Why working out in front of a mirror could be hurting you
Looking in the mirror at the gym serves a variety of purposes. It helps us keep an eye on our form and allows us to track our physical progress—i.e. check ourselves out. Not to mention it also helps with those full-body selfies (guilty as charged). But beyond the smoke and, well, mirrors, is a highly contested debate within the fitness industry about whether focusing on our reflection is beneficial for our fit-game. Some disciplines (like boxing) swear by the use of mirrors, while others, like CrossFit and yoga, strongly discourage relying on them. As a boxing coach myself, I have my own opinions, but I wanted to hear out some other fitness professionals. Here, we swap notes on the benefits of staring at ourselves while we sweat.
The original purpose of having mirror-lined weight room—other than to make the space look bigger (interior design 101)—was to allow the athletes to correct their own form. If your bent-over rows require a flat back, the mirror will tell you if you have a slight arch that needs to be adjusted. In theory, this should go in the “pros” category, right? Not so fast, says Reebok CrossFit coach and gym owner Nic Martin, who claims that while it can be useful at the beginning, prolonged use of a mirror takes away our ability to learn how it feels to do exercises properly. “CrossFit avoids using mirrors in order to build proprioception. In other words, improving your body’s awareness of where it is in space, which is inherently useful for any athletic endeavour or physical life skill.” And it’s true: If we always need a mirror to tell us how to lift something safely and effectively, then what happens when we go to pick up our grocery bags or lift our over-packed suitcase into the trunk? What about when we do an outdoor workout? Relying solely on a mirror not only limits our fitness opportunities, but it’s arguably dangerous for the 23 other hours in the day when we’re NOT at the gym.
Martin brings up another interesting point: A lot of people don’t know what the “right” form looks like to begin with. “What good is a mirror if you can’t tell you’re doing something wrong? A coach will always be more effective than your reflection. In CrossFit classes, a coach is keeping a watchful eye to provide feedback and correction when and where it’s needed.”
From my perspective as a boxing coach, not every student has great body awareness. This means I can tell them 100 times to turn their hip and pivot their back foot, but they still may not know how to execute those directions. It is when they’re able to look in the mirror that they start to recognize where the tweaks need to be made, and it all comes together. It is not just for intro level fighters; even at my skill level, I continue to use the mirror to check in with my form. I might think that I’m stepping far enough for my body shot, but when I check in with my reflection, I realize I could take it a bit further. The mirror is a great ally when it comes to boxing technique.
Many sports and workouts have more going on than meets the eye. It’s not just about flexing muscles and increasing strength; it’s also about mental growth. For lots of people, working out is a time when they can clear their heads, check out from the daily stresses and tap into something deeper. According to Rachelle Taylor, yogi and founder of Prairie Yogi Inc., focusing on the physical reflection takes away from the inward benefits of practice. “I actually feel that other than a starting point to help with alignment for beginners, the mirror is a huge distraction in yoga. The external influences that arise with a mirror in front of me completely derail me from the reason I show up to the mat: to find calm and turn my intentions inward.”
There is a very strong mental component in boxing as well. When fighters get to a level where they have all the basics mastered, it’s time to start envisioning a real “fight” and pretending to react to real scenarios in the ring, as in: “If my opponent throws this punch, I move this way and come back with this combination.” This is called “shadow boxing.” If we’re busy staring at our reflection and admiring how badass we look, we lose out on the mental benefits that can come from using our imagination. There’s definitely an art to knowing when to step away from the technical tune-ups in front of the mirror and step into the mental work associated with the sport.
How many times have you fixated on how your flesh jiggles when you jump or how your bra fat spills over your Nike top? We’re all guilty of harping on superficial criticisms when faced with our reflection and it turns out this can actually leave an emotional mark. A recent study revealed that women who focus on how they look at the gym have more negative feelings about themselves, are more fatigued and less happy, post-sweat, than those who do not. Yikes.
Taylor admits that when she watches herself during yoga practice, the superficial factors can cause to her to focus on unhealthy things. “When I practise in a studio with mirrors, I become much more competitive—I want my Dancer’s Pose to be deeper and stronger than the person next to me. I also become much more aware of external factors, like looking around for who I know in the class, critiquing my outfit or checking out the hot guy in the back row.” Been there, done that.
Martin agrees that it is much healthier to take the focus off of our surface evaluations, explaining: “We want the health benefits that come from working out, but most people would also admit they want to look better naked. Mirrors allow people to indulge in that vanity. When people focus on performance, they get the great aesthetic and health benefits minus the constant focus on how you look. It’s a healthier approach.”
I can’t deny that there are times when I see clients thinking and talking negatively about themselves. But despite these low moments, I also find that many report feeling incredibly confident after class. Spending an hour watching their muscles poke through as they master exercises they once thought were impossible makes them feel strong, beautiful and motivated to come back.
While there is no right answer when it comes to this topic, it serves as a reminder to get rid of our default settings at the gym and switch it up. If you tend to focus on the visual, challenge yourself to turn the reflection inward from time to time. And if you never get a chance to peep your sweaty self, I strongly urge you to take a look…you might just be impressed.