Barbell Safety

by Matt Reynolds, SSC | August 20, 2014

I wish I were writing this article under different circumstances. Earlier last week, I received the devastating news that my 23-year-old cousin had been involved in a terrible accident. At 8pm, on the night of July 28, 2014, my cousin Kenny was bench pressing alone in an empty, unsupervised corporate gym on a Smith Machine when something went terribly wrong. Kenny lowered the bar down, and evidently, with 175lbs loaded, it was just too heavy. To make matters worse, it was resting on his throat, rather than his chest, where it should have been. He struggled to get the bar off his throat, but even the sure release of adrenaline wasn’t enough, and eventually Kenny gave up. He laid there for 27 long excruciating minutes before a security guard, on his first day of work, saw him and performed CPR – but it was too late. Kenny never regained consciousness, and several days later he was taken off life support and died. 

How does a 23-year-old kid, with a beautiful wife, 5 brothers and sisters, and two loving parents, lose his life in something so tragic and trivial? A car wreck I can understand. Cancer or sickness I could accept. But an accident in a gym – in the same town I live in, where I own a strength gym, where I coach barbell lifts, where I compete in barbell sports, and where I give lectures on how to properly and safely perform and coach the barbell lifts – seems cruel and devastatingly ironic. 

My family cannot be saved from tragedy, but I hope by writing this article, yours may be. There is a correct way to safely spot and perform the barbell lifts, even when lifting alone. This is my practical guide on how to do so. 

General Spotting Considerations

Performing the lifts correctly and learning how to properly spot them should be taught and coached from Day One. For a person to correctly “spot” a lifter, safety must be added to the lift. For example, in a lying triceps extension, where a loaded EZ curl bar is moving over the face (from lockout over the shoulder joint, down over the face, past the forehead, to a point of elbow flexion and shoulder extension, and returned back to its starting position), a spotter can provide worthwhile and necessary safety benefits over performing the movement alone. However, for a standing barbell curl, where the load does not move over any part of the body, the lifter would gain no benefit from having a spotter, unless it is to assist them through a sticking point (which if performed on a barbell curl would make you a bodybuilder, and not, in fact, a strength athlete). Over my years I’ve seen worthless and ridiculous spotting on barbell curls, deadlifts, overhead presses, snatches, clean and jerks, you name it. This is more often than not passed down from ignorant high school/college sport coaches or gym managers to their coaches/trainers, all in the name of “safety.” In reality it puts a second (or third) human being in an unsafe and vulnerable position when this is totally unnecessary. 

We will explain when a spotter is necessary for each of the main barbell lifts, and if so, how to spot correctly. 

The reality is, however, that many of you reading this train alone. Because of the disasters that are “globo gyms” in this country, with their vast sea of machines and purposeful lack of good barbells, platforms, and iron, many of you train at your house, in your garage, or your basement, where a spotter is not possible. If this is the case (and while it’s not optimal in some lifts) we will try to give you the safest possible solution for lifting without a spotter on each of the barbell lifts. 

The Deadlift

The deadlift never, ever needs a spotter. Because the barbell in a deadlift begins on the floor, is lifted in a straight vertical line over the middle of the foot until the knees and hips lock and the chest is up, and then is returned to the floor, there is no way for a spotter to add any additional safety benefit. Safety lies in performing the lift properly, as discussed in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training (bar over middle of the foot, lumbar and thoracic spine in normal extension, rigid torso, straight arms, and pulled in a straight line). Never attempt to spot a lifter on the deadlift. Never touch a lifter deadlifting while the bar is moving. If the weight is too heavy or the lifter loses the form, encourage the lifter to “set the barbell back down.” 

strength training deadlift

[Photograph by Thomas Campitelli]

Lifting alone. Since the deadlift requires no spotter, then lifting alone poses no greater risk than lifting surrounded by “spotters,” coaches, and training partners. The key here is correct form. We don’t lift with a rounded back. We maintain contact with the legs through the entire portion of the lift. We don’t jerk the weight off the ground. It’s important to frequently video yourself from the side to make sure that your form is spot-on, since you don’t have another set of eyes watching you. 

