It’s one of the most helpless feelings in weightlifting—when the mind is willing, but the body won’t respond. Fatigue has set in and, all of a sudden, a weight that seconds ago seemed manageable is now immovable. In this case, the lifter hopes their spotter is paying attention and can save them from getting pinned under the weight of the loaded bar. It’s one of those scary moments of pure dependency on the spotter.
Everyone who has lifted weights has been in this position (or will be soon enough). Getting pinned or stuck under a barbell doesn’t only happen to inexperienced lifters. Even the most skilled lifters have to face the reality that, when lifting a loaded barbell suspended in the air, a lot can go wrong—fast. Fatigue, muscle cramps, loss of balance, or the bar slipping out of the lifter’s hands are always part of the inherent risks. Even though skilled and experienced spotters are present and fully focused on assisting the athlete at the right time, things can happen so fast that human reaction times can’t save the lifter from a loaded bar falling uncontrollably and putting them in harm’s way.
This experience can result in either a scary (but short-lived) injury or a potentially life-threatening injury. In some extreme cases, fatalities have occurred when the bar fell on a lifter surrounded by skilled and focused spotters. To fully understand what can go wrong when lifting with free weights, run a Google or YouTube search for “Gym Fails.” Sure, many of the clips show very inexperienced or reckless lifters who put themselves in vulnerable positions. But there are also many cases of very skilled and experienced lifters who end up falling victim to the dangers and risks of weightlifting (as you can see in the example here, viewer warning).
The Intimidation Factor
No matter how much risk tolerance a lifter has, anyone who places themselves under a loaded bar is subject to inherent risks. The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), operated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, provided data over 18 years (1990-2007) relating to injuries that occurred while lifting weights. Researchers then used this information in a study to shed light on how truly risky or dangerous weightlifting is. It showed that during the 18 years, almost one million people were injured seriously enough to be taken to hospital emergency departments. Of those weightlifting-related injuries:
- 65% were due to the weights dropping on a person
- Ages 13-24 had the highest amount of cases of injury than any other age group
- Only 2% of those injuries required hospitalization
- There were 114 fatalities
Suffice it to say, free weightlifting isn’t an activity where we’re putting our lives on the line every time we get under a loaded bar. However, there is enough of a possibility of something going terribly wrong that it does detrimentally affect us—even without consciously realizing it.When we go under the bar, there's enough chance of something going terribly wrong that it detrimentally affects us without consciously knowing it, says @BradyPoppinga. Click To Tweet
While acknowledging the risk of injury while lifting, it is healthy for a lifter to feel differing degrees of intimidation—you can call it respect—for the loaded bar. Hence, the standard operating procedure is always to have a spotter present. And even with a spotter, giving up control when fatigue sets in and one can no longer lift the bar only intensifies the intimidation factor. It’s like flying in a plane or riding on a bus: many people feel uneasy because they’re not the one driving. They have to give up control and trust that the pilot or driver will pay attention and is skilled enough to get them safely from point A to point B. The same goes for a lifter who gives control of their wellbeing to a spotter.
Although this state of mind is healthy, it can be limiting in the context of weight training. Muscle adaptations affecting such things as strength, speed, power, and hypertrophy are some of the main objectives of weight lifting. The way by which muscles adapt is through placement under strategic stressors relative to the desired effect. If the muscles aren’t stressed enough, they don’t adapt. And if they don’t adapt, the desired result is unattainable.Knowing the risks of weight training can trigger subconscious efforts to hold back in critical moments of stressing the muscles for adaptation, says @BradyPoppinga. Click To Tweet
Weight training with a clear understanding of its risks can trigger a subconscious effort to “hold back” in critical moments of stressing the muscles for adaptation. This includes the willingness to do one more rep or place more weight on the bar or how much effort to give in moving the bar with speed and power.
Our instinctive, self-preservation mechanism is wonderful at keeping us healthy and out of harm’s way. Still, it can have a limiting influence on pushing our muscles to new states of adaptation. This leads to training plateaus and can limit the payoff from the effort invested in the weight room.
Benefits of Using a Self-Spotter
Think of some of the most adventurous and extreme activities that bring an intense adrenaline rush that’s almost like being high on a drug (or so I’m told): skydiving, heli-skiing, bungee jumping, base jumping, cliff diving, and jumping the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle. What if we could almost eliminate the risk and downside of these activities but preserve the rush? Would you be willing to try them? I would imagine there would be a lot more people who would participate if this were the case. I know I would.
Lifting weights with a self-spotting mechanism is like that. All the upside of free weight lifting without the same level of risk. When I say “self-spotting mechanism,” a Smith machine that has a fixed linear path isn’t what I have in mind. The self-spotter connects to a bar that swivels in unlimited planes. It has to be actively stabilized by the lifter, which gives the muscles the same feel as a traditional free bar would but without the risks. The best one I’ve come across is the XPT Trainer. Here are how it works and its advantages.
