On the Spot

Learn how working with a spotter can help you ratchet up the intensity of your free-weight routine.

Myra and Mike Vooge have been workout buddies almost as long as they’ve been married. For a long time, they made a point of going to the gym together, but once there, each went off to do his or her own thing. Last year, in an effort to perk up their workouts, they hired a personal trainer. He taught Myra and Mike a variety of new exercise techniques, and also how to “spot” one another, explaining that this would allow them to help each other work out more effectively between training sessions.

It was a concept that never dawned on the couple before, but it made a lot of sense: They were at the gym together anyway; by learning how to spot each other, they could deepen their exercises and increase the benefits of their workouts.

People often think of spotting as standing by the bench press “just in case,” ready to catch the bar when someone attempts a huge lift. It’s true that spotting is primarily about safety, but a good spotter can also help you make subtle adjustments in your technique, remind you to breathe and assist you in forced reps at the end of a set. By developing skilled spotting techniques, you and your exercise buddy can drive up the intensity of your workouts and motivate each other to do more than you could alone.

For example, if you are doing a bench press, you may not be strong enough to complete your last few reps with the full load, but as your spotter steps in to take just a few pounds off your chest, you’ll be able to complete those final two or more reps. Over the course of a few workouts those extra reps can add up to an additional set. When lifting dumbbells, your spotter can monitor your form as you become fatigued, reminding you to keep your back straight and to complete full extensions so you don’t get sloppy.

Need a Hand?

According to the National Association of Strength and Conditioning, you should have a spotter for any free-weight (dumbbell or barbell) exercises that involve lifting weight over the head or face, or that require you to rack the load across your shoulders (as with some squats). It’s also wise to be spotted during exercises that involve balance and weights, such as step-ups and lunges. But you should never spot power exercises – such as the snatch, clean and push-press – because their explosive movements make it impossible to stand next to a person without obstructing him or her and risking injury yourself.

Before lending a hand in the weight room, it’s critical to know how to do it safely and effectively. Use the following guidelines to learn how to properly spot for common gym exercises that use barbells and dumbbells. By developing skilled spotting techniques, both you and your partner can always reach that last, hurts-so-good rep – and reap the even more enjoyable results.

Barbells

Bench Press
Stand behind the lifter and observe his or her position. The lifter’s feet should be firmly planted on the floor, back centered on the bench and eyes in line or just in front of the racked bar. Verify that the lifter has an even hold on the bar so that the weight will be equally distributed.

When the lifter is ready, grasp the bar between his or her hands with an alternated grip (over/under, as if holding a fire hose), so that if you have to take the bar suddenly, it won’t roll out of your hands. Stand in a ready position, as if at any time you might have to take the load and rack it – feet flat on the floor at about shoulder-width, knees slightly bent and back straight.

Have the lifter count backward – three, two, one – and then help him or her take the bar from the rack to the starting position with arms extended. Ask, “Got it?” When the lifter replies, “Got it,” let go of the bar. Remain vigilant and ready to grasp the bar if the lifter asks for help, or if the weight slows and stops moving or begins to descend. Never grab the bar suddenly or forcefully. Most of the time, you will not need to take it but simply grasp it and provide just enough assistance so that the lifter can complete the set. Remember to always encourage the lifter – remind him or her to keep abs tight, shoulders pinched and the bar moving smoothly and evenly.

After the last rep, grasp the bar in the underhand/overhand grip and help the lifter rack the bar in the hooks. Do not let go of the bar until you are certain the weight is set firmly and safely.

Seated Military Press
As with the bench press, the spotter should assume a stable position behind the lifter. Check to see that the lifter has a straight back and even grip on the bar. Grasp the bar between the lifter’s hands with an underhand grip and assist with the liftoff. Once he or she has control of the weight, keep your hands off the bar and out of the way – but in a position ready to assist in case of a missed repetition. Pay close attention to the spotter’s back, making sure it remains erect, the feet firmly planted on the floor, and that he or she is using full range of motion.

When the lifter is unable to finish a repetition, the spotter should grab the bar with both hands and lift gently until the lifter can complete the repetition on his or her own. Continue to assist until the set is complete and then guide the bar firmly and smoothly back into the rack.

Squats
First, observe your partner’s standing position and make sure the heels are in line and slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned out slightly. To begin, help the lifter rack the bar evenly across his or her shoulders. Step back from the lifter with your hands on the torso, shadowing his or her movements to help maintain balance.

When the lifter begins to squat, mirror his or her movements from about one foot behind. Keep your feet flat on the floor, with a slight bend in your knees and a staggered foot position, ready to step forward if needed. Despite this proximity, allow your partner enough range of movement to sit back without getting in the way.

Should your partner require assistance, step forward with the back leg, arms cradling the lifter’s elbows, and drive your hands under his or her armpits, or grasp the torso with your hands on the anterior deltoids and chest. Pushing up gently with your legs, help the lifter stand up and gain stability, then stay with your partner as you walk forward and rack the bar.

Lunges and Step-Ups
Weighted lunges and step-ups are performed with a barbell across the back of the shoulders or with dumbbells in hand, so it’s easy to lose your balance. As with the squat, the spotter stands close to the lifter to help maintain balance and control of the weight, but not so close as to interfere with his or her movements.

Once the lifter is ready, position your hands near his or her hips, waist or torso. Place your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent and feet staggered. Step forward with the same foot as the lifter, keeping your feet aligned with his or hers or about 12 to 16 inches behind. In a lunge, flex your knees as your partner does, tracing his or her movement. Keep your torso erect and breathe with the lifter, exhaling on the power phase. Shadow his or her movements and be prepared to assist if the lifter staggers.

Dumbbells

Dumbbells are the hardest equipment to spot because they move independently and, except in a few cases, the spotter cannot directly grasp the weight but must assist by holding the lifter’s arms just below the wrist or at the elbow. In some exercises, such as flies, you can assist by gently pushing the elbows. This is comfortable and effective, but keep in mind that it does not provide your partner any protection should his or her elbows collapse, causing the dumbbells to crash downward into the face or chest.

Inclined Dumbbell Press
Your partner should grasp the dumbbells with a pronated grip (so the palms face downward), with both feet flat on the floor, and back, shoulders and head on the bench. If necessary, help your partner raise the dumbbells to the starting position. Stand just behind your partner, at the head of the bench. Place your feet firmly on the floor, shoulder-width apart and with a slight bend in your knees. Grasp below your partner’s wrists. On his or her indication, assist with the first push into the exercise starting position, arms extended over the face.

When your partner is ready, release the forearms and keep your hands near, but not actually touching, his or her arms. Keep your back flat while tracing your partner’s movements with your hands, extending your knees on the upward phase. If your partner needs help, grasp the arms just below both wrists and provide smooth, gentle assistance until he or she completes the set. Help to lower the dumbbells to his or her knees, and then take one dumbbell at a time and place it on the floor.

Flat Dumbbell Fly
Position one knee on the floor and the other foot flat. Grasp your partner’s forearms, just below the wrists. At the lifter’s signal, help him or her move the dumbbells to a position over the chest. Release your grip, but trace your partner’s movements in a wide arch. You can lend some assistance by pushing gently on his or her elbows. Keep in mind that this does not provide your partner protection should the elbows collapse, so as soon as you note any struggling, move your hands to the wrists.

Fernando Pagés Ruiz is a contributing editor in Lincoln, Neb.

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