Spotting is one of the most basic and most overlooked skills you can have as a gym-goer. If you do it right, you can save a person from injury, give them a chance at a PR, or just be there for moral support when they’re working hard chasing their goal. If you do it wrong, you could cause injury, steal a lifetime best from a lifter, or just be a distraction.
I have seen people be overly concerned about spotting for what seems to be a good reason, “I can’t lift that weight.” In reality, the spotter does not have to lift the whole weight, and in most cases, less than 10% of the weight is needed to safely spot a person. The only exception comes with a lifter performing negatives, where they are using a weight that is above their maximum. When giving a spot is you should not be assisting on every rep. If you find you have to “help” every rep, you may suggest that they lower the weight citing that constantly over-reaching could result in burnout, overtraining, or injury. The only time it is acceptable to help on every rep is when a lifter is performing negatives.
You’re in the gym and somebody asks you to give them a hand on a lift; do you know what to do?
The following are some basic rules for spotting someone:
- Get the important information FIRST. Find out how they want to be spotted (constant contact, near, just watching, with a lift-off, etc), the number of reps, do they want you to take the bar or do they want to do forced reps, and if they want any verbal cues.
- Do NOT take the lift away from the lifter unless that is how they ask to be spotted. Most lifters want the forced rep at the end, which means giving just enough force to keep the bar moving. When possible, try to use the fingers instead of your palms as you will have a better idea of how much weight you are taking.
- When spotting the squat, some lifters may want to know if they are centered under the bar. If they ask, help them center up and then back away so they can un-rack. Make sure to maintain reasonable spacing while they un-rack and walk the bar out.
- Once they have their stance, move close enough that you can grab them quickly, but not so close that you impede their motion. Your arms should be below theirs and far enough forward that you can grab their chest to help them up if need be. Think of giving them a hug, but not touching them. Do not spot with your hands on the bar for a squat because most people are squatting more than you can pick-up with just your arms.
- Follow their motion up and down because if something happens you want to be in a position to help, not fall on top of them. Even when you don’t have to help with the lift, it is a good practice to stay with the lifter until the bar is in the rack.
Spotting with Someone (Side Spotting)
When a squat gets heavy, it is common for a lifter to seek a side spot, meaning one spotter to each side of the bar. It is CRITICAL that neither touches the bar unless they are both taking the bar because you will unbalance the load and risk severe injury to the lifter and other spotter. When side-spotting, you are with the bar the entire time from un-rack to re-rack. Centering the bar on your body and placing your hands just below the bar will help you to “catch” the bar if need be.
- Communication about how the lifter will let you know it is time to lift i.e. on three, after a deep breath, etc.
- Make sure the bar is loaded correctly and centered to the front of the hooks.
- Double overhand grip the bar (the last thing you want to do is tear a bicep lifting off). By using a mixed grip, the bar can potentially helicopter on the lifter, causing a loss of tightness and a missed lift.
- Lift only enough to clear the hooks and stay with the bar as the lifter guides it out over their chest and then smoothly let go of the bar. As you lift, there is a gentle glide to help move the bar over the lifter; too much push and the lift is done. It is always better to be short.
This video by JL Holdsworth of EliteFTS covers it all: http://youtu.be/rzrjeipyiLc
Once the bar is in the lifter’s hands:
- Back away so that you are not directly in their line of sight, it is a distraction.
- Focus on the lifter and their path. If they are struggling or nearing the hooks, approach, but do not touch the bar.
- Remember to follow the lifter’s directions (help me finish, take the bar, etc).
- Make sure the bar is clearly in the hooks at the end of the set.
- If you are asked to hand someone a dumbbell, make sure they have an unimpeded grip on the handle of the dumbbell and have gripped it before you let go. Make sure you hand it to them in a direction that makes sense as well.
- You can spot a person using dumbbells at either the wrist or the elbow.
- When spotting at the wrist, keep a loose grip on the wrist and maintain position above the lifter. Gripping too tightly may cause them to open their hand and lose the dumbbell. Maintain a tall position so you can assist by “lifting up” when spotting.
- When spotting at the elbows, the elbows rest on your palms and you push UP, not in. If you push in, you may cause the dumbbell to fall on to the lifter’s head.
Spotting Other Lifts
Some people may want to finish forced reps on machines. In order to assist without taking all of the tension off of the muscle, try to grip the machine or the bar attachment near the same position as the lifter and provide enough help to complete the full ROM. Be sure to keep your fingers clear of any moving parts.
Chin / Pull-Ups
Spot from behind, hands at the waist. In general, if the person needs more assistance than you can provide in a simple overhead press, they need to move to a lat pulldown or to the assisted pull-up machine.
Some lifts are just sort of obvious for how to spot, like bicep curls, tricep extensions, etc. Again, it’s about safety, so find the best way and keep everybody safe.
Remember, you are spotting a lifter, so focus all of your attention on the lifter from start to finish, no matter what else is going on around you. Some people may want words of encouragement during the lift, others, however, may punch you in the face for screaming at them mid-lift, it is better to ask before you make the mistake. There are obviously other lifts to spot (barbell curls, military press, machines) and lifts that should not have spots (deadlift, Olympic lifts, hyper and reverse hypers). Some lifts are difficult to spot, remember, it is about safety and trying to keep BOTH you and the lifter from injury.
Featured photo by U.S. Pacific Fleet and used under CC BY-NC 2.0.