August 11, 2022

Your Guide to Spotting in the Weight Room

When it comes to safely lifting heavy weights, having a friend spot you in the weight room is key.

A good spotter keeps you from being crushed by the weight you’re lifting in the case of a failed repetition. Furthermore, a spotter can help you boost your workout volume by assisting you with forced repetitions at the end of your sets.

Finally, a spotter provides motivation and can directly improve your performance simply by being present during your lifting set, even if you do not need assistance.

Proper spotting technique is vital for ensuring the safety of both the lifter and spotter during the set. You must know the spotting guidelines for each individual exercise, as well as general spotting requirements that apply across the board.

Additionally, knowing which exercises are safe to spot and which exercises should not be spotted is a must.

This article explains everything you need to know about spotting a friend in the weight room, including the purpose, guidelines, and individual spotting techniques for different exercises.

Spotting is important for several reasons.

1. Safety

The first reason to have a spotter is to ensure your safety as a lifter when handling heavy weights.

The classic and most widely seen example of spotting is during the bench press, when a spotter stands above you to help you safely unrack and rerack the barbell and assist you if your muscles give out in the middle of a heavy repetition.

If your muscles fail under a heavy weight, you’re at risk of being crushed by the weight, especially on an exercise like the bench press or squat, as you cannot safely drop the weight.

2. Increased volume from forced repetitions

Forced repetitions are an advanced weight training technique in which a spotter assists you in performing additional repetitions in a given weightlifting set after you cannot lift the weight on your own.

Forced repetitions are typically employed during medium to high repetition sets of at least 8 repetitions, and they can lead to additional gains, particularly in muscle volume (1).

To do a forced repetition, simply perform your exercise with a weight load that will cause failure around your target repetition count.

When you reach the point of muscle failure and cannot lift the weight again on your own, have your spotter provide just enough assistance to allow you to move the weight and complete the additional forced repetitions.

Forced repetitions should primarily be used when your goal is muscle growth. You can also use them on exercises that would not otherwise require a spotter for safety.

For example, a friend can help you force out some extra repetitions on the bicep curl exercise, even though it’s not a safety requirement.

3. Improved performance and motivation

You probably intuitively know that having a great workout partner can help motivate you and subjectively increase your performance when training, leading to a better workout.

One study found there’s some actual science behind this feeling.

In fact, the researchers found that the mere presence of a spotter in the weight room allows subjects to lift more weight, on average, for more repetitions, compared with those in a control group (2).

Furthermore, the spotter group reported lower ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) than the control group.

This finding suggests that simply having a spotter will make your sets feel easier even as you perform more work, regardless of whether you need the spotter for safety reasons.

Over time, higher quality workouts lead to improved gains in your fitness and better results from your lifting program.

Summary

A good spotter keeps you safe during heavy lifts and allows you to perform additional forced repetitions. Plus, their mere presence can improve your lift performance independent of other factors.

Spotters should generally be used on any exercise that requires you to have a weight over your face or body and dropping the weight would result in bodily impact.

You can also get spotting on leg exercises that require the barbell to be racked across your upper back, such as back squats or barbell stepups. When spotting this type of exercise, additional spotters may be required.

Additionally, if your goal is to perform additional forced repetitions on nonsafety concern exercises like bicep curls, you may benefit from having a spotter.

Overhead exercises that involve pressing a weight above your head from a standing position should not be spotted. This includes any barbell or dumbbell overhead press variation.

In the event of a failed repetition on standing overhead exercises, you must push the weight away and drop it to avoid being crushed, as there’s no way for a spotter to safely handle this weight.

On a similar note, power exercises such as Olympic lifts and variations should never be spotted for practical safety reasons.

Exercises that allow the weight to be safely dropped from any given position in the normal range of motion do not need spotting. For example, you do not need to spot a deadlift or cable machine exercise.

Finally, spotting is optional when proper weight safety pins are present on your workout equipment.

While you can still benefit from a spotter for the other reasons discussed, if the pins on your rig can handle the weight you’re lifting and there’s no question that the weight will hit the pins before hitting you, spotting for safety is less of a concern.

Summary

You should use a spotter for safety, forced repetitions, and improved lifting performance.

The following are general guidelines that apply to virtually all spotting situations.

1. Communication between lifter and spotter

Establishing clear communication guidelines between you and your spotter, or vice versa, is a vital first step for the safety and effectiveness of your spotting.

You should agree with your spotter on whether they’ll help you lift off or rerack, as well as what verbiage you will use if you need them to take the weight.

This can be as simple as a grunt for assistance if you cannot lift the weight but should be agreed upon before the bar is unracked.

Key points to hammer out with your spotter or lifter before unracking include:

  • the target number of repetitions
  • the amount of assistance and sounds used to communicate — for example, some assistance versus full assistance
  • the timing of assistance — countdown for liftoff or the sticking point during forced repetitions (3)

Communication is as important when using multiple spotters, and everyone should agree upon the words or noises that will be used to communicate the needs of the lifter and coordinate assistance from the spotters.

