something like a copper, hinged or functional knee brace will help you perform to the best of your ability.
In addition to this, we can look at a study done on specifically leg muscle performance of athletes with and without knee support braces from the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Of the 7 male athletes studied, they all did significantly worse with every exercise tested when wearing the knee brace as opposed to not wearing one. When kicking out the leg straight the torque was less and speed was slower with the knee brace. During an all-out stair run their speed was slower and muscle fatigue kicked in almost twice as fast during a 15 min bike ride, all while wearing the knee brace. (6) While this study only examined 7 athletes, another study conducted in the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showcased the diminishing effects on performance of wearing a knee brace on 35 college athletes, 25 male and 10 female. Although the knee bracing didn’t didn’t significantly impact the male football players performance, it actually did inhibit the overall performance of the female lacrosse players, specifically by decreasing their speed while performing. (7)
It is clear that knee braces not only hinder sports performance in athletes but also simply do not contribute to optimal human health and performance. It might finally be a good time to put the habitual use of this tool to rest. At Functional Patterns there is no need to rely on external compression tools because we integrate the body in a specific way that allows the muscles to act as a brace for the joints of the body. Understand that muscles run in chains up and down the body. When these chains in the upper body start talking to the chains in the lower body, the links in between them connect, creating effortless pain free movement. Precise and correct movement that respects our human biology allows the brain and body to trust each other once again, making room for exponential growth without the need of knee braces.
Specificity in Sport
When thinking about getting the most out of your sports performance training, precision and specificity matter. Something like a knee brace will not account for the role specificity and high quality movement plays in high performance sports. Specificity is a critical aspect of high-performance sports as it refers to the degree to which an exercise or training program mimics the movement patterns, energy systems, and physiological demands of a particular sport. In other words, the more specific the training, the better the athlete’s performance in that sport.
Specificity helps athletes to develop the skills, strength, and endurance they need to perform at their best in their chosen sport. For example, a wrestler may focus on exercises that target multiple muscle chains connecting the upper and lower body, such as Functional Patterns RG Bar movements, as they rely heavily on both sides of their body being fully engaged in their sport. Similarly, a soccer player may focus on more rhythmic exercises that improve their speed, agility and ball control. Once something like a knee brace enters the picture, for one of these athletes, their mechanics are altered, hindering their ability to fully tap into their muscular potential. Typically athletes that rely on knee braces will not be utilizing the musculature around the knee properly and compensating with other parts of their body. Leading to inefficiency in their sport as well as with something like the FP RG bar.
High-performance athletes also typically engage in sport-specific training, which involves practicing the specific movements and skills required for their sport. This type of training helps to develop the neuromuscular coordination and timing needed for optimal performance. You will often see athletes couple their skills training with traditional lifting, yoga, and other forms of stretching. More often than not, the same athletes will end up getting injured and having to use something like a knee brace. This is because the reality of traditional lifting, yoga and stretching does not mimic the reality athletes face when performing their sport. Ultimately leaving the body unprepared and full of compensatory movement patterns that is just wasteful and inefficient. Athletes who do succeed in their sport, often do in spite of their traditional training methods, not because of it.
When sport-specific training is coupled with a program like Functional Patterns, the body is able to eliminate wasteful movement patterns and operate at an efficient and powerful level. The foundational principles in FP ensure that athletes face a very similar reality to that of their respective sport. In summary, specificity plays a crucial role in high-performance sports by ensuring that athletes are well-equipped to meet the physical demands of their sport. Through specific training and precise practice, athletes can optimize their performance and reach their full potential.
As we analyze our findings, the drawbacks of knee bracing on health & performance of athletes is clear. Utilizing a knee brace for runner's knee or for meniscus or ACL tears will not lead to better performance on the field. In reality it may actually significantly hinder the ability for the athlete to perform at their full potential.
Precision and specificity in training will be much more valuable to an athlete in the long term than something like a knee brace. The best knee brace for running will not account for the precision an athlete needs to fix their mechanics/movement patterns. The FP Functional Training System and RG Bar Workout are two programs that will help athletes and humans alike fix their faulty movement patterns and head towards a more functional and pain free path. The integrated muscle motions showcased in these programs are specific to the demands humans face in our three dimensional reality. This is why the results we achieve at Functional Patterns lead to optimal health and human performance.
- BIRMINGHAM, TREVOR B.; KRAMER, JOHN F.; KIRKLEY, ALEXANDRA; INGLIS, J. TIMOTHY; SPAULDING, SANDI J.; VANDERVOORT, ANTHONY A.. Knee bracing after ACL reconstruction: effects on postural control and proprioception. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 33(8):p 1253-1258, August 2001.
- DeVita P, Torry M, Glover KL, Speroni DL. A functional knee brace alters joint torque and power patterns during walking and running. J Biomech. 1996 May;29(5):583-8. doi: 10.1016/0021-9290(95)00115-8. PMID: 8707784.
- Wright, Rick W MD; Fetzer, Gary B MD. Bracing after ACL Reconstruction: A Systematic Review. Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research 455():p 162-168, February 2007. | DOI: 10.1097/BLO.0b013e31802c9360
- Styf, J. The Effects of Functional Knee Bracing on Muscle Function and Performance. Sports Med 28, 77–81 (1999). https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-199928020-00002
- Styf JR, Nakhostine M, Gershuni DH. Functional knee braces increase intramuscular pressures in the anterior compartment of the leg. The American Journal of Sports Medicine. 1992;20(1):46-49. doi:10.1177/036354659202000112
- Houston ME, Goemans PH. Leg muscle performance of athletes with and without knee support braces. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1982 Sep;63(9):431-2. PMID: 7115043.
- Sforzo GA, Chen NM, Gold CA, Frye PA. The effect of prophylactic knee bracing on performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1989 Jun;21(3):254-7. PMID: 2733572.