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Stronglifts 5x5 without spotter

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Jun 8, 2016 10:00:00 AM

squat fail

How to do Stronglifts 5x5 without a spotter

When doing Stronglifts without a spotter it is paramount to have good technique and common sense. In this article I will explain how both is expressed in detail when doing Stronglifts by describing technique, setup, what to do if you fail and why you should stay calm at all times during a lift. Even if you think you have good technique maybe do a little refresh here and take home some extra knowledge around rack setup and how to behave when a fail occurs.  

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The back squat

The very first for you to get right is basic technique of squatting. You should know how to

  • Distribute the weight equally
  • White knuckle
  • Get under the bar
  • Unrack the bar
  • Do a three step walk out (BACKWARDS)
  • Plant your feet
  • Breath correctly
  • Pull in the bar
  • Brace your abs
  • Squat as low as you possibly can
  • Squeeze your glutes when coming out the lowest position
  • Repeat the process and breathe between repetitions according to your experience and load.

That is what you should focus on first before loading the bar and stepping into the gym without having a spotter. If you do not know how to do these things, get somebody to help you. It is less embarrassing to ask for help than being a cripple as a result of your own stupidity by burying yourself under a barbell.

Distribute the weight equally on the barbell to avoid imbalance. I am sorry that it has to be written down, but I have seen enough people even getting this one incorrect. Check that you have the same amount of plates with the same denominations on each side of the bar or expect bad things to happen once you start the squat. In all fairness there are even cases when they get this wrong at powerlifting world masters.

White knuckle which means that you squeeze the bar until your knuckles turn white while you wrap your thumbs around the bar to get a good and fastened grip.

Get under the bar in an aggressive & explosive manner. This does not mean to go into “wife beater” mode and start grunting and screaming like Al Pacino in scent of a woman. Keep the screaming and craziness for doing a PR. Being aggressive and explosive means that you own the bar. Be focused. Visualise every step before you lift and own every repetition. Dig yourself under the bar and find the shelf for the higher or lower bar squat position. This will occur naturally to you. The shelf for the high bar squat is the first place you will feel comfortable with putting the barbell on below your neck. The position for the lower back squat will be the next step down with which you feel you have the most grip and control over the barbell. If you are squatting for Olympic weightlifting focus on high bar squats, low bar squats seem to work well for powerlifters. If you are afraid of getting under the bar, you should not be surprised that you do not get results.

Unrack the bar by getting your feet aligned once you found the position for it on your back. Once the feet are in place pop your hips forward to unrack the bar. Ideally it only takes you to move your hips forward to get the weight out of the racked position when your feet are paralell. If you struggle to either get the bar over the J Cup (that’s the thing the bar rested on) to walk out, adjust down. If you have to do a half squat to even get to the starting position the bar is too low and needs to be placed higher.

Do a three step walk out (BACKWARDS) to get distance between the starting position and where you will squat. The three step walk out works for all scenarios so practise it. The two step walk out only works with monolift stations. Cross that bridge when you can squat 2 times your own bodyweight for competition day. Until then just forget what I just said and work on your three step walk out. First step will provide distance to the starting position. This will your biggest step of the three. Second step will align the other foot in the squatting position. This foot should already be planted. The third step will finish the setup and is only aligning the foot after the second step to distribute the weight evenly. To all of you who think that it is a good idea to walk out forward… you are wrong. Only exemption is when you fully intent to drop the bar to the ground when you finish your set. This is a pro move for advanced lifters and they usually drop the bar overhead to the front, rather than down from the back. Also more common among weightlifters than powerlifters, as powerlifters do not do a lot of overhead pressing of 300kg+ (in fact no one does). You are not Rich Froning! WALK OUT BACKWARDS or you will hurt yourself when you have to rerack the bar on a heavy set.

Plant your feet like an eagle that would grip a branch of a tree. This will happen during the walkout (get that right first, then work on the foot planting, once the three steps come naturally to you). It sounds odd, but try it and you will get the knack of it.

Breathe correctly to get the maximum power into your squat and avoid lower back and abdominal injuries. Start with one breath per repetition and gradually move on to challenge yourself to do multiple with inhaling once. The best way for me to breathe when I squat is as follows:

  1. Short sharp breath out when you unrack the bar
  2. Stay calm during walk out 
  3. When feet are planted breathe out as much as you possibly can through your mouth. Get the last bit of air out. 
  4. Breathe in through your nose and brace your abs against the belt or just brace 
  5. Start with one repetition and repeat breathing pattern.
  6. Work your way up to more repetitions per breath at same weight

The heavier your set will be, the more you should breath. If you work a very heavy triplet at 90% of your one repetition maximum, breathe between each repetition. When you work around 75% you should come to a stage where you will be able to do five without taking a breath in-between.