2. Strength of the spotter

Ideally, the spotter should be able to handle the full load of the weight from whatever position they are spotting from.

As such, the strength discrepancy between the lifter and spotter should not be excessively large.

Often, it’s impractical for the spotter to handle the entire load. The best bet in this situation is to use multiple spotters.

However, given the logistics required to have two additional individuals ready to spot you, this may be difficult to arrange.

A spotter rarely needs to handle the entire load (even if the lifter cannot complete the lift), as the spotter can typically provide some force and will fill in the “strength gap” to allow the lifter to rerack the weight.

This is between the spotter and the lifter, and both should be clear on whether they think it’s safe to have one of you spot if you know you cannot theoretically handle the full load.

If you’re lifting very heavy and concerned about your ability to spot or be spotted, your best bet is to coordinate multiple spotters for the exercise.

3. Lifting technique of the spotter

Spotters should have good knowledge of proper lifting techniques on major compound exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, and bench presses.

There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the spotter must be able to safely handle potentially heavy loads from awkward positions.

Using proper movement techniques when performing squat-like or deadlift-like movements ensures that the spotter stays safe and can handle large loads.

The second reason is that the spotter must be able to recognize the signs of a failing lift to be fully prepared to assist.

While the spotter should avoid assisting unless the lifter commands it, if the spotter sees the lifter’s knees caving in or torso tipping forward on a squat, they must immediately recognize the risk of injury and be prepared to assist if the lifter cannot communicate their need for assistance.

4. Spotter situational awareness

Spotters must be aware of the area around them and ensure sufficient clearance before beginning the lift.

The lifter should not have to worry about anything other than completing the set. During the set, the spotter’s full attention should be on the lifter.

However, if your spotter sees a safety hazard or feels individuals are too close to the lifter’s area for safety, they must address it before beginning the set.

This also includes having your spotter verify that the loaded weights are correct and that safety clips are engaged before you lift the weight.

Summary

Spotters should be strong enough and have good lifting technique to handle all or most of the lifted weight. Clear communication must be established between the lifter and spotter, and the spotter should flag any safety concerns before beginning a set.

The following is a breakdown of specific spotting techniques for a few common individual exercises.

These techniques are based on the guidelines from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), which is the premier authority in the United States on proper strength and conditioning protocols (4).

Barbell bench press spotting technique

The barbell bench press exercise benefits substantially from having even just a single spotter. If the lifter is going for a substantial amount of weight, three spotters should be used.

To spot the bench press with one person:

  1. Begin at the head of the bench facing the athlete, with your knees slightly flexed and feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Grab the bar with a closed, alternated grip inside of the lifter’s grip (this means one hand is on top of the bar and one hand is underneath the bar). This grip minimizes the risk of the bar rolling out of your hands.
  3. At the lifter’s signal, assist with unracking the barbell and move it into position above the athlete’s chest.
  4. Release your grip and follow the bar with your hands as the athlete lowers the weight to the bottom and returns it to the top. Do not contact the bar unless the athlete asks for assistance.
  5. If no assistance is needed during the set, regrip the bar after the final repetition and help guide the bar back to the rack.
  6. Keep your grip on the bar until it’s fully racked again and the athlete has moved from beneath it.

For multiple spotters:

Three spotters allow much more safety when performing very heavy bench press repetitions.

The first spotter performs essentially the same function as described for a single spotter.

The additional spotters will do the following:

  1. Facing the lifter, stand at opposite ends of the barbell in a quarter squat with their feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hold their hands up, fingers together, and make a “V” with their fingers and thumb.
  3. Overlap their hands to create a single “V,” reinforced by both thumbs.
  4. Place the V of their hand arrangement under the end of the barbell. They should have enough reinforcement to lift the end of the barbell from the bottom by supporting it in the “V.”
  5. On the lifter’s signal, stand up and lift the bar with their hand arrangement. They must coordinate this with the lifter and spotters to ensure they lift simultaneously.
  6. Take a sidestep to help guide the bar above the athlete’s chest.
  7. As the athlete lowers, follow the bar with their hands by squatting down. They should be prepared to take their side of the weight at all times if the lifter fails.
  8. Assuming no assistance is required, follow the bar with their hands until the lifter completes the set, then assist with reracking the bar.

Dumbbell bench press

The dumbbell bench press is best spotted by a single spotter.

This spotting technique applies to flat, decline, and incline dumbbell bench presses.

Additionally, seated overhead presses with dumbbells can be spotted similarly.

To spot the dumbbell bench press:

  1. Stand tall near the head of the bench with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly flexed.
  2. As the lifter falls back into the position with the dumbbells at the top, place your hands near the lifter’s wrists, not at their elbows.
  3. Keep your hands near the lifter’s wrists as they lower and raise the weight for each repetition.
  4. If the lifter calls for slight assistance, spot at the wrists to provide enough help for them to raise the weights.
  5. In the event of total failure, help the lifter guide the weights down and safely drop them on the floor.
  6. Never attempt to hand a weight to the lifter above their head or face.

