Tales From the Gym

This is a cautionary and (I hope) humorous tale about bench press safety. For the TLDR types:

  • Communication between the spotter and lifter is key
  • Don’t dial it up to 11 in the gym with just 1 spotter
  • Don’t clip the weights if you don’t have to
  • Spotters- check your area to make sure it’s clear before the lifter starts
  • Beware the WereBro

This little episode happened about 2 months ago, but I bring it up now because it’s educational and (for those who would laugh at my suffering) entertaining.

The gym where I worked was loaded: 14 squat racks with 3-D cameras, rowers, Prowlers, kettlebells, climbing ropes, everything you need to effectively play with yourself for a few hours. Because of the class of equipment and the experience level of the people at this gym (almost all military, many of them well-versed in strength training), the usual tomfoolery and bro-ments were pretty rare.

On this particular day, I was minding my own business walking back to the rack from the chalk bowl when a lifter asked for a spot. “Sure,” I said. “No problem.”

Broheim had a decent amount of weight on the bar for his size/strength, a little over two plates. I’d seen him handle this for triples and fives earlier, so this wouldn’t be a big deal… or so I thought.

In the gym world, there’s a special type of bro that seems like a perfectly rational, normal, well-adjusted lifter… until they get to a max set, wherein they turn into your worst stereotype of a screaming, sleeveless-shirted psycho. The WereBro.

I walked up to the spotter’s steps, but before I could say a word, he sprinted into position, wedged himself into the bench, gripped the bar thumbs-overhand, stomped his feet a few times, unracked the weight, breathed out a few heavy bellows, roared to the heavens, and started ripping out reps like an angry suburban househusband trying to pull-start a reluctant lawnmower. Yup. WereBro.

At this point, I was more than a little nervous. The thumbs-overhand grip is called the ‘suicide grip’ for a reason, he was moving so fast I was surprised he could hold the bar at all, and he’d made such a bro-spectacle of himself that I had no idea what to expect.

His form started off all right and then took a rapid nosedive around rep three. Butt in the air, shoulders pushed forward, rocking side to side, he looked like an exaggerated student model for what not to do. He ground his way through rep 7 or 8, the bar moving so slowly that I started to move into position for a recovery when he hissed at me through clenched teeth:
“Don’t! I got it!”

Sure enough, and I’ll give him credit for this one, he made the rep. It was dirty, noisy, grindy, all-sorts-of-y, but he made it. I reached out to pull it back into the rack. After all, no one in their right mind would go for another rep after that.

He did.

The barbell went down like a rock, fast enough that I worried about the impact, and he gave it the old college try for about a second before I heard these words:
“It’s all you, bro.”
For anyone who hasn’t been to a gym in the last 20 years, “It’s all you, bro” is usually said by the guy spotting the lift. If the spotter’s saying it, there’s a 95% chance that it is not, indeed, all you. To be the spotter and hear that, I was first confused… then panicked. He looked like he was in pain, so we could be dealing with an injury. I should have left him there, but…

He’d clipped the weights, so he couldn’t dump it to one side. The footplates for the platform were about a foot and a half behind the bar, so I could provide support, but I wasn’t in a position to row the bar all on my own. Still… I tried.

As I worked my way forward to get leverage, I stepped my right foot onto a chalk brick that was sitting at the edge of the platform and my ankle slipped to one side, turning this from an awkward row into God only knew what. Instinctively (I’ve got some weird instincts), I went with the twist and turned entirely to my left, gripped extra hard with my right hand, and executed a PR suitcase deadlift to get the bar back into the rack.

It turns out that he wasn’t injured- he was just completely out of gas. Me? I was pissed off as all hell and dealt with an achy shoulder for a week, but since he was wildly apologetic and grateful for the save, it sucked the joy out of going full on rage-monster. Still, Broheim’s madness taught me a few lessons that might, just might, prevent you from ending up in this kind of asinine situation.

For the lifter:

  • Except in competition style conditions (3 spotters or a safety bar), don’t use up all your energy fighting to make a lift. Your spotter’s in a poor-leverage position and can’t bicep curl your bench, so he’s relying on you to provide some help.
    • If you’re uninjured and bail out on a lift, leaving it to the spotter, you deserve to be beaten to death with the barbell.
    • If your technique goes to pot, end the set. Good technique is not only good practice in general, but it leaves certain last-minute tricks (sinking the chest in for a pushoff, shoving the shoulders forward, arching the butt up) ‘in reserve’ in case you need to press yourself out of a hole.
  • Talk to your spotter. Let him or her know what you’re thinking: how many reps are you trying for? Are you working at your limit? Are you doing a variant (like a paused bench)? Do you want a lift-off? Answers to these can put the spotter at ease and prevent a miscommunication (either an early spot, which sucks, or a late/missed spot… which sucks even more).
  • Clips: If your gym requires them or the plates are sliding all over, use them. Otherwise, don’t. In a dire emergency, leaning the barbell to one side and letting the plates slide to the floor can be the difference between lifting the next day and a hospital visit or death, especially if you’re lifting alone. Is it embarrassing when there are other people around? Sure. But at least you’re alive to blush.

For the spotter:

  • Helping spot people is just part of lifting- it’s gym etiquette- but you do not have to go along if something in your brain is raising a red flag. Talk it out with the lifter first.
  • Some things to look for;
    • Is the weight reasonable for what you can support? If the lifter picks a smart weight and sticks with it, my kid nephew could spot a 300# bench, but consider the lifter: is this the guy who routinely overloads a bar, quarter-squats it, then screams his way back to the rack? Do you trust him to bench 4 plates?
    • Is their setup or grip something you’re not comfortable with? Your rules are your own, but if I don’t know the lifter, I won’t spot a suicide grip. It can be a little awkward, but it’s better than the alternative if something goes sideways.
    • Is the spotter’s area clear? You don’t want to trip or crush the lifter’s phone as you settle into a good stance to spot from.

I hope you got something out of this, maybe a lesson learned or a laugh (I’m sure you’re laughing with me…) But if my story saves even one person from a disaster on the bench press… I’ll deal with a few chuckles.

Fare forward, voyagers!

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