How to Spot a Dumbbell Press: I Can’t Believe I Have to Say This

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Hint: this isn’t how you do it.

Anyone who has been reading my blog for any length of time knows that I don’t take myself too seriously, and that much of what makes my blog so popular is that I’m able to combine great fitness and health information with a pinch (or two) of an entertainment value.

I mean, where else can you learn about program design, exercise technique, corrective exercise, femoral acetabular impingement, and gluconeogenesis**, all while being peppered with Lord of the Rings references, self deprecating humor, and boobie jokes?

Oh yeah, Dean Somerset and Roman’s site.

Anyhoo, today’s post is going to be a shining example of finding that balance between educating people (hopefully) and me being a facetious asshat.

It’s going to be short and sweet, though.

Okay, ready?

If you’re like me, whenever you train at a commercial gym you try not to vomit all over yourself from all the asinine things you see.  Now, don’t get me wrong:  there a PLENTY of trainers and facilities out there who do a fantastic job and are great at what they do. And, more to the point, I don’t want to come across as combining everyone into one massive bowl of fail.

But I think we can all agree that those examples are few and far between, and that for the most part, a small piece of our soul dies every time we walk through the doors of a commercial gym and Celion Dion is blaring over the stereo system and Trainer McFancypants is taking his or her client through an epic pink dumbbell circuit on the BOSU ball.

Then again, who the hell am I to judge, right?  Sure I can roll my eyes at the two dudes who have a combined weight of one Olsen twin performing their 47th set of bicep curls.  And yes, it’s hard not to cringe at the sight of that woman over there performing Smith machine squats with 1/8 of the total range of motion. But you know what:  THEY’RE ALL EXERCISING

And that’s pretty freakin awesome.

At the end of the day, it’s far better than the alternative which is sitting on their butts watching America’s Got Talent.

Even still, I’ll give most everyone a free pass because most people don’t know any better.  Most people could care less that their elbows are flaring out on their push-up, or that leg extensions place a lot more shearing force on the knees (and that doing them shirtless is borderline weird).

Whatever the case may be, they’ll read something online or watch something on tv that’s interesting to them, and then they’ll try it out at the gym.  That’s usually how it goes – and everyone has to start somewhere.  They’re exercising and that’s all that matters anyways.

One of my biggest pet peeves, though, is when I watch a trainer do something dumb.  That’s when my blood starts to boil.

Presumably these are people who are supposed to know what they’re doing, and it dumbfounds me at some of the stuff I see going down at some commercial gyms.

Take for example something I witnessed not too long ago as I watched a trainer spot his client through something as simple and innocuous as a set of dumbbell bench presses.

Everything was fine and dandy until the client started to struggle and the trainer grabbed her elbows to help her out.

I thought maybe this was a one-time, fluke thing.  But then I saw him do it again, and at this point I was just waiting for something bad to happen.

Luckily it didn’t.

I got home later that day and posted a casual status on my Facebook page saying something along the lines of “watched an inept trainer spot his client during DB presses by grabbing the elbows instead of the wrists.”

To me it’s common sense, and I didn’t think much of it and thought it would get some funny responses.  And it did.

But to my surprise I actually received two private message from personal trainers asking me why spotting through the elbows was wrong.

So, to review:

The Right Way to Spot Someone

If someone starts to struggle, you just guide their wrists to offer help.  And try to refrain from being that guy who yells “all you, all you, all you.”

And the “Holy- S***-My-Client-Is-About-To-Crush-Their-Skull-And-Get-Face-Planted-By-That-Dumbbell” Way

Obviously this is said in a slightly tongue in cheek kind of way, but at the same time I feel this is something that should be obvious and that most trainers, coaches, and general fitness enthusiasts should understand.

Don’t spot through the elbows.  It’s just dumb.  Wanna know what else is dumb? Poodles.

** In the five years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve not once discussed gluconeogenesis (the process from which the body breaks down protein to produce its own glucose), but it’s a cool word, and makes me sound smart, so I’m running with it.

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  • For whatever it’s worth, I HATE to be touched on the wrists, so I always request an elbows-only spot

  • Bryan

    For all exercises, even wrist curls and lateral raises, I prefer to spot by holding the breasts.

    It can be tough for lying leg curls and such but hey, it challenges one’s creativity.

    • Prakash

      Couldn’t stop laughing at how matter of fact this was! Also pictured TG actually putting this into practice! Although given TG’s partiality to Alicia Keys it might be something else he’d prefer holding HAHA!

  • There’s no T in gluconeogenesis. FAIL 😛 Good thing your actions and other stuff you write makes you sound smart enough as is. Fun post. Its amazing how we forget some people really need to learn what we think is common sense sometimes.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Yeah, someone else pointed that one out as well. My bad. Fixed it, and yes, I suck. But only sometimes….;o)

  • This made me laugh so hard. Great info. Can I get an autographed copy of that last photo, please?

    • TonyGentilcore

      You’re the second person to ask for an autograph TG picture this week!