The Snatch and the Clean

Just as a deadlift requires no spotter since the weight begins and ends on the floor, a snatch or clean requires no spotter as well. The only difference in safety on these lifts is that: a) they move really fast, and b) the bar ends up over the head/body at the completion of the lift before being returned to the floor. There is absolutely no way that a spotter can safely “catch” a missed snatch or clean and should not even be on the platform while a lift is being attempted. The only additional safety guideline for these lifts would be to use bumper plates (if they are available, i.e. your finances permit), since “bailing” on a missed lift by dropping the loaded barbell safely to the platform – is more confidently accomplished when there are rubber bumper plates on the bar. This will be much easier on your expensive barbell and your platform (and much quieter) than dropping a barbell loaded with iron plates. 

Ironically, people try to spot overhead lifts (snatch, press, and jerk) because they are worried that the lifter will drop the bar on his head. But the reality of the matter is that it goes against all our physical instincts to drop a bar on our heads, and it very rarely happens. It’s amazing how everyone just gets out of the way when an overhead lift goes awry. It would be totally impossible, and much LESS safe for a spotter to try to catch a loaded overhead barbell falling out of control, and rather than one person safely getting out of the way, would often lead to 2 or more people risking injury. 

The Press

The same goes for spotting the Press. There is no way to effectively spot a missed press, nor is there a reason to do so. Occasionally someone will get confused because when teaching the press we use a tactile cue of “shrugging” at the completion of the press by putting our open hands on the triceps of a lifter and helping them “feel” the shrug at the top of the lift. However, an experienced coach would never apply this same tactile cue during a work-set on the press, or attempt to help the lifter by spotting the elbows, because of the very real risk of being in the way if the spotter disturbs the lift enough to cause a miss. Again: there is NO WAY to effectively spot a press.

Lifting alone. If you lift alone, there are two options that will help make pressing a bit safer. One option, as mentioned before, is to use bumper plates. This way if control is lost on the barbell (usually because of a loss of balance due to the bar moving forward or back of the middle of the foot), then the lifter can be confident in “bailing” on the bar, getting out of the way, and not ruining an expensive barbell and platform. However, it should be noted that the loss of control on a press occurs very, very, rarely, if ever. Normally, a missed press is just lowered back to the shoulders, and during the novice phase a lifter usually isn’t using enough weight on the bar to even permit a loss of control. By the time the lifter is an intermediate and beyond, his efficiency is such that the loss of control of the barbell almost never happens. 

In the absence of bumper plates, the other option is to press in the power rack. Instead of using the outside J-hooks to rack the barbell between sets, the lifter can set the safety pins just below shoulder height and take the barbell from the pins inside the rack to start the lift, and return the bar to the pins to finish the lift. Again, the risk of losing control is rare, but if it happens, your barbell won’t have to fall 6-8 feet to the ground. When using this method it is ideal to add leather strips to the metal safety pins to help protect your barbell. 


The Squat

Correctly spotting the squat requires two spotters. A single-person spot cannot safely be accomplished due to multiple factors. The position the spotter must take is one that requires that attention be paid to not touching the lifter during the movement, thereby affecting his mechanics or resulting in a missed lift call by the judges during a competition. It also is an awkward position as the spotter is very up-close and personal, nearly hugging the back of the lifter. The safety of the spotter is also an issue. If the worst happens and lifter dumps the weight, it will land directly on the spotter, resulting in injury.

We do not teach or encourage the lifter to dump the weight in the case of a missed rep. This is because we teach a low-bar squat position which uses a more horizontal back angle, compared to the high-bar squat position which requires a more vertical back angle. In the low-bar position, the bar cannot safely be dumped due to the angle of the back, and most of the torso remaining behind the barbell. It would be quite unpleasant to either roll the bar up your neck and over the top of your head, or to successfully throw the weight off your back just to have it land on and bounce off your lower back. 

