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Muscle for life

How to Not Suck at Spotting in the Gym

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How to Not Suck at Spotting in the Gym

If you don’t want to be “that asshole that can’t spot for shit,” then you want to read this article.

 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like balls in my face when I’m bench pressing.

Or a sweaty dude snuggling with me while I squat.

Or being shrieked at to “dig deep,” “feel the burn,” or “let the big dogs eat.”

Or trying to catch my breath mid-set in a noxious haze of someone’s fart.

I’m not speaking hypothetically, either.

After 13 years in the gym, I’ve seen a lot of bad spotting (and a lot of weird shit in general).

Hence, this article.

In it, we’re going to talk shitty spotting, good spotting, and everything in between.

Let’s start with some laughs…

The 5 Worst Spotting Mistakes You Can Make

bad spotter fail

Spotting isn’t rocket surgery.

You basically stand there and make sure the person doesn’t maim or decapitate himself.

Why, then, do so many gyms have so many guys that are just awful spotters?

(And yes, I’m singling out guys here because if you’re a guy asking a girl for a spot, a) DYEL and/or b) nice try, she’s not going to have sex with you. Seriously. )

Well, why do they lick steak knives and why is their idea of a balanced diet a Pop Tart in each hand?

Magical mysteries.

That doesn’t mean you should accept poor spotting, though.

It can make you believe you’re hitting strength milestones when you’re not, increase your risk of injury, and just plain piss you off.

Here’s what I’m talking about…

Overspotting

bad spotter

Think of spotting like surgery.

Most of the time, you just need a scalpel…not a truckload of Juggalos with chainsaws.

That is, you should rarely be giving more than a nudge in the right direction.

In many cases, just getting your fingers under the bar is all that is needed to keep it moving. (WTF kind of voodoo is that, anyway?)

The point is this:

You’re not there to make the entire set easier; you’re there to make sure he doesn’t break his ass.

That means you let him struggle.

When you’re spotting someone on the bench press, for example, you’re not there to do curls.

You’re there to keep him from guillotining himself.

When you’re spotting a squat, it shouldn’t look like tandem skydiving.

Which brings me to my next point…

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

Smother-Spotting

smotther spotter fail

Why do some people just love being too fucking close to others?

When they talk to you, they want to be a foot from your face.

When they stroll with you, they basically shoulder you off the sidewalk.

And when they spot you, you feel at least some part of their bodies rubbing against yours at all times.

It’s like they don’t realize that asking for a spot on the bench press isn’t code for “can you dangle your nuts over my forehead?”

Or that spotting a squat and daggering have absolutely nothing in common.

The point is it’s supposed to be a spot, not a cuddle or pat-down.

Underspotting

spotting fail underspotting

“Don’t touch the FUCKING bar.”

That’s what this dude said to me as my hands moved into place while he wavered on his first rep of 315 on the military press.

If I complied, I’m pretty sure he would have died.

I waited for the bar to officially stop moving and…didn’t let him die.

My point is this:

Most guys ask for a spot because they’ve put up way more weight than they can actually lift.

How many times have you seen someone with so many plates on the bar that he can only be a powerlifting phenom or complete idiot?

And then, before they even finish the first rep, you quickly realize their frail little bodies are in your hands?

Well, that’s when you have to remember…

Your job is to keep the bar moving, not to scream obscenities while their lives are flashing before their eyes.

Yes, it’s true that having to do much at all as a spotter means there’s probably too much weight on the bar.

Sometimes you just have to save people from themselves, though, calmly listen to how they “almost got it,” and walk away.

Not Paying Attention

bad spotter not pay attention

I used to work out with a guy that had the distractibility of a toddler on bath salts.

It was (almost) impressive.

I don’t know how many times I about shit myself finishing my set, only to find him oogling at some girl or simply staring off into space.

It’s very simple. When someone asks for a spot, he’s not asking for much:

 

 

 

 

 

 

30 seconds of your undivided attention.

No Facebook. No Instagram. No Tinder. For 30 seconds. For fuck’s sake.

Giving Shitty Advice…Spotting

bad gym advice

“Your back is too far forward when you squat.”

“You’re bringing the bar down too far on your bench press.”

“You’re resting too much in between sets.”

“Why are you lifting so heavy? Muscles don’t know weight, they only know tension.”

Every gym has at least one clueless asshole that won’t stop telling people how to work out.

