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Many of us have been there – we know failure is coming, but we’re trying to work out HOW exactly to escape from under a heavy squat that has gone wrong, without getting STUCK! Having recently pivoted from hypertrophy focused training back towards strength for the ‘big 3’ I have revisited safely bailing out of squats – here’s what you need to know:
At a glance…
- Failing a squat puts you at risk as the loaded barbell will try and works its way DOWN to the ground, stapling you in the process if you’re not careful!
- The safest way to bail a squat is in a power rack with appropriately set spotter arms
- With a rack you can set the spotter arms just below the bottom of your squat and simply PLACE the barbell on them when failing a squat
- If you don’t have a rack with safety arms consider using human spotters
- Alternatively you can leap out from under the bar – BUT this is more risky and makes a TON of noise as well as risking damage to your (or your gyms) equipment
The risk of failing a squat incorrectly
Bailing out mid way through a squat can be risky – if you collapse under the weight you run the risk of being ’stapled’ which is when you are crushed down under the bar (like a staple!)
If this is not done ‘safely’ then there is injury risk to your legs, back and neck muscles as they are bent out of shape.
How to fail a squat WITHOUT a rack
Knowing how to react if you get stuck during a squat is very important. There are two ways to bail out of a squat if you don’t have a power rack:
- Use a human spotter – when you’re back squatting a spotter will stand immediately behind you mirroring your squat with their hands ready to intervene. If you struggle or begin to drop back down again (most squat bails are on the ascent) then they will push the bar UPWARDS with their hands. This is not fool proof – quite the opposite – but even this relatively light pressure is often enough to help you complete the rep before re-racking. Alternatively if you have access to a couple of people you can have a spotter either side of the bar ready to support the loaded ends of the bar
- Jump clear – a riskier way our when failing a squat is to wait until you are just about to fail then jump (or ping!) yourself forwards rapidly to burst out from under the bar. The barbell will then just drop to the ground. Again this is not perfect and relies on the failure being high enough in the range of motion that you have sufficient energy and leverage to jump forwards, as well as requiring sufficient space and suitably robust flooring to facilitate such a move. Some steps can be taken to limit the damage – keeping a BIG open space for lifting, use of bumper plates, use a barbell designed to be dropped, etc.
Overall bailing out from under a barbell without a power rack can be done, but it’s tricky and carries a degree of risk whichever way you do it.
Bailing your squat straight on to the ground
If you’re going to jump out from under the barbell and let it crash down to earth then as covered above you can take a few precautions:
- Bumper plates – rubber plates will bounce more than metal ones reducing the initial impact of a drop on both the floor and the barbell
- Floor protection – you can protect your floor with a lifting platform to reduce the chance that a dropped weight cracks your concrete base. I use 2x 18mm layers of plywood with a further 18mm of crumbed ubber matting on top and have had no issues
- Height – the lower the height you bail form the less momentum the barbell has when it hits. Control your descent if you can and bail from the lowest height possible to mitigate damage to the floor or your equipment
How to bail out of a squat in a power rack
A power or squat rack makes bailing out far safer and easier. Set the safety bars just below where the bar would be at the bottom of the range of motion and then squat safely away!
If you need to bail then allow yourself to be forced downwards – stapled – controlling the descent as best you can. You will drop an inch or two lower than your squat range of motion but after that the barbell will safely land on the spotter bars preserving your body and dignity! Heck, it’s not even that loud!
The bars need to be slightly below the lowest position achieved in a squat to avoid them getting in the way. You will find your ROM is slightly deeper in a heavy squat vs a lighter one and barbell whip will have the ends of the bar moving up and down during direction changes – so test a couple of spotter heights when warming up to get the right position. You don’t want to be hitting the spotter arms if you set them too high – not a pleasant experience as it can throw you off balance!
Is failing a squat normal?
Failure can occur for any number of reasons – weight is simply too heavy, trying one too many reps or even sudden acute pain. Heck even a distraction can throw you off balance unexpectedly.
Failure can also be deliberate – training to failure deliberately is a feature of many programmes. Some trainees value this style very highly indeed! If you subscribe to the letter of that training style you will be bailing regularly!
So failing when squatting from time to time is pretty normal – don’t worry if you bail the occasional rep here and there. Failing more regularly can be fine too – if it is part of your training program. If it’s not part of the plan and you find yourself bailing often it may be time to reassess the loading, rep and set schemes you are following as they may be too intense for you at this point.
Personally I try to stop short of absolute failure (typically I will take squats to RPE9 at the most) as a personal preference. Very rarely will I bail a squat these days – but when I do I am glad of the power rack spotter arms!
What about high bar / low bar / front squat / split squats?
The concept remains the same regardless of squat technique: you need to get out from under the bar to prevent yourself getting stapled.
However there is a difference in HOW this is achieved. For example when failing a front squat you will want to jump BACKWARDS and let the bar drop in front of you, compared to a HIGH BAR squat where it will fall behind you.
Low bar is a little different as the bar is lower down the body (closer to the ground) and the arms are more widely splayed compromising your ability to jump out of the way. For this reason low bar in particular benefits from being done in a squat rack with safety bars.
Failing a lift is quite normal – don’t beat yourself up if you miss the odd lift here and there. Making a habit of it may not be so healthy – depending on how you like to train! For me – I prefer to avoid failure, but if I do have to bail for some reason I try and control my descent to the bottom of the squat then bail either by jumping out from under the bar if I don’t have spotter arms set or – FAR more desirable and less scary – dropping the bar on to the spotters.
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