Bench Press Fail: Stuck & Pinned By The Bar Without A Spotter

Do you bench press? Cool. With a barbell? Also cool.

Here’s another question for you… do you always have a spotter?

I don’t mean only sometimes, or just when you’re going extra heavy. I’m talking about ALWAYS, as in every single time you bench press? If so, awesome. You’re smart.

But if not, there’s something that can happen, and it’s something that I’ve seen happen first hand dozens and dozens of times over the years. In fact, it’s even happened to me on more than one occasion.

You Might Get Stuck

Now, if you’ve been training in a typical public gym long enough, you’re probably seen it happen before. Hell, it may have even happened to you at some point too. And if it hasn’t, I can almost guarantee that the possibility of it happening has crossed your mind at least once.

And let me tell ya… getting pinned by a heavy barbell on the bench press when you have no strength left to push it back up AND no spotter standing by to pull it off you sure as hell ain’t fun.

That second when you lower that bar and realize you can’t press it back up and rack it feels like an hour. And other than the uncomfortably scary feeling it causes and the fact that everyone in your gym will laugh at you behind your back for a while, it’s also potentially quite dangerous.

But you probably knew that already. What you may not know however is what you can do about…

The First Solution Is Obvious: Prevention

Now the first, smartest, safest and all around best thing you can do when you find yourself stuck on the bench press is to just avoid ever actually finding yourself in that position in the first place.

So how do you prevent this from happening? Three methods come to mind:

  • Get a spotter.
    Find a friend, ask the person benching on the bench next to you, or just politely ask some random gym goer who you’ve never even spoken to before. Don’t feel stupid, everyone does it all the time. (More here: Spotting 101)
  • Put the bench in a rack.
    This is easier said than done in some gyms, but if you can make it happen, it’s just as good (if not better) than having someone spot you. Just drag an empty bench over to a power rack (or squat rack) and adjust the safety bars to a height that A) will allow you to lower the bar as low as you need to without banging into them, and B) is just high enough to catch the barbell on and allow you to squeeze yourself out from underneath if you had to dump it off. Here’s an example.
  • Know your limits.
    Meaning, know when you’re truly capable of attempting that final rep or adding that extra weight to the bar. This is the worst option of the 3 for a few reasons. First, it’s easy to become over cautious to the point of it hindering your progress. And second, most people will never be able to hold back and accurately gauge what they can or can’t do. We’re just stupid like that.

So, that’s how you can avoid ever getting stuck bench pressing. Pretty simple and straight forward, right?

But let’s just say you don’t take that advice. Let’s just say that for whatever reason, you find yourself in the precarious position of having a heavy barbell coming back down towards you with no chance of it ever coming back up. What the hell do you do then?

Worst Case Scenario: You Get Pinned… Now What?

Like I mentioned before, I’ve actually been in this position more than once. If I had to guess, I’d say maybe 5 times in my life, all of which took place during my first couple of years of training.

It’s a scary, helpless position to be in, and it sucks.

To this day, I still get semi-nervous watching someone out of the corner of my eye get a little too close to failure with no spotter standing by. You see them complete a rep and you just know they have no chance of getting another one.

But yet, they attempt it anyway… struggle with it for a few seconds… and then… they’re stuck. Ah yes, the memories.

So, what do you do if this happens to you? There are a few options:

