Jan 29, 2015
Better safe than sorry: Preventing weight room accidents
By Mike Nitka, contributing writer

Thousands of weight room accidents happen every year, but your program doesn’t have to become part of the problem.

I hadn’t been a strength coach for very long when the first weight room accident under my watch occurred. I was teaching a freshman physical education class on how to use a universal weight machine. After demonstrating how to safely use the seated leg press, I told the students they could begin on their own.

Within 60 seconds, a student’s feet slipped off the machine. The weight hit his shins, taking off big chunks of skin, and blood started running down his legs. My first thought was, “Freshmen. Just when you think you have your weight room under control, the freshmen arrive.”

It’s easy to blame a weight room accident on inexperienced students and athletes, but sometimes that’s really just passing the buck. For example, in this case, perhaps I didn’t demonstrate the lift enough times for everyone in the room to see it well. Or maybe I should have had each student perform it one at a time so I could supervise without any distractions. Possibly, there were too many students in the class.

The accident made me question what I was doing and safety soon became a point of emphasis for me. Now, 35 years later, it’s something I continue working to improve every day.

There are two main ways for strength and conditioning coaches to avoid injuries on a daily basis. One is through teaching proper lifting technique. The second is to eliminate facility hazards.

Weight room safety is also not something you can just mention in an orientation and expect athletes to be conscious of throughout the year. The strength and conditioning coach and all other supervisors have to continually emphasize and model it. If the adults don’t care about safety, the kids won’t. When a weightroom is safe and well controlled by coaches, athletes will also be poised for optimum strength and performance gains.

Teaching safety

How do you approach teaching athletes about weight room safety? Holding a freshman orientation has been a great starting point here at Muskego (Wisconsin) High School.

Every 12 weeks, the strength and conditioning staff announces that there will be two orientation sessions on separate days. It is then each freshman athlete’s responsibility to attend one of the mandatory 45-minute sessions before coming in for their first workout.

We begin orientation by explaining how our lifting program works, why we employ the lifts that we do, and our overall goals for the athletes. We discuss logistics like how many days a week they are expected to train in the weight room and our make-up session policy.

We also tell our athletes up front that they are expected to follow our lifting program when using our facility and not their own or one they found online. While we always stick to this rule with our younger athletes, we will modify it if a senior athlete who is expecting to play in college comes to us with a workout program from the university they will attend. If I determine it’s a safe and appropriate workout for an 18-year-old, I’ll work with him or her to implement it.

Next, we spend a good chunk of the freshman orientation sessions on weight room safety. We show a general safety video that covers each of the lifts we employ and explains how to correctly spot a teammate. And we always finish by giving the athletes a chance to ask questions about what they’ve just seen.

The athletes are then sent home with a letter to their parents explaining what we discussed in orientation and the risks of weight training. The letter must be signed by each athlete’s parent or guardian before he or she can participate in a lifting program. We want the parents to understand that although safety is an important part of working out in the Muskego weight room, there are still inherent risks involved.

When talking about safety with our freshmen, we explain that the best way to avoid injury is to perform each lift with correct form, and this is something we continue to talk about throughout the athletes’ four years here. First, we demonstrate ideal technique. If I’m supervising or teaching by myself, I will demonstrate the lift, or if I have an assistant coach available, I’ll have them demonstrate as I explain. In the past, we’ve also shown videos that do a good job of breaking it all down.

After the athletes have seen the proper way to execute the lift, we break it down into a sequence of steps. Then we break them up into groups of four or five and have them practice using only a bar.

As each athlete takes their turn, I watch to make sure they are following the instructions. I’ve found that if an athlete isn’t performing a lift quite right, sometimes all it takes is using different wording to effectively explain a part of the lift sequence. Repeating the same phrase over and over again won’t make the athlete “get it” if they didn’t understand what you said in the first place.

I also teach a physical education class during the school day that concentrates on weightlifting and how to perform the lifts our athletes use. I highly encourage our first-year athletes to enroll if they can. The class offers a smaller, quieter setting, which makes it easier for some students to learn.

If I see that an athlete is really struggling to learn correct form, I work with them one-on-one, either during the lifting session or afterwards. When I work with an individual athlete, I have them concentrate on one step or component of the lift each day, slowly building up until they’ve mastered the entire sequence. I explain that it takes time to get it right, but this is okay because I want them to be able to make strength gains, not sustain injuries.

It’s also critical to teach proper spotting techniques. Everyone in the room is taught how to spot the squat, bench press, and deadlift–both when they’re the only spotter and when they have a partner to spot with. We don’t teach spotting for Olympic lifts, but instead teach everyone how to safely get out of the way of the bar on a failed attempt.

In general, we follow the spotting techniques that are listed in the NSCA’s Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (3rd edition) text. I made up my own teaching cues that I’ve found work well with the high school athlete population. In the bench press, for example, our spotter says “spotter ready” when they have their hands on the bar, “spotter liftoff on three” before they count down and fully release the bar into the lifter’s hands, “lifter begin” when their hands are out of the way, and “finished” when they re-rack the bar.

We show one-man and two-man spotting techniques, and have students practice spotting with little to no weight on the bar. We place a lot of responsibility on the spotter, making sure he or she stays focused during the entire set.

