Last updated on March 10th, 2021 at 03:35 pm
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I don’t want to die trapped under a barbell. You might laugh, but my fear is real. Lifting at home alone without a spotter can be dangerous. There are quite a few ways to mitigate the danger, but one of the most common is a power rack attachment that can spot you when a person isn’t available. That attachment comes in three primary forms. Spotter/safety pins and spotter/safety straps. There are also spotter/safety arms, which we’ll discuss later.
Overall, a well-constructed set of safety straps are more versatile and will provide several benefits over traditional pins. They absorb the shock of a dropped bar in a way that metal pins cannot and they won’t damage your barbell. You’ll definitely need one of them if lifting alone, but if you have the choice you’ll enjoy straps more.
First, a word about safety. Bench pressing, squatting, or lifting heavy in any way without a spotter is a bad idea. Especially if you like to push yourself a little (or a lot) while training. All it takes is one misstep and a trip to the hospital is in your future.
Take it from someone whose back has gone out in the middle of a lift. You might do 1000’s of reps and never need a spotter. But the one time you do, you’ll be beyond thankful they are there. The ability to simply drop the bar and get out of the way can literally save your life.
So what are we to do when no spotter is available? I wrote a nice guide to lifting without a spotter that you can see here. Of all the tips in that article, though, none is more important than using a substitute for a person to spot your lifts whenever possible. That substitute comes in the form of pins, arms, or straps.
The power rack
In my article outlining how much space you will need to add a squat rack to your gym, I detail the some of the differences in the different types of racks you could use. In the end, I recommend finding the space for a full rack.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but one is that a full rack gives you the ability to have spotter pins, arms, or safety straps in place for most of your lifts. Any good rack will come with metal pins that serve this function (to see which rack I own and recommend, check out my recommended power racks page here). In fact, if the rack you are looking at buying doesn’t come with them, that’s a great sign to look for a different model.
Even if you go the route of a simpler squat stand, you can still get models that have arm attachments that can serve to spot your lifts. While not quite as robust or versatile, this definitely qualifies as a “better than nothing” type of option.
Spotter arms and pins
Traditional safety attachments for squat and power racks consist of either pins or arms. Pins usually come with most racks while arms will be a separate accessory. The exception to this is the much smaller squat stand that can’t use pins so comes with arms instead.
Arms are found on squat stands. They can also be purchased for most racks. The mount on the front beams of your rack and stick straight out, outside of the rack. Arms work well for lifts that take place outside the rack. One of the reasons I like my 36″ deep power rack is that I can perform all lifts inside my rack. This makes arms obsolete for my uses.
If you are using a shallower 24″ or 18″ deep rack, you may find yourself performing your lifts out in front of the rack instead. If this is the case, then arms will be a good choice for you. Another possible reason for arms is that often more than one person will be using a deeper rack. Arms allow one person to lift in front of the rack, leaving the inside of the rack clear for another lifter.
When working inside the rack, you’ll find yourself using pins instead. Pins are simply metal cross beams that span the upright supports on either side of your rack. They secure to the holes in those uprights in one a few different methods.
Sometimes they are a straight piece of bar stock that threads through the holes in the rack’s frame. Sometimes they are made of the same thing as the uprights and connect in the same way as your j hooks or other attachments. How adjustable they are will be determined by the spacing of the holes in the uprights. Most racks have holes at least every 2 inches. Better racks will have spacing every 1 inch.
This will allow you to place the pins or arms at a variety of heights. The adjustability is nice, but the fixed height of the pins can also be a drawback. There is no give or leeway. Once the bar hits the safety pins, it stops. While that’s what you want if you lose control of the bar, it’s not really ideal when you are completing your reps. This is where straps come in.
The benefits of safety straps
From a safety perspective, both pins and straps should keep a bar from falling on you and causing injury. The key word there is “should”. When watching stress testing of both products, I saw some alarming failures of metal pins.
When a heavily loaded bar was dropped from 3-4 feet above the pins, some of them simply sheared off under the load of the dropped bar. Welds failed, metal split, and scary things happened. When the same weight was dropped on straps, they held. Over and over and over again.
