What You Need to Know About Spotting in the Gym

Trevor Thieme C.S.C.S.

From Men's Health

This is Your Quick Training Tip, a chance to learn how to work smarter in just a few moments so you can get right to your workout.

Every man who has bench pressed solo has regretted throwing a couple of extra plates on the bar at some point. Once those final reps of the last set start feeling heavier and heavier and the prospect of re-racking the bar veers suddenly into “maybe, maybe not” territory, the value of lifting a spotter really sinks in.

But the primary job of a spotter isn’t to take over the entire load should the lifter get into trouble (for many exercises, that might not be possible anyway). Nor is it only to fill the lifter with extra strength through boisterous, heartfelt affirmations (e.g., “you’re almost there, just a few more inches, you got this!”). Ideally, a spotter provides just enough assistance to allow the lifter to complete an extra rep or two of an exercise, and in so doing, capitalize on the kind of progressive overload that maximizes gains. The key to spotting effectively is knowing when and how to provide that assistance.

Your move: There are some exercises that you should just never spot (e.g., the deadlift and any power-centric Olympic lifting move), and others for which a spot can be beneficial but not necessary (e.g., biceps curl)—but the three that you’ll most likely to be called upon to spot are the barbell bench press, barbell squat (front or back), and the dumbbell bench press.

To spot the barbell bench press, position yourself close to the bar and use an overhand (not underhand) grip. The reason: If you need to step in and heft the weight, you want to deadlift it, not curl it. Squats are spotted at the waist, with the spotters arms under the lifters armpits without touching. If the squatter begins to fail, grip his or her body just above the hips and add your lower body power to theirs. (Once the plates really start adding up for both exercises, you can add spotters on both sides of the bar to make sure the load is handled safely.)

For the dumbbell bench press, spot at the wrists, grabbing them fully in your hands and driving the weights upward. Do not spot the elbows. If you do, you’ll allow that joint complete freedom of movement, which could result in the weights crashing down on the lifter’s neck or face.

No matter what exercise you’re spotting, if the bar or dumbbell is in motion, keep your hands to yourself; only step in if the movement stalls and your lifter is unable to continue the rep on their own. And if you’re on the other side of the bar (i.e., the lifter), be realistic about your ability to handle the weight. The spotter isn’t there to bail you out—if you can’t very nearly complete all of your reps on your own, reduce your load until you can.

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