Solo lifter

7 Habits For Safely Training Alone Without a Spotter

I don’t want to die, trapped under a barbell, alone in my garage.

Now that I’ve sufficiently brightened your day, let me explain. The pessimist in me always assumes the worst. Very often, I find myself daydreaming about unpleasant outcomes and things gone wrong. When I decided to build a fully equipped home gym in my garage, that was no exception.

Solo lifter

One of my biggest fears is suffering an injury mid lift and having a fully loaded barbell come crashing down on top of me. If you’ve ever had your back go out on you, you can relate. You know that no matter how careful you are, bad things can happen. Those bad things become worse things when heavy weight is involved!

Keys to safe weight training without a spotter

  1. Prioritize safety
  2. Don’t go for max effort PR’s
  3. Train with dumbbells
  4. Use a rack with safeties
  5. Train on an all in one home gym or functional trainer
  6. Don’t train to failure
  7. Use lighter weights with higher reps
  8. Substitute a slower tempo for heavier weights
  9. Concentrate on perfect form

Sometimes You Don’t Have a Spotter

One of the reasons I wanted to start working out at home was that, to be blunt, I had grown tired of most of the other people I had to share a gym with. I didn’t like waiting for the squat rack. I didn’t like having to wipe other people’s sweat off of the benches. I wasn’t there to socialize. I could go on, but as someone reading a website dedicated to building your own home gym, I’m guessing you can relate.

While moving your training regimen to the comfort of your home has many more benefits than it does drawbacks, it still creates a few obstacles. One of the most glaring, ironically, is the lack of other people.

While other people were the main reason I didn’t like working out in a big box gym, they did serve the occasional purpose. Not the least of which is safety. Want to try to max out your bench press? You can’t do that safely alone. Trying a one rep max with your deadlift? Having someone there in case you hurt your back is critical.

Having another person in the gym with you has numerous positive benefits with regard to safety. Almost enough to make it worth wiping those other people’s sweat off the equipment you need to use…. Almost.

Thankfully, with a little planning and forethought, along with a lot of common sense, we can all lift safely by ourselves. Working out alone is extremely rewarding to me. It’s one of the high points of my day. Following just a few simple guidelines has allowed me to do it safely for quite some time. I hope that by sharing these tips, I can make working out at home as safe and enjoyable experience for you as it is for me.

Emergency room
Let’s do everything we can to avoid a trip here!

Safety First

There are a couple of overarching principles that need to be addressed before we get to the safety guidelines. Working out at home safely requires a few minor modifications in how some of us approach weight training. It starts with looking at what it takes to build muscle.

There is a long running debate in training circles about how much weight it actually takes to build muscle. One camp says that low reps (1-5) with heavy weights is the fastest road to gaining strength. Another camp says that lower weights with higher reps (12-20) is the proven track to hypertrophy.

I am not here to side with either of them. For the purposes of our discussion today, we are approaching things with the attitude that no strength gain or hypertrophy can happen if we are injured. When working out at home alone, I’m going to pick the rep range with the least chance of injury!

The single fastest way to gain strength and build muscle is to avoid injury at ALL costs.

There is another long running debate as to how much effort is needed for strength gain and muscle growth. One side of this debate will tell you that you must train to failure. Leave nothing in the tank. Push yourself until you are puddle on the floor. The other side says that you can achieve great results training sub maximally. That is, always finish your sets with 1-2 perfect reps left in the tank.

Again, I have to reiterate that it doesn’t really matter to me which side is right. At 46 years old, and having recovered from a total of 4 bulged discs in my back, I only care about safety. And that is the point of this article… Safety. That means that once again, I’m going with the method that leaves no room for injury!

With that said, let’s take a look at 7 key training habits that you can implement to significantly reduce your risk of injury when working out alone.

Exercise Selection

The clean and jerk looks really fun. Overhead sumo squats would be cool to learn to do. Knowing what my max bench press is would be nice.

