With 225 pounds on the bar and a new rep max on the line, you lie down on the bench.
The first five reps move as expected. Trouble starts around the sixth rep with a noticeable drop in bar speed. Seventh rep? Sloooow. Number eight is a struggle, and you can barely lock out the ninth. Being the stubborn risk taker you are, you refuse to rack the bar just yet. Screw it! You’re going for number 10. Ten reps at 225 would be a personal best, after all.
But you have run out of gas. After a momentary fight in which the bar remains stagnant just a couple of inches above your chest, no matter how hard you will that damn weight to move up, you realize it’s over. Failure is imminent, so you lower the bar on the safeties and crawl your way out from underneath it.
Instead of going with a pair of safety pins to bail you out, had you gotten yourself a human spotter, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t have botched that last rep.
At least, that’s what a recent study concluded, which investigated how spotter presence affects Bench Press performance.
The Bench Press Spotter Study
In what was the first study of its kind, British researchers compared how using a pair of spotters affected the number of successful Smith Machine Bench Press repetitions.
To accomplish this, the researchers used a deceptive strategy. Each of the 12 recreationally trained male participants performed three sets to failure at 60% of 1RM under two different conditions, 3-7 days apart.
In one of the two trials, spotters (one on each side of the bar) were visible. In the other, they were hidden from view behind an opaque shield, making their presence unknown to the lifters—this was the deception part. To mask the true nature and aim of the study, participants were told the shielding was there to reduce the chances of peripheral distractions and the purpose of the study was to assess the test-retest reliability of the lifting protocol.
So, what happened?
When spotters were visible, an average of 4.5 more total reps were completed over the three sets—an increase of 1.5 reps per set. In addition, ratings of perceived exertion were significantly higher in the deception (spotters hidden) condition.
While a slight increase in the number of reps completed when using a spotter isn’t that surprising, 1.5 per set is probably more than most of us would anticipate.
To put this figure into context, the mere visible presence of spotters gives you a bigger boost than playing your favorite training songs. You see, a similar study done by Italian researchers concluded that listening to self-selected motivational music produces about one extra rep in one all-out Bench Press set at 60% of 1RM.
What’s also interesting is that 11 of the 12 participants performed best when spotters were in plain view. The lone trainee who did not, performed identically in both conditions. This indicates that using spotters has no negative effect on your submaximal repping ability, and for the vast majority of lifters, it does indeed add to it.
How to Use This Info
This study offers a couple of practical takeaways.
First, as the researchers noted, a spotter acting as a social influence can elicit increased self-efficacy. Simply put, we tend to perform better in the active presence of others. Whether this happens due to increased self-confidence or wanting to impress others is anybody’s guess. But whatever the reason, the effect is very real.
On the flip side of the coin, there’s also the embarrassment and danger factors to take into account when you get stapled without a helping hand. Nobody wants to be that person stuck under a weight with the rest of the gym watching, until someone finally snaps out of their reverie and rushes over to lift the bar off your chest.
So, it’s normal to cut your set short before failure occurs on a rep you think you might get but don’t want to risk it. With a spotter, you can take that gamble. Should you miss a rep, your training partner will simply guide the bar back into the J-hooks without anyone else around being wise to what’s going on.
It’s crucial you pick a spotter who knows what they’re doing. An experienced spotter will give you a solid lift-off and be able to determine whether their help is needed during the set with great accuracy.
If you have ever worked with a bad spotter, you know the exact opposite is true. They will hand you the bar in an unstable position (or worse, pull you out of position) and be too eager to intervene when you start grinding those last few challenging reps, grabbing the bar when no assistance was required.
In such a case, you’re actually better off forgoing a spotter and opting for a pair of safety pins. But if you have a reliable teammate or training partner available, take advantage. It doesn’t require any conscious effort on your part, but could be the psychological boost you need to crank out an extra rep or two.
If you want to be capable of providing a spot that will make other people more confident and successful under the bar, read STACK’s six keys to spotting the Bench Press.
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