Getting a Spot at The Gym – Dangerous or Misguided?

Recently, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal that was claiming that the only individuals who should be asked to provide a spot are the trainers on hand (see full article here)

After reading this, I was motivated to write not about HOW to spot, but rather, the LOGIC behind a spot. First, let’s define what a “spot” is. This isn’t something left the shirt you were wearing at dinner last night or your neighbor’s unoriginal name for their dog. Rather in this context, a spot (or a spotter) is the term when one (or multiple) individuals are watching another person lift a weight during an exercise and are there to either assist getting the weights in position or providing assistance, helping the lifter in the instance they aren’t able to lift the weight by themselves due to fatigue.

motivation, goals, ryan irwin, lose weight, life coaching, fitnessLet’s first discuss this from the lifters point. As always, safety should be a primary concern when lifting (frankly this is always a good rule of thumb for most activities in life, even juggling flaming bowling pins) and this is main reason one should get a spotter. A spot is to ensure not only the bar and the weight on it doesn’t crush you, but also that you are able to get it in proper position for the lift in the first place (otherwise known as a “hand-off”). For those who have a regular training partner, besides motivation and accountability, a reliable spotter is one of the primary benefits. Hopefully your training partner knows how to spot and certainly should know your strength levels, which will give them the advantage (if not, shame on you for not teaching/coaching them). Sometimes spotters can offer some intensity increasing techniques (like negatives or forced reps), but these should be very limited as they not only are tough to recover from but also aren’t needed frequently. NOTE: these intensity techniques should NEVER be used from a spotter you aren’t familiar with as you are ASKING for trouble!

When you anticipate you need a spotter, first start looking for one BEFORE you need it. In other words, first, watch in the gym for someone who seems to have solid technique while lifting themselves, this will hopefully be a clue that they will know what to watch for while you’re doing your lift. You DO NOT need to ask one of the trainers that are on staff at the gym. Likely they are working with someone or will try to pester you by selling your personal training sessions. Some trainers are very good, considerate and willing to spot people, but again, those are usually the ones who are busy with clients (this is not a coincidence by the way). Second, ask for a spot BEFORE you reach your top end weight when you’re really going to need it. This will allow time for the spotter to get used to your technique and timing (plus a pre-test trial in case you actually need to pick someone else). Finally, make sure you communicate what you want and need. Confirm if you want a lift off, on what queue (a three count is common) and be clear that you want them to only slightly help you if you get stuck. There are two extremes you want to avoid: someone jerking the weight off of you when you barely are starting to fatigue OR not even touching the bar when it’s pinned against your chest and they proceed to yell “YOU GOT THIS BRO!!!” In fact, it’s a safe measure to just be honest and explain that you don’t want either of these experiences to the spotter (if they are a good choice, they will likely laugh and say “totally get that!”)

A quick self-check tip. As someone who lifts alone most of the time, you should be able to HANDLE YOUR OWN WEIGHT 99% of the time. You don’t need to always go to failure and you can still make considerable gains by NEVER going to failure. In fact, with both my clients and myself, I usually only take one set to failure per training session and the goal there is still to not miss any of the repetitions. Progression is the key to success and improvement, not going to failure on each set (that’s asking for an injury).

Now, let’s look at this from the spotter’s perspective. I believe that the Golden Rule applies here “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. That said, I am always willing to provide a spot and actually offer it to those I ask (or am preparing to ask) a spot from so that they know I’m willing to do so, which also creates goodwill. Similarly as when wanting a spot, you need to be aware and cautious when offering a spot.

First, you hopefully are not so “in the zone” during your training session that you aren’t aware of those being reckless and moronic in the gym. These are usually the guys (being serious, not sexist) that are throwing weights around, dropping them and lifting WAAAAY too heavy with horrible form. They will then ask “CAN YOU SPOT ME BRO” when actually they are lifting 10% more than they should. I’m not saying avoid these individuals, but you do need to be cautious. Have a clear discussion on what they want to accomplish (specific number of reps). If they have no clue, ask them what they got on their last set (not last week or last year, but the one before they asked for a spot) then make a conservative suggestion on a rep goal. Finally, if this is some serious weight that you don’t feel comfortable in managing, GET A SECOND SPOTTER. For powerlifting meets, there are 3 spotters on maximum effort lifts, getting a second person (you are at either end of the bar) is never a bad idea. For good measure, get a 3rd person even. Hopefully the individual asking will soon realize they either need to lift with a couple of regular training partners or that they are going way too heavy.

In conclusion, spots and spotters are and should be a normal daily occurrence in the gym. This is proper gym etiquette if done right and absolutely a great safety practice. Whether you are needing a spot or being asked to do so, make sure you educate yourself, think through it and ensure that you will be better, not worse from it afterwards.

Keep making everyday count!

-Ryan Irwin