Before we get into correct spotting for the squat, proper foot wear should be noted. It is the only thing between your body and its connection with the ground. Shoes that have a solid heel and sole with good grip are optimal. Squatting barefoot or in tennis shoes may cause unnecessary slippage by foot sweat, or squishiness in the heel, respectively.

How to Spot the Squat

A two-person spot is optimal for the lifter as well as the spotters involved. To correctly spot the squat, a few things must be checked prior to the lift. Always make sure the area around the rack and uprights is clear of extra collars or weights that may be lying around. Collars must be used to ensure the weights stay in place and do not rattle. Also, always make the last check to see that the weight on the bar is correct in order to prevent a misload.

Prior to the start of the lift, the spotters will assume their respective positions on each side of the barbell. At this point, the lifter may ask the spotter to check and ensure that he has the barbell aligned correctly with the middle of his back. Once this is checked, the spotter will get back into position.The lifter will then pick up the barbell out of the squat uprights and walk back. The spotters will also walk back, with their hands and arms in the position that is shown in the photo. Having the crook of the elbow under the barbell sleeve and the hands by the plates will ensure that if the lifter misses a rep, the bar will be caught, held stable, and that the spotters can still see the J-hooks for helping return the barbell back into them. Other positions for the spotters such as cupping your hands and hovering underneath the barbell sleeve are not as safe as the bar can slip through your fingers, and don’t allow for a clear view of the J-hooks. 

As the lifter squats down, the spotters will also squat down, as needed. The spotters must stay alert to make sure they do not touch the barbell during the movement. They only touch the bar in the case the lifter misses the rep. If a missed rep does occur, the spotters will grab the plates with their hands and use the crook of the elbow to catch the sleeve of the barbell and help the lifter squat back up into the upright position. This process goes much better if the spotters can see both the lifter and each other. The case of the lifter dumping the weight onto the spotters after a miss is both selfish and unsafe. To quote Mark Rippetoe in Starting Strength, “Any lifter who bails out of the missed rep and leaves the spotters holding the bar needs to be beaten with a hammer.” 

Once the lifter is finished with the set, both the spotters and lifter will walk forward to guide the bar back into the rack. During this process, the spotters DO NOT take any of the weight of the bar, since any attempt to do so will be asymmetrical and will upset the lifter’s balance under the load. The spotters’ job is just making sure that the bar gets safely into the J-hooks, and this does not require that a spotter lift the bar. The bar must hit the uprights of the rack first and then slide down into the J-hooks. Once the bar is placed back in the rack, the spot is finished.

Squatting Alone. To squat alone safely requires that the lifter must squat inside a power rack and use the safety pins. Collars are still used to prevent weight sliding off and weight rattling. Prior to the lift, the lifter will set the safety pins at a height slightly lower than where the barbell would be at the bottom of the squat. This is to prevent excessive depth exposure while still allowing the lifter to squat his full range of motion. If the lifter happens to miss a rep, he can safely lower the bar down to the safety pins and get out from under the bar. 

The lifter will still check to make sure that the platform area is free of unnecessary debris. Once all the above is checked, the lifter can then safely squat. Once the set is completed, the lifter will walk forward until he hits the power rack uprights, and then slide the bar down into the J-Hooks. Never just aim to drop the bar into the J-hooks, as you may miss and cause unnecessary injury or equipment damage.

Bench Press

Correctly spotting the bench press requires one spotter. The role of the spotter is limited to helping the lifter get the bar out of the rack and into the starting position (in the case that a lift-off is requested by the lifter), and once the lift is completed, guiding the barbell back into the rack. Correct spotting ensures that there will be no question that the lifter is the one who actually bench pressed the weight.

Bench Press Grip

bench press grip

A lifter should NEVER use a “false grip”  while benching. A false grip (or sometimes called “suicide” grip) is where the thumbs are not wrapped around the bar. Lifters do this in order to keep the bar over the pad on the lower hand, and appropriately over the wrist and elbow in order to negate any necessary moment arm on the wrist. However, the risk is not worth the reward in holding a bar this way. With practice, any lifter can wrap his thumbs around the bar and still keep the wrists “stiff” in order to prevent the bar rolling down towards the fingers, thus bending the wrists and creating unnecessary moment force and an energy leak. The thumbs wrapped securely around the bar reduce the chance that the bar could ever slip out of the hands of the lifter. 

