Keep it safe in the weight room

After writing my previous post on the infamous crossfit video, and how we need to learn to take calculated risks in the gym, I was inspired by a post written by Joel Runyon over on the ‘Blog of Impossible Things’. In it, he retells a training story of Bruce Lee’s and ties it into everyday life, how we need to constantly strive to exceed our own expectations and take our game to the next level.

Reading these ideas couldn’t have come at a better time, as I’m wrestling with the constant struggle between trying to push the limits of strength while minimizing the risk of injury. In my previous post I argued that placing limits on clients (or yourself) under the guise of safety is, in a way, ‘harming’ them, by ultimately limiting their training progress (or your own). These risks can’t be reckless though, they need to be performed in a controlled environment where steps have been taken to ensure chances can be taken with minimal risk of injury.

Then die…

Joel’s post recounts a story from the book ‘The Art of Expressing The Human Body’ by Bruce Lee and John Little that discusses a pivotal conversation between the two men during a particularly intense training run. During the run, Bruce decided to take the distance up a notch from their usual three miles, up to five. John, not confident in his ability, pleaded with Bruce to let up and slow down, thinking he would have a heart attack right there on the trail if they continued. John’s whining was met with a terse, but motivational response from Bruce, retold in John’s words:

He said, “Then die.” It made me so mad that I went the full five miles. Afterward I went to the shower and then I wanted to talk to him about it. I said, you know, “Why did you say that?” He said, “Because you might as well be dead. Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.

-The Art of Expressing the Human Body, Bruce Lee & John Little

Bruce’s message is loud and clear, and Joel’s interpretation is spot on. Limits are only in your mind, what you (and others) put on you. They’re contagious and easily seep from one aspect of your life into others. Without sounding like one of the many life coaching and motivational blogs on the net (we have enough as it is), you need to take risks in order to grow as a person and it’s an unquestionable requirement of the gym, at least if you’re looking to improve.

Running isn’t strength training

I don’t have to tell you that there are vast differences between weightlifting and running. When you’re running, sure you can push your limits, but if things get hairy, you can just stop running. The weight room is not as forgiving. You can’t simply stop your bench press, unless you like a barbell where your teeth are supposed to be. Squats feeling too heavy today? Well, unfortunately for you, you can’t just stop and sit down mid set; it’s not an option. It’s pretty clear that in the weight room there needs to be a balance between striving to hit new records without compromising the safety of yourself and others in the gym.

Live life on the edge, but wear a helmet

We need to take risks to improve, but they must be calculated. Given the potential for injury with any exercise, we need to ensure that we have an environment where it is safe to try to move weights at the limits of our capacity and beyond. Anyone that has moved some serious weight has been scared by it at some point, regardless of what they say. It may not have left them trembling in the corner, quivering with fear, but they’ve all felt those moments of doubt when they’ve questioned their abilities.

These moments are essential for growth in the gym and nothing can replace the high that accompanies breaking through these barriers and moving the heaviest weight possible. But you won’t be successful every time, you will fail. Barbells will be dropped, you may get stapled to a bench, and you, or someone you know, has or will be pinned in a leg press (if you’re into those things). For those times, you need a contingency plan, to take steps in advance to make the environment safe enough to take risks in your training while minimizing the potential for injury. Here are five quick tips that will help you test your abilities in the gym and keep yourself out of the back of an ambulance in the process:

1. Use a spotter

Seems like a no-brainer, but if I had a dime for every time I had to run across a gym floor to save someone who was stuck during a lift, I’d have all the Eleiko bumper plates money could buy. I don’t know what it is, whether it’s a false sense of bravado or just being shy, but people don’t seem to ask for spotters. When looking for a spotter, the person doesn’t have to be your size but should be able to handle the weight you’re using for the exercise and obviously any extreme mismatches in size will make it difficult to spot exercises like the squat. Outside of actually feeling comfortable asking for a spot, offer your help when you think it’s needed and if the person is touchy about it, keep an eye on them anyway. Safety in the weight room is everyone’s responsibility; keep an eye out for each other.

2. Communicate effectively

If you’ve found a spotter, you’ve taken a step in the right direction but you’re not done yet. Before the set starts, discuss how you actually want to be spotted. Do you need the bar handed to you, where do you want them to spot from, how many repetitions do you plan to perform, and when they should/shouldn’t touch the bar? Most importantly, establish a word/cue that you’ll use if you need them to take the bar at any point. I’ve seen many people complain, especially online, about bad spotters, but I’m willing to bet that 99% of these incidents are often preceded by little to no communication. Ensuring someone knows how you want to be spotted is your responsibility; communicate the right way up front to prevent problems when it counts.

3. Learn how to drop a weight

Anytime you have a barbell on your back or overhead in standing exercises like the olympic lifts, you need to learn how to drop the weight under control. While these may be the highest risk situations, this principle needs to be extended to every exercise you perform, with a spotter or not. If you’re working with a trainer, have them go over how to drop the weight, whether it’s a barbell curl, clean and jerk, or incline dumbbell press. No matter how simple or complex the exercise, you should know what to do if you can’t complete the rep.

4. Practice failing regularly

No contingency plan will work if not practiced. Why do you think CPR courses require you to brush up on your skills every three years? Because most of us don’t need to do CPR on a regular basis (thankfully), and for the majority, most will go their whole lives never calling on their training. In the gym, the only thing you can do to ensure that you can properly escape a missed lift is to practice, at sub maximal and near maximal loads. If you’ve hired a trainer and they’ve spent time teaching you exercises but haven’t practiced what to do when things go wrong, think about hiring a new one. This is especially important when working with standing overhead lifts, like the olympic lifts, as spotting often isn’t feasible or safe for anyone involved. Am I encouraging you to miss lifts? Yes and no. Sure you don’t get stronger by missing reps, but if it hasn’t happened to you yet, you’ll eventually miss a weight. Be prepared by practicing losing lighter weights.

5. Pick your weights wisely

Everyone has a story involving spotting someone that struggles to hit even a single rep on their own, only to ask you to spot them again five minutes later and they’ve slapped more weight on the bar. As lifters, we can all understand that insatiable desire to move more weight than you did before, but you have to be reasonable with what you throw on the bar for the sake of yourself and your spotter. I have to admit that I get more than frustrated every time I hear one of these stories, as many could be prevented by effective communication (#2). If they needed your help, don’t tell them they did the rep, and never say ‘it’s all you bro!’. Any time you have to touch the bar, let them know they couldn’t complete their rep. If you’ve shattered their ego in the process, they had no business being under the bar in the first place.

Gym safety may not be the most exciting topic, but if you end up injured, you’re regressing, not progressing. If you practice these five steps, you’re well on your way to achieving your goals in the gym, being able to fearlessly throw plates on the bar and hit new maxes, but doing so in a way that’s safe for you and everyone else in the gym. If you’re testing the limits of your performance, you’re going to miss weights sometimes, you’d better come prepared for it.


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Dan Ogborn