Saving Face: Effective Spotting of The Bench Press

The recent bench press accident at USC has sparked loads of interest online and in the press with regard to the bench press. While I’ll admit I’m not much of a news follower, this one, in particular, caught my attention. My first reaction was to ask the same battery of questions I’m sure many others have asked:

Who was spotting?

Why was the player even doing the bench press?

Was this a single or a rep max?

Then I read statements such as these in The Daily Trojan:

“It was scary,” (Trojans Coach Pete) Carroll said. “That happens sometimes when you’re doing (the) bench press…but this one just hit him wrong.”

“I’ve seen players have the bar slip and fall on their chest, but never in my 25 years of coaching have I heard of someone dropping a bar on their throat,” (Trojans S/C Coach Chris) Carlisle said.

At this point, I began asking myself WTF!? and wondering if this is a regular thing.

Then I woke up and realized that I come from a sport where knee wraps appear under bench shirts, then disappear, then reappear only to have never been there in the first place. The point here is that unless you were there, you have no idea what happened or who’s to blame. It’s always easy to call the shots from the back end or be the Monday morning quarterback, but the reality is one hurt player and a lot of people making excuses and placing blame within the context of something they really know nothing about.

What I haven’t seen is what can and should be done to avoid this in the future. Just this morning, I did a Google search on how to spot the bench press, and was shocked at what I saw in the first four pages.

There is zero debate that the bench press in the most popular weight training movement in the United States. It’s as American as apple pie. There is, however, a lot of debate with regard to its application to sports performance (search our Q and A for Dynamic Correspondence), but this is for another time. Everyone knows the bench press. Just ask around. Actually, there’s no need to because I’m willing to bet at some point in your life you’ve been asked how much you bench press. Everyone has. So you would think with all this movement’s popularity, a simple Google search would provide you with valid and effective information on how to spot it.

While I am by no means the authority on the bench press, spotting or coaching, I have paid my dues and spent enough time in the gym to know what needs to be done to keep a lifter safe. This is not to say pulled muscles, tears and other injuries won’t occur. What I’m saying is that specific things need to be in place in case these things do happen.

Having been involved in powerlifting for the past 26 years, I have seen just about every single way you can miss a bench press. The multi-ply aspect of the bench press has now evolved to EXTREME status, with lifters pressing 800, 900, and over 1000 pounds. Lifters are now using such strong bench shirts that if the bar is slightly out of the groove, it can easily lead to several muscle tears and broken arms. Because of this, spotting is critical. If a bar with 800 pounds on it was to crash down on the lifter, well, this would not be good. Luckily, in the past few years, I’ve only seen reports of bruised ribs if the bar was to fall out of the lifter’s hands while trying to touch in a shirt. So what about all the pectoral tears, triceps tears, broken forearms, etc? They still occur, and they will occur, but the spotters knew what they were doing and kept a bad situation from becoming worse.

I’m going to present these tips based on advice from pro and elite level powerlifters and their spotters and coaches because I’ve always felt you should learn from the top down, and who better to learn spotting from than those who are spotting these extraordinary lifters?

1. Personal Responsibility: As the lifter, you need to know what your limits are and take responsibility for ensuring your own safety, as well as the safety of your spotter(s). This means trying what you think you can do. Just because you “feel good” doesn’t mean you can go for a 50 pound record. This also means your spotters aren’t there to do shrug workouts on your last three reps. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is communication. Your spotter needs to know what your cue is if you need help. I’ve read and seen several times what a “safe” word means in the bedroom. Maybe it’s a color or an animal name, but it means STOP. However, I’ve never read this in one single bench press article on spotting. In the world of powerlifting, we have the unspoken law of the words “take it.” If the lifter needs help, he will say it, if the spotters see trouble they will say it, and if the judges see a problem they will say it. This is our “safe word,” and it’s what prevents small issues from becoming giant issues. Funny how simple basic communication can make such a big difference in almost any situation in life.

One other point is to make sure your hands are not sweating (use chalk), as this can lead to the bar slipping around in your hands.

2. The Set-Up: I don’t want to turn this into a bench press technique article, as you can see all this information here:

Dave Tate’s Six Week Bench Press Cure

I would, however, like to make a few comments that can ensure the safety of the lifter.

First, make sure your body is tight and braced. If someone was to come up alongside you and try to push you to one side or the other, they should not be able to move you.

