In the past, I felt that lacking a spotter would reduce the results of my workout. It would prevent me from stimulating enough growth to improve from session to session since I could not add forced reps and negatives to the end of my sets. I believed this prevented me from applying the utmost intensity needed as I could not apply these advanced techniques alone. I considered individual workouts almost wasted.
I now know that using a heavy enough weight to positive failure is more than sufficient. The advanced techniques are not relevant to building strength and size and can overtrain you. They only make it feel harder because they increase factors unrelated to tension, the main stimulus for more strength and size, and instead focus on duration. You build up lactate and feel more of the burn. These sensations associate with endurance, which does not affect muscle growth much. The increased soreness you may feel a day or two after also does not mean you have stimulated more growth.
Proper spotting, or when another person assists a trainee during a lift, may be necessary though for safety. This depends on the equipment you possess. If you have a power rack available for safety, I would suggest against using a spotter altogether. You can achieve the same results and will have a dependable way to stay safe.
This article addresses spotting on two of the big three: the barbell bench press and the barbell back squat. The single-armed dumbbell row requires no spotter. The bench press ranks as the exercise most likely to demand a spotter. A squat could support a spotter as well, but I strongly suggest performing it in a power rack. If not possible, please make arrangements to allow it.
If you do need a spotter or have to spot someone else, heed these tips. I wrote these from the perspective of you providing the spotting. Explain these expectations for your spotter if you need one yourself.
No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.
– Charles Dickens
- Assist with the liftoff.
One advantage a spotter can provide versus someone training alone comes from ensuring the right starting position. On the bench press, if a trainee works out alone, they sometimes unrack the barbell from the saddles while too close to them. Since the barbell can normally travel slightly backward during the lifting phase, this can cause you to hit these saddles on the way back up. Even just bumping them will destroy the setup and focus needed to do your best in a set.
Trainees also do the opposite. They unrack the barbell too far away from the saddles. This can hurt their shoulders and reduce the tightness in their upper back that keeps them stable.
An experienced trainee will have a good idea of the precise position from which to unrack the barbell, so this challenge does not automatically make having a spotter the better choice.
Nonetheless, when assisting with a liftoff for the bench press, try to elevate yourself above the trainee. This allows you to use your lower body. Make sure to get good leverage. Many that spot on the bench press stand too far away from the barbell and then struggle or fail to help the trainee when needed. Many bench setups will have raised platforms where you can stand and you should use them. You can consider staggering your stance slightly if it improves your base.
Make sure to use both hands on the liftoff. Pull upward evenly. I suggest a 3 second countdown so you can synchronize this liftoff with the trainee.
Do not assist with a liftoff for the squat. If someone requests this, you must decline. They should have no problems doing this for themselves or they cannot handle the weight.
Before proceeding with all of this, make sure you have the strength necessary to help the trainee. Judge your capabilities honestly.
Keep in mind that many trainees will not want a liftoff and prefer to do it themselves.
- Get an expectation for the number of reps desired.
First and foremost, a spotter assists with failed reps. Knowing the rep goal will give you an idea of when the trainee expects to struggle. You should always remain alert though, as many overestimate their strength. Keep this in mind especially if the trainee is new to the gym or mentions a layoff.
- Assist a failed rep when needed.
A spotter should allow you to work hard safely and never make the exercise easier. Motor unit recruitment establishes that a certain level of effort is needed to recruit the fast-twitch muscle fibers most responsible for strength and size. Assisting too early could reduce the recruitment of these fibers.
As already stated, spotters used to add intensity usually do more harm than good. If advanced techniques get the trainee working harder and if they focus on shorter durations methods like negatives or forced reps, they could serve a purpose but still suggest against them.
Never help unnecessarily unless asked. Do not place your hands anywhere near the bar unless asked. Only assist if you see the weight moving downward despite the trainee’s best effort. By default, provide the least amount of assistance unless asked to help more. Make sure to pull evenly with both arms. On the bench press, you can consider using just your fingers beneath the bar to provide just enough assistance.
I suggest against more than one spotter on the bench press. This risks unbalancing the weight. One exception would be a very heavy squat. Using two spotters is risky but often necessary due to the sheer loads possible on the squat. Consider calling upon even more people. 4-6 people working together can usually easily spot a heavy squat. This does have some risk of an uncoordinated effort though. If spotting alone, spot the torso instead of the bar.
The sticking point for good exercises exists at the midpoint, where leverage becomes worst but the muscles work hardest. Help the most here, but realize that after this point the leverage will improve and they are more likely to complete it under their own power.
- Perform advanced techniques.
Some trainees will request negatives, which require a boost on the lifting phase of the rep and then allowing them to lower the weight on their own power. This will reduce them down to the lowest strength level possible for a given weight. This will make the trainee very weak, so stay alert and ready to help.
Others will request forced reps, in which you assist just enough on the positive to help them complete it.
Some will request both, or other techniques such as stripping the weight of the bar quickly to perform more reps with less resistance.
Once again, I suggest against these techniques, but others may expect your help with them.
- Avoid touching the person except on the squat.
Touching, as usually performed by personal trainers, serves no purpose. It distracts and obstructs instead. Besides, touching emphasizes isolation that has little value for the best and safest free weight compound movements.
- Never provide any distractions.
Keep quiet unless the person you have spotted has requested you to motivate him or her, count reps, or do something else. Never lean over a trainee performing the bench press. Make sure to wipe off any sweat prior to the liftoff that could drop on them.
- Help rerack the weight.
Many trainees will not train to positive failure. They aim just to reach their rep goal. In this case, use the same principles when unracking a weight as to rerack it. Stand close to the bar and pull up evenly.
Eliminating Spotting when Lifting
I reluctantly went into details here on spotting. Sometimes it is a necessary evil though. I strongly suggest against a spotter and recommend squatting and bench pressing with a barbell inside a power rack.
Consider that most trainees use many advanced techniques on the bench press yet tend to squat without them. Although other factors play a role, the squat tends to increase just as quickly as the bench press and often more rapidly. Perhaps the stimulus most apply to the squat works sufficiently and maximizes recovery too.
If using a power rack on both the squat and bench press, set the safety bars slightly below your normal range of motion. On the bench press, you can set the bars so you can touch your chest during normal reps. When you fail, you raise it toward your collarbone so it can then rest on the bars. For the squat, you could set the bars just a tad below parallel, where your hips line up with your knees. Some trainees may need them set higher than this level.
If these ideal settings are not possible then always set the bars higher. The length-tension relationship establishes that you do not need much range of motion to make progress.
A spotter should allow you to work harder, more safely. Understand these expectations for spotting, but realize that the far superior method remains to lift under your own power. Use a power rack to stay safe.