Solo lifter

7 Keys to Training Safely & Lifting Heavy at Home Without a Spotter.

In Guides by Tim Steward

Last updated on December 15th, 2021 at 01:42 pm

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

Now that I’ve sufficiently brightened your day, let me explain. The pessimist in me always assumes the worst. I often 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.

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. How was I going to lift heavy, train safely, and do it without a spotter?

The Two Jobs of a Great Spotter

The first job of anyone spotting another person lifting weights, especially heavy weights, is to keep the lifter safe by being there to catch the bar during a failed lift. While weight lifting, if performed correctly, is inherently safe, there is still the possibility of injury. This is especially true when heavy weight is involved. The more you want to lift heavy, the more you need a spotter to train safely.

Loaded barbell on the floor with a man alone lifting without a spotter.

The second job of a great spotter (and in my humble opinion, this is the difference between someone there to catch the weight and a “great” spotter) is to keep an eye on your form. They should be giving feedback throughout the lift. Poor form can quickly result in injury.

Unfortunately, unless you’ve hired a personal trainer, this type of spotter is hard to find. Most of the time spotters are there to fill the first role and fail miserably at the second.

Which Types of Lifts Require a Spotter For Safety?

A spotter is required on any lift where the lifter is positioned underneath a loaded barbell. The two most common lifts where this is the case are the bench press and squat. If a lifter fails during either of these lifts, a spotter can prevent injury by assisting with or catching the loaded bar.

While there are a lot of lifts where you might find yourself underneath the weight, it’s the bench press and squat that present the most opportunity for injury. In both lifts, you are completely under the bar and a failed lift will most likely result in the load crashing down on top of you.

There are other lifts like dumbbell bench presses, overhead barbell presses, snatches, and cleans where you are under the bar, but it’s relatively easy to simply drop the bar or weights and get out of the way. A spotter is helpful here, but not critical.

Which Types of Lifts Require a Spotter For Form?

It’s helpful to have a spotter looking at your form on all lifts where poor form can easily result in an injury. Any overhead press or deadlift, when performed poorly, can be dangerous. Any lift performed with heavy weight, or where you are attempting a PR, should also be done with a spotter.

Knowing how to perform lifts properly not only goes a long way to getting the best results from training with weights, it’s also what will keep you safe and injury-free in the long run. The problem is that what it feels like you are doing is often not what you are actually doing. This is where having a spotter comes into play.

The best spotter for form would be a highly skilled personal trainer. The next best would be an experienced lifter. Unfortunately, neither is usually available for those of us training at home alone.

Emergency room sign
Great form will keep you out of here!

The good news is that there is a solution. Get in the habit of recording your lifts. At the very least watch them back yourself. Constantly strive to improve your form. Better than that, join a Facebook group for lifters where they let you submit those videos for feedback.

One of the best I’ve found is the Mind Pump private Facebook Forum. It’s filled with professional trainers who are more than willing to help anyone out with proper form and video analysis.

7 Ways You Can Train Safely Without a Spotter

For those of us with a garage or basement gym, it’s all well and good to know what the benefits of having a spotter are. But we’re still gonna head out into our gyms and train alone. So what are we to do to stay safe?

At 50 years old, I’ve recovered from 4 bulged discs among countless other injuries. From that pain and experience, I’ve learned to keep one golden rule above all others:

You can’t make gains in the gym if you are injured!

So in the interest of keeping us all healthy and injury-free, let’s take a look at the 7 things you can do to lift alone, safely, without a spotter.

Be Smart About Exercise Selection

The clean and jerk looks really fun. Overhead sumo squats would be cool to learn to do. Knowing what my one rep 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 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. This is also why I recommend every home gym owner have a copy of the Arnold Schwarzenegger Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding handy. This one book will give you plenty of safe alternatives to use in your gym!

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 staying 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.

Use Dumbbells Instead of a Barbell

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 only!

Dumbbells are not only versatile, but they immediately remove much of the risk that a barbell presents. Bench pressing with dumbbells does not pose the same danger that bench pressing with a barbell does. Overhead pressing with dumbbells is much safer than pushing a barbell overhead.

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!

Train on a Squat Rack With Safeties

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 a barbell. Presses, squats, deadlifts, and more are a huge part of my fitness routine. I can’t imagine weight training without them.

So, how do we do that safely when we are at home without a spotter? We add a power cage or squat rack to our home gym. To help you decide which is right for you, I wrote a complete guide you can see here!

Above, I identified the bench press and the squat as the two exercises with the most potential for injury if done without a spotter. A rack with safeties (either straps, pins, or arms – see the differences here) will allow you to both press and squat safely when training alone!

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!

Train on an All in One Home Gym

All in one gyms can take several forms, but basically, they consist of a machine with cables and some type of resistance. That can be weights, bands, or even 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.

To see if a BowFlex is the right choice for you, check out my guide here!

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 all-in-one gyms for their fitness centers.

All-in-one gyms 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, this type of gym might be the perfect solution for you.

Don’t Train to Failure

While some studies will say that training to failure is the most effective way to train (although many studies now show that not to be true!), as I stated above, you can’t make gains if you are injured!!! When overhead or bench pressing, doing reps to failure isn’t safe without a spotter.

Weight lifter on the floor exhausted
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 than stuck under a bar that I can’t physically get off of me.

Very plainly put, training to failure with heavy weights in exercises that put you in a compromising position isn’t part of lifting safely without a spotter. Not to mention, most current training programs advise against lifting to failure anyway. That’s why I never recommend exercise programming that instructs us to lift to failure. I’ve tried and reviewed quite a few different programs and you can see those reviews here!

Train With Lighter Weights, But at Higher Reps

I’m smart enough to know that there are a lot of egos out there who will want to train to failure anyway. So instead of ignoring that, let’s take a look at a highly useful tip that will help limit the dangers of lifting to failure when you choose to do so.

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 reduce your risk of injury.

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!

Always Lift With Perfect Form

It’s interesting to me to watch other people lift. I often see people sacrifice proper form in order to hoist up a heavier weight.

Very few things will cause an injury faster than lifting with poor form!

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. 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 other people in almost all of my training sessions.

I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve also avoided accidents and injuries 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 without a spotter.

Happy training!

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