He watched this YouTube video once and now he’s on a mission to bring his wisdom to the plebs.

And if you’re unlucky enough to get him spotting you, he’s not going to shut up.

You don’t come to his office and knock the cocks out of his mouth. Why won’t he just leave you alone?

Well, you don’t have to get rude or argumentative. A few simple, non-confrontational ways of making him go away:

  • “I appreciate the help but I’m just following what my coach/trainer has laid out for me.”
  • “Thanks for the tips but I’d like to just do my workouts.”
  • “I know you’re just trying to help but I’d appreciate it if you let me just do my workouts.”

The lesson here is it’s bad gym etiquette to give workout advice to strangers unless they ask for help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When people ask for a spot, they just want, gasp, a spot, not a lecture.

How to Be a Good Spotter

how to spot weightlifting

The first step to being a good spotter is knowing that you’re not needed most of the time.

That is, most exercises don’t benefit from spotting, and even those that do can be performed safely without assistance.

For example, while it’s comforting to bench press with a spotter, you can bench press solo safely…

That said, lifting with a spotter does have its advantages.

  • It allows you to go for that extra rep that you might not want to try otherwise.

You don’t need to train to absolute failure every set, but you need to come close most of the time.

And that can be scary when you have a few hundred pounds on your back and your legs are on fire.

A spotter isn’t going to make those last reps any easier, but at least you know you’re not going to wake up in the hospital.

  • Just having someone there to assist can strangely increase your strength.

I mentioned this earlier and it sounds ridiculous until you experience it for yourself:

You’re struggling on your last rep, the bar is getting exponentially heavier by the second, and your buddy puts his fingers under it.

Suddenly, your muscles tap into some hidden power reserve and you shoot the weight up.

The main thing you need to know to be a good spotter is that you’re there for safety reasons only.

The general rule is this:

If the person you’re spotting is keeping the weight moving up, even if slowly, don’t help.

And by “don’t help,” I mean don’t touch him or the bar unless you’re absolutely needed. Let him struggle against the weight.

Now, when it’s time to step in, it’s important to do it right.

Let’s break this down by the major exercises that you’ll be spotting.

How to Spot the Bench Press

How to Spot the Bench Press

As you know, you can safely bench press without a spotter if you have a proper rack setup.

If you don’t, or if you just want a spotter there to help get you through the last rep or two, let’s look at how it’s done.

1. Ask how the person is going to do his set.

How many reps is he going for? Anything fancy like negatives or forced reps?

2. Set up behind him, like this:

How to Spot the Bench Press

This position keeps your crotch at a comfortable distance from his face.

Also, wipe the sweat off your face so you don’t dribble into his mouth (yup, it has happened to me).

3. Ask if he needs help with the lift off.

4. Let him do as many reps as possible without any assistance from you.

Keep your hands near the bar, but don’t touch it.

5. If at any point, the bar starts moving in the wrong direction, or if he asks for your help, use full force to help him finish the rep.

This is where many people accidentally underspot by only partially alleviating the load.

If the bar is moving backward, or if he cries uncle, the set is done.

6. If the bar has stopped moving up, bring your index fingers (or palms) in under it but don’t take any weight off yet.

Just putting them against the bar is often provides the boost needed to finish the set.

7. If the bar still isn’t moving, grab it with your hands and take about 10 percent of the load off.

Remember, you want him to struggle to finish the rep.

Your goal is to take just enough weight off so he can grind the rep out.

8. If he’s still stuck, take another 10 to 15 percent of the load off.

9. If he’s still stuck, he’s toast–take as much of the load off as you can so he can finish the rep.

That’s it. Mostly just common sense, as you can see.

This, by the way, is also how you spot a military press.

How to Spot the Dumbbell Press

How to Spot the Dumbbell Press

All the above applies to spotting the dumbbell press, but the key difference is with dumbbells, you spot the elbows.

Here’s how it looks:

How to Spot the Dumbbell Press

As with barbell spotting, you don’t want to actually touch the person’s elbows unless he’s stuck, and you don’t want to help more than necessary when he does get stuck.

Another important point with dumbbell spotting is you want to push the weight straight up, not forward or in toward his body.

I should note, though, when heavy weights are involved, it can be safer to spot at the wrists because if he fails and you’re at the elbows, one of the dumbbells can come down on his face.

The lifter may also ask for help getting the dumbbells into position to start the set.

You do this by handing him each dumbbell one at a time, using both hands on the weights (leaving the handles free for him to grab).

