Three broken fingers, a laceration requiring 16 stitches and tendon repair surgery, four broken ribs and a punctured lung and several disc protrusions. What do they all have in common? Poor spotting technique.
While many fitness orientated courses, gym instructors and personal trainers take the time to teach exercise techniques correctly, few provide instruction on how to “spot.” In fact, many gym instructors and personal trainers themselves have not been taught to spot correctly.
Before looking at how to spot correctly, it is important that the purposes behind spotting are understood. “Spotting” involves assisting the person who is lifting a resistance by:
- Providing safety in case of muscle/technical failure.
- Helping the client to work to a higher intensity by assisting them past their “limit point” (a.k.a. “weakest point” or “sticking point”) in their exercise movement.
Now, on to techniques for spotting. Optimal spotting technique requires consideration of three key factors. These are:
- The volume of muscles the spotter will use.
- The lever lengths (lever arm) of the spotter’s lifting technique and his center of gravity (COG).
- Potential failure points in the lifter’s exercise.
Volume of Muscles Used - Consider how much weight you can lift in a biceps curl versus an upright row versus a squat. The answer is typically more for the upright row than the biceps curl and more for the squat than the upright row. One of the reasons behind this lifting capacity gradient is the volume of muscles employed in the lift. The more muscles involved, the greater the lifting potential.
Lever Arms and Center of Gravity (COG) - A key aim for spotter effectiveness (and safety) is to keep the lever arm as short as possible and to keep the load as close as possible to the COG. Again, consider the difference between trying to lift a weight via a biceps curl versus an upright row. With an upright row, the load arm is kept short and the weight is kept closer to the COG. With the biceps curl, however, the lever arm (the length of the forearm) increases through the arc of the biceps curl, making the lift less effective. Furthermore, as the resistance moves away from the body, the COG is shifted forward outside of the base of support and the natural tendency is to tilt forward from the hips in order to return the COG to within the base of support.
Potential Failure Points - Before spotting for the exercise, the spotter must consider which joints are involved in the exercise and which muscles move these joints. A bench press, for example, has movements primarily at the scapulothoracic, shoulder and elbow joints. For this movement, the primary potential failure points are the shoulder and the elbow.
In a nutshell, the spotter must consider the nature of the lifter’s exercise. Select a method of spotting that employs a high volume of muscles, keeping the lever arm short and the resistance close to the body while protecting the lifter through potential failure points.
Spotting for Dumbbells vs. Barbells
There is a subtle but important difference between dumbbell and barbell training when it comes to potential failure points. When training with a barbell, the dependent nature of the bar provides a measure of joint support through some potential failure points. For example, if the right elbow begins to collapse during a barbell bench press, an increase in left shoulder horizontal shoulder flexion will “prop up” the collapsing elbow by creating an elbow extension moment. With this in mind, an exercise that utilizes a barbell can be spotted at the elbows (with a moderate weight and skill of the lifter). With the dumbbells being independent, and if the right elbow begins to collapse, only the strength of the triceps brachii muscle can support the elbow. Considering that the weight lifted in a dumbbell bench press is often more than a person can perform a single arm elbow extension with, the elbow extension movement will be more at risk as a potential failure point. With this in mind, spotting at wrist will allow the spotter to control the weight if the elbow collapses. Furthermore, if the weight cannot be lifted, the spotter can guide the weight to the side and assist in a controlled drop.
Figures 1 and 2 above show the wrong (Figure 1) and right (Figure 2) ways of spotting someone using dumbbells.
Spotting a Squat and Lunge
With the paraspinal muscles unable to match the lifting power of the lower limbs, fatigue in the paraspinal muscles is of concern. Paraspinal muscle fatigue can lead to an increase in forward spinal flexion, a position in which the integrity of the spine is compromised and the paraspinal muscles come under even greater load. Spotting techniques that hold the hips can assist the lifter to extend the knees and finish the squat, but they provide inadequate support for the lower back.
Therefore, in order to spot for a squat effectively, a technique that allows the spotter to lift a heavy load while supporting the spine from increased forward flexion is required. This technique is best facilitated by the spotter conducting a squat in time with the lifter (feet wider) and arms under the lifter’s upper arms, ready to support the spine by firmly supporting the upper body (arms across the upper chest). The same technique can be used for a lunge, with the spotter’s feet astride the rear leg of the lifter.
