And avoid life-threatening injury in the process.
Generally speaking, you have three options: 1.Yell “Oh my God, help!” in the hopes someone can hear you over their headphones and come to your rescue; 2. Get crushed under the weight; or 3. Learn how to bail successfully.
One of these—spoiler, it’s the third—is more effective than the others. If you’re going to be squatting, especially if it’s heavy weight, you need to be able to fail a squat safely.
Learning to do so can be a literal lifesaver: Getting stapled by a weight is never fun, but getting crushed at the bottom of a barbell squat can be very dangerous, causing irreparable harm to your body, particularly your knees or ankles, or even your spine.
The good news, though, is it’s entirely preventable: You just need to do a little prep work first—and place your ego in check.
You know those pins that slide in and out of the holes up and down on the outside of the squat or power rack? Those are called safety pins.
They’re there for your safety. You don’t lose points on your man card for using them.
You just need to learn how to set them up correctly, so they can save you when that 275-pound squat suddenly starts to feel like a couple more plates were added once you’re trying to make your way back up.
First, do a test run with an empty barbell to determine your lowest squat depth—and then choose one that’s one or two notches below that. It’s really important you figure out the height for your squat depth, and not just use the same one used by the guy in front of you.
Just be careful not to set them too high. I’ve watched many experienced lifters start their descent into the squat only to come to an abrupt stop sooner than they if the pins were set too high. It's not necessarily dangerous, but it can be jolting—and slightly embarrassing due to the loud noise it make.
Now, you’re set up. If you get to the bottom of your squat and know there’s no chance in hell of you coming back up, simply sink a bit further down, until the barbell comes to rest on the pins. Then, you’ll simply “roll” or step right out from underneath the bar.
All told, fails are going to happen, but they shouldn’t be a regular occurrence. And while those pins can give you a degree of confidence, don’t think of them as a crutch—the goal is to not use them. They should be there if or when you do need them, but the goal shouldn’t be to fail with your squat so you need to use them each time.
A better rule of thumb? Cut your set short if you feel so fatigued that relying on those safety pins is a major possibility. If you barely eked out the last rep, or you feel the quality of your technique is being compromised—say, due to excessive rounding of your back, or your knees caving in—during a set, simply rack the weight and cut it short (Here's how to warm up for heavy squats).
And then make sure it doesn’t happen again during your next squat day. There are two simple rules to guard against failing a squat.
First, nail down your initial setup—this is key to making the most out of your reps and putting your strength to use. You can’t have a loosey-goosey setup and expect good things to happen.
So brace your abs, pull down on the bar to “set” your lats and upper back, and maintain proper weight distribution—not too far forward in your toes or too far back in your heels. Then screw your feet into the floor, which will reduce your chances of tipping over.The second part is to make sure you’re not trying to lift too much weight or do too many reps. Once you find your one-rep max, you can gauge based off that—and Prilepin’s chart, below.
Reps Per Set
If you know you’re using 85% of your 1-rep max you can expect to be able to complete anywhere between 2 to 4 repetitions in a set.
Alternatively, unless your name is Thor, don’t expect to nail five reps with 90% or more of your 1-rep max.
Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., owner of CORE in Boston, has worked with thousands of clients ranging from professional athletes to weekend warriors in his 15+ years in the industry. He likes Star Wars and gluten.