  • Call for help.
    If you’re at a public gym with other people around you, just call out for help. Someone will usually be close enough to hear you and pull the bar off within seconds. I’ve been that life-saving person many times. And yes, you’ll look like an idiot when this happens, but at least you’ll be alive. That’s always a plus, right?
  • Hope a life guard is on duty.
    If you’re too shy/stupid to call out for help, you can always hold out hope that someone will just happen to notice you’re stuck on the bench press with a barbell on top of you. I’ve been the guy who notices the stuck person a surprisingly high number of times too. And if you’re wondering if I hum the Baywatch theme song and pretend to move in slow motion as I run over to save their life… you bet your sweet ass I do!
  • Dump the weights off the side.
    This can only be done if you’re NOT using clips/collars. In that case, you’ll be able to dump the weights off of one side of the bar, at which point a fat-kid-on-a-see-saw effect will take place and the other side of the bar will tip right off of you. In case it’s not obvious from my description, this method is super dangerous (and super loud). Not only to you, but to everyone else within 15 feet of you. But I’ve seen it happen successfully a bunch of times, and when no one gets killed in the process, it’s a workable life saving option.
  • Tuck and roll.
    And finally, this is the method I instinctively used the few times I’ve gotten stuck. The second I realized that bar wasn’t going to make it back up, I stopped trying. Rather than waste any additional energy struggling to complete a rep that I knew had no chance of being completed, I just slowly lowered the bar down to my chest and used whatever remaining strength I had to roll that thing towards my legs while simultaneously sitting up. So, I basically end up seated upright on the end of the bench with the bar resting on my thighs as if I’m about to do a set of wrist curls. And from there, I just drop it to the floor in front of me. Taaadaaa! You can see an example of this here. Now you might notice I called this method the “tuck and roll.” You may be wondering what gets “tucked.” Well, I had to roll a heavy barbell over my body from my chest down to my thighs. And… I’m a dude. Do the math. I should also mention that at the time I couldn’t have been benching more than 190-205lbs. Rolling a heavier weight across my chest and stomach might not have worked out so well.

And That’s How To Save Yourself

So, there’s 4 methods of getting out of a position you most definitely don’t want to be in without a spotter. Especially with anything remotely close to heavy weight.

Trust me, I’ve been there and done that. It’s probably been 10 years since the last time it happened, but I still remember it pretty well. I guess it’s hard to forget almost dying via bench press decapitation.

But again, the best method of all is prevention. Instead of thinking about how to get yourself out from under the bar, you should just be safe/smart enough to not let it happen in the first place.

Has It Ever Happened To You?

If so, let’s hear about it. As long as you got out of it okay, these stories are usually highly entertaining.

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43 Comments

  1. Jake says

    I’ve been having two sessions a week with a PT and we always go to positive failure and then he’ll assist me on 2-3 reps. Doing this has achieved two things: I get a really good chest workout; I know when I’m at my last rep till failure when I’m bench pressing on my own.

    Seriously, get a good spotter. You will not only get a better workout, you’ll also be able to gauge where your own limits are.

    • says

      I’ve changed my entire training schedule around a few different times just to end up benching on the same day a friend would be there benching too.

      Having a spotter (and a good one at that) plays a huge role in bench press progression.

    • Dexter says

      I have to solo it out in my home. Tuck and roll is my only option when I fail a rep. I have no spotter… only thing left is to keep working in getting stronger.

  2. John says

    When I first joined my public gym, I looked for a rack. Wouldn’t have joined without one there. When I eventually built a home gym, a rack was my very first purchase. I consider a rack must-have equipment and would much rather take that option over a spotter (or anything else). Can’t stress them enough if your serious about lifting at all.

  3. Rayca says

    Sooo glad you posted this article. I had (almost) that experience. I was (am) stupid and I’m so used to going to failure that I forget there are times you CAN’T do that. Well I thought I had a couple more left in me and the next one was so hard getting up, it was tilting and I was shaking but I did it. I haven’t been back to the chest room since. It scared me lots. So many folks have earbuds on now that even if I yelled, I know I wouldn’t get help. My gym has different rooms for body part workouts. Never even thought about the rack (duh). I’m doin it. We also have a flat bench lever exercise. I’ve been using that but I do miss free form with a bar. Your tips are very helpful. Tuck and Roll? Hmmm, not sure if my boobs would like that one but hey, you do what you gotta do. It’s a good tip. Great article.

    • says

      Yup, I know the feeling… certainly enough to scare you off benching for a while. The rack will definitely make it a lot less scary though, you’ll see.

      And good point about boobs. Finally, a good excuse to think about boobs while writing about training and I totally miss it. Go figure.

