Jan 29, 2015
USC Accident Raises Awareness

By Mike Phelps

Through four games this season, University of Southern California running back Stafon Johnson had rushed 32 times for 157 yards and five touchdowns. But before the senior had a chance to add to those stats, his season came to a screeching halt after a weightroom accident left Johnson with a crushed neck and larynx that required seven hours of surgery to repair. The accident has shined a spotlight on weightroom safety and serves as a cautionary tale to athletes and coaches across the country.

The accident occurred Sept. 28 in a USC weightroom. Johnson was performing a set of bench presses with a spotter when the bar slipped out of his right hand and came crashing down on his neck.

“I’ve seen players have the bar slip and fall onto their chest, but never in my 25 years of coaching have I heard of someone dropping a bar on their throat,” USC Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Chris Carlisle said in a statement on the school’s Web site.

Gudata Hinika, MD, Trauma Medical Director at California Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles, believes Johnson likely wouldn’t have survived the accident if not for his muscular neck, which helped maintain his airway when the bar fell on it. Although Johnson’s college career is likely over, he is expected to make a full recovery.

“Had that been any one of us, meaning me, we would have not survived,” Hinika told the Associated Press. “His neck was so solid, so muscular… and the discipline that one learns from being athletic also really helped him to calm down and just do what he needed to do. He took instruction very well. All this combination and his physical fitness contributed to his outcome.”

According to strength and conditioning experts polled by the Los Angeles Times, serious weightroom injuries are extremely rare. A 1990 study on college football players found an injury rate of 0.35 per 100 players per season, and another study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission discovered that post-weightlifting injuries occur at home, rather than in supervised settings like fitness centers and school facilities.

“Weightlifting injuries are extremely rare in supervised situations,” Kent Adams, Director of the Exercise Physiology Lab at California State University-Monterey Bay and a fellow with the American College of Sports Medicine, told the Los Angeles Times. “It sounds like what happened with this young man was a freak accident.”

Just because it was a freak accident doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. Experts say the most important thing coaches who spot should remember is to maintain proper technique.

“The proper technique of spotting is most important,” Ken Croner, a Conditioning Specialist with Athletes’ Performance in Tempe, Ariz., told the Northwest Indiana Times. “If you’re spotting from behind, your left hand should be underneath the bar and your right hand should be over the top. If you’re spotting through a general (set) of five repetitions or more, then one spotter is fine. If it’s a set of only one, two, or three reps, then you need two (spotters).”

But the responsibility to maintain correct technique doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of the spotter. The lifter’s role in safety is just as important.

“I teach [athletes to] squeeze the bar as tight as you can,” Croner told the Northwest Indiana Times. That means fingers over the top and thumbs coming from underneath. The bench and the squat are extremely dangerous. You’ve got to teach it and then stay on top of it, especially with kids.”

Also in response to Johnson’s accident at USC, the Houston Chronicle took the time to speak with strength and conditioning coaches from each of Houston’s three professional franchises–Dave Macha of the NBA’s Rockets, Ray Wright of the NFL’s Texans, and Dr. Gene Coleman of MLB’s Astros. The trio agreed that using proper grip, a spotter, and maintaining concentration were essential to a safe workout.

“Sometimes guys like to use false grips, meaning they put the thumbs under the bar instead of around it,” Coleman told The Chronicle. “You should always lock your thumbs around the bar.”

“I would never lift by myself,” Wright added. “Find a trainer on staff, or a buddy. If you don’t have somebody to spot for you, use machines, not free weights. (The Texans) require a spotter on any free-weight lift… When you get seven or eight reps into a set, your spotter should almost literally be holding the bar for you, then guiding the bar back to the rack.

“Paying attention in the gym is huge,” Wright continued. “You’re talking to friends, listening to music, then you make one wrong move and a horrible accident can happen.”

Both Coleman and Macha tole The Chronicle they encourage their players to use dumbbells for bench presses, rather than the traditional bar for safety reasons.

In November 2007, Carlisle took part in a T&C strength coach roundtable, where he discussed his thoughts on getting the most out of athletes, stretching, periodization, and the future of the profession. The full story can be found here.

Mike Phelps is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

FEEDBACK: If you are using someone in the weight room to spot for you don’t know, instruct them in how you would like them to follow with the hands, one under and one over, and like it says in the article follow the bar at all times. This is what I did not do. I wanted to do some negative lifts on the bench and I asked this kinda buff guy, so I assumed he would know what he was doing. I did the lifts with his help on the concentric portion, however on the last rep, I was done for but I wanted to do one more. I did a controlled fall to my chest then the bar rolled over on my neck, my right pectoralis ruptured at the insertion….then my spotter said “Oh S***t”. We racked the bar, and I asked him why didn’t he get it before it rolled onto my neck, and he said “I thought you had it under control”. It was on my neck dude. Well we both made mistakes, I should have instructed him with what I wanted because I didn’t know him, and he was a newbie who didn’t know how to spot correctly. Well the pec was put back together 4 ½ months later because it being misdiagnosed, but I have around 65%-75% back. Lessons learned, negative exercises are dangerous, don’t do them fatigued, know your spotter, when at the end of your rope stop and rack the bar.

David Oliphant MS, ATC, CES Safety Representative Industrial Athletic Trainer

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