You’ve probably heard more than enough quips and quotes about the necessity of failure in the pursuit of your passion. When you’re learning to ride a bike, you’re bound to fall down once or twice, but all you’ve got to do is pick yourself back up and try again. But what happens when you fail with a heavy barbell on your back or over your head?
Every seasoned gymgoer has probably had at least a couple of close calls in the gym. Whether you’re a powerlifter attempting a new max on the bench press or you tried to squeeze out that last rep in the squat rack to fatigue your quads, accidents do happen in the gym.
Fortunately, lifting heavy weights doesn’t have to be dangerous. Safely exiting an exercise is as much of a skill as mastering the movement itself. For strength athletes in particular, knowing how to get out of a set gone wrong can save your skin and afford you the confidence to try your hardest in the weight room. Here’s how to safely abandon a missed lift so you can come back to it healthy, strong, and determined.
How to Safely Miss Lifts
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When it comes to both hypertrophy and maximal strength, the back squat is unparalleled. The mechanics of the exercise enable you to use truly extraordinary amounts of weight — if your technique is on point. That said, heavy weights can create dangerous situations if you don’t know how to bail when things get hairy.
How It Can Go Wrong
Although there are several potential sticking points in the squat, most athletes will hit a wall around midway through their ascent. If you’ve ever attempted a new one-rep max in the squat, you know exactly how it feels to grind through a heavy rep that started off as smooth sailing.
Right above parallel is the point at which your leverages are at their most compromised. Bouncing out of the hole is usually the easy part, since you can rely on the natural elasticity of your soft tissues.
After you clear parallel, several things can go wrong at once. Your hips might shoot backward, your foot pressure can become lopsided to the front or back, or your upper back might severely round.
How to Bail
Whether you succumb to a heavy squat at the bottom or halfway up, the way out is the same. To safely bail out of an unsuccessful back squat, throw your shoulders back, release your grip on the barbell, and drop to your knees.
If you perform the exit correctly, your torso should become vertical as you move to a full kneeling position and the barbell should simply fall to the floor — or onto the safety pins — behind your back.
Alternatively, you might find it surprisingly intuitive to simply “hop” forward out of a failed squat instead of kneeling. This may be impractical if you squat with a low bar position due to the wedge you create with your upper back, so be mindful and rely on your instinct in the moment.
The most important aspect of escaping a dodgy squat is ensuring that your pelvis comes forward as fast as possible, out of the way of the barbell as it falls.
You probably shouldn’t ever perform a max-effort set on the bench press without a spotter. The setup and execution of the movement doesn’t give you a convenient escape route, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to mitigate risk.
How It Can Go Wrong
Most lifters lose control of their bench presses in one of two ways. You might lower the weight down to your chest and then simply lack the strength to get it moving in the opposite direction.
Alternatively, the bar often comes to a standstill about halfway off your chest, when your elbow is bent at a 90-degree angle — the posture in which your triceps and pecs have the lowest mechanical advantage. From here, the bar simply starts falling back down to your chest again.
How to Bail
The first and best step you should take to guarantee your safety on the bench press is to ask for a spotter. In the event that no one is available and for some reason decide to make a max attempt anyway, there are still a few things you can do.
If the bar comes back down to your chest after you fail to press it to arm’s length, one painful but effective way to exit the exercise is to slowly roll the bar from your sternum to your hips, and then sit up with it in your hip crease.
Additionally, you can bench without weight clips attached to your barbell and simply tilt the bar to one side to “pour” the plates off the end. This method may damage the equipment or floor, but it will get you out of the set in a pinch.
Your best option by far is actually to bench in a power rack and set the safety pins to just below the height of your chest. If you bench with an arched back and fail the lift, you can simply collapse your spine flush against the bench and the bar should rest safely on the pins. From there, just slide yourself out from under it.
Bonus Tip: It’s not uncommon for some lifters to assume what’s called a “suicide grip” or thumbless grip when bench pressing. Some people like how the bar aligns with the wrist. Don’t bench press with a suicide grip, especially if you don’t have a spotter. You risk a heavy barbell rolling forward out of your hands and crushing your ribs or, worse yet, your neck and head.
Attempting a new deadlift personal record can sometimes feel like trying to pull Excalibur from the stone. Even if you do get the weight off the ground, standing up is another matter altogether. A failed deadlift is frustrating, but fortunately, you can easily get away from the lift before it poses any harm.
How It Can Go Wrong
You can miss a deadlift for any number of reasons. It’s possible that you lack the leg strength and power production to get the weight off the ground in the first place. Beyond that, some athletes will run out of gas when the bar reaches their knees. Or, underdeveloped glutes might make it difficult to lock your hips out at the top.
No matter where the energy leak comes from, the result is the same — a barbell that simply will not rise another inch higher.