  4. Dreas says

    Having that 315lb. barbell slamming down on my chest was more scarier than a guy putting a .357 Magnum to my forehead years ago! I’ve done three sets at 8 reps so far and I wanted to try at least 6 more reps! At rep 4,OH!OH! tighten up quick, tense the muscles now or die! I did the tuck and roll like I was borned to do it!
    It was like instinct! I’ve been using the Smith Machine and dumbbells for the chest since that incident. Training partners are rare at the gym. I can’t get any of my brothers or nephews to workout with me, because they all say my workouts are too intense. I’ll probably have to place an ad somewhere that will not get any response.

    • says

      I hear ya. The tuck and roll move seems to be most people’s first instinctive thought when stuck in that position.

      I’m not much of a fan of the smith machine, but dumbbells are another good solution for when you’re benching without a spotter. Although as you get stronger, the downside is you’ll eventually end up needing a spotter to help you get the dumbbells up for the first rep.

  5. says

    Once. That is all it took for me. For a while, I just skipped barbell presses and used dumbbells. But then I realized the squat rack would suffice, so I started using that, as directed above. It works perfectly. There ARE times when you’re just not as strong as you think you are, or you misjudge your ability to get that last rep. The safety bars take care of that problem.

    I was lucky the time I got stuck. My buddy came in just as I got pinned and he ran over and spotted it off my chest.

    • says

      See, you’re a fast learner. You’d think it would take everyone just once to ensure it never happened again, but nope. Me and my 5 or so fails seem to be much more common.

      But you’re right about the safety bars… once you get the height just right, it’s absolutely perfect.

  6. Steve says

    Great topic. Can’t remember ever seeing an article about this, yet i reckon it is a really important topic. I’ve failed a few times and managed the tuck and roll escape route. Each time it happened, it rattled me, dented my confidence and meant the rest of my workout was a bit zombie like. Unfortunately I have to go to the gym at 545am opening which means theres not that many people around and those that are there are in the zone working to a tight schedule so they can get away in time for work (like me). So I’ve learnt to read my body and know what my last rep feels like and stop there. However, I suspect one day I’ll trip up again and have to tuck and roll but hopefully not. Without a spotter or rack I think you’ve got to always err on the side of caution and as long as you go close, missing out on one rep every now and then probably won’t make that much of a difference. but yeah, it sucks, it’s dangerous, it’s scary and embarrassing and I’d always use a spotter or rack if possible. Funny though that I’ve never seen a girl get stuck. Must be a testosterone thing :-)

    • says

      A couple of months ago I watched a kid get pinned on a set on the very first rep with no spotter. Some guy ran over and helped. He then rested a few minutes, left the same weight on the bar, and proceeded to get stuck again on the very first rep still with no spotter. Another guy ran over and helped.

      After an equal combination of scratching my head and laughing, I made a mental note to cover this topic one day. ;-)

      And yeah, the rest of the workout after you get stuck is always like you’re in another world or you were drugged or something. But like you said, if you’re trying to progress and you have no spotter or rack, it’s just bound to happen at some point.

      Also, I hear the ego is 95% comprised of testosterone… which would explain the lack of girls getting stuck. Not to mention, the lack of girls benching anything remotely heavy in the first place lessens the odds too.

      • Steve says

        Thats hilarious the guy getting stuck on first rep, TWICE !

        On a related topic, what’s your view on what a spotter is actually meant to do ? I like them to do absolutely nothing except if I get stuck on last rep (ie just help me rack the bar). So unless I get stuck, they are not to touch the bar. But when I do actually grab a spotter, they usually want to jump in way too early so that I don’t do those last few hard ones by myself and then tell me to do another 20 reps with them basically lifting the weight for me. Seems stupid but just want to check that I’m not the stupid one.

        • says

          When I spot someone, the first thing I ask is how many reps they think they can push, so I can have an idea when they might need the spot. Then I wait until I see an actual sticking point. Usually I’ll just feather touch it to give them the confidence to get it up, then actually spot the next rep. That seems to work every time. Afterward, I’ll tell the guy I didn’t really spot until the last rep, so they’ll know they got the penultimate rep up on their own.