Barbell back squat

The barbell back squat is often not spotted because it’s less straightforward than spotting the bench press and best performed with multiple spotters.

For general safety, back squats are always best performed in a rack with safety pins or another safety device.

However, a spotter can still be very helpful for keeping your torso in alignment if you start to fail the repetition.

They can also assist in safely lowering the barbell onto the safety pins if you hit muscle failure. It’s impractical for a single spotter to handle the full load when spotting the barbell back squat.

Additionally, forced repetitions should not be used for back squats due to safety concerns.

The following spotting technique applies to barbell back squats and other exercises with the barbell racked on your upper back:

(Note this method wouldn’t apply to behind-the-back barbell overhead presses, nor lunges or stepups, when it’s more appropriate to have two spotters.)

  1. Stand behind your lifter so that when they back out of the rack with the barbell you will be right behind them.
  2. Once the lifter is in position, step toward them and set your feet slightly wider than theirs.
  3. Position your arms under the lifter’s armpits, with your hands on their side near their chest.
  4. As the lifter lowers and raises with each repetition, follow them with your arms without making contact.
  5. If the lifter begins to fail on a repetition, wrap your arms under their armpits and around their torso to return them to an erect position.
  6. After any assisted repetition, help the lifter return the bar to the rack.
  7. If the full set is completed, assist the lifter in returning the bar to the rack.

For exceptionally heavy back squats, using multiple spotters is recommended.

Spotters must be strong and have good squatting technique themselves, as the spotting technique for multiple spotters on squats essentially has the two extra spotters performing a front squat on each end of the barbell.

For multiple spotters on a barbell back squat or other exercises with a barbell racked on your shoulder, the primary spotter performs the same function as above.

The additional two spotters will use the following technique:

  1. Facing inward toward the rack, each additional spotter stands at opposite ends of the barbell.
  2. Adopt a quarter squat with their feet shoulder-width apart and facing the lifter.
  3. Hold their hands up, fingers together, and make a “V” with their fingers and thumb.
  4. Overlap their hands to create a single “V,” reinforced by both thumbs.
  5. Place the “V” of their hand arrangement under the end of the barbell. They should have enough reinforcement to lift the end of the barbell from the bottom by supporting it in the “V.”
  6. On the lifter’s signal, they’ll stand up and lift the bar with their hand arrangement. They must coordinate this with the lifter and spotters to ensure they lift simultaneously.
  7. Take a sidestep to help guide the bar above the athlete’s chest.
  8. As the athlete lowers, they follow the bar with their hands by squatting down. They should be prepared to take their side of the weight at all times if the lifter fails.
  9. Assuming no assistance is required, they follow the bar with their hands until the lifter completes the set, then assist with reracking the bar.

Each additional spotter should be able to handle at least one-half of the total weight lifted by the squatter.

Barbell triceps press

The barbell triceps press is typically performed with a smaller barbell or EZ-curl bar while lying down.

The range of motion follows an arcing path that begins with the barbell above the lifter’s face and ends with the barbell lowered to a position just above the lifter’s head.

Although the weight is light, the focus is on the triceps and the main motion occurs at the elbow, meaning muscle failure will occur at a much lower resistance than when performing a bench press, as the large chest muscles are not involved.

Spotting a triceps press is typically done to add forced repetitions. However, given the safety concerns of having even light weights over your face, using a spotter is wise on the triceps press.

There is no reason to use more than one spotter on this exercise.

To spot the triceps press:

  1. Begin at the head of the bench facing the athlete with your knees slightly flexed and feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Grab the bar with a closed, alternated grip inside of the lifter’s grip. This grip minimizes the risk of the bar rolling out of your hands.
  3. At the lifter’s signal, assist with unracking the barbell and move it into position above the athlete’s face.
  4. Once the bar is in the starting position, switch to a double underhand grip with your palms up. This will allow you to more smoothly follow the bar during the range of motion.
  5. If assistance is needed or the lifter is performing forced repetitions, push slightly upward on the bar with your palms to assist.
  6. Upon muscle failure or completion of the set, regrip the bar with an overhand grip after the final repetition and help guide the bar back to the rack.
  7. Upon completion of the final repetition, go back to your alternated grip to remove the barbell from the lifter’s hands and set it on the floor.

Spotting other exercises

The exercises above are the most commonly spotted movements in most workout routines.

Additional exercise may be spotted for forced repetition purposes.

The general guidelines are to spot as close to the weight as possible and ensure good communication.

For exercises like bicep curls that safely allow you to drop weights on the floor, step back if your lifter says they will drop the weight to avoid having it drop on your foot.

Summary

Proper spotting technique varies by exercise. Three spotters may be warranted for heavy lifts.

Proper exercise spotting technique is a crucial skill to practice in the weight room.

Spotting not only increases the safety of the lifter but also can lead to performance improvements during the training session and potentially better gains over time.

Furthermore, lifting weights is often better with a friend, so building a good rapport with a workout partner who can safely spot you is a win-win all around.

Just be sure not to spend too long chatting between sets.

Happy lifting!