Pull in the bar into your shoulders while bracing your abs at the same time. This will ensure that you activate your lower and upper back to incorporate the power out of these muscles also. It will also provide more stability to the bar during the lift which means less likelihood of losing the bar to the side or back. In addition the less imbalance there is in the bar the less you have to compensate for balancing it with your legs. This leaves more fuel in the tank to create thrust in the direction that matters, which is up. 

Brace your abs to protect your spine and inner organs and enable maximum force development. If you follow the steps mentioned under breathing this comes very naturally to you. Bracing your abs does not mean pumping up your chest. In fact the less your chest raises during this process the better. You want your abs to be rigid and pushing out against your lifting belt in case you have one. If you do not have a belt you want to have them as tightened up as possible as if somebody was about to punch you in the stomach and you wanted to minimise the damage. To keep the tension will especially help in the lowest point of the lift. It is a lot easier to get out out the lowest position of the squat if your body is under full tension as the thrust from your legs is transferred better to drive the weight up. The less solid you are, the more power gets lost in the process. Think of trying to push a whole into the ceiling with an iron rod or an ice cream. You are more likely to succeed with the stiff iron rod as the power from your arm will actually be trnaferred to the ceiling (physics and all of that jazz).

Squat as low as you possibly can to get the maximum bang for your buck per lift. These is determined by the flexibility in your hips, knees and ankles. Each squat should be executed as low as you possibly can based on your mobility. If depth suffers due to load rather than mobility, use less weight. 

Squeeze your glutes like you want to crack a nut in your crack. This will help immensely for getting out of the hole (name for the lowest position of the squat). Especially the last few bits of the squat can be made a lot easier by activating the area around your butt cheeks to drive that barbell up these last few inches to complete the lift.

Repeat the process and breathe between repetitions according to your experience and load. The less experienced you are and the more weight you use the more you will have to breathe between repetitions. So in the beginning repeat the breathing steps described earlier for each and every attempt. Once you get more comfortable work your way up to doubles, triples and sets of five with just one breath.

The Bench press

The next thing to look at is correct bench pressing technique which fortunately is a bit less complex:

  • Find a grip a thumb's width apart from the inner knurl on each side
  • White knuckle 
  • Pull your pinkies in
  • Build an arch while planting your feet
  • Breathe correctly
  • Unrack the bar forward
  • Bring the bar to rest on the chest
  • Rack the bar backwards

Find a grip a thumb's width apart from the inner knurl of the bar on each side.  This is literally a rule of thumb. Of course depending on your leverages, body size and arm length you might find a different point on the iron better. Still this is a good starting point from which you can make individual adjustments.

White knuckle as explained for squats. Squeeze the bar as much as you can until your knuckles turn white. This is even more important on the bench press than for the squat to get the best results.

Pull your pinkies in after the white knuckling. You basically try to bend the bar towards you to get more tension into your overall body.

Build an arch while planting your feet.  You want your butt cheeks still to be on the bench while most of your back does not touch it any more. The next touching point is your shoulder belt which rests on the bar. This way you will be able to activate your leg power more into the bench press and get even more tension into your overall body.

Breathe correctly by taking a deep breath in and bracing your abs to initiate the unrack. I usually can do 3 - 5 repetition depending on weight until I have to breathe again. 

Unrack the bar forward. Please do yourself a favour and set your equipment up in a way that the unracking for the bench press is forward and out of the J cups.

Bring the bar to rest on the chest. Ideally you want the momentum to completely leave the weight while doing a bench press. This is doing it by competition rules for powerlifting and also helps to get more out of each repetition for developing strength and muscle. Touch and go repetitions are ok, but only for top sets or if you work on explosiveness. If you want to optmise for nice packs and overall strength let the bar come to rest for a short period (one to two seconds) before initiating the upward movement.

Rack the bar backwards. If you have done the setup correctly you can rack the bar backwards into the J cup. This is handy after a taxing set and avoids that you have to fiddle the barbell back into place at your weakest. If you can just stupidly move your arms in direction of your head at fully extended arms to hit the resting place of the bar in the J cups you have done it right. If drop backwards and the bar is only two inches away from your forehead, reconsider your setup.

For the deadlift

The deadlift is performed without a spotter and can be exited easily by dropping the bar or bringing it back to the ground. The question of technique comes in to protect your lower back but will not be discussed in this article.

Rack Setup

For the back squat

The setup of the bar for the squat should be high enough so that you still only have to straighten your hips to get the weight unracked. If you pop your hips forward and still have to wiggle the barbell out of the starting position, the J cups are set up too high. You have to be able to comfortably walk out backwards without anything in the way once you have popped the weight out of the resting position. 