  7. Mike says

    Great post! Yes, we should all have a spotter when benching, but life is what it is, and sometimes you have to choose between benching solo and not benching at all. I’m always really careful about going for that last questionable rep and so far have never been in the “stuck” situation, but it’s good to be prepared, just in case.

    • says

      Yup, I hear ya.

      The other benefit of a spotter, other than preventing you from getting stuck, is allowing you to take a chance on that next rep and maybe get it when you normally wouldn’t have even thought to attempt it by yourself because you’re being smart and careful.

      Pros and cons in everything.

      • Mike says

        This is a bit off topic, but since we’re on the subject of benching – what are your thoughts on the concept of some people not really working their pecs much during the bench press (i.e. doing it mostly with the anterior deltoid)? When I bench press, I definitely feel the burn more in the shoulder region (not in the deltoid per se, but a bit farther down the arm, right about where the pec inserts) than in the middle of my chest (where the pec muscle belly originates). Should I just not worry about it and keep on working at progression on the bench press, or should I add a more pec isolation-type exercise to my routine? My goal is is mainly strength, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in a bigger chest.

        • says

          I’ve actually touched on that topic a couple of times. Check out Example #4 here: http://www.aworkoutroutine.com/strength-vs-size/

          I’d still keep the bench press in as a primary lift, especially since your goals lean more towards strength. But I’d also include some other secondary chest work as well (exactly what, where and how depends on the specifics of your program and what exercises suit you best for this purpose).

  8. Bushy says

    This happened to me on friday. I was benching a weight ive been doing for the past month but on that day i guess i just didnt have the energy. The bar dropped and i did instinctivly what you did. Luckily a mate came and helped as i was stuck at the ‘tuck’ part! Was so embarressing.

  9. Big Cuz says

    I haven’t had as dramatic situations in the BP, but I did have a pretty scary episode when squatting. The way the rack was made the bars to catch the weight were easy to remove and when I was going down my first instinct was to use them to stabalize (really, really stupid in hindsight) and the left bar came out so I ended up just falling and 2 or 3 guys had to help it off my back. Scared me away from squats for at least a month haha

  10. Wildwabbit says

    Having made the commitment to myself to get back in shape, but having to work out from home, I made sure that a smith machine and rack with a large spotter rail, were high on the list of things to get. Best investments I ever made, could not imagine pushing myself the way I have with out them.

  11. says

    Through the use of progressive overload and variations in life that affect workout performance, I still occasionally misjudge the bench press and get stuck. It’s ok though as I use squat stands with spotter bars to catch the bar, leaving a narrow escape route underneath. They work in a similar way to the bars in a squat rack or power cage, but take up less room and can be stored away easily.

    I’m surprised more bench press stands don’t have spotter bars built into them.

  12. Joshmoe says

    I was the life guard once. Guy looked like he was pretty new and was biting off more than he could chew at the bench press. Me, being the kind person I am finished up my set quick and asked if he wanted a spotter. He insisted that he didn’t need one so I said if you need help just yell. I was standing 15 feet away the entire time just waiting for shit to go south. 4 reps in it lands right on his neck. Laughs were had all around. Except for him. He was pretty humiliated.

  13. Tim says

    This happened to me today, tried to finish my last rep and i was devoid of any energy. I should have known as i was feeling really tired, so i had to tip the weights off one side and steady the bar off. Thankfully only one dude saw me, but it was still kinda embarrassing!

  14. Jason says

    This happened to me on Wednesday. I was doing 6 sets of 2-3 reps with 250 lbs. It was a weight I used in the past so it wasn’t too much for me. No ego lifting. All was going well. I was setup in the power rack and everything. On my 4 set, the first rep went up smooth as can be. Slow decent, pause, explosive off the chest, clean lockout. Went for my second rep. Again, slow decent, pause, explosive off the chest then BOOM! The weight cleared my chest, but would not budge at all. I pushed harder, trying to get my triceps to lock out the weight. It was like pushing against a wall. Then the bar started to slowly come back down.

