May 23, 2018 | John Paul Catanzaro
There’s an art and science when it comes to spotting. Go to any gym and watch how a personal trainer spots their client. It becomes quite evident that most trainers haven’t been taught how to do it properly!
Here are six rules that personal trainers should follow when spotting their clients.
You should first spot with your mouth, not your hands. Cue words are important. Using words like “spread the floor”, “chest out”, “chin up”, are important to correct form on the fly. Eventually, you can trim these down to one word: “feet”, “chest”, “chin”, and so on.
As the client fatigues and starts to hit their sticking point, rather than automatically assist them, emphasize “speed” or “drive” to encourage them to get through that range on their own.
The way you say these instructions are important as well. Urgency and speed in your voice will give the message of “urgency” and “speed” to your client. The louder you amplify your voice, the more force you’re demanding from your client.
On the flipside, a softer, slower instruction tells your client to slow down. A firm “control” or “posture” lets your client know that this isn’t kindergarten and you won’t tolerate bad form!
If you’re going to put your hands on the bar, make sure you’re in the proper position to do so, and make sure that it’s not only safe for the client, but for you as well. Spotting the bench press using a double supinated grip with your feet on the floor isn’t wise if you have a strong client. You’re stronger deadlifting than you are curling, so get up on a platform (or step) and use a double pronated grip when spotting the bench press.
Make sure there’s good communication and understanding between you and your client. For example, “Lift on three.” and “Do you have it?” are important at the beginning stages, and once the set is over, make sure the client doesn’t release the bar before it’s racked securely. It can cost them several visits to the dentist, and it can easily put your back out.
When possible, use a slight staggered stance while spotting your client. This will give you better front-back and left-right stability. It’s useful if you’re in front of a client during a machine chest press or standing arm curl, or behind a client during a chin-up or standing overhead press (give slight elbow assistance if you’re not tall enough to reach the bar).
How do you assist a client on a chin-up? Start by holding both feet as shown below. Over time, as the client gets stronger, reduce the assistance by holding only one foot (switch sides each set), and then assist them slightly at the waist only during the concentric (lifting) portion of the rep – let them do the eccentric (lowering) portion on their own. This also works well for parallel-bar dips.
You should only be spotting with a low amount of force (no more than 5%) to help your client get through the sticking point. Make sure to keep the movement smooth and fluid. With experience, you’ll know when to assist and with how much force.
The workout is for your client, not you. If you’re doing all the work spotting, then you didn’t pick the right load to begin with. Not only is this ineffective physically for your client (for obvious reasons), but also mentally – he or she will rely too heavily on you and become useless on their own. A good trainer coaches their client to be independent.
One exception would be to reduce or even eliminate the eccentric action initially on certain movements when working with a beginner, then introduce this portion of the lift in a progressive manner as I demonstrate on page 48 of The Elite Trainer. According to Dr. Tudor Bompa, considered by many as the father of periodization, this strategy will help personal trainers retain new clients since it deters muscle soreness.
Your position relative to the client is another factor to consider. Don’t impede their range of motion. You should never ask, “Am I standing too close?” especially during a semi-stiff-leg deadlift! In fact, you should stand at your client’s side on that exercise to watch how the bar travels (preferably in a straight, vertical line), and look at things like knee angle, hip movement, back position, and so on.
As much as possible, don’t get in the line of view. During a split squat, for instance, stand at a diagonal angle in front of your client – this will give you a good view and won’t impair their concentration or focus. Or you can stand at either side of your client holding on to a resistance tube that’s wrapped around their forward knee – have the client resist slightly out or in to improve the tracking of the knee when necessary.
There are touch techniques that you can use in certain circumstances. Strategies such as touching a muscle hard to activate it or lightly to soften it can be quite effective. For instance, many clients present initially with tonic upper traps and weak lower traps. By using strategic touch methods, you can set the proper “tone” around the scapula during pulling movements. I demonstrate this in my Stretch for Strength video presentation.
Using touch in conjunction with imagery is also useful, like having your client “fill the cup of your hand” during a lateral raise. Or touching your client’s elbows, then ears, and asking him or her to draw an imaginary straight line between the two points as they lead the lift with their elbows. A great book on this is Touch Training for Strength by Beth and Oscar Rothenberg.
Take-Home Message: Spotting is about encouraging good form and technique, and giving your client just enough assistance without doing all the work for them. Spot first with your mouth, not your hands, and remember good communication and safety practices are important for both you and your client.