As ubiquitous in the gym as iron and sweat, the bench press may be the most popular weightlifting movement in existence, being such a standard of strength that bodybuilders the world over are invariably asked again and again, "How much can you bench?" Day after day, in health clubs and home gyms across the globe, thousands of men and women make the bench press a part of their workout, thankfully without serious incident.
And that's what makes the events in a University of Southern California weight room on Monday morning, September 29, so shocking and scary. Senior tailback Stafon Johnson was benching when the bar slipped out of his right hand and down onto his neck, leading to seven hours of emergency surgery to repair his windpipe and larynx. Thanks to the quick actions of USC staff and the heroic efforts of doctors -- as well as 210-pound Johnson's fitness levels and muscular neck, officials noted -- the Los Angeles native is expected to make a full recovery. While it may be awhile before he can talk, by Tuesday afternoon he was waving, writing and communicating with his mother, Kim Mallory, who happened to be working at California Hospital Medical Center where Johnson was transported after the accident.
While it looks like this potential tragedy may have a happy ending, Johnson's mishap is a perfect moment for all of us to stop and consider our own safety while working out. After all, for many of us, training is a regular part of our lives, perhaps so much so that we take our well being during our lifting sessions for granted. No matter whether you're a beginner or seasoned vet, it pays to follow these seven simple rules. It's true, nothing you do will absolutely guarantee you won't get hurt, but being careful is always a good strategy.
- Never use a thumbless grip. While it hasn't yet been reported what grip Johnson was using during his fateful press, elite lifters have been known to press barbells using what's called a thumbless grip -- in other words, keeping your thumb on the same side of the bar as your fingers. While some claim such a grip helps them lift heavier, in reality this technique is extremely dangerous without a lot of upside. Instead of emulating this tactic, do yourself a favor and grip the bar firmly, with your thumb and fingers securely around it.
- Always use a spotter when you press. Smartly, Johnson had an assistant strength coach spotting him, which likely made a difference in his survival. In any case, whenever you're doing an exercise where you're lifting a barbell overhead (as in a military press) or over your chest from a lying position (as in an incline, flat or decline press), a spotter is essential. In addition, a spotter should be on hand for any exercise you're taking to failure or doing with near-maximal weights.
- Try to avoid working out alone. If you work out at home, it may be tough to follow this rule all the time, but you should still strive for it whenever possible. With so many emergency situations that can arise -- anything from a broken bone to passing out -- it's good to have someone on hand who can come to your rescue and call for help. If you do work out alone, avoid max lifts, and never, ever bench or perform seated military presses with a barbell, opting for dumbbells (or a machine if you have it) instead.
- Take special care when maxing out. There are few things more fun than going for your max on an exercise, to see just how much strength you've built over time. But on those days, it's especially critical to have a spotter and/or a partner with you, not just to cheer you on but to help bail you out of an unsuccessful lift. After all, you're trying to move a personal best, and your body is obviously untested at that level...meaning failure is a very possible option.
- Use straps for pulling exercises. When you do pulling exercises, your back is generally not the "weak link" that could cause a mishap on a lift -- your much smaller forearm muscles are. So, take them out of the equation and use straps when doing any sort of heavy pulling moves, from bent-over barbell rows to shrugs to pull-ups. If you don't own a pair, check out our selection here.
- Put on gloves when performing heavy free-weight exercises. When you're training heavy, sweat is a foregone conclusion. Often that sweat will reach your palms, leading to a slippery grip -- never good when you're grasping big barbells and dumbbells. To counteract this problem, pick out a pair of weightlifting gloves that fit well; most are designed to wick away sweat and improve your grip. If you need to buy a pair, you can see what ProSource has to offer here.
- Secure weight plates on a barbell with collars. So many people neglect this, but even if you are lifting a load you consider "light," it's important to collar the plates securely on the barbell. Otherwise, you run the risk of one side slipping, throwing off your balance and perhaps plates even sliding completely off the bar, leading to a noisy -- and perilous -- crash.