The reason for this is that the straps have some amount of give and stretch to them. Not a ton, but enough that the material itself absorbed a lot of the impact. It spreads the force of the dropped bar across the whole of the material. With a metal safety bar, the stress is all taken by the welds or attachment points. Drop enough weight and those points fail.
It was an eye opener as to how much of a difference there was.
working from the straps
Another huge benefit of straps in my eyes is the ability to work from them for various exercises. The big one for me is deadlifts. At 6’6” and 50 years old, I no longer pull from the floor. It’s hard on my back and I don’t want to risk the injury.
For that reason, I tend to lift from a height that places the bar just below my knees. I get the bar to this height by resting it on the spotter arms, pins, or safety straps. I lift from the arm and then slowly set it back down. I like to gently lower the weight and focus on the eccentric portion of the lift. When doing this, straps are infinitely more enjoyable to use than metal pins/arms. Setting the bar into the straps is smooth and a lot less jarring.
I find the same thing when I’m bench pressing. I like to bring the bar all the way down to my chest during reps. With metal pins set to a height that would keep me safe in the event of failure, the bar often clanks against the metal. That brings my rep to an abrupt stop, not something that is ideal for me.
With straps, that doesn’t happen. I may hit the straps with the bar, but they don’t clank against the bar and jarringly stop my rep. It’s a much subtler thing and I’ve really come to appreciate it. Don’t get me wrong, the straps still stop the bar dead when you hit their limit. It’s just that they are easier to set at a height that both keeps me safe and also allows for full range of motion.
An important point to note here is that when using pins, your barbell will end up scratched and damaged. Metal on metal contact will do this no matter how careful you are. When using straps this doesn’t happen. I love my barbell and try to take really good care of it. Lifting with straps instead of pins is one of the ways I do that.
One last thing I like about straps is that I can set one end higher in the rack than the other. This allows me to angle the straps so that in the event of a dropped bar, the straps guide the bar away from me. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough so that it adds a bit to my safety. When pressing, I like to angle them away from my neck and head and that’s the lift during which I make use of this feature the most.
In other words, you can choose what direction your bar fails in.
Which straps to get.
There is one simple rule here. Don’t go cheap!!! This is really important.
What you will find is that some companies make cheap safety straps that are listed to have a capacity of 10,000 of lbs. What they aren’t telling you is that it’s the material that has that capacity, not the stitching. If the stitching fails, the strap fails. Regardless of how much weight the material itself is rated to hold.
You can take material that holds 10,000 lbs. and then stitch it poorly and it won’t hold up to even a light barbell dropped on it. Considering that you are relying on these for your safety, it’s critical to buy well stitched straps. The best way to ensure this is by not going with the lowest priced option you can find.
Make sure to get straps that are both made by a major company and that will fit your rack. Due to differences in rack manufacture, straps are often not cross compatible. Also, if you went super low priced on your rack (nothing wrong with that in many cases), I probably wouldn’t buy that company’s straps (if available). I’d look for a higher quality substitute made by another, more reputable company.
If you have a Titan Rack, you are in luck! Titan didn’t have a great go of it the first time they released safety straps. They had to recall that first run and head back to the drawing board. But their second attempt has been a huge success.
Until now, Titan rack owners have been forced to buy Rogue straps for upwards of $200 per set! A ridiculously high price, in my opinion! Enter the Titan straps v2.
For all you Titan rack owners out there, head on over to the Titan Fitness site here and get a set of straps for your rack! Make sure that you get the set that matches both your rack type (2×2, 2×3, 3×3) and the span from front post to rear. And just in case you have any doubts about their strength, check out Coop from Garage Gym Reviews dropping over 800 lbs. on these straps as a test!
Be safe out there
In the end, please use something. Use arms. Use pins. Use straps. Use your crazy cousin Herbert if you have to. But please be safe. A big part of enjoying our home gyms is avoiding injury and death. Putting safety precautions in place to prevent those things should always be at the top of our minds. And if you have a choice, get some safety straps. I’m almost sure you’ll really dig them.