Figures 3 and 4 above show the wrong (Figure 3) and right (Figure 4) ways to spot a squat and a lunge.
Spotting a Bench Press
When spotting a barbell bench press, there is a tendency towards familiarity and a lazy approach to spotting. Often, an under-grasp biceps curl is used. As eluded to above, the biceps curl is not a preferred spotting method as it is often weaker than the amount of weight that can be lifted in a bench press (always prepare for worst case scenario where the spotter will have to control the entire load), the lever arm is relatively long and the center of gravity is moved forward, causing a tendency for the spotter to bend at the hips and load his lower back. With this in mind, an upright row action, which can include a squat to increase lifting force, is more appropriate as a greater volume of muscle is used, the lever arm is short and the load is kept close to the body.
Figures 5 and 6 above show the wrong (Figure 5) and right (Figure 6) ways of spotting someone performing a bench press.
Spotting a Push-Up
When spotting a push up for increased intensity, two points can be used. For those with a very strong core and hip stability, the spotter can stand astride the lifter with a towel wrapped under the upper body (approximately nipple line). Many clients do find this position uncomfortable and restrictive. A preferred option is for the spotter to again stand astride the lifter with the towel wrapped under the lifter’s hips. This position can assist in controlling pelvis position and unload the body by reducing the percentage of body weight the lifter must move.
Figure 7 above shows the right way to spot someone performing a push-up.
Spotting for Heavy Lifts (using more than one spotter)
If the load is heavier than a single spotter can safely manage, more than one spotter should be used. Ideally three spotters would be used, one at each end of the bar and one in the center controlling the spotters on either end, equalizing the bar and coordinating efforts between spotters and the lifter. If only two spotters are available, one spotter should nominate to take the lead and coordinate the spotting effort. Communication about expectations of the spotters prior to the lift is of utmost importance to prevent injury for both lifter and spotters.
Teaching the “Drop”
There may be some situations where the spotter does not think he can facilitate a safe spot and dropping the weight is safer than attempting to lift the weight. These exercises are typically heavy squats and dumbbell exercises (like dumbbell bench press). If there may be a requirement to drop the weight, several important factors must be considered. These are:
- Where the drop will be and how. For a squat, for example, the spotter is standing behind the lifter and the bar is on the lifters shoulders, so the spotter will need to move when the squatter shrugs his shoulders and pushes the weight backwards onto catch bars (Note: If you are training to this intensity, you must ensure that “catch bars” like those found in power cages are set up and ready). For dumbbells, caution must be used to control the release to avoid shoulder and elbow injury. The spotter should maintain a grip on the wrists to support the load as much as possible while the load is moved to a safe dropping point, before calling for the release. With dumbbells, drop mats should be used, where possible.
- Coordinating the drop. In order to minimize injuries caused by falling bars or a sudden loss of support, both the lifter and spotter should discuss drop options prior to attempting the lift. The direction and method of drop should be prepared for (drop mats/catch bars) and discussed, as should the process of calling the drop. Typically the sequence is NO…Ready…Drop… or Ready…Drop. When teams have worked together for a while, this is often shortened to No…Drop. For the novice pair/team, however, the call “Ready” can be used to move the load into place (or for the spotter to prepare to move) and the call “Drop” used for the release. A word of caution for the spotters: if using “Ready,” this period should only last a second or two, nothing longer, after all the weight is being dropped as it can no longer be controlled safely.
Some general tips on spotting include the following:
- Do not spot by holding plates or wires.
- Let the lifter know how you intend to spot (especially for the squat and lunge).
- Discuss what the lifter requires (assistance moving the load into position? Assistance for the additional reps? Attempted rep range? etc.).
- Be prepared as soon as the weight becomes “live” (moved into position) until the resistance is returned to the rack/ground.
- Your sole attention must be on the lifter for the duration.
- Communicate with the lifter throughout the set.
- Hewitt, T. (1997). 1/97 Australian Defense Force Advanced Physical Training Course Notes, Cerberus, VIC: Defense Force Physical Training School
- Orr, R. (1998). Resistance Training Module, Cerberus, VIC: Defense Force Physical Training School
- Orr, R. (2001). Gym Instructor Module, Canberra, ACT: Australian Institute of Fitness
- Orr, R. (2006). Gym Instructor Module, Canberra, ACT: Canberra Institute of Technology
- Shield, T. (1993). Resistance Training Module Notes. BNE:QLD: Fitlink