Being the Spotter for a Weight Lifter

By LaReine Chabut

When people recruit you as a spotter, you have a big responsibility to perform your job correctly. Be realistic. If you weigh 90 pounds soaking wet, don’t attempt to spot someone doing a 350-pound bench press. If you have any doubt you can pull it off, don’t take on the assignment. The moment that the lifter’s arms give out isn’t the moment to realize you’re out of your league.

If you do accept the job, pay close attention so you’re ready at the precise moment your partner needs help. Step in to help on these situations:

  • The weight stops moving for more than a split second and it’s immediately apparent that the person is no longer in control of the movement.

  • The weight begins traveling in the wrong direction.

  • The lifter can’t complete a rep.

  • The lifter screams, “Help!”

The do’s and don’ts of spotting

When the time comes that you’re in the gym and someone calls on you to help with a few exercises, remember the do’s and don’ts of being a responsible spotter.

  • Don’t impose a lift-or-die mentality upon your lifting partner. Just because he may have planned to complete five reps doesn’t mean that you should withhold assistance if your partner starts struggling after three.

  • Don’t offer too much help too soon. This eagerness defeats the purpose of spotting, because the person only needs a spotter because he’s trying to test the edge of his limits. If you prevent the lifter from testing that edge, you’ll annoy the heck out of him.

  • Don’t lean so close to the lifter that you impede or distract her movement. Bench pressing isn’t enjoyable when someone’s face is directly over yours and you can see up the person’s nose.

  • Be a cheerleader! Put your pom-poms away. You don’t have to jump up and do the splits, but people appreciate support — and may even lift more weight — if you offer enthusiastic encouragement: “You’re almost there!” or “It’s all you! You’ve got it!”

Exercises that need spotters

Where you stand when spotting someone can make the difference between being helpful and being useless in an emergency. The following list offers spotting tips for a variety of common exercises:

  • Bench press: Stand behind the bench with your hands above or underneath the bar but not touching it. When the lifter needs you, lean in and get a quick grip on the bar.

  • Chest fly and dumbbell chest press: For these dumbbell exercises (and versions performed on an incline bench), place your hands close to the person’s wrists, not close to the weights. (You may see people spot underneath the elbows, which isn’t a crime but isn’t as safe, either.)

    When spotting flat-bench chest exercises, kneel on one knee behind the bench and follow the movement with your hands. For incline exercises, you may find it more comfortable to stand with your knees bent.

  • Barbell squat: Stand behind the lifter, and be prepared to assist at the hips or underneath the arms. The lifter may not want to be spotted at the hips unless you happen to be that person’s significant other. If you’re squatting with a particularly heavy weight, you may want two spotters, one standing on either side of the bar.

  • Pull-up and dip: Stand behind the lifter and offer assistance by holding his shins or waist and guiding him upward.

  • Machine exercises: Spot at the bar or lever of the machine. For example, if you’re spotting someone on the cable row, stand slightly behind and to the side of her. Grasp one of the handles and gently assist it the rest of the way.

    Never spot machine exercises by placing your hand underneath the weight stack. That’s a good way to get a squashed hand!