Make sure you have a bailout strategy.
I was reminded of the importance of this recently. I recently got stuck with 275 lbs at the bottom of a Box Squat, essentially seated on a bench with a weighted barbell on my back. I didn't want to drop the bar backwards because I feared it would bounce off of the bench and hit me. And the safeties on the rack ahead of me were too low to lean forward and set the bar down. So my only option was to crouch forward awkwardly and let my body collapse, letting the bar fall onto the safeties and tweaking my back in the process. Not a smart move.
So yes, for certain movements, if you're going to push yourself to your limits, you need to make sure you have an effective bailout strategy. Here's how to fail safely on 3 big movements.
Have a plan before you find yourself stuck at the bottom of a heavy squat.
A word about spotters
A spotter is a great option, if you have it. Don't be afraid to ask someone at your gym for a spot on your last couple of sets where you are likely to fail. However, on certain movements you may still need to know how to bail.
A quick story: Earlier this year I had a squat session with a buddy of mine. He's a strong dude and was spotting me like a hawk, but when I got stuck at the bottom of a squat, he wasn't able to help me get back up. You can't just go limp in the failed position—you have to help your spotter get the bar back up, but I had no energy to do so, so I was literally stuck. Eventually I told him to back up so I could dump the bar behind me. If I hadn't known how to do this, I'm not sure what I would have done.
Option 1 - Bench in the Power Rack
As I learned from Mehdi Hadim of StrongLifts, don't be ashamed to bench in the Power Rack. Set the safeties to a level where, if you flatten your back against the bench, the barbell can rest on the safeties without crushing you. When it's time to actually perform reps, you'll be arching your back, moving your chest higher than the safeties, so theoretically the bar won't hit the safeties during your reps.
Omar Isuf, one of our favorites, shows us how it's done:
Option 2 - Dump the Weights
This option is slightly less appealing since it makes a lot of noise which will probably make you avoid it, but it sure beats the hell out of dying. If you can't find a power rack to bench in, load the bar without clamps on the ends and then when you need to bail you can tilt the bar to dump the weights on one side and then let it rotate to dump the weights on the other side.
High Bar Back Squat
Option 1 - Use a Rack with Safeties
Similar to with Bench, it's best to squat in a rack with safeties. Set the safety bars to a level where slightly below the bottom of your movement you can rest the barbell on the safeties.
Note: Once people start squatting with safeties at the bottom of the hole, they'll often use this to make sure they are going low enough. Try not to do this. It's common to subconsciously lean forward more in the squat to reach the safeties, which is a big no-no and puts more strain on your knees.
Option 2 - Squat Outside the Rack and Get Out of the Way
If you don't have access to a power rack with safeties, another option is to squat outside the rack and to drop the bar behind you. Basically at the point that you think you're going to fail, release the bar and move your body forward *as quickly as possible*, letting the bar drop behind you. Remember that the bar wants to drop straight down, so if you can move your body out of this path, you'll be safe.
I know you're worried that the bar will hit your back as you move forward. If you move fast enough, it won't. Also consider the fact that the bar can easily roll off of your upper back without you getting hurt. It's only a problem if the bar falls onto your lower back, but move your body forward quick enough to avoid this.
Low Bar Back Squat
You're probably not going to be able to dump the bar behind you on this one—you're just leaned too far forward. Make sure to do these in a rack where you can use safeties (option 2 from high bar back squat).
Similar to the High Bar Back Squat, the best thing to do is to squat in the rack and use the safety bars. Set the safeties to a level where when you're in the down position, you can just lean forward slightly to rest the bar on the safeties.
Stay safe. Lift heavy. If you have thoughts on any of these suggestions, or further recs, leave them in the comments. Happy lifting!