Spotting is an art form and something that’s essential for any advanced lifter.
Once you get to a certain level of strength and experience in the gym, you’ll want to start pushing yourself harder to continue to progress. The more plates you add to a bar though, the more you increase your chance of getting injured if something goes wrong!
It’s easy to fail a lift when benching 135lbs and not be worried. You can easily escape a failed bench press by using the bench press roll of shame. If, however, you start to fail a 315lb bench press, well that’s not so easy to do on your own.
Read on to see what exercises need a spotter. We’ve listed the essential exercises where a spotter is either essential or beneficial when used strategically.
What Exercises Need a Spotter?
Exercises, where people are positioned directly underneath the weight whilst being placed in a fixed position (like lying on a bench), will need a spotter. This is because they can’t drop the weight or escape the lift. A great example of being able to escape a lift can be found here – how to bail out of a squat.
The reason for needing a spotter in these situations is purely for safety. If you fail a lift in a compromised position, a spotter will act as the safety net to ensure you don’t get injured as a result of a failed rep.
Spotters allow you to train harder and push your limits knowing that if you struggle with a rep you’ll have someone to help you re-rack the weight.
Advanced lifters can also utilize a spotter for non-safety reasons and this is to get forced reps out of a set.
When a person reaches mechanical failure, the point in an exercise where they can’t perform another rep with strict form, they can further induce muscle hypertrophy by having a spotter help them perform the concentric part of the lift.
They can do this to extend the set, fatigue the slow-twitch muscle fibers through more eccentric only reps (once you’ve failed to perform concentric reps without a spotter), and ultimately grow more muscle mass.
Below we’ve listed the exercises where people need to use a spotter either from a safety perspective or for a performance-related benefit.
1) Bench Press
Any form of a barbell bench press (flat/Incline/decline) will need a spotter depending on the weight used. This is because at heavier weights it because incredibly difficult to escape from a failed bench press.
We mentioned in the intro the “bench press roll of shame” and this is a technique used to escape from a failed bench press. The issue with this is the more weight you lift, the more likely you are to get stuck under the bar on a failed lift.
A spotter is therefore needed to help a lifter re-rack the bar and avoid a dangerous situation of failing a heavy press with the weight position above your rib cage or neck.
2) Skull Crusher
This one is kind of in the name!
A skull crusher is a popular triceps exercise where lifters lower the weight to their forehead and press it overhead by extending the elbow and using the triceps muscle.
This is a popular exercise because you can use quite a bit of weight relative to the size of the triceps muscle. An average trainer could would up to a 45lb plate on either side of an EZ curl bar but experienced lifters can work up to two or even three plates per side.
Failing a rep with the weight directly above your head during a skull crusher is a scary thought and this is why you should use a spotter even if you feel you don’t need one. Ego should not come into play when doing this exercise.
3) Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise
This is debatable but from a muscle growth perspective, a spotter can really help to get more out of your side lateral sets.
This exercise has a difficult strength curve where the weight is most difficult to lift in the middle ⅓ portion of the lift. This is why you see so many people throw the weights up with a lot of upper body momentum on this exercise.
A spotter can help you get out of the middle point of a lift to get some additional good reps in the shortened position.
4) Chest Fly
Similar to above, the chest fly – machine, cable, or dumbbell – is not an exercise that needs a spotter for safety reasons but it’s useful to help people get the pec fully short for peak contraction.
The key for a chest fly is to bring your elbows closer together to shorten the pec, not bring your hands closer.
A spotter can help you do this for the last few reps of a set where people tend to lean forward on a machine fly or bend their elbows more on a dumbbell fly. Both of these reduce tension on the chest and make the last few reps ineffective for muscle activation and growth.
5) Lying Leg Curl
A spotter for a lying leg curl is used primarily to keep the lifter’s form strict. For a lying leg curl, you need to keep your hips pressed into the pad for the duration of the set to keep the hamstrings working as the primary muscle.
