If you’ve been training for any length of time then you’ll have come across the term “spotter” in the gym. The most common time you’d have heard this phrase is if a random person comes up to you and says:
“Could you spot me, bro?”
Some people might not phrase it quite like this but it’s still a common question all the same. If you’ve not known how to respond to this then read on, and we’ll answer what is a spotter in the gym while also explaining how to be one yourself.
What Is a Spotter
A spotter in the gym is when a training partner assists you during a lift. Spotters are used to support a weight or body part during a lift and are used as a fail-safe should you find yourself unable to lift the weight. A spotter will either help you finish a rep or re-rack the weight when needed.
In a worst-case scenario, a spotter will be used to prevent you from dropping a weight on yourself or finding yourself unable to finish a rep and getting stuck under the bar. Some exercises like a back squat could result in a serious injury if you fail a rep so a spotter is used to help prevent this.
Due to the nature of a spotter, people will tend to use them when lifting heavy weights, training to failure on a compound exercise (like the bench press or barbell squat), or to extend sets through forced reps.
Often you’ll find a spotter is used just to provide the lifter with peace of mind that if they fail a lift they won’t be crushed by the bar or injured.
Spotters are useful but not essential. There are a number of exercises that don’t need a spotter and we’ve also put together a useful guide on how to workout without a spotter, something that’s very useful if you workout alone or train at home!
Why Do You Need a Spotter in the Gym
Not all exercises require a spotter and they are not an essential part of training. There are however some specific times when it’s highly advisable that you use a spotter.
A spotter can serve two main purposes:
- Prevent injury from a failed lift
- Extend a set by helping with forced reps
The best example of the first purpose (safety) comes from competitive powerlifting.
A powerlifter will be a strong individual and will be lifting weights significantly heavier than the average gymgoer. When a powerlifter performs a barbell back squat in competition, it’s common practice for them to be supported by three spotters.
One on either side of the barbell supporting the weights and one positioned behind the lifter to support them. We know the weights they use are quite high but if they need three spotters to perform the lift safely then that kind of sets the standard for everyone else!
The other reason why you need a spotter is for performance. Muscle growth occurs when you push the body to do more than it’s currently used to doing and this is also true for improvements in strength.
Having a spotter help through sticking points when you are struggling on the last few reps can help with adaptations and progression from week to week.
You’re also stronger on the eccentric (lowering) portion of a lift than you are on the concentric (lifting) portion of an exercise.
The concentric phase is also the one that most you fatigue on the fastest so having a spotter help you will the concentric portion while you get some additional eccentric lifts is another way of extending a set.
These are seen as advanced techniques and not something that most beginners should be looking to do. You need to be able to comfortably control the weight you are handling before you ever consider using a spotter for performance-related benefits.
When Do You Need a Spotter in the Gym
Following on from the above, there are only really certain situations when you need to use a spotter. The first is when you know you’re going to be lifting a max weight or going to failure on a lift and you, therefore, need a spotter from a safety perspective.
This doesn’t however apply to all exercises.
If you’re attempting a rep max or going to failure on deadlifts for example, if you know you’re going to fail the rep you can simply drop the bar without putting yourself at risk.
Related – How to use drop pads for deadlifts
The same is true for any machine or cable-based exercises as you can fail the rep without putting yourself in an “at-risk” situation. Good examples of when you do need a spotter would be when you’re doing a barbell bench press or a barbell back squat.
Both of these exercises would put the lifter in a very dangerous position should they fail the lift and this could result in injury. Just take a look at some of these gym fails to know exactly what we mean.
You can also use a spotter when you safely want to go to failure on certain exercises and use a spotter to help extend your sets.
This is less of a necessity though and is used for performance-related benefits so you wouldn’t need a spotter in the sense that it’s a necessity but rather a nice to have.
How to Spot Someone at the Gym
You might not think it but spotting someone at the gym means that you become responsible for the safety of the lifter. The purpose of a spotter is to ensure a lifter doesn’t get injured so it’s something that you should take very seriously when spotting someone.
There is therefore a basic list of requirements or key considerations that you should be aware of before spotting someone – or asking someone to spot you.
1) Consider the Exercise
What exercise is being performed?
