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Spotting Done Right

Written by Matt Danielsson

Most serious weight lifters know that it’s wise to take basic precautions at the gym. You bend your knees when picking up heavy dumbbells. You keep your abs tense when pressing barbells overhead. You have someone spot you when attempting heavy bench presses.

But what about when it becomes your turn to spot someone? Take a look around the gym and you’ll see otherwise smart people who suddenly throw all common sense out the window just because they’re not the ones holding the weight.

For example, look at the guy who usually takes pride in doing dead-lifts with perfect form who now gives his bench-pressing buddy a spot. He’s standing with straight, stiff legs and rounded back behind the bench. Let’s say the buddy suddenly tears one of the small stabilizing muscles in his shoulder. What happens? Shock, pain, and sudden loss of control make him drop the barbell into near freefall. This is exactly the kind of situation you have a spotter for.

Now, to prevent the decapitation of his buddy, the spotter has to catch the barbell quickly. There are a few problems here. The spotter is catching a falling weight. The split second it takes before he can react means the weight is already gaining momentum, adding extra pounds of downward force.

The spotter is standing with straight legs and cannot use his legs to help control the descent. With an already rounded back, his only option is to bend over further to catch the weight, thus putting his spine in an even more vulnerable position. You don’t have to be an expert to see that the odds are good that there will be not one, but two guys going to the ER in this scenario.

Spotting Hurdles

One of the trickiest things about spotting is that you’re not actuallyhandling the barbell. Assuming an ergonomically correct stance, when the weight just isn’t there, may seem awkward and feel downright stupid.

This is a mental thing. If you are the backup, you must be prepared for the worst. If you were covering your partner’s back entering a fortified drug house, you wouldn’t be over at Starbucks for some coffee when he breached the door.

Another mental aspect is that it’s easy to let the mind wander. Unfortunately, this adds extra reaction time in a worst-case scenario. Every fraction of a second means additional downward momentum, which can be a substantial problem with, say a 275 pound bench press.

Lastly, not knowing what to do in that brief window of time can make all the difference in the world. In our example of the bench press, the goal is obvious: prevent the barbell from slamming down across your buddy’s neck! In order to achieve this, the natural instinct is to grab the barbell and stop it cold.

But if that’s a 275 pound barbell in freefall, it’ll be quite a feat of strength and a risky one at that. Instead, focus on damage control and think of a plan of action before your buddy starts his set.

Many bench press racks have multiple stops, of which there’s an extra low one to allow stuck trainers to throw the barbell back and thus rack the weight instead of choking. If this safety feature is available, your job is not to stop the weight from falling. It is merely to slow the descent as you pull the barbell back towards the bottom stop.

If there is no such safety, the same principle applies. You don’t STOP the weight. You merely control the descent while pulling the weight towards you and away from your buddy’s neck. As soon as you’ve cleared the head, just let the weight drop. It’ll be noisy, but unlike a slipped disc, it doesn’t hurt anybody.

The basic rule is to position yourself as if you were just about to handle the full weight. Here is a checklist for a few common spotting positions and what to do in an emergency save situation.

Bench Press

Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart just behind the rack. Keep your knees slightly bent. Position your hands knuckles-down just under the barbell and follow the movement. It’s best to have your fingertips lightly touching the barbell which allows for a quicker catch, but some people get distracted if the spotter makes physical contact with the barbell—be sure to discuss this beforehand. Also, as you bend forward to follow the motion of the barbell, make sure to bend your knees and hips rather than round your back.

The emergency save is to immediately grab the barbell and start rotating your shoulders back towards you and the rack in an arc-like motion. Try to use biceps, back, and knees simultaneously to slow the descent, not just one muscle group or the other. Once you’ve cleared your buddy’s head, let the weight drop if there is no bottom stop on the rack.

Squats

Ideally, these should be done in a “power cage” where you can set emergency stops to catch a falling barbell (mid-thigh height.) If it’s a single rack, stand so that the stops are in front of you rather than behind you. Stand half a step behind the squatter, making sure not to interfere with your buddy’s movement; bumping into someone at the wrong moment can cause accidents. Keep your feet fairly wide apart, knees bent, and your upper body straight but tilted slightly forward by bending your hips. Your hands should be a couple inches under/behind the buddy’s armpits. Bend your knees to follow the movement.

The emergency save is based on the fact that when a squatter fails, he usually falls forward. As injury/cramp/ fatigue strikes, take a quick step forward for leverage (move both feet so that you’re balanced) and move your hands forward and upward in a kind of scooping motion to support your buddy’s shoulders. Control the descent while moving forward, guiding the barbell towards the rack.

One important note: avoid the temptation of reaching out with straight arms instead of taking a step forward to save time. Can you hold a couple hundred pounds straight out in front of you? Probably not. Instead, you should strive to get close to the barbell, keeping your elbows as bent as possible. Remember, the more extended your arms, the more the laws of physics work against you.

Overhead Barbell Press

Two variations exist: 1) starting from the front of the chest or 2) behind the neck. In either scenario, you need to have your buddy do the seated version or you’ll be in an awkward position right from the start. Stand behind your buddy with feet wide apart and knees slightly bent. Keep your elbows bent and your hands open in a knuckles-down position, following the motion.

For the emergency save, raise your hands to meet the falling barbell and close your fists tightly (sweat can make the steel quite slippery.) Use your biceps to pull the barbell towards you as you rotate your shoulders down and back until you’ve cleared your buddy’s head. Then you extend the biceps, letting the barbell make a controlled descent to your waist. In other words, seen from the side, it should look like the barbell is traveling almost straight down in front of you from top to bottom, well clear of your buddy’s head and back.

Leg Press

Stand on one side turned three-quarters towards the plates. This allows you to keep an eye on your buddy for early signs of distress. Bend the knee closest to the back of the machine and place the rear foot way back for support. Position yourself so that you can easily turn towards the plates and push using the same stance you would use for rolling a heavy barrel uphill.

For the emergency save, turn fully towards the plates and put one hand on the sled next to your buddy’s foot and the other at the end of the bar (assuming that the entire bar isn’t filled with plates.) Only put your other hand on the plates as a last recourse, as these may rotate and compromise your efforts. Resist the weight until your buddy can either engage the emergency brake or remove himself from harm’s way as you let the weight drop.

There are other exercises where spotting is a good idea, such as hack squats, tricep presses (“skullcrushers”) and dumbbell flyes. These typically use less weight than the exercises listed above. While the risk of injury is lower, there is no reason for you not to take proper precautions nonetheless. Remember, all injuries don’t come with a big bang—some are cumulative, building up over months of sloppy form and dumb mistakes.

On the flip side of the coin, some exercises are just not meant for spotting. Deadlifts, clean and jerks, hyperextensions and all calf exercises are prime examples of where it’s better to stay clear for both you and your buddy’s safety. The bottom line is to use common sense and run a worst-case scenario in your mind before hitting the weights. When the unexpected strikes, it could make the difference between a minor mishap and long time on the sidelines.

Matt Danielsson is an IFBB-certified personal trainer and freelance writer with 10+ years of experience. He runs www.LearnBodybuilding.com and may be reached at mattdanielsson@hotmail.com. Congratulations to Rob Carbo (orange Shirt), the new WABDL bench press world champion.

Published in Tactical Response, Nov/Dec 2005

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