It’s no secret that I am a big proponent of proper form and movement patterns. Moving your body through safe and effective ranges of motion is essential to a long, pain-free career in exercising, and we should use every tool at our disposal to ensure it takes precedence. That’s why the mirrors in a gym are such a valuable part of the equipment.
Mirrors serve many practical purposes. Not only do they make the space appear larger and brighter, they also afford members the opportunity to check out their appearance (and take selfies, if called for), watch out for other members and equipment (safety first), and notice if the smelly guy in the midriff shirt is nearby (::cough:: Steve).
Their most useful function, though, is providing the ability to self-monitor your positioning and movement.
- Am I doing this correctly?
- Why does my left arm come up farther than my right?
- Have I always been holding my hands like that?
- Wow, I didn’t know my lower back rounded when I...
Visual feedback like this is crucial to performing optimally, especially when not working with a coach. It is often the first step in correcting an imbalance or movement fault before it gets out of hand and leads to injury or, at the very least, inhibits your progress.
Just don’t take it too far.
Many people in the gym do entire workouts wherein they never take their eyes off their reflection. There is a difference between being able to see yourself and watching yourself, and the latter is where we run into trouble. Being able to see yourself allows you to self-monitor and make periodic checks. Watching yourself, though, often comes at the expense of proper positioning and can impede some necessary feedback loops.
Any time you have to move at the neck—whether that’s craning, twisting, or bending—to see yourself in the mirror, you might want to reconsider whether you really need the feedback you're looking for. If you decide it's necessary, try recording videos or taking snapshots, or maybe have a friend/trainer/coach nearby provide you with some thoughts. If you don’t have access to any of these things, then periodic checks in the mirror might be in order. Just keep them to a minimum.
Even when you aren’t putting yourself into compromised or sub-optimal positions, there is still some valuable feedback you might not be getting if you’re constantly watching in the mirror. If the only reinforcement you get is that a movement looks correct, what happens when you have to perform a similar movement in the real world and don’t have your reflection handy? How will you know you’re moving well enough to not injure yourself?
Mirrors are good. They serve a purpose. But don’t let watching yourself take precedence over learning how a movement feels. In my opinion, seeing what you’re doing should only be a tool on the road to feeling that you’re performing an exercise properly, not a substitute for it.
GIVE IT A TRY! This week in the gym, perform as many movements (that you’re confident you do well) as you can without looking in the mirror at all. You might even try doing some with your eyes closed! Just…y’know…nothing that involves explosive movements or locomotion. That could be bad.