Advantage 1. Lifter Has Full Control of the Bar at All Times
The self-spotting mechanism on the XPT puts the lifter in the driver’s seat. The athlete has full control over when to start and stop the bar at any time (see Image 1 for how it works). Having complete control of the bar empowers the lifter to lift more weight, attempt more reps, and fight fatigue longer. It doesn’t take a genius to predict that, if one lifts more weight and tries more reps, they will experience more frequent and consistent muscle adaptations.
Having full control of the bar is very convenient in the following ways:
- When doing cluster sets, there’s no need to rack the bar on and off hooks after each cluster set, which saves energy the lifter can focus on training.
- It’s easy to work from varying points along the range of motion, such as doing lockout benches (see Video 1) and ¾ squats.
- It’s seamless starting and finishing a lift from the hole.
- Changing from squats to bench and bench back to squats is effortless. There’s no need to detach and reattach hooks and safety spotters. It’s also perfect for super setting or lifting with a partner who’s doing a different lift or has a different starting point.
Video 1. Lifting with the XPT Trainer lets the athlete work from various points along a lift’s range of motion. In this video, the athlete performs bench press lockouts.
Advantage 2. Failing Safely When It Is Unexpected
Failing when lifting weights is very common—and necessary—to see results. Ideally, the lifter can anticipate when they’re reaching the max level of fatigue and on the verge of failing. At this point, preparations can be made to protect the lifter so they’re not crushed or pinned under the bar. But what happens in moments of failure that are unexpected, such as the bar slipping out of the lifter’s hand while bench pressing? Or debilitating muscle cramps? Or fainting due to lack of oxygen to the brain?The beauty of using a self-spotter is that the lifter will fail safely in unexpected moments of failure, says @BradyPoppinga. Click To Tweet
All are very dangerous situations since the lifter is unable to brace themselves and is extremely vulnerable to serious injury. The beauty of using a self-spotter even in these unexpected moments of failure is that the lifter will fail safely. The spotting mechanism is controlled by two brake-lever handles that work like a motorcycle clutch—the bar is free to move only when the lifter clamps down the handles. As soon as an athlete releases just one of the two levers, the spotting mechanism engages and stops the bar. Take the scenario where the bar slips out of the hands during a bench press—the bar will stop completely as soon as it leaves the lifter’s hands. The same thing happens if the athlete faints, falls, or just lets go of the levers altogether—the bar will safely stop where the levers were released.
Advantage 3. Trainers Can Be Full-Time Trainers
Many performance coaches—along with personal trainers—have spent years studying and acquiring knowledge about the science behind training. Unfortunately, they have to divide their time in the field between training and spotting. The problem with this is the ideal spotting position (usually behind the lifter) isn’t an optimal place to observe and evaluate proper technique and form. Trying to split time between training and spotting limits the trainer from using the valuable knowledge gained over time to most benefit the athlete or client.With a self-spotting mechanism, the trainer can position themselves in an ideal spot to assess technique and form properly, says @BradyPoppinga. Click To Tweet
With a self-spotting mechanism, the trainer can move around and position themselves in an ideal position to assess technique and form properly. Moving out from behind the lifter also eliminates the lifter’s temptation to rely too heavily on the spotter. With the safety spotter, if the athlete reaches a sticking point, they can fight through it without the spotter intervening. Or, they can rack the bar exactly at that sticking point, take a 10- to 20-second rest, and finish out the rep themselves, essentially converting that last rep into two cluster sets.
Video 2. If the bar slips out of the lifter’s hand, the self-spotters engage, saving the athlete from a free-falling bar.
Feeling uneasy, intimidated, or wasting mental energy wondering if we’re safe and protected will always work against achieving optimal results. Lifting weights is no different. The efficiency of energy transfer through the body has such a small margin of error that a tiny “leakage” of that energy could be the difference between having enough grit stored to perform one more rep despite fatigue or missing the rep because the fatigue was too much.
Clearing the clutter and tunneling all of the mind, body, and spirit’s focus and energy on moving the loaded bar will lead to top-notch results. Using a safety spotter puts the mind at ease and gives the lifter full control over when to start or stop the bar, resulting in feeling empowered to take chances while going for one more rep or attempting to place more weight on the bar. It also doesn’t hurt that the safety spotter will enhance the effect of the strength coach’s or trainer’s influence, giving them the ideal vantage points to evaluate proper form and to provide real-time and relevant coaching points. At the very least, a self-spotter will make weightlifting safer without taking away its fantastic upside.
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