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Updated: May 6

It is scientifically proven that resistance training (weightlifting) brings many benefits to our body, both physical (e.g. improves muscle strength and performance, helps maintain a healthy body weight) and psychological (e.g. improves mood and helps relieve stress). However, while working out is considered by many to be a fun activity, it is not risk-free. Indeed, few days ago a guy died while training in a gym in China. He was performing the barbell bench press and probably wanted to test his 1RM (the highest load that can be lifted in one repetition), but he loaded too much and was unable to manage the barbell which fell on him and rolled up to the height of the throat causing his death by suffocation (ALERT! For those who want to see how this happened, you can find the video of the accident with a quick Google search).

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that someone dies under the barbell during this exercise or others. Indeed, just a few months ago, another athlete was unable to manage the weight of the barbell during a squat. Despite the presence of a spotter, the barbell rolled on the athlete's cervical spine, causing a fracture and the consequent death of the athlete.

What do these tragic events have in common? They could be avoided by applying some simple safety rules.

In the following paragraphs I will explain how to safely perform a barbell squat, while in the next article we will see how to train safely when performing a bench press.

The squat

The squat is a multi-joint exercise that requires technique, mobility and focus. It can be performed with bodyweight or with equipment such as dumbbells, kettlebells, elastic bands. However, the execution with the barbell is considered the most performing. This exercise is not just about muscle strength, as the nervous system is put under great strain as well when performing it.

Rack, safety bars and clips

The barbell squat should be performed at the rack. There are several models (see images below) and all should have safety bars.

The safety bars must be positioned at a height that allows the barbell to rest on them if something goes wrong while you are squatting or you don't have the strength to return to the starting position. Safety bars can save your life, because even if you lose balance or faint, they prevent the barbell from crushing you to the ground. Therefore they should always be used, especially when training alone.

The barbell should be placed on the rack at a height that does not force you to stand on tiptoe, because when using a heavy load, detaching and repositioning the barbell while standing on tiptoe can cause a loss of balance.

The plates must be secured on the barbell with a pair of clips. Without clips the plate could slip off, causing you to lose balance and falling sideways.

When unloading the barbell, remember to remove one disc at a time, alternating sides. In the case of heavy loads, removing all the plates on one side first would cause the barbell to fall on the opposite side increasing the risk of ending up on someone (I personally witnessed this few years ago during one of my shifts at the gym).

Doing it alone doesn't make you stronger

If you want to test your 1RM, in addition to the safety bars, make sure you have a spotter or someone who can assist you during the lift. The spotter positions himself behind the athlete and follows him throughout the movement, ready to support the barbell in case something goes wrong. When you have more than one spotter available, in addition to the one positioned behind the athlete, two other spotters will be positioned on the sides of the barbell. For moderate loads a spotter should be enough, but when the load is high, like 150 - 200kg, it is recommended to have at least two or three spotters. Furthermore, it is recommended to use the powerlifting belt with heavy loads for better stabilisation and protection of the spine during the Valsalva maneuver.

How to bail out of a barbell squat

Learning how to “bail out" of a barbell squat is essential. This is one of the first things I teach my clients when they transition from bodyweight or dumbbell/kettlebell squats to barbell squats.

Bail out of the barbell means being able to let go the barbell without hurting yourself. As mentioned above, safety bars can save your life, however, they don't always prevent you from getting hurt. Imagine that you are in the concentric phase (pushing up) of a squat and that you are struggling. Two things can happen: you manage to get back into a full squat by controlling the barbell and placing it on the safety bars, or you try to complete the lift. The most daring ones will say "I push until I can", the problem is that sometimes you can't do it. This doesn't necessarily happens with a load of 90% 1RM, it could occur with more repetitions at 70% 1RM: this load can be enough to get to the last repetition exhausted. Therefore, if you find yourself halfway between completing the lift and the deep squat, and you realize you can't do it, what you need to do is leaning back so that the barbell slides behind your back as you move forward. The barbell will end up on the safety bars and will make a lot of noise, but at least no one will have gotten hurt.

A note for those with long hair: be sure to tie your hair in a high ponytail, as your hair could get caught on the barbell and cause you to fall backwards.

What if the barbell falls forward? This event must be absolutely avoided in any way as the barbell falling forward could cause a fracture of the cervical spine. The use of bars also serves this purpose. In fact, rolling forward the barbell will knock you face down, but the safety bars will stop it before it falls on your neck.

Not just muscles

Training and facing your limits can be fun, but also dangerous. Every day I see many (too many) people go to the gym and do random exercises, using the machines improperly without realising what they risk. In most cases we are talking about minor injuries: bruises, cuts, dislocations, sprains, but occasionally there is someone who takes bigger risks. According to my experience, without considering the data about elite athletes, those most at risk of getting injured are young people between 14 and 25 years old: teenagers because they are at the beginning of their fitness journey, they don't have enough experience in working out in a gym and do not know how to correctly perform exercises or use the machine. Twenty-year-olds because they believe too much in their strength.

Despite the appearance and the myth of "no pain no gain", when you train muscles are not enough, you also need a good dose of common sense.

If you have doubts about how to correctly perform a squat, want to review the technique and learn to train safely, contact me and I will help you achieve your goals.

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