strength training safety

Proper Precautions for Strength Training Safety

We train with barbells to get stronger and healthier. We understand the value of correct form and how teaching progressions and cues help remind us of key steps to ensure we lift mechanically efficiently. We should similarly understand and follow certain safety practices and use checklists to ensure we do not forget a safety precaution.

Proper Precautions for Strength Training Safety

By: Dan Shell, BLOC Staff Coach

After submitting a PR attempt to my coach, he mentioned that the safety pins for the squat were about a foot off the ground—too low to lower the bar down to the pins. If I had failed, I would have had to dump the bar backward. Bailing from a squat like this causes an unneeded risk of injury to the lifter and those around the lifter and unnecessary damage to the equipment. Despite the risks, most of us have seen this before, and many of us have done it.

I had coached my nephew the previous day. He had done rack pulls, and the pins were still set for that lift, well below where I would have put them for the squat. I know where I put my safety pins for the squat and the bench press. I have the holes marked on my rack with chalk. I also understand the importance of correct placement. I absentmindedly forgot to check their placement.

In this case, the story ends happily: I set a PR and didn’t have to bail on the squat. My coach pointed out the safety pins’ uselessness, and I felt like an idiot for having needlessly increased my risk of injury. Luckily, my oversight caused no pain or injury.

People make mistakes. Novice lifters fail to follow the best safety practices out of ignorance. But mistakes do not vanish with experience: forgetfulness, complacency, or lack of time may easily cause safety mishaps or errors. We have all forgotten something at work, the gym, or elsewhere. When you’ve done something hundreds of times with no problems, you may lose the healthy, mild paranoia to check and recheck the things that keep you safe.

Lessons from the Military & Other Industries

To ensure preparedness and combat Murphy’s Law (if something can go wrong, it will), military units deliberately mitigate human forgetfulness, emotionality, and equipment malfunctions. They inspect equipment functionality and presence, rehearse to ensure common understanding and task proficiency, empower all soldiers, regardless of rank, to stop an unsafe act, evaluate and mitigate risks with reasonable precautions, and develop multiple methods to accomplish the same task. A unit’s standard operating procedure (“SOP”) describes how to complete routine tasks, including the above safety tasks.

Other industries have used checklists to prevent errors caused by human fallibility. Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto details how hospitals, airlines, and construction companies have used checklists to reduce accidents and deaths. Pre-surgery checklists and pre-flight checklists have reduced medical deaths and airplane crashes, which had often occurred due to experts relying on their knowledge and experience as opposed to referring to a comprehensive checklist.

Checklists also empower subordinates and novices to ensure that all steps are completed. In the medical environment, a nurse can more easily point to the checklist to tell a doctor that she forgot to do something, such as wash her hands. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers describes how airlines from countries where people prize respect and deference to elders and superiors—e.g., Korean—had higher crash incidents because cultural norms prevented co-pilots from directly telling pilots what unsafe act had occurred or was about to occur.

Checklist Concepts for Lifting

When we lift, we use checklists all the time. As lifters, we run through steps in our heads, such as the 5-step deadlift set up or our bench press set up routine. We similarly have checklists for needed equipment in our gym bag: shoes, straps, knee sleeves, chalk, lidocaine, training journal, gym clothes. Even our workout program serves as a type of checklist. We check off each set as we complete it. We may leave a note about RPE or any particular issues that arise during the workout.

As coaches, we similarly use checklists to teach, evaluate, and coach the lifts. The teaching progressions serve as a checklist, ensuring we include the necessary information to quickly get the lifters lifting with passable form. They also include important safety cues. Checklists help coaches identify and prioritize squat movement errors. Some coaches may develop particular methods to evaluate the lifts, which act as checklists. CJ Gotcher’s recent 5+1 Deadlift Eye article distills a complicated movement into a more simple, easy-to-remember way to evaluate the deadlift.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we employ checklists to help us lift, teach, evaluate, and coach better. We can, however, be more intentional about safety and checklists as both lifters and coaches.