This is also how you help him put the weights down after the set is complete (if necessary).

How to Spot the Squat How to Spot the Squat

The only major difference here is you want to spot the lifter, not the bar.

You do this by placing your arms under the lifter’s, ready to hook across his chest, like in the image above.

The reason for hooking across the chest is it allows you to simultaneously take weight off and help the lifter maintain proper form.

(As we get fatigued in the squat, we tend to collapse forward, which places the back in a compromised position.)

As usual, don’t make contact unless you’re needed. Simply “shadow” him in his reps, staying out the way.

Also, make sure you’re in place as he unracks the bar and stay in place until it’s racked.

The Bottom Line on Spotting

how to be a good spotter

Spotting is one of those “little” things that can make quite a difference in the overall quality and effectiveness of your workouts.

Bad spotting can make for bad workouts and good spotting can help you build muscle and strength faster.

So spot well, get spotted well, and make the gym a better place.

 

What’s your take on how to spot? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

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  • P Mort

    I remember doing lat pull downs in high school, there was no seat so I was kneeling on the floor, and the football coach in a methamphetamine induced craze I’m assuming got behind me and wrapped his legs around my torso to keep me from getting pulled back with the weight and I’m 100% certain he was a sex offender.

  • Emma

    This is a great article. I have just started weights and have been spotting for my friend. This is a huge help so thank you

  • cookwithamustache

    Great article! I started lifting with someone who knew how to spot and taught me how to. He was way stronger than me but since he lifted right i never had to cover more than 25% of the weight. Ive had other spotters and they had no clue what they were doing! Thanks for reminding me of my high school years. Great times! I cant appreciate enough how much stronger I became by having a good spotter and actually trying each set.

  • Tom

    This is definitely one of the funniest articles I’ve read on this site. Showing off your writing skillz..

  • J.s. Wong

    Hey Mike, I bought your BLS and have been doing it for months now. Loving it a lot! It works great on a cut too, maintaining my strength while looking good.
    But, being the ‘bro’ me, I prefer to go to the gym often (sometimes I wanna hit the gym on the 6th day but BLS kinda stops me there) and I also love some isolation works (eg chest flies, leg extension….)
    So without being bashful to the routine and it’s principles which I believe 100%, I kinda came up with a PPL version with the same exercises but split to 6 days.
    So, my plan is to run it 5-6 days a week (depending on my schedule) Hope you can give your insight as I’m really eager to try it =)

    PUSH (CHEST EMPHASIS)
    BENCH PRESS 3X4-6
    INCLINE DUMBBELL PRESS 3X4-6
    CHEST FLY 3X8-12
    SIDE LATERAL RAISE 3X8-12
    CLOSE GRIP BENCH PRESS 3X4-6

    PULL (UPPER BACK EMPHASIS)
    PENDLAY ROW 3X4-6
    LAT PULLDOWN 3X4-6
    SHRUG 3X8-12
    REVERSE FLY 3X8-12
    BARBELL CURL 3X4-6

    LEGS (QUADS EMPHASIS)
    SQUAT 3X4-6
    ROMANIAN DEADLIFT 3X4-6
    LEG EXTENSION 3X8-12
    STANDING CALF RAISE 3X8-12
    SEATED CALF RAISE 3X8-12

    PUSH (SHOULDERS EMPHASIS)
    OHP 3X4-6
    INCLINE BENCH PRESS 3X4-6
    FLAT DUMBBELL PRESS OR DIPS 3X4-6
    SIDE LATERAL RAISE 3X8-12
    TRICEPS EXTENSION 3X4-6

    PULL (LATS EMPHASIS)
    PULL UP 3X4-6
    HORIZONTAL ROW 3X4-6
    FACE PULL 3X8-12
    REVERSE FLY 3X8-12
    DUMBBELL CURL 3X4-6

    LEGS (HAMSTRINGS EMPHASIS)
    DEADLIFT 3X4-6
    LEG PRESS 3X4-6
    LEG CURL 3X8-12
    STANDING CALF RAISE 3X12-15
    SEATED CALF RAISE 3X12-15

    ABS CIRCUIT DONE 2 TIMES A WEEK

    • This looks pretty reasonable but IMO a bit much when in a deficit. Could work great on a bulk though…

  • Hey Mike, what about having 2 guys on either side of the bar for a squat spot? Seems like it would be easier to ask 2 strangers to do this than get one to come up from behind me properly with 400lbs on my back at Youfit.