A back squat will require a very different technique than a bench press and you need to be confident that you know how to spot the specific exercise.
2) Position Yourself Correctly
Positioning is key. You don’t want the lifter to feel uncomfortable or put off by your presence, the reverse is true in that they should feel confident that you’re positioned correctly and will be able to help them if needed.
When spotting someone you will position yourself differently depending on the reason for spotting them.
If you are spotting a barbell bench press, you should position yourself with your hands close to the bar. An overhand grip would be best for this as you’ll be able to lift the weight from a much stronger position than if you were using an underhand grip.
Spotting a dumbbell bench press would require a completely different technique. You’d need to support the lifter underneath the elbows and tricep in order to get below the weight.
If needed, look up the correct spotting position for the exact exercise you’ve been asked to spot someone for.
3) Have an Understanding & Communicate
Before spotting someone you need to know what the aim of their set is. For this, there needs to be a clear understanding and line of communication before the lift takes place.
Ask the lifter how many reps they are going to do and at what point they think they’ll need to be spotted. You should only ever spot the last few reps of a lift (depending on the goal) so if a lifter says they are going to do 8 reps but start struggling after 2 reps, you’re going to be placed in a difficult position.
You’ll also want to ask them for a queue when they need help. Some spotters can be quick to jump into helping when the lifter has the rep under control. Therefore, establish a signal that would indicate needing help.
This could be something verbal like the lifter saying “spot” when they need it or a visual queue like if the barbell stops moving at any point during the rep then a spot should be used.
Communication will help for a successful lift and also really minimize the risk of injury as the spotter will know exactly when to step in rather than being on edge and waiting for them to be needed.
Do You Have to Be Strong to Spot Someone
When looking for someone to spot you, it’s only natural that you’ll look for a strong-looking person to spot you. If you feel you need a spot for the lift, you want to make sure that the person is going to be strong enough to lift the weight should you fail the lift.
If you’re benching 315lbs and ask someone to spot you that can’t even deadlift 315lbs, there’s a good chance you could end up in a tricky situation if something goes wrong!
You don’t necessarily have to be strong to spot someone in the gym and this is because the lifter should be strong enough to manage 90% of the load themselves. Most spotters are used to assist the rep when the lifter is struggling and this only involves a slight bit of assistance.
Many people will spot a rep by doing just enough to keep the bar/weight moving. You may have even seen people spot someone by using just their fingertips to help move the weight.
What we will say is that while you don’t need to be strong to spot someone, you do need to be incredibly attentive during the lift to ensure it doesn’t go wrong, and also it would help if you’re strong enough to lift the weight by yourself just in case the lifter fails completely.
Can You Spot Someone Stronger Than You
When spotting most people, you’ll act as a fail-safe should they fail a lift but it’s good to know that you don’t need to be stronger than the person you are spotting.
The lifter in 99% of instances will be confident that they can handle the weight they are lifting and will only need a spotter to generate a small amount of force relative to the weight lifted.
If someone can bench press 315lbs for 6 reps but ask for someone to spot them because they are trying to hit 7 or 8 reps, this individual is clearly strong enough to handle most of the load even once they fatigue.
You don’t suddenly get to the 7th rep and lose all strength. Sure, muscle fibers will be fatigued but a spotter is only needed to help move the weight or re-rack it. The lifter is still strong enough to handle most of the weight and only needs a small amount of assistance.
Therefore, as a spotter, you won’t need to be able to lift the 315lbs but rather just enough to help the lifter.
What we will say is that it’s best to use a spotter that is strong enough to lift the weight if the lifter completely fails a rep.
You should always prepare for the worst-case scenario so even though there isn’t an expectation for the spotter to lift a 315lb bench press (in this hypothetical scenario), it would be preferential if they could lift this just in case the worst happens and you get stuck under the bar.
A spotter is an important part of weight training, especially if you’re using heavy weights. Spotters are either a crucial safety aspect or they are used to enhance performance and push a lifter past their natural limits.
Either way, it’s important to know when to use a spotter and also how to spot someone yourself for maximum benefit and for the safety of the lifter.
Now that you know why and when you need to use a spotter, we’d recommend checking out our roundup of exercises that definitely need a spotter.