We can write down the j-hook and safety pin hole slot for each lift in the front of our training logs. Before we begin a lift, we may simply add a quick check to ensure safety measures are in place.

  • Are the j-hooks correctly placed for the lifter’s height?
  • Are the safety pins correctly adjusted to the lifter?
  • Is the platform clean and clear of debris and equipment?

Some common lifting situations lend themselves to creating a checklist. A checklist and the resulting SOP can save time and prevent injuries. In the case of Barbell Logic coaches at a seminar, the commonly-understood instruction method can empower a novice coach to ask, “Did you forget to mention where the lifter should gaze during the squat instruction?” For safety, a new coach may ask, “Are you going to set the safety pins?”

Lifters, coaches, and competition organizers should ensure spotters understand how to safely spot. This may require instruction. For PR attempts and events with higher stakes, such as a Strengthlifting meet, spotters should practice to ensure competency.

Lifters may use overlapping safety precautions. For the squat, the lifter can both place safety spotter arms in a squat rack and have spotters spot their PR attempt. For the bench press, a lifter can skip the safety clips, bench in a power rack with safety pins, and use a spotter.

SOPs capture organizational habits. Lifters and organizations develop habits over time, whether they intend to or not. For lifters, this can include technique habits, such as a pre-lift routine and set up procedure or the same readjustment between reps of a deadlift. For safety, this can include a short checklist to ensure that the squat rack and surrounding area are ready for the lift. Here’s an example checklist for the bench press:

  • J-hook height
  • Safety pin height
  • Platform clean and clear of equipment and debris
  • Spotter ready

Application—No Matter Where You Lift

Lifters find themselves in different scenarios, which may permit or prohibit different safety practices. You may train at home, in a big box gym where most people do not train with barbells, or in a black iron gym. Regardless of where you normally train, you may go on vacation or business travel and train in a new gym with novel equipment. The general recommendations do not change: you set up your safety pins and j-hooks, use spotters if possible, ensure spotter competence. Different situations, however, may allow for more or fewer safety precautions.

For those who train at home, you can mark your own equipment with chalk or labels to designate j-hook and safety pin place for common lifts. You can also prepare for the next session’s lifts at the end of today’s. If you finish Monday’s intensity deadlifts and volume squats, you can set up the pins and j-hooks for tomorrow’s intensity presses. You clean the equipment yourself, so you can ensure the platform or lifting surface is clean.

The downside to lifting at home is the difficulty of getting spotters for most people. Some may be able to grab a spouse or lifting partner for a PR attempt, but this is infeasible for many. This increases the importance of correctly placing and then testing safety pins, so that if you fail a bench press by yourself where no one else can hear you, the worst you suffer is a missed lift. You should only have to test the pin location once, unless you lose or gain a large amount of weight or your height changes because you’re a teenager—and in that case, good for you for reading this article.

For those training in black iron gyms, you may benefit from quality equipment and coaches and lifters who know how to correctly spot you. You cannot, however, mark on the equipment. Writing down the placement of j-hooks and safety pins for lifts such as squat, bench press, press, rack pulls, and pin presses enables you to confidently place the pins. I recommend writing this in the front or back of your training log.

If you lift in a big box gym, you likely lack knowledgeable coaches and spotters and quality equipment. You may even confront counterproductive rules, such as having to clip the bars, even on the bench press. Additional preparation may be needed to ensure safety. You may have different j-hook and safety pin placements for different equipment. You may have to bench press in one of those combined bench press and rack pieces of equipment. These do not allow safety pins and often require you to unrack the bar from a position either higher or lower than you would like. This increases the importance of spotters, which increases the need to quickly explain what you want the spotter to do.