  • flyjohny

    Can you send the 9 points list out to all the gyms with some official stamp so that it looks like issued by some sort of authority, and make them print it and get signed by every member? 😀

    I’m seeing these guys putting 100kg on the incline bench and they’re helping one another from rep 1, because it’s way too heave for them… So they can’t possibly comprehend that with my 90kg I only need some little help with my last 5th or 6th rep… It’s so annoying when someone touches the bar when you move it easily – it’s like making your achievement uncertain… Would you do this all alone or was he helping indeed with that sticky fingers?

  • TheWriteStuff

    Mike,

    One comment on spotting for dumbells. In certain instances (I. E. When the lifter is pushing heavy weights), it’s significantly safer to spot from the wrists rather than the elbows. Placing pressure on the elbows when the lifter approaches failure may result in the elbow flexing and weight landing on their head or face. Spotting from the wrists helps to releive some pressure while also ensuring the wrists stay over the elbows. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen.

    On another note – as a former strength coach and lifetime fitness nut, I love your stuff. Also appreciate how well McMaster University research is represented in your writings. Keep up the good work. MT

    • Good point! Thanks for sharing. I’m going to update the article.

      And thanks for the kind words. I’m flattered. 🙂

  • Joe W

    It’s amazing how just showing someone your hands can often be enough. When I spot someone and they’re nudging up against a full stop, I usually just put my hands (fingertips) under the bar – and miraculously they can finish the rep probably 80% of the time. If that doesn’t work, I’ll touch the bar and sometimes add “fake” flex so they think I’m helping – and that will often work. It’s a pretty rare occasion that I have to really give more than 5-10lbs help.

    When I do use a spotter, I’m super picky about who I let spot me – and they usually get “the talk” before hand about how I want them to spot me. If they don’t pay attention or do stupid crap like yanking the lift-off (if I ask for a lift-off) or not smoothly releasing or even giving too much help too soon, I thank them and look for someone else. Spotting – to a certain extent – is an art, and there is definitely good and bad (dangerous) technique.

    On the flip side, I had a friend who, if I ever showed him my hands, he would fail. Almost became a joke – he could be three reps into an eight-rep set – I’d show him my hands and boom – he’d fail. lol Just goes to show how much of lifting is in your head.

    • I know. It’s strange, right?

      I’m the same way. In fact if my workout partner isn’t with me I just generally avoid asking for spots.

      LOL that’s funny with your friend. First time I’ve seen/heard of that actually.

  • Bill Maslen

    Outstanding article – loved it!

  • InOurOwnWorlds

    With ubiquitous headphone use (myself included) I find it is more and more awkward to even ask for a spot, regardless of the skill of the spotter. Our tech cuts us off from the community of the gym, making an ask for help seem like an intrusion.

    • It’s true. Headphones can make people seem less accessible, but it’s worth having a good spot on certain exercises.

      Catch their attention without being annoying, be polite and most people are willing to help.

    • Tony

      As one of those headphone guys at the gym, I still get asked to spot once in a while. Most commonly for dumbbell overhead presses (and usually just the liftoff). I have to actually pause what I’m listening to and take the headphones off to hear the person’s request, but I don’t mind it, and they don’t seem shy about asking.

  • Lois Zarculea

    OML, i laughed so hard while reading this article, that my butt and my quads are still hurting.
    so absolutely true! women can be good spotters, too – though (not a feminist, just sayin’) happens to me all the time that guys ask me to spot them. big guys who look like they wouldn’t ask everybody to do so 😀
    i’m always asking first hand exactly the same questions as mentioned above. and then i tell – shall i let you die?
    earlier before i was asked to spot a guy benching, and afterwards he said: now that’s what i understand a good spotter is.

    the sweat phenomenon happened to me too. a dude was spotting me on the incline DB benchpress drop set and his sweat dripped right into my eyes. man, that was so groce. i had to stop.

    made my day! great (funny but true) article, as always! love reading them.

    • Hahah thanks Lois. I’m glad you liked the article and women can totally be great spotters. I was just joking. 🙂

      I’m generally grossed out by other people’s sweat for whatever reason.

  • Bruce Wayne

    Can I ask who the female model is in the ‘Happy Hour’ shirt? She looks amazing!

    • Glad you liked the article! You know I don’t know. I found it on the Net, haha.

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