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The importance of a spotter

A guide to safe and effective spotting when lifting weights

Just like a scuba diver must always dive with a buddy in case of an emergency, a weight trainer should always lift with someone at their aid. Even the most experienced weight lifters can overestimate their ability, be it in weight, reps or fatigue. If you’re doing a bicep curl and get caught short, you can drop the dumbbell onto the weights matt without too much trouble. But if you find yourself trapped under the barbell while doing a bench press, it can be much more serious.

A spotter is a person who supports a trainer while weight lifting. Their role is to be there for the trainer should anything go wrong or assist them if they can’t complete a lift, in turn giving them the confidence to lift more than they normally would.

It’s important to find a good spotter who you can rely on regularly and learn to trust. It could be a friend who also enjoys strength training, a personal trainer or someone you always meet and chat to at the gym while working out. By using the same buddy to spot you’ll learn what each other needs and wants from their spotter and get to know their standard, allowing you to gauge when to intervene and when to stand back and let them push through.

Why you need a spotter

Safety: If you’ve upped your load and can’t complete your last reps the spotter can relieve you from the weight.

Motivation: Having someone to train with means you can cheer each other on and challenge yourselves to beat one another.

Confidence: A spotter can give you the confidence and be the safety net you need to try a new exercise, increase the weight or do a few extra reps.

Improvement: A spotter can tell you if you are doing an exercise incorrectly or if you’re losing your form while lifting. This is a great way to perfect your technique and avoid possible injuries.

Increase workload: Having a spotter gives the lifter a placebo effect – by the spotter simply touching the underneath of a weight, even if only with one finger, it tricks the trainer into thinking they have some assistance and makes the lift feel lighter and easier, if only mentally. This allows them to complete increased reps and weights that they normally wouldn’t have been able to do if training alone.

Tips to good spotting

Once you team up with your buddy you’ll take it in turns to spot each other. Follow these pointers to become an effective and safe spotter.

  • Take a wide stance with one foot forward and one foot back. Have your hands ready in a position relevant to the exercise. Stability, balance and alertness are key.
  • Check for proper form. If they’re doing it incorrectly or losing their posture and technique it’s up to you to tell them, and vice versa. It could prevent future injuries.
  • Focus all your attention on the lifter. Never get distracted by someone trying to talk to you or leave them to get some water. The safety of the lifter is in your hands – literally.
  • Communication is key. Before either of you start lifting, discuss your goals for that session, how many reps you intend to do, when you want them into interject (for example just on the last one or two reps or throughout?), if you want them to encourage you etc. These are all preferences and expectations you will learn over time with a regular spotting buddy.

    You also need to establish the language you will use. For example, ‘my bar - your bar’ are common phrases to confirm who is taking the weight, decide whether you go on the third count of ‘1,2, 3’ or say ‘1, 2, 3, lift’. Establish these basic talking techniques to avoid any errors through ill communication.
  • Don’t help until absolutely necessary. A spotter should only help a minimal amount when the lifter is fatigued or unable to complete the rep. Provide just enough assistance by taking a fraction of the load to allow the trainer to complete a few more lifts than if they were alone, but still let them do most of the work. Only take the weight completely if they’re stuck beneath it and can’t move it at all.

    If a spotter is helping out on every rep and set then the person is lifting too much and they need to decrease the weight. The lifter should only need assistance at the end of a set.

Exercises that require a spotter

In general, any exercises where the lifter is under the weight and using free weights (barbell, dumbbells and hand weights) may require a spotter. A spotter isn’t essential if lifting machine weights as you could drop them if necessary without any risk to yourself, although this should obviously be the last resort.

A spotter can be useful for the following exercises:

Never spot anyone on the following exercises as it can be dangerous to both you and the lifter: