Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Lost Art of Spotting

I've never been a big "workout partner" guy. Whether running or biking or lifting weights or swimming or practicing kata or hitting a heavy bag, working out has always felt like an inherently solitary endeavor to me, ever since my initiate days of pumping concrete-filled "DP" weights in my parents' basement. My few forays into "social" exercise--in triathlon clubs, boxing gyms, and martial arts studios--have been enjoyable, eye-opening revelations to me, but they've all been followed by quick retreats back into the comforts of my own misanthropic little workout shell, a secret world where I can deny my athletic averageness and safely pretend that I'm bigger, faster, and stronger than everyone else without the pesky intrusion of anything so mundane as "reality."

Not everyone is like that, and many workout texts perkily counsel readers to "Exercise With A Buddy! : )." I see such duos in the gym all the time, chatting away between sets or next to one another on the treadmill, or loudly impugning the honor of each other's mothers as they go for personal records in the dead lift.

One of the benefits of having a workout partner is that you always have someone to spot you, which would be a huge plus for me at the moment: as I've mentioned before, I'm currently on a personal mission to raise my lifting numbers solidly into 'mediocre' territory, so I've had occasion to need a spotter lately. The importance of a spotter was brought home to me again recently when a fellow gym-rat I'd buttonholed for a spot recounted the tale of getting himself stuck under a max-effort bench-press weight and attempting to extricate himself by ROLLING THE BAR ONTO HIS THROAT (capitalization mine). When I asked him what made him think that would be a wise course of action, he replied, "I thought my neck would be able to take the weight."

Among many other things, this little story illustrates the dangers of lifting weights while smoking crack. How and why he was alive and kicking to spot me on that day is a complete mystery to me, and a complete breakdown in the laws of Evolution as I understand them.

Show of hands: how many times has this happened to you? You're about to attempt a near-maximal lift on the bench press, you need a spotter, and you look around the gym, sizing everyone up on their ability, should the need arise, to save you from being crushed.

It's a strange moment, because, truth be told, you're looking for someone with whom you're momentarily going to entrust your life. You don't think of it like that, of course. After all, spotting is a relatively quick and easy task: give a guy some help hefting the bar off the uprights, mutter some cheesy but encouraging platitudes as he pumps away, then give maybe ten or fifteen pounds of assistance as he ekes out his final rep. Nothing to it.

Still, if he screws up, let's face it, you could buy it, right there at Bally's during the 5:15 rush.

Now, few spotters are so negligent that you'll actually die on their watch, but in my experience, they tend to fall into one of four cagegories:

1) CAUTIOUS PETE, or 'THAT-BAR-WILL-KILL-YOU-SOON-AS-LOOK-AT-YOU': This guy treats the bar like it's a wild stallion that could start bucking and kicking at any second. He won't let go of the bar the entire time you're lifting, and then he helps you the milisecond your lifting speed flags, denying your the feeling of accomplishment that comes with grunting your way through an agonizing last rep or two. Eventually you get the feeling that if you don't terminate the set yourself, Pete will just keep on lifting it for you till doomsday. You could take your hands off the bar, have a chat on the cell and a drag on your cigarette, and he'd still be there, lifting away. At the end of that set, it's impossible to know if you ever did even one single rep by yourself. Was he spotting you on the bench or were you spotting him on the dead lift?

2) ORTHOPEDIST'S ASSISTANT: This guy doesn't know to help you lift the bar off the rack, so you do something god-awful to your shoulders trying to wrastle the bar into place for your first rep, guaranteeing an expensive trip to the orthopedist, with whom O.A. is in cahoots. Your set goes on just fine, but when you finally need just the tiniest hint of spot to get the bar back onto the racks, O.A. pulls the bar skyward with all his might, practically lifting you off the bench along with it. This means the pressure on your shoulder joints goes from near 100% to less than zero in a matter of a tenth of a second or so, so that if the bad liftoff didn't already seal it for you, this little coup de grace at set's end will ensure that soon, very soon, you will personally be buying your local orthopedist a brand new Jet Ski that he'll bring along with him on a two-week trip to the Caymans!*

3) NO-HELP McGEE: When this guy utters the requisite "all you," he means it, because he's not helping you AT ALL. "How bad do you want it, Jackson?" he seems to be saying as you sputter and wheeze beneath the swaying tonnage. It's not until the bar begins its inexorable descent towards your trachea, and you've mentally started saying your goodbyes to loved ones and the taste of hazelnut chocolate bon-bons, that No-Help comes to the rescue, emitting a Beevis-and-Butt-Head chuckle when he finally saves your bacon.