    Boy, did I panic. I lose all my tightness, picked up my feel to place them on the bench for better leveage but completely missed it (I don’t know how). The bar was resting on my chest and at first I was like ‘I’ll just dump it on the safe bars.’ So I proceeded to do just that, then I remembered that I forgot to set them up! By this time I was kicking my feet to get the attention of a buddy who was walking by me. Nobody knew what was going on, which was good. Easier to overcome the embarrassment I guess. He eventually noticed what was going on and ran over, however, he panicked, shouted and got the attention of 2 other guys. So my attempts at keeping it under raps was blown by him because damn near ever eye was on me at the gym.

    Needless to say, I was beat red from more than just the bar on my chest. They got it off and I thanked them. I unloaded the bar and tried to save face by hitting some front squats. That fail completely killed my workout. I felt like leaving but knew that I would look even worse if I did. Probably the most embarrassing thing that’s every happened to me at the gym. But I guarantee It’ll never happen again. I may be embarrassed to step foot in the gym today, but at least I’m not injured and out for a while.

    • says

      I know exactly how you feel dude. But you’re right, as long as you came out of it okay, you’ll just feel like an idiot for another few workouts and eventually forget it ever happened.

  15. Steve says

    This actually just happened to me. I’ve been doing a linear progression program, adding 5 lbs to the bar each week for 3 sets of six. The previous week was 205 and went up without a hitch. This week at 210 I expected to have no problem. I was a little tired and was at the gym a couple hours earlier than normal, but I really didn’t think it’d make a difference. Warm ups felt fine, although upon unracking 210 I did feel like the weight felt heavy. This was the first time that I recall the initial unracking not having an explosive feel to it since I started the program. I got stuck on the 6th rep of the first set. Weirdest sticking point ever too. I swear it was about 2 inches from lockout. You would think I’d be able to rack it at that point, but I’m a small guy at 5’6 155 and I can only reach the pins at full lockout. I usually get a spotter for my last set, and my last set always winds up being my strongest. I instinctively did the tuck and roll. I filled my belly with air and rolled that sumbitch down. Wasn’t very comfortable but didn’t seem to hurt anything. After that I packed up and went home. Took the rest of the week off, decided I probably need a break after 6 weeks of heavy squats, bench and deads. I should have programmed a deload week in there, and will probably deload every 4th week from now on.

  16. Geraint says

    I train at home on my own so no spotter option. I dump the weights if I get stuck but I put about 80% of the weight clipped on and the rest just slid on to the bar, so if I get stuck I just dump the 20% and bench what’s left, or roll it off now its lighter. I suppose it isn’t that safe really as dropping some of the weight causes a see-saw to try and control but it works ok for me, as a last resort when I misjudge my remaining strength

  17. Sarah says

    I’m training at home at the moment (often when I’m home alone or no one else is awake) and this is the #1 reason I don’t use a barbell. I have gotten stuck with my dumbbells, but with dumbbells I could and did lower them to the ground reasonably gently and only bruised one of my forearms when it wasn’t quite as gently done as I’d have liked.

    While not ideal, I feel reasonably safe with that as an option so far (16kg dumbbells this happened with… a few days ago) though I’m sure as I lift heavier it will be more of a problem!

  18. Adam says

    Thanks for the article. I never have a spotter and rarely bench on a rack. I failed once on an incline bench press, and didn’t know what to do. I waited about 20 second with it bar on my chest and then put every ounce of strength into getting the bar up to the lower position hooks (or whatever they’re called). I’ve been wondering what I would do if this happened again and I couldn’t get it up (TWSS). I was planning on letting one side fall down and the weights sliding off, but that seemed dangerous.

    Because of this article, next time I will try rolling it down. Thanks!

    • says

      Glad to hear it dude! The ’tilt to one side and let the weights fall off’ move is another option (and also why you should never use collars when benching alone), but it is waaaay more dangerous for you and anyone around you.

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