If you don’t train the failure then you have no need for a spotter. Oh my, so very, very, wrong. And yet it is a commonly stated idea. If you never need a spotter then it is fair to say you never truly train for strength. Strength training involves lifting very heavy weights and sometimes weights that exceed those you’ve lifted before. This isn’t rocket surgery. You want to get strong you have to venture into uncharted territory and you can never be sure. But even if you don’t train to failure, strength training alone without a spotter or without proper safety precautions can be dangerous.
Therefore, there are always times in strength training where a spotter, or at least safety catches of some kind, are needed. In reality, this has nothing to do with whether you train to failure or not. Anybody who is around strength training even a moderate amount of time will see lifters failing at lifts where a spotter should have been present, or, again, where the lifter at least should have been within a power rack with spotter bars. So, if someone says you never need a spotter unless you train to “failure,” you’re talking to someone who is twiddling around with strength training but that doesn’t really know anything about it.
The closer you get to your 1RM, in terms of percentage, the better the chance that you might fail a lift. With doubles and singles, the need for some type of spot is pretty much a given. Let’s say you never lift with such low reps, does this mean you’ll never fail? Of course not.
The idea that if we always leave a couple of reps in the tank means that we can never fail could only come from an armchair strength enthusiast. Why? Because even someone who has been following the type of strength training advice you’d get here or on similar sites for three or four weeks would have realized that failure can come when you least expect it. And if you NEVER experience sudden technical failure and are always so carefully dialed in on your rep number and weight then, my friend, you are a wannabe who must be progressing at the pace of an arthritic snail. Becoming strong (not toned, or ripped, or whatever) entails a modicum of risk and experimentation. It also entails, at times, a bit of aggression. And that entails the need for safety.
Even when things are quite straightforward, you can never be sure what might happen under the bar. You might do a bench press at 150lbs for 6 reps and 3 sets, short of failure on one day, and the next time load up the exact same weight, and find yourself unable to get the bar up on the third rep of the second set. There is no telling why this stuff happens. Now imagine that happening with a much heavier weight, and you with no spotter or safety catches? Getting stuck under a bar during the bench press is not fun. And this scenario is only imagining a simple failure to get the bar up all the way, and having to lower it down to your chest. Sometimes, we can experience “sudden catastrophic failure” of unexplained origin (at the time). So, instead of lowering the bar down to your chest, and having to extricate yourself from underneath it, the bar basically drops onto your chest.
Nobody can claim you’re using too much weight, can they? That’s usually the go-to response of non-strength people. Failure of this sort can happen even at sub-maximal loads. Let’s stick with the former, more common, type of failure where you just fail to get the bar past your sticking point and have to lower it back down (under control).
You may be over-worked. You may not have eaten well. You may not have warmed up as normal, or adequately. You may not have slept enough. You could be dehydrated. It could just fall under “stuff happens.” And that is the point, isn’t it? When it comes to training to lift heavy weights, expect stuff to happen! Never listen to a person who tells you that if you need a spotter you’re doing something wrong. I actually read a strength training blogger (someone who blogs about it but doesn’t actually train people) say, “I haven’t needed a spotter in ten years.” It took all my self-control not to post: “Then you haven’t been strength training for the last ten years.”