What do those three things and many more have in common? They aren’t things I’ll be doing by myself in my garage. Not in a million years.

When you are considering how to stay safe when lifting alone, exercise choice has to be the number one consideration. That choice has to be driven by safety, not preference. If you want to build a program around Olympic lifts, that’s great! You just shouldn’t do it at home by yourself.

Luckily, we live in the age of the internet! Combine that with the fact that people have been lifting weights much longer than you or I have been alive, and you have a wealth of weight training information at your fingertips. That means that no matter what lift you want to perform, there is a safer alternative only a YouTube search away.

Sure, the alternate might not be as exciting. It might not work the muscle in exactly the same way or angle. But it DOES work the same muscle. Remember, the point isn’t to argue over what is the most effective. It’s about keeping you and I safe and without injury.

When it comes to our top priority of safety, alternate exercises that present less risk are the biggest tool we have.

Equipment Choice

Dumbbells

One of the best ways to make almost any exercise safer is to change the equipment you use to perform it. The king of all alternate pieces of equipment is the dumbbell.

Adjustable dumbbells
My original garage gym set up.

Dumbbells are not only versatile, but they immediately remove much of the risk that their barbell counterparts inherently present. Bench pressing with dumbbells does not pose the danger that a straight bar does. Overhead pressing with dumbbells is much safer than pushing an Olympic barbell over our heads.

There is such a safety difference that when I built my home gym, the only weights I had for the first couple of years was a set of adjustable dumbbells. I’m definitely not advising that we should only have dumbbells in our garage or basement gyms. I am saying that they are much safer for many exercises.

Not sure what dumbbells would be good for your home gym? I wrote an entire article to help you decide that you can see by clicking here! You can also see all the gear I recommend for your home gym on my recommended gear page here!

Squat Rack

Want to push yourself more than you can with dumbbell workouts? Want to add a barbell (check out my complete guide on picking the perfect barbell)? You should! I love lifting heavy weights with barbells. Presses, squats, deadlifts and more are a huge part of my fitness routine. I can’t imagine weight training without them.

That begs the question, how do we make those things safe when there isn’t a spotter around? The answer, weirdly, is to get a spotter.

The nuance that makes all the difference in the world is that the spotter you will get is not a person. It’s a big piece of metal.

When deciding on what kind of squat rack I was going to put in my garage gym, one of the main things that made me lean towards a full size rack was the ability of that rack to be my spotter for a variety of lifts. The safety straps (or pins or bars, I go over all the differences in an article you can see by clicking here) on either side of the cage can serve as a non human spotter in a variety of exercises. Most commonly, they are my spotter for the barbell bench press and the squat.

Lifting inside the rack, safety straps in place, I can perform a good number of the larger barbell lifts that would normally require another human present to be safe. Combined with the strategies I review below, I feel totally safe lifting without a spotter and without someone in the gym with me at all!

For those of you using a Titan Fitness rack, they recently releases very high quality straps for all of their racks. Check them out on Titan Fitness here!

Safety straps

Looking to add a squat rack to your gym? Check out my article here where I outline everything you need to know to pick out the perfect squat rack for your home gym. Or you can just go to my recommended racks page here for specific model recommendations based on your budget and size needs!

All in One Home Gyms

The last equipment choice I want to review that can significantly add to the safety of your lifting routine is the self contained “home gym”. These can take several forms, but basically they consist of a machine in which there is a loading mechanism. That can be weight plates, or it can be oddly engineered rods or springs as you’d find in the late night infomercial star, the BowFlex home gym.

I used to rail against these machines. I had an uppity attitude that they didn’t really qualify as weight training. I’ve owned two (yes, two) BowFlex machines in my life. Both ended up being very expensive places to hang my clothes. For the longest time, I completely disqualified this type of equipment as being effective. I was wrong.