What people tend to do on a lying leg curl when struggling is to let their hips rise up off the pad. As soon as you bring your hips up you shift tension away from the hamstrings and onto the lower back. This is not something you want from a performance or injury prevention aspect.
To spot a lying leg curl, you can either verbally tell the lifter to keep their hips down when you notice movement, or what experienced lifters do is actually hold their hips down against the pad so that the lifter can’t cheat the rep.
6) Seated Overhead Press
A potentially dangerous when performed solo is a seated overhead press – particularly if using a barbell. The reason is that you are pressing directly over your head and as you’re locked into position on a bench, it’s very difficult to safely drop the weight if you fail a rep.
Dumbbells offer a bit more safety as you can drop them to the side if you fail a rep but for a seated OHP, it’s best to use a spotter. The importance when spotting on an overhead press is to not force the rep if the lifter’s arms start to shake and look like they can’t handle the load.
This is because it’s easy to try and help the lifter get a rep when struggling but if they can’t handle the weight then a worst-case scenario is dropping the weight on their head which isn’t ideal when you’re trying to spot someone.
Another exercise that doesn’t need a spotter from a safety perspective but is useful to have one for a form check is the pull-up. Beginners in particular struggle with the pull-up and keeping form tight and tension on the intended muscle group (upper back).
A spotter can be positioned to gently stop the lifter from swaying and swinging during a rep and they can also be used to support the legs and help a lifter get a few more concentric reps. Forced eccentric reps are great for building pull-up strength so we’d definitely recommend using a spotter if you’re a beginner or struggle with pull-up form.
8) Weighted Dips
Like the above, dips are a great mass and strength-building exercise but difficult for beginners to grasp initially. Not only do you need to control your body weight but you need to do this against gravity.
Therefore, very similar to the benefits above – a spotter can help prevent unwanted body movement or swaying during a rep and they can also help with the concentric part of the lift so that the lifter can get stronger on the eccentric.
9) Barbell Lunge
A barbell lunge or Bulgarian split squat are both excellent single-leg exercises for developing the quads, glutes, and hamstring (depending on foot placement). While they are a great exercise, they are also very difficult to master as you need to balance while performing your reps.
When using dumbbells, you can easily drop them if you think you’re losing balance or about to fail a rep but if you’re using a barbell then it’s much more difficult to escape from a failed rep.
A spotter is therefore useful to ensure that: A) The lifter doesn’t lose balance and B) They don’t get stuck at the bottom of the rep in an awkward position. The risk of injury is lower than with other compromising exercises but it would still be good to use a spotter for any sets where you’re pushing close to failure.
#) Barbell Squat
You may have noticed that we’ve not listed the barbell squat here despite being one of the most common exercises for using a spotter.
This is demonstrated in competitive powerlifting where three spotters are used!
The reason we’ve not listed it is because you can use the spotter arms or spotter straps in a power rack as an incredibly useful backup for a failed rep.
Amateurs who don’t know how to properly spot someone during a squat will not only put this person at risk of injury but also the spotter. There are a lot of videos circulating showing people failing a barbell squat and the spotter not knowing how to prevent it.
This is why we think only experienced people should be using a spotter to squat. Everyone else should instead make use of the safety features on a power rack or squat rack.
Spotters are an essential part of training safely, especially if you becoming more experienced and handling weight that could potentially cause injury through a failed rep.
This doesn’t however mean that you need them for every exercise and in some cases, spotters can be more hindrance to your progress as you rely on them for forced reps. Therefore, the exercises that require a spotter are:
- Bench Press
- Skull Crusher
- Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise
- Chest Fly
- Lying Leg Curl
- Seated Overhead Press
- Weighted Dips
- Barbell Lunge
We’re not saying that all these exercises need a spotter from a safety perspective (a dumbbell side lateral raise would be nowhere near this list if that was the case) as you also need to consider performance when utilizing a spotter.
If you’ve liked this, you might also want to check out our roundup of the exercises that don’t need a spotter to make sure you’re not wasting yours – and someone else’s – time in the weight room!