4) GUNNERY SERGEANT McCARTHY, YOUR SENIOR DRILL INSTRUCTOR: This guy seems innocuous enough. Sure, he's a big guy, but most of the behemoths want the rest of us to succeed, if only so G.S.M. will have more smaller folks around to lord over on his big heavy lifting days. But get that bar moving and he starts cursing at you like you're back on Parris Island. And you never WERE on Parris Island, but you're pretty sure you know what it must have been like, because McCarthy casts such horrible aspersions on your character, your parentage, and your very value as a human being that you suddenly feel like you'd rather be squatting in the bush keeping an eye out for Charlie than listening to the kind of invective spilling out of this mammoth's mouth.

Given that the Art of Spotting seems to have gone the way of the Do-Do, I thought I'd just put together this little refresher course:


1) Stand CLOSE to the bench, but not SO CLOSE that it's distracting. Or weird.
2) FIND OUT roughly how many reps the lifter is going for.
3) On the lifter's command, HELP him get the bar off the uprights and DON'T let go until he tells you.
4) When he tells you--LET GO OF THE BAR. Don't touch it, graze it, or hover your hands around it like you're casting magic spells unless and until he asks you for help.
4) Stand close and WATCH the lifter as he does his reps. Even if he doesn't need your help till the end, the focus will be appreciated. He's obviously working at near his maximum capacity, or you wouldn't be there. A little respect is warranted, no matter how easy that weight would be for YOU.
5) Utter some affirming, but not distracting, words as he cranks through his set (optional).
6) When he ASKS for help, and not before (unless he's in obvious distress), give him JUST ENOUGH ASSISTANCE to get the bar up to the arms-locked position. DON'T pull up with all your might (unless, of course, that's the only way to get the bar moving). Once the bar is up, DON'T assume he's finished with the set and force the bar into the uprights. Just help him lift it up till his arms are locked. If he wants to go for another rep, take your hands OFF the bar as he lowers it but keep them close, because he'll most likely need help again to get the bar up. Repeat until the lifter tells you he's done, and THEN, and only then, guide the bar back into the uprights.
7) End with a couple of words of encouragement, or congratulations, or--if the lifter ASKS for it--advice on technique, progression, or stock picks.
8) Be happy because you've participated in an age-old ritual of helping a fellow gym rat work confidently at his edge.

A good spotter is hard to find, and when you DO find one, remember it, because you owe him an equally attentive spot sometime in the near future. If you're not up for spotting someone who needs it--if you've got a bad back, or you worry that the load he's lifting is too much for you--say so.

I've never gotten myself a workout partner out of spotting someone, but I've made some decent gym pals. Saving someone's life will do that. To say nothing of being saved.


*also paid for by you.


Anonymous said...

Andrew, great advice on spotting. I have managed to get pinned under the bar twice. The last time a benevolent lifter helped me out. The first time I was a dumb teenager in my parents basement and had to slide it off my chest and crawl out. This hasn't happened lately. Maybe I have learned.

I really like the idea of a training partner, but I end up working out alone most of the time. Last summer I ended up doing CrossFit stuff with my wife's best friend. Trust me, a really hot lady makes a great training partner, but it worries the wife.


Danny Harris said...


Another great post, advice is spot on. I also generally train alone; this reminds me fondly of the many times I would work to failure on bench press with out a spot and have to roll the weight the opposite way, to the waist, sit, stand, turn, and finally upright row the weight into the rack. Don't worry too much, this never happened when I was going for fewer than my 10th rep with no more than 150lbs.

On training partners, it seems pretty common for people to get started together and stay together. But since splitting from my first lifting partner early on (at first due to a change in gyms and now a move), I've never found another. Even when I've found friends who have similar schedules, I find people are incredibly stubborn about their split/rotation. Even for those who embrace periodization , it's often a rep/set/load question and they're stuck with Chest and Triceps monday, etc...

It's a shame that camaraderie so frequently quails in the face of habit, but at least we can find those we trust for a spot.


Hal Johnson said...

I've always worked out alone, and I kind of needed this spotting primer. Funny as hell, too. Thanks.

Andrew said...

People do get stuck on their workout routines, that's for's one thing I've tried to advise against, especially once you've found a baseline level of fitness. For Pete's sake, go out and do all those things your formerly unfit-self couldn't do!

Thanks as ever for the feedback, folks....Andrew

Tim said...

Good Job! :)