A while back, I started traveling relatively often. Because of that, I ended up using numerous hotel gyms to get in a workout while on the road. That meant that I ended up using quite a few different all in one cable type gyms. And you know what? I always found a way to get in a solid workout on them.

Aside from space savings, hotels choose this type of setup over free weights for a very important reason. Liability.

When it comes to providing facilities for the general public to use, liability is often the very first concern. In the litigious society we live in, protecting your business from lawsuits is always a priority. That’s why hotels choose the all in one gym for their fitness centers. They provide the lowest risk of injury of any of the possible alternatives.

Many a fit body has been built on gyms like these. Those bodies have been built safely, in a limited amount of floor space, and without ever lifting a free weight dangerously over their head. If safety is a concern, and it always is, this type of gym might be the perfect solution for you.

Safe Lifting Strategies

Once you decide on your equipment of choice, whether it’s dumbbells, barbells, or a complete home gym, it’s now time to look at using that equipment safely. Anything can be dangerous if used improperly. With a few things kept top of mind, though, we can all lift safely on our own.

Don’t Train to Failure

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’m not concerned with finding the utmost effective training method if it is also not the safest. When overhead or bench pressing, the simple matter of things is that doing reps to failure isn’t safe without a spotter.

Collapsed lifter
Don’t lift until you end up like this!

The very definition of training to failure is that your form will fail. Your muscles, at the end of the set, will have zero ability to get you out of trouble.

I can think of no worse places to be that stuck under a bar that I couldn’t physically get off of me. Not to mention, the absolute worst place for your muscles to fail and not be able to lift the load you’ve given them is when there is a good amount of weight over you.

Very plainly put, training to failure with heavy weights in exercises that put you in a compromising position isn’t part of lifting safely solo. Not to mention, most current training programs advise against lifting to failure anyway. Just cut it out all together!

This point also pairs up nicely with my earlier point of picking your exercises wisely. Going for your one rep PR when you have a spotter is great. Doing it at home by yourself is dumb.

High Reps, Low Weight

One way to mitigate the danger you put yourself in when training to failure is to use lighter weights for higher reps. Grinding out sets of 3 with a very heavy weight, suspended directly over you, isn’t going to be the best idea. Performing the same exercise with a much lighter weight for sets of 15 is going to put you in a much safer place.

It’s not just about picking your exercises smartly, it’s about choosing your set and rep scheme wisely as well. Doing both of those things will set you up nicely to lift without a spotter and not risk a problem.

This is another place where the dumbbells I already mentioned come into play. Backing off on weight and increasing reps combine nicely with the lighter weights that dumbbells can offer. This will not only keep you safer, but you might be surprised at the effectiveness as well!

Practice Perfect Form

It’s interesting to me to watch other people lift. I often see people sacrifice proper form in order to hoist up heavier weight. Those same compromises in form are the culprits behind many an injury.

I thought it important to mention that in addition to smartly choosing your exercises, sets, and reps, it is critical to perform those reps with as close to perfect form as possible.

Proper form will do several things. Among them is reduce the weight you can do an exercise without it. Don’t get attached to the number. Get attached to the process. Using proper form will actually make the exercise more impactful with less weight. As discussed above, that increases the safety factor significantly.

Perfect form will also inherently keep you safe. People don’t get hurt because they squat. They get hurt because their form broke down during that squat. If all of your lifts are done with perfect form, you will significantly reduce any risk of injury while lifting alone!

A Final Word

I’ve lifted on my own with no spotter for quite some time. Other than neighbors walking past my garage door and wondering what the strange grunts coming from inside are from, I’ve managed to avoid people in almost all of my training sessions.

I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve also avoided accidents and injury the entire time. I hope that by using the techniques outlined above, you too can achieve the same results. Nothing else matters if we don’t stay healthy.

As a last reminder of why all this is so important, I leave you with this rather disturbing, kind of funny video record of the dangers of lifting with no spotter.

Happy training!

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