Things That Annoy Me – #4: Bad Spotters

I don’t ask much of my fellow gym-goers: wear deodorant, don’t do bicep curls in the squat rack and above all: follow my simple directions when giving me a spot. The bench press is the only exercise where dropping the weight would cause some serious problems for a lifter. If I’m attempting my max or getting close to it, I need a competent spotter to ensure I don’t accidentally kill myself. Lately, I’ve fallen victim to bad spotters who blatantly ignore the simple instructions I provide, ruining my workout.

Spotter’s Job Description

At the core, a spotter’s job is safety. The bench press is unique because it’s one of the few exercises in which the weight “traps” the lifter. If the lifter can’t finish the repetition, there’s nowhere for the bar to go but back down onto the lifter’s chest. With enough weight, this can get somewhat dangerous. My spotter has one job: keep me from seriously injuring myself.

Types of Spots

There are two main types of spots:

1. Safety Spot. This is a basic and hands-off spot. The spotter is simply creating a safe lifting environment for the lifter. If the lifter reaches a point where he can no longer lift the weight with his own power, the spotter steps in to safely rack the weight.

2. Assisting Spot. This is more involved than the safety spot. In addition to creating a safe environment, the spotter assists the lifter with forced repetitions and/or verbal encouragement. This type of spotter frequently provides physical assistance even before the lifter exhausts his own power.

My Expectations out of a Spotter

When I ask for a spot, I need one purely for safety reasons. I give clear instructions on what type of spot I want and hope my spotter is listening. I want to lift the weight on my own without a spotter touching the bar prematurely. I only need a spotter to keep me from injuring myself.

My spotting instructions are, “I only need help with this weight if I clearly can’t push it up myself. As long as the bar is moving up under my own power, as slow as that might be, you don’t need to help. I only need help lifting the bar if it starts moving down rather than up.” The spotter always gives me a nod as if they’ve listened and understood my request.

As much as I’d like to think everyone in the gym is there to make my workouts easier, I understand I’m not the center of the gymverse. Different people want different types of spots. It seems the majority of gym goers are looking for a more hands-on spot. This creates an environment in which spotters set themselves on auto-pilot and assume all lifters want the same type of spot despite what my clear instructions (from above) say.

Bad Spots

There’s a spotting problem in today’s gymverse and the blame lies with both spotters and lifters. Some [bad] lifters are under the mistaken belief that only attempting an impressively high amount of weight is enough. They think that simply placing their hands on the bar while it travels down and back up (even if it’s only moving under the spotter’s power) counts as them lifting that weight.

If this was the case, I’d load the bar up with 495 pounds (5-45 pound plates on each side), get the strongest guy in the gym to spot me, and brag about how I can bench 495 pounds. Unfortunately, the gymverse doesn’t work that way. If the spotter is the one doing most of the work, perhaps the lifter should lower the weight. Of course that would take away the lifter’s ability to brag about how much weight he can “lift.”

What Bad Spotters Do

Spotters sometimes look at lifters from their own perspective. They think about what kind of spot they would want and apply it to everyone. The problem is that most people want bad spots which creates a lot of bad spotters.

Most people want the spotter to help them push an unrealistic amount of weight enabling them to brag about how much weight they can “lift.” When I ask a bad spotter for a spot, they ignore my instructions because they assume I want the typical “help you lift so you can brag” spot. This isn’t the spot I’m looking for.

Lifting weight is sometimes a struggle. Muscle growth happens in response to an increased workload. If you’re always lifting a comfortable weight, muscle growth won’t happen because your muscles are already accustomed to the low workload. If you can already lift a certain a amount of weight you’re telling your body that you don’t need any additional strength.

If you continuously increase the workload beyond your current ability, you’re telling your body you need more strength to handle more weight. This struggle is what makes you stronger. When a spotter lifts the weight off of me too soon, he denies me this very important struggle and by extension, my strength gains.

What Good Spotters Do

Good spotters don’t assume everyone wants the same type of spot. They listen to instructions carefully and ask for clarification when needed. Here are a few traits good spotters share:

  • good listeners -They listen and understand the instructions rather than setting themselves on autopilot.
  • cautious about offering assistance during a spot – I’d rather have a spotter that stepped in too late when my strength was obviously exhausted than a spotter who jumped in at the first sign of my discomfort.
  • waited until the bar started dropping – A sure sign the lifter is ready for some assistance is when the bar starts traveling down rather than up. At this point, the muscle is too fatigued to provide the necessary power to lift the weight. The longer the bar is traveling down, the less of a chance the lifter has of reversing the direction. This is the point at which I’m looking for help.

How to Be a Good Spotter

It’s easy to be a good spotter; all you need to do is listen and follow instructions. If you’re confused about the instructions, ask for clarification before the lifter starts the set. If you’re uncomfortable giving a spot, say so. A lifter would much rather find someone who is capable of giving a proper spot than finding out the spotter is useless when they need help the most.

How to Pick a Good Spotter

It’s difficult to pick out a good spotter from a group of random gymers. The best strategy is to either workout with a friend or get to know the people who workout at the same time as you. It’s much easier to mold a perfect spotter out of someone you know than trying to get consistently good spots out of strangers.

If you have no choice but to ask a stranger for a spot, there are a few ways you can differentiate between the good and bad ones. The best way is to watch how potential spotters workout, specifically their form. If they don’t know how to properly perform an exercise, it’s safe to assume they also don’t know how to properly spot you.

A bad way of picking a good spotter is basing your decision on looks or size. Picking the biggest or strongest guy to spot you isn’t always the best route. Size and strength don’t always correlate with exercise knowledge. A strong spotter definitely knows how to lift the weight off of you, but won’t necessarily know when to lift the weight off.

The Bottom Line

It’s very simple to turn yourself into a good spotter. A good spotter listens, asks questions and focuses on the lifter during each spot. A good spotter doesn’t assume anything about the type of spot a lifter wants. Instead, a good spotter adapts to the needs of the lifter.

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