Bench press safety


I’m so far out of the loop when it comes to sports news that it wasn’t until Friday that I heard about USC running back Stafon Johnson’s injury last Monday while performing bench presses in a campus gymnasium.


Reports of the incident are sketchy, but apparently his right hand/wrist simply gave out and sent the bar crashing down on his throat. Sounds like he suffered serious throat and laryngeal injuries which took 7 hours to repair during painstaking surgery.


As a fellow pumper of iron, I cringed.


Of all the lifts, the bench press definitely ranks high in potential to kill or seriously injure. It’s the one lift where your body is essentially completely vulnerable and exposed to the full force of the weight…all that separates hundreds of pounds of iron and your body are your arms. People die every year from bench pressing accidents. Just a year ago, in November, a 13-year-old boy in Iowa was killed when he was suffocated by the barbell he was benching. Some people believe that Stafon Johnson would have been killed had he not been in such excellent physical condition.


Unverified reports say that Johnson dropped 275 pounds in his accident, which is very likely considering his level of physical training as well as the fact that reports state he was nearing the end of his reps (which means he was nearing his maxes). I wasn’t there and anything I say is certainly guess work.


I read one report also which stated that the accident happened when he was racking or unracking the weight which would explain why it fell on his neck and not his chest. That segment of the lift is the most dangerous (especially the unracking) because it’s the movement which involves solely your arms and shoulders, and because of this, is the most unstable part of the lift.


Apparently he was being spotted by one person which doesn’t seem like much of a safety back-up considering the weight. You’re asking your spotter to assume the weight you were pushing while he is standing and slightly bent forward…not an easy feat at all. The ideal spotter situation is having 1 person at each end of the barbell so they can share the load in the event of an emergency.


If you’re benching alone, you gotta be ultra careful. I’ve been trapped by the bar before and it’s not pretty. A few safety tips for those who insist on benching alone (as I insist on simply because I don’t belong to a gym and I don’t feel like inviting two spotters to my apartment for 5 minutes at 6:30 in the morning while I attempt my bench press maxes).


-Do not tighten the shoulders. This is a great escape hatch if you should ever be trapped by the bar…with the shoulders loose, they will slide right off so you can slip the offending plates off the bar and free yourself. Granted, you’re in for quite a racket and if you have downstairs neighbors they may want to do to you what the weights couldn’t. Still, it beats laying there while you’re slowly asphyxiated.

-Use a power rack or safety horses. After alarming my neighbor enough times, I went out and splurged on a couple.

You position them on either side of the bench and voila, you have a couple of inorganic spotters! Beauty. These suckers have prevented a bruised chest and a rudely jolted neighbor more than a few times.

-Grip the hell out of the bar when you’re benching! This is proper form for benching, but one of the added benefits is that you don’t get a “lazy” wrist and simply drop the weight after it goes limp. Once again, learned from experience…

-Last and most importantly: change your mindset. If you’re benching alone, give up the dream of pushing astronomical numbers. If you don’t have spotters I really don’t believe you should be exceeding 225 pounds or thereabouts. Concentrate on refining your form and higher reps and be content with that. Concentrate on military presses and dips, safer exercises which sorta emulate the bench’s movements.


And speaking of which, tomorrow morning is bench morning! Wish me luck…