Bench pressing can be fucking terrifying; I still have nightmares of being crushed to death by a barbell and meeting my end in a New York Sports Club—but if you have a spotter and communicate adequately with them, you shouldn’t worry so much.
“Spotting someone is the weight-room equivalent of holding open the door for a laden delivery man,” the Wall Street Journal writes. “It’s a courtesy of the sort that may prevent an accident.”
And accidents do happen. Search Youtube for “bench press accident” and you’ll spiral. (On second thought, don’t do it. It’s terrifying.) Asking for someone to spot you while bench pressing is simple; articulating exactly what you expect from your spotter, however, is a bit more complicated. But if you want to progress your bench press and be safe, just communicate every step of the way and don’t be afraid to tell them when not to help.
Communicate reps to your spotter
First, let’s preface the subject of asking for a spot by mentioning that it’s a matter of personal preference. How you prefer to be spotted might differ entirely from someone else’s desired approach. For this reason, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for what you need.
So when you’re ready to bench press, find a spotter—preferably someone who’s just finished a set and might be resting so you aren’t inconveniencing them. If you can find someone who is also bench pressing, that’s even better as you might be able to return the favor. For the most part, any gym-goer should accept unless they’re uncomfortable with the idea or injured, as the WSJ writes; if this is the case, find a plan B.
When you’ve found him or her, make it clear how many reps you are attempting so they can better anticipate when to assist you, whether it’s five reps or a single. If you’re confident about four of the five reps and unsure about the fifth, let them know. If you’re aiming for three reps and you’re more than confident based on your experience, tell them. They need to know when best to help you, if at all.
Alternatively, if you hate having a spotter swoop in too early or when it only appears that you’re struggling (but you’re not), just let them know they do not have to grab the bar at any point unless you explicitly ask for help during the set (or need help un-racking the barbell, which we’ll address in a moment).
“Once they realize the rep doesn’t count if they lay a single finger on the bar, they’ll realize that they’re doing you no favors by helping,” u/Viandobulo wrote on a Reddit thread. This might be a matter of personal preference, however; if you aren’t a competing powerlifter, it technically doesn’t matter what you do, safety concerns aside. As a beginner, you might feel more comfortable knowing you have assistance with each rep, for example.
But if you want to make absolutely sure they won’t come in too early, I use some combination of “I’ll let you know if I need help” or “You don’t have to grab the bar unless I tell you.” Others might suggest to a spotter that they don’t need to assist unless they see the bar begin to descend during the concentric phase of the lift or as you’re meant to press up.
By the time you’re lying on the bench, let them know whether you need help unracking the barbell, which is also a matter of personal preference. If you do need assistance, make it clear you need help unracking before you begin. If you don’t, some version of “I don’t need help with the lift off the rack” should suffice. And by this time, you’re finally ready to actually bench; in total, this interaction shouldn’t really last all that much longer than a few seconds.
As Todd Miller, a George Washington University exercise-science professor, tells the Wall Street Journal, a spotter should use an alternating (overhand/underhand) grip and a narrower grip than you when assisting. For the most part, both should come instinctively to a spotter.
If you need help at any point during your set, communicate it immediately. And if there’s no one around to assist you, bench pressing in the squat rack isn’t a bad idea either. Just don’t hog the rack for an hour or you might earn a badge of shame at your gym.