How to Spot the Bench Press

Prior to the lift, the lifter should communicate to the spotter whether or not he wants a handoff. Once this is established, the lifter can then take his place on the bench and prepare to lift. The lifter should communicate to the spotter how to time and execute a handoff. This is usually done with the lifter counting to three, the spotter counting to three, or the spotter waiting until the lifter takes a big full breath of air and holds it; then the lift off can be made. Any of these are fine, but should be practiced well before the work sets so as to make sure the lifter-spotter timing and cadence are in sync for the handoff. 

One great method we like to use for good handoffs at STRONG Gym is the following sequence: once the lifter acknowledges that he is ready, the spotter slowly counts “1”, “2”, “3”. When the spotter says “2,” that is the cue for the lifter to inhale and get tight. Once the spotter says “3,” the actual handoff takes place. This is to ensure that the lifter can optimally breathe in and get tight, since he doesn’t have to waste air by verbally counting for the spotter or saying anything at all. Once the lifter is in position, the spotter takes his place behind the lifter’s head. If a handoff is being used, the spotter will take a mixed grip on the bar to ensure proper grip and handling. The spotter then helps lift enough of the weight for the lifter to get into the balanced locked-out starting position. 

Once the lifter is locked out in balance, the spotter will gently let go. After this, the spotter will step back just out of the view of the lifter so as to not interfere with the lift or be an obstruction to the lifter’s view, but close enough to step in quickly to help. The spotter must watch every rep of the work set, staying alert and aware of the bar speed and form of the lifter. Once the lifter completes the set and returns to the locked-out position, the spotter will step forward and grab the bar with a mixed grip to help the lifter guide the barbell back into the rack.

It is important to note that ANYTIME a heavy barbell is moving horizontally over the face (either getting into position to start the lift or after the set is finished and the bar is ready to return to the rack), the lifter’s elbows MUST be locked out, and the spotter’s hands MUST be on the bar. If the lifter begins to miss a rep, the spotter will then step forward and grab the bar with a mixed-grip. He will help the lifter guide the bar back into the bench uprights and slide the bar down into the J-hooks. Only then will the spotter release the bar.At no point does the spotter touch the bar while the bar is moving during the actual set. Once the bar is placed back into the rack, the spot is finished. 

spotting the bench press

Bench Pressing Alone. Bench pressing alone is the single most dangerous barbell movement you can perform, because a loaded barbell is moving and being lifted over the throat and face. Because of this, extra precautions must be taken in order to ensure safe lifting conditions.

Benching alone safely requires that the lifter bench presses inside a power rack utilizing safety pins set at a height slightly lower than the barbell would be when touching the chest. This is to prevent the weight from crushing the lifter in the case of a missed rep. It also still allows the lifter to bench using the full range of motion. Once the set is completed, the lifter rotates the bar back with locked elbows to the power rack uprights, and then slides the bar down into the J-hooks. As stated earlier, never just aim to land the bar into the J-hooks, because you can miss.

If the lifter happens to miss a rep, he can safely lower the bar down to the safety pins and scoot out from under the bench.

If a power rack is unavailable and a lifter is forced to lift alone on a regular bench press, it is crucial that collars not be used. Without collars, if the lifter gets pinned under the weight he can tilt the bar and slide the plates off, unloading first one side of the bar and then the other. This makes an immense amount of racket, but prevents injuring or even killing the lifter. The noise is a small price to pay for safety.   

Better yet, if you don’t have a power rack, just don’t bench press alone. You don’t need to bench that badly.

bench pressing in the rack

As many of you already know, the barbell lifts are simply normal human movements that use a barbell as the form of loading. Within the barbell/body/gravity system, the barbell is the tool we use to train the body in its normal function – producing force against gravity. The beneficial change that can be made in your physiology in a relatively short amount of time is both astonishing and profound, and should produce a great respect for the barbell. Be smart when you train, and don’t get hurt.

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