Here again, a short checklist can help you explain, clearly and concisely, how you want the spotter to spot:

  1. How to unrack: “When I tell you I’m ready, count to three out loud. At three, help me lift the bar off the pins to bring it over my shoulders. Let go of the bar once it’s over my shoulders.”
  2. Where to stand: “Stand about a foot back from the bench with your hands at your sides. Don’t follow the bar with your hands.”
  3. When to grab the bar: “Only grab the bar if I say so or if the bar goes down. If it stops moving up or stalls, allow me to continue to press against the bar.”

For the squat, it’s best to squat in the power rack with correctly-placed safety pins. If, however, the gym only has a squat rack without safety arms, then you will need to grab two people to help spot you. It is best to show them exactly what you want, as they likely will not have seen people correctly spot the squat. Similar to the bench, let the spotters know when to take the bar. Some recommendations are below:

  1. Show the spotters where to stand: “Stand to the side, behind the bar, so you’re out of the way of my vision of the bar but able to quickly grab the bar if needed.”
  2. Show how to grab the bar: “Grab the bar in the crook of your elbow like this and grab the plate with your hands. Look at the j-hook so you can guide the bar onto the j-hook.”
  3. Explain when to take the bar: “Ensure you grab the bar as close to simultaneously as possible. Take the bar if I say so, if the bar starts moving down, or if the bar does not move up for 4 seconds, “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand.” Do not take the bar if it’s moving up, no matter how slowly.”

Finally, you may find yourself in a new gym in which you have never trained. This probably isn’t the best time to attempt a PR, but if you travel regularly, you may have no choice. This heightens the importance of getting spotters and quickly providing instructions. This also means you will need to experiment with the proper j-hook and safety pin placement. Check to ensure that you can comfortably lower the bar to the safety pins for the squat. For the bench press, ensure that the pins are low enough to not interfere with the bench press but high enough so that the pins—not your chest—take the weight of the bar if you get rid of your arch.

Informed Risk Management

This may seem excessive, more like safetyism than safety. Safetyism is an excess focus on safety without proper regard for other goals or objects we may value, and it permeates our culture. Paired with ignorance and inexperience, safetyism likely contributes to recommendations against barbell training from medical professionals. Following the logic of safetyism, people often avoid activities that seem to increase one’s risk of injury. Some of the recommendations in this article may seem a bit excessive: rehearse a missed rep with our spotters who we just met—are you serious? Well, potentially, I am.

I’ve never rehearsed a missed rep with a spotter, and I probably wouldn’t for the bench press. But if I traveled regularly for my job, found myself in a gym with no ability to set up safety pins, needed to attempt a 1RM attempt, and only could find two nervous teenagers to spot me; you bet I’m instructing them on how to grab the bar and practicing a missed rep. If they cannot correctly spot the bar, I probably do not attempt that PR. Going forward, I would spend more time finding a gym with a proper power rack.

The underlying principle here is approaching risk management with some wisdom and common sense. If you can, implement safety precautions for every rep. If equipment prevents the use of safety pins, then probably use spotters once you get to your work sets. If you have a 1RM attempt scheduled and lack competent spotters and a power rack, you make an informed decision to complete or not complete the workout based off your experience, your confidence in making the lift, and your personal risk tolerance—an eighteen-year-old will likely make a different decision than an eighty-year-old.

Furthermore, bringing intentionality to these processes creates habits. Just as having the same setup routine leads to greater confidence and greater likeliness of successfully completing a lift, habits of checking equipment and instructing spotters decrease the risk of injury. For master coaches, checking basic safety precautions is likely second nature.

Putting it all Together

Barbell training provides a safe and effective method to increase strength and health. Correct form and some simple safety precautions further decrease the risk of injury. Learn and practice the correct safety precautions, including spotters for squats and bench press and correctly-placed safety pins. Include safety checks and cues as a coach. Ensure spotter competence. Make informed risk decisions based on your experience and risk tolerance. Mark the correct holes or slots for the j-hooks and safety pins either on the equipment or in your training log for equipment that you regularly use. These simple, quick steps reduce your likeliness of injury, ultimately allowing you to continue your strength training.

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