“One last rep,” you think to yourself reassuringly, slowly lowering the barbell to your chest. Lying on your back, feet planted on the floor, you exhale and begin to press the weight up — but it suddenly feels so much heavier, like gravity has intensified. You muscle the bar up, but it stops moving an inch shy of the safety pins. You panic. The weight falls back to your chest, and you lay there, contemplating death by overloaded barbell. That is, if embarrassment doesn’t kill you first.
There are ways to ensure you never find yourself in this position (again). From spotters to the “roll of shame,” we’ve pulled together a guide to saving yourself from bench press failure.
Call In Reinforcements
A spotter is the safest way to execute a heavy bench, says Equinox Tier X Coach, Michael Ryan. So don’t be timid in asking a fellow gym-goer for help. Finding an experienced spotter is another issue, however, which is why communication is key. Ryan emphasizes using a spotter who is able to provide just enough assistance to lift the bar without over-assisting (and thereby, interfering with your strength gains); typically, he or she will need to jump in on “the halfway point on the way up,” says Ryan, or the make-or-break moment in which you fail or nail the press. If possible, they should stand on an elevated platform behind you, giving the spotter enough leverage to lift the bar.
Sometimes a Saturday 7 a.m. trip to the gym can mean a spotter is hard to come by, in which case, Ryan recommends not using collars or clips on the barbell. If you fail a rep, this will allow you to rotate and dump the weight on one side, followed by the other. This will inevitably create a ton of noise, though, so prepare yourself to suddenly become the most interesting person at the gym.
Learn the Roll
If the barbell weight is on the lighter side, some lifters resort to the aptly named “roll of shame,” a quick and easy movement to get a barbell off your chest.
As a rule of thumb, it’s important to keep your feet planted on the floor when initiating the roll, says Performance Coach at Clay Health Club & Spa and Precor, Luis Cornier. The move itself is simple. When you’re unable to re-rack the barbell, don’t allow it to suddenly fall or bounce on your chest, which could result in a rib injury or torn pectoral muscle, a common impairment among athletes, as multiple NFL players can attest to. “The best thing to do is literally roll the bar down your sternum, the middle of your chest, past your abdominals, and right besides your hips,” says Cornier. At that point you can sit up, then deadlift the bar back to the ground.
Know that the roll of shame can hurt badly — just watch this guy — and it should be a last-ditch solution. Like Michael Ryan, Cornier emphasizes that you should never go for a personal best without a spotter. “PR’s are supposed to be difficult,” he says. “If you’re attempting to do something you’ve never done before, you should definitely be prepared to fail.”
What to Do for the Incline Bench Press
A failed incline bench press is more or less similar to a traditional bench says Cornier, but “it’s a little easier because you’re already at a 45 degree angle to roll the bar down.” If you’re shaky on a last rep in this position though, sometimes it’s best to just stop at your second to last rep, he says. “You’re asking for failure.”
If you fail with dumbbells, the best thing to do is let them fall right beside you. “It’s going to make a whole lot of noise, but that noise can’t compare to how much pain or discomfort you have if you rip a clavicle or a tendon or a connective tissue.” For the sake of fellow gym folks, allow yourself sufficient space to drop weights without compromising the safety of others.
Finally, says Cornier, learn from your failures. “I’ve done them all,” says Cornier, “And you know what never to do ever again.”