Second, your grip should be tight and even. Even if you use a false grip, you need to make sure your thumb is jammed into the bar as hard as you can, and that you have as much tension as you can on the bar. While this is known as the “suicide grip,” and for good reason, it can be used safely if you know what you’re doing. In most cases this is not true. In the future I will try to write about the pros and cons of this grip, but for this article let’s just agree that it’s too advanced for 99.9% of the readers and should not be used. When I write “tight grip,” I’m saying it should be tight from start to finish, and NOT what I see time and time again (mostly with athletes outside of powerlifting and bodybuilding). They will grab the bar, and then after unracking, you will see something I call a “top bob” (where they do little pumps – I guess to get the bar ready), or the “wave” (they decide to open their hands in a wavelike motion). Both of these are far more common than you think, and if it was me personally, I would never let them bench over 50% until these habits were stopped. As lifters, you need to grab the bar tight for the entire set.

3. Informed Spotters: Before each set, it’s important that all the spotters know how many reps the lifter expects to achieve.  It would help (even if it’s not quite realistic) if each spotter knows the capabilities of the lifter. We’ve all spotted “that guy” that says he’s going to do five reps, but can’t get one on his own – and then continues the set Jimmy “The Bull” style. If someone tries to pull this with you, immediately Grab-n-Rack that barbell and annul your spotting duties.

With each spotter knowing the expectations of the set, they can help better coach the lifter, count reps and give encouragement.  The best spotters are always the most informed and involved.  It is a win/win situation for both parties.

In most gyms, the lift-off spotter is the main guy. At a meet, he has to step back so the judge can see. He is the one who has the control, and in many cases, he’s maybe the only one there to spot. If you are this guy, there is some information you need to know before you even get to the bar. You need to know what the lifter’s max is, how many reps they’re going to do, and, if possible, where their sticking point is. You also need to know what type of lift off they want and require. Some will want to count. Others will use a nod or tell you on what breath they will go on. Lifters use various signals, and you need to know what your lifter’s signal is. If they don’t have one, then provide then with one. Tell them you will lift it out to them on 3, then count 1, 2, 3, and then lift out. After lifting the bar out, keep your hands on the bar – don’t use the forearm Zercher lift off – until you feel the lifter has taken all the weight and is ready to lower it.

At this point, stay close and AWARE of what is going on. If you are the only guy, and you’re not AWARE, then who is? Injuries can happen in an instant, so you have to be ready. If it is a max weight and you’re the only one, stay close. If it’s a set of reps, you can stay back some, but watch the bar speed to see when it starts to slow down. When it slows down, be more AWARE.

I will say this, and I’m being brutally honest. Nobody wants your shorts in their face, and nobody wants to be able to smell what you had for lunch. Also, wipe your damned sweat off BEFORE you step up to lift off, and make sure any excess chalk is off your hands. What you don’t want to do is get up to help lift off and drop sweat and chalk all over the lifter’s face. If you do need a spot, don’t ask someone right after they squatted a 10-rep PR. Give the guy some time to catch his breath.

It’s also your job to double check the grip to make sure it’s tight and even, and to make sure your lifter is focused on the task as hand.

Finally, listen and use your best judgment. If the lifter says “take it,” then grab the bar. If they look like they’re going to miss, then take the bar. It’s far better to be safe than sorry.

If side spotters are used (and I feel they always should be if you’re going for a max or training to or past failure), then you need to make sure they have their heads out of their asses and are paying attention. Don’t even lift the bar out until you have made eye contact with each side spotter and you see their hands are in position and ready. If the shit hits the fan, they are the ones who will save the day. They are also the ones who will get distracted the fastest. It’s also your job to yell “take it” if the time comes.

The back spotter must have both hands on the bar to give a lift off. You are not earning any Strong Points by lifting a barbell with one hand. Not only does this give the lifter a sub-par hand off, it will be crooked.

This leads me to another point. The spotter must also have his hands wide enough to give a smooth lift off and be sure his hands are even. Also, once you’ve lifted the bar out to the lifter, the back spotter must take his hands off the bar. There is a difference between being an active spotter and an annoying spotter. Having your hands on the bar THE WHOLE TIME is just as bad as not having a spotter at all. The lifter can’t see (you are giving him Chinnuts), and he can’t focus on the task at hand. Furthermore, 100% of the time, the spotter is helping the lifter lift the barbell. So if you do this, not only do you want the lifter to get hurt, you want them to get weak. Hence, you are the worst training partner or spotter ever.

99% of the time, the back spot is the only one you will receive, so be sure that you pick this person carefully. Too often, we will grab anyone to give us a spot – any Tom, Richard or Hairy will do, right? If you pick a 100 pound spotter for a 500 pound attempt, don’t expect to be shocked when the barbell starts to cave your chest.

