I used to work in a weight room and teach fitness classes part-time when I was a student. It was great since it was shift work on-campus that fit well between classes, and it was something I was interested in. I also received a complementary gym access as a bonus. Generally speaking I enjoyed myself. I especially enjoyed the early bird shifts where there were always the same six die-hards working out so remembering all their names was a piece of cake. When working in a weight room it is a given that someone would eventually need a spotter and if they didn’t have a friend with them they would of course ask staff. My supervisors had made it a point to teach everyone proper spotting techniques for all the typical exercises and gave a basic list of does and don’ts for spotting. Problems generally only occurred when people asked me to spot for the wrong reasons.
The primary purpose of a spotter is to act as a safety net for the lifter in case the lifter, in their of goal pushing to “just before failure”, actually fails. A ready and alert spotter can help the lifter control the weight and set it down safety to avoid injury. A lifter’s last rep is suppose to be the rep just before failure. So actual failure shouldn’t happen if the lifter is experienced and has a good feel for detecting their personal limits. If a lifter and spotter are both doing their jobs properly the spotter should never take more than 5-10% of the weight. Essentially the spotter takes only just enough weight for lifter to finish their last rep safely. Once the spotter is needed to take the 5-10% that should be the end of the lifter’s set.
Unfortunately, some people think that a spotter is there to let them squeeze out 1, 2, 3, 4, or more extra reps. For every rep past the “just before failure” rep described above the % of weight the spotter has to take from the lifter so they can keep going just keeps going up. So in the end the lifter isn’t even lifting what he thinks he is lifting. If your spotter is lifting over 10% of the weight for you the rep doesn’t count. Guys often do this then get up and chest bump each other as though they accomplished something big when in reality they just cheated the last few reps. (If you noticed I just shifted from gender neutral “they” to “he”, well I just couldn’t keep the male factor out of this forever because it is the guys that are primarily guilty of misusing spotters in my experience.) Looking beyond the ridiculous macho ego thing that is the only thing I think of to explain this type of behavior, lets go back to the safety role of a spotter.
I was often asked to spot for patrons at my gym. And it was predominately men who asked for spots because they were often (but not always) the only ones lifting heavy enough to need spotters. It was a good thing when someone asked for a spot because I would rather be standing there spotting them from the beginning of their set instead of running over to the whip the weights off their chests after they have already failed. I would regularly spot for guys bench pressing far far more weight then I was capable of lifting on my own. No problem. The reason I could is because as I spotter I am not suppose to ever be taking all that weight on by myself. I should never take more than 5-10%. Problems occurred when guys asked me to spot and did not stop at “just before failure” but kept going expecting me to take more and more weight and refusing to listen to me when I told them they needed to rack the weight. One guy was so pig headed about completing as many of these cheater reps as possible (and ignoring my directions to rack the weight) that it got to the point that some other dude had to come over and rack the weight for us. Being staff I had to be polite to Mr. Pig Head, but fortunately the dude that saved Mr. Pig Head from crushing himself via misuse of a spotter made a choice comment to Mr. Pig Head about his level of intelligence which made me feel better.
Another bad practice that tends to come from the “spotters are meant to help me squeeze out a few more reps and nothing else” mentaility is incorrect spotting form. To illistrate this point there is the story of the guy who dropped the 30lb dumbbell on his head. This incident was before my time at the gym, but it was always used afterward as an example of how critical proper spotting technique is. The gentlmen in question was doing dumbbell shoulder presses with a friend spotting for him. His spotter however made the mistake of spotting from the elbow. I have seen this done many times. The spotter essentially just gives the lifter a bump under the elbows to help them past a sticking point or the spotter grips at the elbow. The problem with this is that by gripping at the elbow there is no way for the spotter to control the fall of the weights if the lifter fails. The lifter can still fail at the elbow joint and with the way the human arm bends the only place for the weight to go is right into the lifters head. So that is how the guy with a spotter dropped a 30lb dumbbell on his head. The correct way to spot for shoulder press is from the wrists so that as a spotter you can help the lifter direct the weights down to either side or (in the case of emergencies only) drop the weight on the floor to either side.