How to Bail
Pushing yourself through a deadlift gone wrong is rarely a wise move, even on the competition platform. Not only are you likely to risk injury by severely compromising your technique, but rounding your lower back or hitching the weight up doesn’t actually improve your leverages much.
If your bar won’t budge any further in a deadlift, simply release your grip and let the bar fall to the floor. It may create some ruckus, but it’s the safest and most efficient way to get yourself out of the set.
If you pull with a sumo stance, make sure you bring your feet inward or collapse your stance in some way. A falling barbell is liable to bounce around a bit, and you don’t want to flatten your toes in the process of abandoning a bad lift.
The two main movements of weightlifting are far less dangerous than they look, but you should still exercise caution when lifting heavy.
How It Can Go Wrong
The dynamic nature of the snatch means you can lose control of the lift in any number of ways. Most of the time, you’ll fail to properly secure the barbell over your head and drop it either in front of or behind your body.
While this is typically a result of errant pulling technique in some way, what matters is escaping the path of the bar.
How to Bail
How to safely miss a wayward snatch depends on the nature of the lift itself — a failed snatch isn’t as straightforward as a bad deadlift.
If you can’t lock the barbell overhead, it will fall either in front or behind you. If the bar falls in front, maintain your grip and lightly push yourself backward. The most important thing is to ensure the bar doesn’t crash onto your knees.
If your barbell is drifting backward and you can’t save it, let go as early as possible and drive your body forward. The bar should drop safely behind your hips.
The longer an exercise takes to complete, the more opportunities you have to miss your lift. With so many moving parts to the clean & jerk, you need to be extra-diligent about your technique — and how to get out of dodge if things fall apart.
How It Can Go Wrong
Some athletes can’t land their jerks due to leg strength, while others just can’t stick the footwork. Still others struggle to stand up their max-effort cleans on a regular basis. The clean & jerk exposes any deficiencies you may have in your kinetic chain.
If you can’t recover your cleans properly, you probably lack the leg strength — or upper back integrity — to stand up with the barbell, and end up dumping it forward. If you can clean anything you put your hands on but can’t make the jerk, it’s probably due to improper drive technique or sloppy footwork.
Dumping a clean before you stand up is obviously a no-lift, but so is catching your bar overhead on soft elbows (or missing it entirely). It’s more common for an athlete to push their barbell too far forward off their shoulders than too far backward, but both can happen at any moment.
How to Bail
If you find yourself keeling over while attempting to stand up a heavy clean, the lift is likely a lost cause. Once your chest falls, the bar is almost guaranteed to fall with it. To get out of the way of a failing clean, simply release your grip from the bar and take a hop backward.
If you’re falling backward with the bar in the bottom of a front squat, allow yourself to roll onto your back. Keep your elbows high so they don’t contact the ground, tilt your head back, and allow the barbell to roll past your head.
It may look scary, but taking a tumble backward is the safest way out of a clean that’s drifting back uncontrollably. Keep your elbows off the ground and the only thing hurting will be your pride.
Things are a bit more intricate if you fail to secure your barbell overhead. The most important factor is ensuring that no body part is in the way of the bar as it falls. If you’re losing a split jerk in front, retract your front leg as fast as possible. If the bar is falling behind your head, let go immediately and take a step forward by pushing off with your rear leg.
Is Weight Lifting Safe? What the Science Says
Any number of things can potentially go wrong when lifting weights. It’s important to recognize that no strenuous physical activity is 100% safe. However, working with heavy loads in an unstable environment doesn’t necessarily invite injury on its own.
In fact, even high-level resistance training — whether recreationally or in pursuit of a strength sport — is statistically less injurious than many common team-based activities.
A meta-analysis of sport-related injuries concluded that per 1,000 hours of practice, bodybuilding, powerlifting, weightlifting, and even strongman all present a lower statistical incidence of injury than popular field or court sports like soccer and basketball. (1)
There’s some internal discrepancies between the lifting disciplines themselves (bodybuilding appears to come with the fewest inhibitory injuries, possibly due to working with stabilized equipment like machines or cables), but the data broadly indicates that you aren’t rolling the dice with your health every time you walk into the weight room.
The first time you miss a big lift can be a real crisis of faith, especially if you’re new to working out. When you put all your might into moving a heavy barbell and it tells you “no,” it’s perfectly understandable to walk away from the platform feeling defeated and disheartened.
However, failing lifts is an unavoidable part of getting stronger. While you shouldn’t necessarily seek it out, don’t shy away from the moments that test your character more than your muscles. Failure is a far better teacher than success — and if you know how to do so safely, you’ll learn more about both your training and your capabilities as an athlete.
- Keogh, J. W., & Winwood, P. W. (2017). The Epidemiology of Injuries Across the Weight-Training Sports. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 47(3), 479–501.
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