I recently visited an affiliate while traveling and the instruction on bench pressing itself was excellent, but there was no mention of how or when to spot. Everyone in the class seemed to be doing something completely different. Some were a mile away from their partner having conversations with other gym-goers, some were hovering over their partners basically tea-bagging them, and one girl was "spotting" her partner by standing next to her. Yes, like next to her—on the wrong side of the bar.
Bench pressing is the barbell lift most of the general population has been exposed to—and more often than not, exposed to incorrectly. When spotting, it's important to teach your members how to do it correctly so that no one is put at undue risk. Partial reps and sloppy set-up positions aside, the worst habits you might see in any given gym are a spotter who either is too handsy—assisting the entire movement and thus invalidating the lift—or a spotter who isn’t engaged and would only have front-row tickets to an accident were one to occur.
So what should you say to your classes or clients? We made a short video of us teaching proper spotting technique and etiquette to a group class at CrossFit South Brooklyn. We taught this before breaking out into a bench press lifting segment. Quick demos like this create a safer and more consistent training culture at your gym, and are easy to execute. This one only took about two minutes and taught everyone in class exactly what they needed to do.
Inconsistencies in spotting can easily be avoided, but it’s on the coaches in any given gym to remind and prod members—day-in and day-out—regarding what's expected and how to do it. These kinds of PSAs are short, create safer training environments, and create fewer messes to clean up later on. If done with some regularity, your veteran members will soon begin teaching your newer members protocol when you don't happen to discuss it in class. At CFSBK, it’s extremely common for us to walk around during a lifting segment and hear our members saying the exact things I say in the above video to new members. At a certain point, people who are shitty spotters become the outliers.
A Few More Notes About Spotting
If you take the time to pair people up by weight, you'll rarely create a scenario where one person is spotting another person who is lifting significantly more weight than the first person could effectively spot.
The best information about bench pressing out there is in Starting Strength, 3rd Edition by Mark Rippetoe. I've mentioned it before, but just another reminder that if you haven't read it, you're doing yourself and your athletes a major disservice.
The stakes for teaching your members to spot well are high. Bench pressing is one of the few things people can and occasionally do die from in the gym (Google it). It doesn't take much imagination to suppose how benching can go horribly wrong in an instant—and yet, this is entirely avoidable if you teach your members how to properly spot the lift. We sometimes mention this to our classes—which happens to be a very motivating way to make sure everyone is paying attention to their partners.
The only two barbell lifts that can be effectively spotted are the bench press and back squat. As a note, we only spot back squat attempts where the athlete is going for a new rep max or not totally confident in their ability to complete a particular work set. As noted in "Failing, Bailing, and Training Culture at CrossFit Affiliates," this is not a regular occurrence.
Organizing Lifting Segments
A Letter to New CrossFitters: Good Training Habits
4 Common Exercises That Could Hurt Your Members
How to Program Deadlifts at CrossFit Affiliates