As a young teenager who had just started training, I once asked for a spot from a world champion powerlifter—while I was deadlifting. That was wrong. He was nice and tried to accommodate me. A few months down the road, I dumped a bar in the middle of the gym because I didn't ask for a spot when I should have and missed a squat attempt. That was wrong. Fast forward a decade, and I didn't use the safety pins in my squat rack because I had a spotter, and I ended up stapled to the floor under 625 pounds. My spotter wasn't paying attention. Also wrong.
It's easy to believe that spotting is just a question of gym etiquette, like wiping down machinery or putting away weights. In other words, you'll learn it over time, but never really give it much thought. But the truth is that spotting is where gym etiquette and safety intersect, and where things can turn from you've-got-it-bro to what-the-hell-just-happened instantaneously. I like to think that I made my plenty of screw-ups so that a few other people won't have to make the same ones.
Just remember: Experience doesn't make you immune to mistakes. Spotting is like wearing a seat belt. It doesn't seem like that big of a deal until you crash. So forget every time you ever laughed at a weightlifting fail video for the next few minutes, and let's get serious.
What is spotting?
What A Spotter Needs To Ask
Bench press: "Do you want a lift off?"
Bench press and dumbbell press, after transferring the weight: "Got it?"
Dumbbell presses: "Elbow or wrist spot?"
All movements: "How many reps are you doing?"
Simply put, your job as a spotter is to make the lift safe. This might mean simply being there so the lifter feels safe, or it might mean something more tactile, like helping rack and unrack the weight. On occasion, you may be called to watch closely or help in max-effort reps or during overload work like dropsets or partial reps.
Given this range of possibilities, it's important before spotting someone to discuss their expectations and make sure both of you are on the same page. What are they doing, and how do they want you to help? What are the cues? How many reps are they planning for?
One thing is always consistent, though: Your job is to pay attention. If someone asks you to spot for them, then do it. Don't look at what someone else is doing, play on your phone, or allow yourself to be distracted in any other way. When I ask for a spot, I am asking you to help keep me safe.
If you train for long enough in a gym setting, there will almost definitely be a time when you need someone to spot you, and I doubt there are any regular gym-goers who have never been asked for a spot by a stranger at some point. However, it isn't like you receive a little pamphlet when you sign up that teaches you how to do it properly, and as I have learned the hard way, relying on a poor spotter can be worse than not having one at all. So let's review the three most common lifts and how to correctly spot them.
HOW TO SPOT A BENCH PRESS
Bench presses would be a lot safer if it was standard practice to include adjustable metal spotter arms on the bench, like the ones on a squat rack or power rack. Lacking this type of equipment, most of us can benefit from having an extra set of hands close by in case we fail with a barbell over our vital organs and bones.
Prior to spotting someone's bench press, you need to know if they want a "lift off." This refers to helping them unrack the weight. It's a common practice in powerlifting competitions, since the racked bar is located where the lifter is weaker, and it may require significant effort to bring out. If they wish for a lift off, take a grip on the bar with both hands on the bar inside of theirs. Wait for their count, and then give them significant help to bring the bar over their starting position. Once it's there, gradually let off. Typically, a verbal cue lets the lifter and spotter know when the weight gets transferred. For example, my spotter knows to fully release the bar when I say "my weight."
During the set, keep your hands near the bar but do not touch it. This is not a team lift! I recommend keeping one arm over and one arm under the bar, the latter providing a defense against a bar taking them in the neck or face. This "mixed grip" will also be quite strong in the event you need to take the whole weight.
WHEN TO HELP: There are only two situations where you should come in before the set is complete. To do so otherwise may result in papa bear getting angry. If the bar takes a sudden drop, then you automatically have permission to assist with full force to bring the bar back up. That is not permission to grab the bar if I slow down or struggle; only when I clearly failed and gravity is taking the bar a different direction. Read the last two sentences again to make sure you know the difference.
Additionally, if the lifter calls for aid, of course you're expected to assist. In this situation, something a little different is expected of you. Only give the amount of help needed for the lifter to complete the lift. There is no need to fully take on all the weight unless they clearly want you to. Allow them to work on that last rep.
On a bench press you are generally expected to assist in racking the weight, particularly if they are at failure. A lot of mishaps happen during racking because the lifter is fatigued and might miss the J-hook, so once the bar is going that direction, feel free to be hands-on and guide it into the hooks.
HOW TO SPOT A SQUAT
Most spotters could probably wing it for the bench press and still keep you from eating the bar. Spotting someone who is squatting, however, is a bit more technical. This is especially true if the lifter actually needs a spot, in which case the spotter needs to know where to be and what to do. Here's the difference in a nutshell: When helping out on a bench press, you are lifting the bar. When spotting during a squat, you are lifting the lifter.
You might think that no one should need your assistance in unracking the weight. However, I've seen more accidents occur during the racking and unracking process than during the lift. So always be in position before the weight comes off the hooks.
The strongest position for the spotter is with your arms hooked under the lifter's arms, and your forearms along their lats. As they lift off and get into position, you step back with them and stay in place. Just as you don't touch the bar during the bench press, don't touch the lifter during the squat. Simply have your arms low and close them, keeping your hips back. As they squat, their butt will move back. Make sure you are out of their way.
WHEN TO HELP: Your spot can be a little "loose" at first, but pay close attention, particularly with max-effort lifts. If they slow down or start looking shaky, tighten up and be ready. Once the bar starts going back down or something else happens, get in there! Your arms will go under theirs and across the chest or shoulders. With good technique, assist them in completing the repetition.
In the event that the lifter goes down, which could happen for a number of reasons, your new job is to prevent them from getting squished. You should be lifting in a rack that will have either chains or pins as safeties, and you should ensure they are at the correct height before training. As a lifter, you can't completely rely on a spotter, because if you bust up your knee, break your ankle, or pass out, they are not going to be able to save you. You might be able to dump the bar behind you, but don't count on it. There is a chance you will end up—as I did—with the weight folding you up accordion-style. In cases such as these, the spotter can hopefully help you go down with some measure of control onto the safeties.
During heavy squats the spotter is expected to help rack the weight. If you had to assist them in their last rep, maintain positive control as you guide them into the front posts. Ensure that they don't miss the J-hooks, and let them know when they are racked and can get out from under the weight.
HOW TO SPOT A DUMBBELL PRESS
This advice is applicable to any type of chest press or shoulder presses, but we will talk as though we mean the latter. Generally, the heavy dumbbells start on the knees with these movements and are rocked up into position. As a spotter, you should help them move the dumbbells into position for the first rep. From there, you should be hands off unless they need your help.
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Occasionally, with particularly heavy weights, a lifter will request that you hand them one of the dumbbells after they've moved the other into position. If this is the case, keep your hands on the weight—never the handle—and exchange verbal cues when transferring the weight. Simply "Got it?" will usually suffice. When you take the weight away from the lifter after the set in this situation, a similar cue is needed.
Prior to starting the set, review all the normal information about reps and so forth, but also ask the lifter if they prefer an elbow spot or a wrist spot. Generally, elbows are the way to go unless they have a different preference. Either way, the lifter is expected to maintain their grip on the dumbbell, but you can either grasp their wrists or push their elbows up when needed. And just to be clear, you always push the weight up, not in.
WHEN TO HELP: As with the other lifts, don't touch the lifter or the weight until you are needed to do so. Unless they are about to take a dumbbell to the head, you should only give enough assistance for them to complete the rep. They may even call for a couple of assisted repetitions, but ideally you would discuss this before the set begins.
They shouldn't need assistance in returning the dumbbells to the floor. If they do, take your directions from the lifter.