We like to be watched. Why else are so many of us Instagramming our every meal and workout? And research has shown that people generally perform better on simple tasks (and worse on complex ones) when being observed. This is called social facilitation, and it applies to weight-training. A study looked to see just how deep this goes with a twist or two on the classic question: How much can you bench— for reps—with and without spotters?
SPOT BENCH PRESS STUDY
A previous study, with 32 participants, showed that one-rep max bench presses improved by 13% when performed before an audience. Yep, we liked to be watched. But, outside of a powerlifting meet or perhaps a live stream, it’s rare to have an audience watching your bench.
A new study set out to replicate more common training conditions: a couple of training partners spotting you versus no spotters at all. Twelve experienced weight-trainers performed three sets of bench presses at 60% of their one-rep max (ex: 180 pounds for a 300-pound bencher) to failure, with two minutes rest between sets. On one day, they benched with a silent spotter at the ready on each side of the bar. On the other day, they were alone (the spotters were still there but hidden). The subjects totaled 11.2% more reps with spotters than without. That’s the difference between nine reps and 10 reps, and it may be the difference between muscle and strength gains and none at all.
BENCH PRESS CONFIDENCE BOOST
Of course, with a spotter you’re able to truly go to failure (missing your last rep) and get help re-racking the weight. (The study did not note this happening.) But there was more to the study’s bench press sessions. After sets, participants ranked their perceived exertion (how hard they thought they’d worked) and self-efficacy (belief in ability at a given task, in this case: hitting again the rep total of their previous set). With spotters, their perceived exertion was 8% lower, even though they were cranking out more reps, and their self-efficacy was a whopping 45% higher.
In other words, when being watched, they thought they were working a little less hard and they were a lot more self-confident. The researchers concluded: “This study demonstrates that resistance exercise is improved by the presence of spotters, which is facilitated by reduced ratings of perceived exertion and increased self-efficacy. This has important implications for athletes and clients, who should perform resistance exercise in the proximity of others, to maximize total work performed.” These “others” were silent strangers. It’s possible that an encouraging training partner would’ve helped the benchers eke out still more reps.
BENCH PRESS SPOT CONCLUSION
Get a spot, not just on the heavy max you’re afraid you might miss, but even on lighter sets. We perform better when we’re being watched.