“Can you give me a spot?” is a common, seemingly simple request you often hear in gyms. The problem is that you can’t assume that everyone you ask to spot you knows how to do it, putting not only you but sometimes them at risk. Further, there are some high-risk exercises, such as high box jumps, where a spotter is often needed but seldom used. To avoid becoming part of a YouTube “Gym Fails” video and possibly landing in the emergency room, here is what you need to know about spotting.
Although pretty much anyone will give a spot to someone if asked, the truth is that spotting is a skill that takes practice. In gymnastics, considerable training is spent ensuring that coaches know how to spot correctly. Serious, life-changing injuries can result if spotters are poorly trained and are not completely focused on the task at hand. Likewise, as the skills in competitive cheerleading have become more advanced, that sport has needed to step up their game in ensuring that their coaches can teach these athletes how to spot their teammates.
In the early days of Olympic-style weightlifting, spotters were often used, not so much to protect the athlete, but to protect the equipment. Bumper plates were not invented, and often when barbells were dropped the bar and the platforms would be damaged – at major competitions, often several bars had to be replaced as spotters frequently missed. Now, with 400-pound snatches and 500-pound clean and jerks being commonplace in major competitions, and the lifts being performed so quickly, spotting is not possible. One more point about weightlifting.
Weightlifting is unquestionably one of the safest sports, but the initial sessions should focus on how not just how to lift, but how to miss. Often you’ll see horrific videos online in which athletes did not know how to bail out of a snatch, clean, or jerk. Further, one reason straps are not used in cleans is because they do not permit the lifter to dump the weight forward — one promising US lifter seriously injured both wrists using straps on cleans, an accident that required three surgeries and a lengthy rehab period.
One type of athletic fitness exercise that should be spotted, but is usually not, is high box jumping. Of course, many accidents occur from using unstable platforms, especially when people stack bumper plates on plyometric boxes to increase the height. If an athlete doesn’t jump high enough, the plates could crumple forward causing the athlete to fall; the worst case is usually when the falling plates cause the athlete to fall backward, with the athlete’s head hitting the floor. Further, safety mats are seldom used, and often the individual lands on a hard rubber floor.
Ideally, two spotters should be used when performing high box jumps, one on each side; a single spotter cannot assist a person who is falling away from them, and two spotters can better handle the weight of an athlete falling from a high height. However many spotters are used, the key is to prevent the athlete’s head from hitting the ground first. As for administrative issues, in a group setting three people could be assigned to one box, rotating such that as soon as one person finishes jumping, he or she moves to the side and becomes a spotter.
Before getting into the gym lifts that require spotting, consider that it’s best to use spotters who have worked with you before and know how you miss lifts (and often can determine when you are about to miss). Further, you will be accustomed to how he or she spots you. If someone is doing heavy squats and is used to the spotter merely holding onto the top of bar to help them maintain balance, they don’t want to be surprised when a different spotter, for example, grabs them around the waist and starts pulling up.
Next, you have to consider what lift is being performed, what equipment is being used, and if the spotter can physically handle a heavy weight. If a powerlifter is using portable squat racks and loads 600 pounds on the bar, don’t expect a 98-pound woman to offer much help. The same goes with bench presses. Although often only a few extra pounds of assistance is needed to help an athlete push pass their sticking point on a weight that is too heavy, if the athlete’s hands slip or they pull a muscle, the spotter must be capable of being able to deal with it.
If there are doubts about the competence of a spotter, lifts should be performed inside a power cage with the safety supports set at the appropriate height. Often those using power cages don’t set the bar high enough, causing the athlete to get crushed during a squat or crashing hard on the chest during a bench press. The same goes with Smith machines. There should be adjustable safety catches on these machines set at the appropriate height to stop the bar in case of a miss. Many serious spinal injuries, including at least one death, occurred because the safety devices were not set at the right height on Smith machines.
Now let’s look more closely at two of the major lifts that require spotters: bench presses and squats.
With the bench press, the lifter and the spotter need to communicate during every aspect of the lift: as the bar is lifted off the supports, during the lift, and as the lifter returns the bar to the supports. Accidents often occur when the spotter releases tension on the bar before the athlete is set to press, or the spotter loses focus when the weight is returned to the supports and the spotter does not ensure it is securely resting on the supports. Also, what often happens in commercial gyms is that the spotter will help remove the bar, but then step back several feet (“to give the athletes space”), such that they cannot immediately react to an emergency.
At the start of a bench press, a spotter usually takes an overhead grip on the bar to help remove or return a bar to supports, but in the case where the bar suddenly drops back to the chest during the ascent, it’s unlikely that the spotter will have the hand speed to catch the bar. A better approach is that after the person lifting secures the weight on extended arms to the begin pressing, the spotter places their hands under the bar, palms up, and follows the bar throughout the entire lift. With especially heavy weights, three spotters would be ideal with the middle spotter helping with the lift off and return; two spotters can be hard to pull off as the end spotters must time their lift-off and return precisely.
For the squat, elite Olympic lifters seldom use spotters. Rather, they squat on a lifting platform, use bumper plates, and then dump the bar behind them for the back squat or in front of them for the front squat. The bumpers will prevent damage to the platform and also protect the bar.
Most gyms, especially in schools, have space-saving half racks that possess spotting arms that extend from the rack to catch the weight. When using these racks, the spotter must ensure that the trainee does not step too far back, such that the spotting arms will not be able to catch the weight. Often with this type of rack the spotter will place their hands over the bar, and if the weight is too heavy such that the spotter cannot help complete the lift, their focus should be on ensuring that the bar does not travel backward, away from the spotting arms.
Three spotters are ideal for the squat, especially with heavy weights. The side spotters should have their hands cupped under the barbell sleeves to provide assistance, and the back squatter can have their hands resting lightly on top of the bar to help keep the bar in the groove (as the bar can fall either forward or backward).
With only one spotter on the squat, the best technique for spotting maximal weights is to have the spotter place their arms alongside the athlete’s torso, and squat down and up with the athlete as they lift. If the athlete needs assistance, they wrap their arms around the athlete’s chest, such that their torso is aligned with the person squatting, and helps them stand up. Another method is to have the back spotter pull up with their elbows under the athlete’s armpits; this is not as secure, but often those doing squats are uncomfortable with a spotter wrapping their arms around their chest. Of course, the spotter can simply place their hands on top of the bar, but it’s not as effective as these other two methods, especially if extremely heavy weights are used.
Another type of lift that requires a high level of skill to spot, is the dumbbell bench press, along with the incline and decline variations. With these lifts, the spotters usually do not help any way with the lifter positioning the weights on their chest or returning them to the racks (often the lifter just drops the weights to the floor, if the gym allows this). Instead, they will help keep the dumbbells in the groove, using a slight bit force upward on the elbows/triceps to help complete a rep. The spotter can also grasp the wrists, but this is not recommend as it can easily throw the person pressing off balance.
Finally, it cannot be emphasized enough that spotters need to practice the skill of spotting. And don’t wait until the heaviest weights are used – spotters should also spot submaximal lifts so that they can get accustomed to the athlete’s timing and technique. The bottom line is that if you want to be able to lift heavy to get the most benefit from your workout and significantly reduce your risk of injury, enlist the help of well-trained spotters.