The barbell is setup too low if you require to activate your legs to unrack the bar. Only the movement of bringing your hip forward should be enough to unrack the bar. If you set the bar up too low you will have to do a half rep per set more and will get problems when you rack the bar at the end of the lift as you have to lower your hips to a point at the end of set to a degree where your legs might give and you bury yourself under the weight. 

Setup of the pins should be slightly below the lowest point you can reach for the back squat. The idea is to get the minimum distance between you going to the lowest points and the points. This ensures in case of a fail, that you can bring the barbell down in a controlled manner to the lowest point, transfer it to the safety pins and exit safely underneath. 

If you set up the safety pins too low you expose yourself to the risk of a barbell falling into your back or snapping the ligaments around your knees because of over compression / twisting on the way down. If you set them up to high you cannot execute the movement fully or bang into the safety pins while squatting and destabilise yourself.

As you see take care of the setup for the squat. It is like a safety belt. Put in place wrong or not at all does not matter as long as everything as going to plan. However, if worst case scenario happens, it only protects you in the intended way if taken care of before you start properly.

For the bench press




The barbell should be set up at a height so that you you can grip it with your hands while you have it at a bit more than an elbows length. This should enable you to easily unrack the bar while straightening your arms without using only little power from your chest. Experiment with a few setups until you found the right hole in the rack for you where you do not have to do a helf rep for getting started and yet still have enough room between j cup and arms to drop the bar backwards into starting position when done.

The pins should be set up just slightly above the line of the highest point of your arch. What this means is that if you fail a repetition you can exit safely by exiting the arched position and pushing the barbell forward to get out. 

A fail is a fail

If you do not have a spotter get into the habit of treating fails on form as fails as you did not execute the movement properly. This will ensure that you will not do repetitions that potentially harm your form or yourself. When I did the Stronglifts program I was actually not good atr taking my own and advice and had to rebuild my squat dropping from 120kg to 100kg with good form. That make me lose about three months of training. Same on the deadlift were I lifted with bad form for quite some time and then could not deadlift for four months to get my lower back to heal. This lead to my PB dropping from 190kg to a 150kg. So, as Mark Bell says, protect yourself before you wreck yourself. 

One rep less

Now the usual credo in amongst lifters is "one more rep" and as long as you have someone to help you out with a spot please do follow that path. However, if that is not the case, which is the more common scenario, avoid the next repetition if the last one was already a grinder. Yes usually you can squeeze out one more repetition after the first grinder repetition of the set. Still without a spotter you possible bury yourself under the bar or break your nose. That is not worth it. You want to train often and constantly to get stronger and not ones stupidly to be out of the game for a month or more.

Keep calm

When you are in the predicament of failing a rep and nowhere near the racking position with no spotter around, stay calm. Lower the bar to the pins as controlled as possible to eit safe. If you did not set up the pins correctly, which is your own stupid fault in the first place, still stay in control to the lowest point for the squat and drop the bar from there. This will minimise uncontrolled momentum of the bar which could potentially break your shin (bar thrown of back from high position onto pins / into rack, bounces back in your direction = ugly result. Less momentum less chance of this happening).

For the bench press same applies, stay calm. Move the bar away from your face to your chest and park it there. ALWAYS move the bar AWAY from your face in case of a failed bench press attempt unless you want to get face surgery. If you have no clips on the weights, once the bar rests on your chest tilt the bar slowly and controlled so that plates can drop to the floor. Try to get one plate off each side in this way. When that is done you should be able to push the weight up again to racking position and exit. In case you have clips on the bar and can not remove plates by tilting without having the pins set up to rescue you either stay under the bar until help arrives or push the bar down so that you can get to sitting position and then try somehow to standup like doing a sumo deadlift while moving the bar up and awy from you. Take car that when the bar comes to rest on the bench it might come up on either end to hit you in the side. 


If you do stronglifts without a spotter pay double attention to form and execution. Stay safe by knowing your limits and not pushing too far. Keep that for the days when a spotter is around. KNow your ideal setup of pins and J cups and keep. Make no compromises for speed when it comes to setup. If you are in a busy gym, maybe wait until the guy before you is finished rather than hopping in. If you can already see that there is a person who constantly walks dangerously close to people who are doing heavy lifting, wait until he is gone. If you follow all of the tips I mentioned here you will be fine. I did not hurt myself yet because of failing a repetition. *knockonwood*


Further reading




Topics: Stronglifts 5x5, Powerlifting, Bodybuilding, Strongman