We’ve all had that sinking feeling: You bring the barbell down, and you just know you’re not getting it back up. If you have a spotter there to help hoist it, it’s no big deal. You can shake it off, take a rest, and try again another time.
But if you’re on your own, you don’t have that luxury—and it can be deadly. That was the case for 15-year-old rugby player Ben Shaw, who died in the hospital days after he was crushed under a bench press, as Australia’s ABC News reports.
It’s not exactly clear how the accident happened, but one woman described how her husband found the teen trapped under the weight in the Australian gym.
“When he got there it was quiet, there was nobody around and he was about to start his workout when he looked over and saw the 15-year-old boy just lying on the bench with a bar right across his neck,” she told The West Australian. The bar was reportedly loaded to 98 kilograms.
The man immediately grabbed the bar off Shaw’s neck and yelled for help. Two gym employees performed CPR until paramedics arrived and rushed the teen to the hospital.
Related: Easy Steps To Give CPR Correctly
Authorities aren’t sure exactly how long Shaw was trapped under the bar, but they believe it could have been up to 30 minutes.
Reports don’t give a definite cause of death, but Shaw isn’t the first lifter to have his life cut short in the weight room. According to a 2007 case report published in the Journal of Forensic Science, two lifters in central New York died within a five-year period of accidental traumatic asphyxia, when a sudden force—in those cases, a barbell—compressed their necks and cut off their oxygen flow.
It’s rare, but lifting does come with that risk. That’s why using a spotter can be a literal lifesaver.
There are no hard-and-fast rules set in place by any fitness organizations on when you must have a spotter, but there are some safety tips you can go by, Men’s Health fitness editor Ebenezer Samuel says.
For one, if you’re planning on working at or near max effort, whether you’re going for a one-rep max or aiming for max reps, you should have a spotter.
“You want that security for those last few reps, when your muscles may fail,” he says.
You should also recruit a spotter if you’re trying new weight for the first time, or if you’re feeling overly fatigued and sore when working with 60 percent or more of your one-rep max, he says.
Those will be your safest bets. But if you’re working out alone, and there’s no one around to ask, you can make a few other safety tweaks, too.
- First, don’t clamp the weights, says Samuel. If you run into a problem, you can rest the bar on your chest, then tip the barbell to one side to let the plates slide off. Then, repeat on the other side.
- Another option? Stick to dumbbell bench presses when you’re sans-spotter, he says. Added bonus: Dumbbell bench presses activate your pecs more than barbell presses do.
By Christa Sgobba