Though everyone learns how to spot, we generally have upperclassmen perform this task. Allowing them to be spotters helps them feel like they are leaders. It also shows that the strength and conditioning staff respects the time and effort they’ve put into their workouts with us.

At the same time, we are careful to keep an eye on our upperclassmen when they’re lifting. The main problem is that they can become a little too confident and start adding more and more weight onto the bar, which eventually compromises their form. When this happens, I make sure that none of our coaches call them out in front of their teammates since we don’t want to embarrass them. We approach them discreetly and explain that they need to take weight off of the bar to see if their technique improves.

Best supervision

It may sound obvious, but athletes should never be in the weight room unless a supervisor is present. In fact, the doors should be locked unless a qualified coach is in the room and ready to help.

Proper supervision starts with having qualified adult coaches or teachers who have undergone training and understand proper lifting execution oversee the athletes. I prefer to have our weight room supervised by myself or a physical education teacher who is certified by the NSCA in some capacity — either with CSCS credentials, NSCA-CPT credentials, or as a sport coach who has completed the NSCA Fly Solo Program.

The person supervising the room should be actively working and focused on the athletes. This is not a time for them to get their mail or run an errand, or even conduct their own workout. Additionally, the supervisor should be on the weight room floor, not in an office with a window that peers out upon the room.

Sport coaches can also help supervise. Having a team’s coach in the vicinity is a big motivator for the athletes, and I advocate their participation in our weight room workouts. However, I make sure they understand that if they are in the weight room, it’s to help with the workout at hand and not discuss tomorrow’s practice plan.

The best way for a coach to supervise an entire room on his or her own is to be in constant motion, walking around the room and stopping at each rack or station to make sure everyone is lifting safely and with correct form. And when they do stop at a rack to offer advice, the coach needs to continue scanning the rest of the room. It’s as simple as turning to the athlete to say a few words, then picking their head back up for another quick look around the room.

Scanning means looking at the entire room in an organized pattern. A coach could scan left to right, then right to left, and the next time do a circular pattern or break the room up into blocks and go from one to the next. Head strength coaches need to teach this technique to their assistants and any sport coaches serving in a supervisory role. After a while, it will become second nature.

Another way to effectively handle a full room of athletes is to ask sport coaches to place their athletes in six groups or less (freshmen and sophomores together and juniors and senior together) before they enter the weight room. We have six squat racks, six platforms, and six benches. So if we assign one group to each of the six racks and only one athlete per group is performing a lift at a time, that means the supervisor is never responsible for watching more than six athletes lifting at once.

Weight room hazards

Even if every one of the athletes in your weight room is performing each lift perfectly and you are properly supervising the room, accidents can still occur. There are many potential hazards in a weight room that must be addressed.

First, it’s essential that there be enough space at each station to safely perform the exercises. If an athlete drops a bar, you don’t want teammates at the next station to be so close that they get hit. Spotters also need ample room to spot effectively.

Every school’s weight room is different. Ours, for example, has three different areas: A 15-piece circuit area, a 30-piece aerobic center, and an 18-piece lifting area with racks, platforms, and benches. Though we have a lot of equipment squeezed into the 5,200 square-foot space, the room was designed to have at least three feet between each piece of equipment.

It’s easy for an athlete at any age to become distracted, but I think this is especially true for high school students. Distractions often lead to horseplay, which are a huge safety concern. Therefore, it is important to keep everyone on task and occupied.

We do this through carefully timing the workouts. Our sessions are planned so our groups rotate to the next station in their workout every seven to nine minutes. This window should be enough time for the athletes to perform their lifts, but also not so much time that they’re standing around getting bored.

Properly maintaining the equipment also contributes to avoiding accidents. The weight room staff inspects our equipment every single day, and before each class or team lifting session, we ask our students and athletes to inspect the piece of equipment they are about to use and report any damage to us immediately.

Though skin infections have been a concern in weight rooms and gyms for a long time, a new and very scary infection has made headlines in recent years: MRSA. All it takes is a tiny cut or wound for MRSA to spread, so this antibiotic-resistant form of staph should have strength and conditioning coaches on alert and diligent about keeping equipment clean.

When our athletes are done using a bench, piece of cardio equipment, or circuit machine, they are required to wipe it down with disinfectant immediately. And the coaching staff does a final wipe down of all of the equipment at the end of each day.

Our weight room has a dress code for the same reason that wiping down the equipment is mandatory. We ask athletes to wear clothes that cover any skin that might come into contact with any part of the equipment.

Finally, remember to stress safety every day. Aside from talking about safety, we have posters hanging up on the weight room doors and walls that remind our athletes and staff of the dress code and other general rules. Set the overall tone that safety is important in your weight room, and lead by example.

Mike Nitka, MS, CSCS*D, FNSCA, RSCC*E, USAW, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach and a physical education teacher at Muskego (Wisconsin) High School, which received a Strength of America award from the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports in 2010. He also sits on the National Strength and Conditioning Association Board of Directors.

Shop see all »

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
website development by deyo designs
Interested in receiving the print or digital edition of Training & Conditioning?

Subscribe Today »

Be sure to check out our sister sites: