If you and your training buddies lift heavy, it’s important that you all master the art of spotting. Not only do good spotters keep everyone safe, but they can also help you unlock greater levels of strength—if they avoid common spotting mistakes and do it correctly, of course.
What Is Spotting?
“Spotting, by definition, is the act of assisting—or being ready to assist—in a heavy lift so that a person can safely complete that lift,” says William P. Kelley, D.P.T., A.T.C., C.S.C.S., owner of Aries Physical Therapy in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Spotting is particularly important when someone is lifting at or near their maximum potential, and can ensure they lift that weight—and reap the accompanying strength benefits—safely. Powerlifters, for example, use spotters during training all the time, because they frequently lift heavy-as-possible weights.
Spotting is typically only used for exercises in which failing to complete the lift would be dangerous. In certain barbell exercises—like squats and bench presses, for example—the lifter could get pinned under a heavy weight. Or, if they have to drop the barbell, other gym-goers could get hurt.
Spotting isn’t necessary for deadlifts (people usually fail them while the weight is close to the ground), Olympic lifts, or any exercise where people aren’t lifting maximum weight.
To stay safe in the gym, avoid these four common spotting mistakes.
Mistake #1: Getting Distracted
One of the most dangerous spotting mistakes you can make as a spotter is to not pay attention. Whether you’re scrolling through Instagram, chatting with another friend, or watching people in the gym, mentally checking out while your training buddy works through a heavy lift makes it hard to jump in if you’re needed.
“It’s easy to think the lifter you’re working with will complete every rep successfully, but there’s always a chance things could go sideways quickly,” says Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist in Alberta.
If you’re not ready to help, your friend — not to mention, passersby — could get hurt. So do everyone a favor and take your job seriously. “The best way to spot is to simply be alert, responsive, and present during the set,” Somerset says. “Save the daydreaming for after the set.”
Mistake #2: Helping Too Much
On the other end of the spectrum, some spotters are a little too present, and assist with lifts when they’re not needed.
While this common spotting mistake isn’t exactly a safety concern, it limits the effectiveness of the exercise—and can ultimately stall the lifter’s progress. “Providing too much support detracts from the lifter’s effort, making the lift too easy for them,” Kelley explains.
Sure, it’s important to be ready to help your lifter, but you should only jump in if the lifter can’t move the weight on their own, or the weight begins moving in an unsafe path. (Keep an eye on a barbell that drifts over the lifter’s face during a bench press, or too far backward or forward during a back squat.)
Even when you do assist with a lift, “only provide as much support as needed for the weight to continue moving in the right direction and allow the lifter to struggle through the rep,” Kelley says. By offering the right amount of help, you can help the lifter reap greater benefits from their training—while keeping them safe. “A good spotter is one you don’t even know is there until you absolutely need them,” Somerset says.
Mistake #3: Standing Incorrectly
Even if you’re mentally ready to assist your lifter when needed, you won’t be much help if you’re not standing correctly.
For example, if you stand too far away from your lifter while they attempt a back squat or bench press, you won’t be able to get to the bar quickly enough to assist when the weight gets too heavy, Kelley says. Similarly, if you stand in a weak position (like with your weight on your toes), you may struggle to generate enough force to lift the weight when needed, which puts both you and the lifter at risk.
When spotting, stand as close to the lifter as you can without getting in the way of their movement, Kelley says. This way, you can jump in quickly and efficiently when they need help. Stand in a narrow squat or lunge position, which allows you to absorb and generate maximum force.
Mistake #4: Being Too Hands-Off
Like standing too far away, not having your hands on (or near) the bar while your lifter performs the exercise can make it hard to react quickly when needed.
That said, whether or not you actually grip the bar while spotting is up to the lifter. “Some lifters like the mental security of hands being there, while others don’t want you to touch the bar until it’s absolutely necessary,” Kelley says.
Check your lifter’s preference before they start the set and act accordingly.
Even if your lifter wants you to be mostly hands-off, though, your hands should always hover under the bar, Kelley says. This way, you can act fast and grip the bar as soon as needed.
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