What do smart lifters do when they're working out alone and want to do benchpresses?

I have a busy schedule, and it isn't practical for me to have a regular weightlifting partner. I've usually avoided regular benchpresses in favor of either dumbbell benchpresses or smith-machine benchpresses. I like to lift to failure on my final set (or at least get very close to it), and don't want to get trapped under a bar. Also, constantly having to get a spot from strangers in the suburban globo-gym I lift at seems like an imposition.

I see other people benchpressing alone all the time, so I can only assume that my fears are a little exaggerated. What do smart lifters do in that situation? Just not go to failure? Switch to a smith machine for the last set(s)? Just not feel guilty about asking a stranger for a spot?

Details about my background - I'm currently benching a pair of 60lbs dumbbells for 3 sets of 7, and feel comfortable controlling the weight. But I'm curious about switching over to working with a barbell.


7 Answers 7


I stopped benching alone because I didn't trust this method to be enough, but I used to leave off the plate clips. That way, if I get stuck, I can tip the bar to one side and slide the plates off with a huge crash. It would probably damage the floor and/or the plates, but I would be able to get up. I never had to implement this strategy.

Any system that is able to set an actual safety bar just below the level of your puffed-out chest would be superior. You should test the system with an unloaded bar to make sure you can squeeze out from between the bar and the bench.

  • I have done the bar tip, once, when I first started and didn't have a good sense of where failure was. In my case the floor and plates were OK, but it turned some heads.
    – Chelonian
    Commented Aug 7, 2012 at 17:11
  • @Chelonian hehe - yeah I think most lifters out there have had this experience once upon a time!
    – Mike S
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 1:01

The best thing to do is to use a bench station with safeties. Whether those safeties are sawhorses from the hardware store, a power rack, or a squat rack with safety attachments; they will prevent the bar from trapping you on the bench. The safeties should be low enough that you can touch the bar to your chest, but high enough you can slide out from underneath if you need to rest the bar on the safeties.

Even when you aren't training to failure, and have a prescribed number of reps you are aiming for, sometimes failure is inevitable. Using safeties lets you lift without fear of hurting yourself seriously.

Pros of using safeties:

  • You are still in control of your schedule
  • You can lift confidently, knowing you will never be trapped
  • You will never have to worry about someone who thinks spotting means performing rows while you bench--and the awkward view of this person's crotch while they perform the joint exercise.

Cons of using safeties:

  • It can wipe you out unloading the bar, putting it back on the pins and reloading.
  • A hand-off can make or break a max attempt--and if you don't have one you will spend a lot of energy getting the bar off the pins.
  • You may gain the ire (anger) of people who want to use the power rack and don't know what you are doing. People who have pushed themselves to their limits regularly will recognize what you are doing.

If you can get someone to lift with you, or just give you a hand off, that can make things a lot better. If you grab a random guy in the gym, make sure they understand you only want them to hand you the bar and you don't want them to interfere with the bench in any way.


I would go with doing the bench press in a squat rack. Set the pins at the right height, even if you fail you won't get crushed by the bar.

  • 1
    Yep, a support like squat/power rack is a great way to be safe. You need some way to fail...
    – G__
    Commented Aug 5, 2012 at 17:27

I think you answered the question by properly asking it. Don't go to failure. Should you be cautious about benching? YES, I think this is the exercise where people actually get hurt the most, by the bar dropping on them (chest or much worse the throat). I would recommend using barbell in the beginning of your routine and as you get tired, moving to dumbbells. This will give you the experience in using barbell training and the ability to push it with reduced risk of injury using dumbbells.

I workout alone (home gym) and had two experiences where I couldn't lift the bar off of me...dumping to the side (as Dave mentioned above) is the option, you can also purchase safety standsenter image description here.