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  • deansomerset

    For what it’s worth, I’ve always found spotting at the wrist to be somewhat restrictive, and prefer to spot on the weight itself. This let’s me control (if needed) where the weight goes, take it away easily, give it to the client easily, and means they can perform the full set without risk of a face-plant or feel like they’re in handcuffs. That’s just me though.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I’ll hand the DB to the client at times, but I don’t feel like I can have as much “control” when guiding through the DB. Especially when working with a big, blocky DB.

      I don’t know – I guess just personal preference?

      • deansomerset

        Absolutely agree. At the end, the finite details matter less than whether the client is safe and you’re not getting beat up trying to keep them healthy.

  • Jay

    @Dean are your hands above or below the weight. For whatever reason I cannot picture this. Thanks.

    • deansomerset

      Below, using the crook of the thumb and index finger to support the weight, and with my palm facing towards the plates (or hex). This way I can grab the weight a lot easier than trying to overlap their hand on the stem.

  • Shelley Turk

    Sigh….Yup. See the aforementioned daily at the commercial gym where I work, committed by some of my co-workers (My fave: She’s trying to lose fat and you’ve got her doing tricep kickbacks and calf raises? REALLY?!) But if I say anything, I sound like a know-it-all (which I am NOT). So, I just rave about sites like yours, Cressey’s and Roman’s and suggest they check them out. And for the record, poodles are pretty smart, as dogs go. But that doesn’t mean we have to like them…

  • Rees

    That picture is faaaaaantastic

    • TonyGentilcore

      Only took two takes to get it done. That’s Aiden…..one of our interns all the way from Ireland!

      • Prakash

        Shout out to Aiden! Did the trip out to CP last week from the UK (although not as an intern, just to train.) Met the legends that are TG & Eric Cressey. Also had Aiden coach me…..top guy. I can’t recommend CP enough…..its the shiznit!

  • Drew

    You forget that spotting is not at all intuitive. In my years lifting at my high school gym, I’ve been almost injured a few times because I ask someone to spot me not realizing that they don’t know how. Once I had a kid pull on the bar when I was squatting instead of my underarms/chest, and he pulled the bar right off my back…I don’t know how it didn’t crush one of us.

    Just the other day, I asked a kid to help me on the first rep of a DB Bench (since I didn’t have the stretch reflex on the first rep) and for some reason….the kid only pushed on ONE OF THE DUMBBELLS. He knocked me right off the bench.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Well, I can appreciate that there’s certainly a realm of “intuitiveness” when it comes to this topic, but at the same time, this particular example “should” be common sense.

  • Nick

    I use a college gym (weird being a student…) so I don’t know if the amount of gym shenanigans I witness is above average, but it’s a LOT. It’s kind of a game at this point, like counting the occurrences of goofy things I see, or trying to stay focused and not laugh while squatting as the guy in the next rack over busts out 8 like, totally uber-kipping pull ups that border on some Cirque Du Soleil shit with his totally manly finger shoes and matching underarmor shirt.

    • TonyGentilcore

      We should make a drinking game out of it. Take a swig of your protein shake every time you see a kipping chin-up or half ROM squat. You’ll be jacked by next week.

  • Guest

    woah :O

  • woah :O
    are there any common misconceptions about spotting someone who is doing a bench press?

    • TonyGentilcore

      WIth the bench press, we like to view it as offering a “hand off” and NOT spotting. The job of the “spotter” in this context is to literally hand off the bar by guiding the bar just over the j-hooks and allowing the lifter to get into the proper “set” position.

      One major mistake that I see a lot of people make is to literally LIFT the bar off the rack and hand it to the lifter. This makes in infinitely harder (if not impossible) of the guy benching to “get tight” and focus on pulling the shoulder blades together and down.

      Another common mistake is the spotter offering TOO much help. All the guys out there who yell, “all you, all you, all you” are actually performing an upright row……;o)

      • I once made the mistake of asking a seemingly intelligent trainer at a BSC for a liftoff and to just guide the bar to the start, 305 I think. All was good in the universe until he decided to drop the bar into my hands after lifting and guiding. Luckily I was ready for anything…lesson learned.

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  • vanb

    When someone grabs your wrist, even a little bit, it really reduces your grip. I don’t like your advice! Just sayin.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Well, I’m not suggesting that you have to grab the wrists and squeeze – more like just “guiding them” Either way, I’d rather have a slightly (if any) compromised grip than a crushed skull.

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  • Pat

    Great read. I am a regular reader and noticed you have never mentioned gluconeogenesis! I also agree most people couldn’t care less about flared elbows on push ups or exercises that are hurting them (WHAT UP, LEG EXTENSION?).

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  • Shane

    Ayy, I didn’t even know the DB bench press was supposed to involve a spotter! I thought that was one of the pros of using dumbbells—that you can easily put ’em down when lifting alone.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Well, with heavier DB’s you could make the case for a spotter as just dropping them “may” compromise the shoulder.

      Also, if you’re in a gym that doesn’t have rubber floors or something that DB dropping friendly, a spotter may be warranted.

  • margarette adelman

    I just had to say I am a trainer and had a “body builder” approach me and tell me I should ONLY be spotting at the elbows when using Dumbbells while I was with a client. Luckily this has been a long term client who has had an amazing transformation but I was a bit taken aback, especially since he used to be a trainer himself! The worst part is this gentleman has clearly affected the way many in our gym lift and not always for the better.