Having a good spot is mostly the lifter’s responsibility. These are the people to whom you’re entrusting your safety. Do you really trust these people with your health?

Bad Spotting

Good Spotting

4. The Side Spotters: The role of the side spotters is simple. They’re to watch the lift and the bar and make sure they’re ready in case something happens. Keep your hands very close to the end of the bar. If the plates leave little room at the end of the bar, then two side spotters per side will be required, and their arms and hands should be very close (but not touching) to the plates. With one spotter on each side, you need to remember that if the weight is this big, there is very little the lift off guy can do except direct the path the bar will go after you take it. Finally, unless something major happens, do not touch the bar unless you’re told. The worst thing that can happen is one side spotter grabbing the bar while the other does nothing. Once again, awareness is key.

5. Equipment: Finally comes the issue of equipment. In most cases, the lifter does not have control over what equipment is in their gym or what they have access to use, so I’m going to try and be brief with this and provide recommendations in case the features I present are not available to you. Please understand the features and specs I’m going to provide are from our equipment line, because we build our stuff for the most extreme use, which requires that safety be a very high priority.

You have two options when bench pressing. You can use a rack-type set-up or a bench made for the bench press.

If you’re using a rack option, then there are a couple of important aspects to look at. The J-hooks (where the bar is racked) should not be too deep, as it can become hazardous to get the bar out. If they’re too shallow it can also pose problems, so you need something that will allow the lifter and spotter to easily lift the bar OUT and not UP. If the bar has to be lifted up, the lifter’s tightness can be compromised. The hole spacing also comes into play here. Most rack holes are spaced every four inches, so the bar is either going to be too high or too low for the majority of the lifters. If you have to pick, then select the option where the bar will be too low, BUT be very careful to watch when the bar is racked because it can bounce off the rack post before being racked, and in some cases bounce past the J-hook and back onto the lifter. Aside from the safety aspects, not having proper J-hook height can greatly affect the start of the lift and compromise the lifter’s strength. I suggest looking for racks with 1-1.5 inch hole spacings throughout the bench region.

EFS Collegiate Power Rack

Next are the safety pins. These should also adjust every one or two inches. With the size of the average human head, I’ve never understood why most rack pins adjust every four inches. In almost all cases, this will put the setting too low to actually do anything, or so high that the bench is no longer a full range of motion. If you find your rack is constructed this way, I suggest putting mats or something under your bench so you can set the pins right above chest level. This way, when you get in bench position with your chest up, the bar will be free of the pins, but, if needed, will be in position to keep the lifter safe.

The J-cups are also a feature of the stand bench press units that also need to be considered. With the radical bench shirts and the amount of weight lifted going through the room, I’m also a huge fan of the head cage. This provides extra protection in case the worst case situation happens.

Deluxe Competition Bench

6. Proactive Prevention: For coaches and administrators, spotting in the weight room is a huge liability. I would highly recommend that posted signs explaining how to spot are placed in plain sight in the weight room, that coaches be taught properly (sport and weight coaches), and that kids are also taught.

If you’re coaching athletes in a school or team setting, whether it be in junior high, high school, college or higher, your first priority as a strength or sport coach is to make sure you don’t get anyone hurt in your weight room. It’s like the Hippocratic Oath that physicians take: “First, do no harm.” Keeping your athletes on the field is your number one priority, and this takes precedence even over getting them stronger. I would rather a school have no strength and conditioning program at all than have some “hardcore” jerkoff who puts his athletes at risk by not learning proper technique, not inspecting his equipment – or learning what equipment is right for his program – and not learning proper spotting techniques.

When you’re training athletes in groups, establish a set spotting rotation. If you’re training a group of five on the bench, rotate kids like a wheel. Once they lift, they take the next lifter’s set off. Then they go to a side, then the back, then a side, and then they’re up again. The spotters on the sides load plates and collar the bar. This will take some work, because you’ll always have kids who want to stare off into space, especially when they’re spotting a squat. As a coach, it’s imperative that you make penalties SEVERE for a lack of focus while spotting a teammate.

We all forget things because our minds are elsewhere sometimes, but attention must be paid to spotting and safety. We don’t really ever want to spot for anyone else, we don’t have the time to go look for the “right” people to spot for us, and we simply assume that the people we ask to spot us can handle what they’re asking us to do.

The answer? Don’t assume anything. While the USC situation is awful and our hearts go out to everyone involved, let it serve as a reminder to us all that these things can happen to anybody, so before any figures are pointed we should all look very carefully and objectively at our own behaviors and see where we can improve.

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