  • 1
    I use adjustable-height metal sawhorses instead of safety stands. 1000lb version ran me maybe $30 from the hardware store.
    – G__
    Commented Aug 5, 2012 at 17:25
  • @MeadeRubenstein "don't go to failure" - terrible advice for someone looking for gains.
    – Mike S
    Commented Aug 6, 2012 at 1:20
  • 3
    @MikeS - NOT going to failure when you're benching on your own and have no way to unload/stop the bar from doing damage is great advice. On the other hand - Going to failure as planned WEHN a spotter is present is good advice.. Commented Aug 6, 2012 at 11:58
  • @MeadeRubenstein Obviously I'm saying he should rush out and buy some apparatus so he CAN go to failure and see some real gains. Wasting your time otherwise. Our bodies are an adaptive organism. Push it beyond what it can currently do, and it will grow to accommodate your new activities. Repping away without straining yourself waiting for the magic fairy to bless them with muscle once you've gone through the dance routine - I see it all the time. There are so many people at my gym doing that and looking the same year after year. Here's the 'secret': PAIN - HARD WORK - PAIN.
    – Mike S
    Commented Aug 6, 2012 at 22:51
  • 1
    @MikeS - I agree that you should push yourself beyond your current capacity, and no two workouts should be the same, but I'm not sure going to failure all the time is necessary....from what I read (Rippetone, Don John, others) it's a tool to be used as part of a plan. I agree with the hard work and associated pain, there's no magic pill...I think this goes with wearing belts, wraps, etc. - lots of advice on either side and it comes down to what works best for the specific person. Commented Aug 7, 2012 at 6:27

I only increase my bench press by 2.5lbs per workout, and only if I did three sets of five reps in the previous workout. So, I know I can definitely get a few reps completed before failure. I know what my second-to-failure rep feels like and don't do another rep if I think I may fail on it.

If I've gotten 2 sets of 5 done, and I really want to try for a new 3x5 and don't want any uncertainty about the last rep, I just ask another random person who looks like they're resting to spot me on my last set.


One more thing to look into is what is commonly referred to as "the roll of shame". Personally, I don't think the name is very fitting, as it's a perfectly good method of controlling the bar when coming a bit closer to failure than expected...

What you do is that when you can't quite get the weight up, you lower it towards your stomach, roll the bar downwards to the hips, and sit up. From here you can move the legs and put the bar to rest on the bench. Be careful if you need to remove the weights here, as the support is in the middle, and it's easier for the bar to flip over.

Of course, if you have a weight way over your maximum, you will not be able to do this easily, but then again that is not really the situation we're looking at here.

It can be a good idea to practice the move a few times with submaximal loads, just to get the hang of it.

Oh, and one more thing - avoid the smith machine. That's where you can really get stuck if you fail and don't succeed with fastening the bar. Quite a number of serious accidents has happened in the smith.

  • so you'd recommend the power rack then with the safety squat bars?
    – Mike S
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 1:03
  • The "roll of shame" is a method that can be employed when you have no safety bars, just the bench. The power rack, safety stands or similar equipment is absolutely safer, but this is a viable option when none of that equipment (or spotter) is available. Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 9:37
  • I tried the roll of shame once, and it really hurt rolling over my pelvis
    – Mike S
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 23:18

I have trained alone throughout my four years of training, and have twice got in trouble while doing benchpress, which led me to rethink the way I benchpress.Since benchpress is a compound movement, its not always necessary that the pectoral muscle will give up first, at times its the shoulder or triceps that start giving up and making one to stop short of their set or rep. goal.

Best way of tackling this is to start with the heavy weight first, then keep on lowering the weight from one set to another by ten pounds (whichever weight suits you). This way by the time you will be on your fifth or sixth set you will be more confidently pushing the weight without much danger of it falling on you and still go to failure. Try limiting your reps between six to eight in the initail heavy sets, and you will find that from third or fourth set the same weight to be more challenging that you were comfortable with earlier. As mentioned by others, swithcing to dumbles is also a good option. I don't agree that switching to smith machine is better, since motion on smith machine is controlled and very rigid, and in my opion not the correct.

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