Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Quick Thoughts on Mirrors in the Weight Room

When Tim Henriques wrote this article a couple weeks back, it reminded me of something that's been in my subconscious for quite a while now, but I hadn't spent much time consciously thinking about:

I haven't been training in front of a mirror for over a year now, and I am very grateful for this. 

SAPT: No mirrors here.
Why is this a good thing?  Well, in the article (linked above) Tim hypothesizes that training in front of a mirror eventually leads to "impaired physical performance, with specific decreases in reaction time, rate of force development, and balance."  Yikes!

While I'd still say that training in front of a mirror is better than not training at all (which I'm sure the author didn't mean, but I just wanted to clarify), I think the author made some valid points.  The point of this post isn't to rehash everything Tim said, but to share a couple thoughts that popped in my head as a result of skimming his article.

Specifically, I think finding a training environment with no mirrors on the wall is beneficial because:

1.  It takes your mind off of YOURSELF.  

I'll never forget one of the first things Chris (SAPT's "Operations" guy) said to me during my first visit to SAPT.  I was wandering around the facility and I commented on the fact that there weren't any mirrors on the wallChris looked at me and said:
"Yeah, high schoolers already spend enough time checking themselves out in the mirror."
It hit me right there that he was dead on.  For the athletic crowd, it is going to be far easier to focus their purpose for being at SAPT (improving athletic performance) if there are no mirrors on the wall, as opposed to giving them yet another opportunity to have a discussion with their ego.

Chris mentioned high schoolers, specifically, because of the fact that they (high school athletes) compose the majority of our clientele, but he would have been equally justified in naming just about any other cluster of people.

If there is a mirror in the gym (which is almost always the case), it is near impossible to avoid looking at yourself at some point during your training session

"Oh wow, my arms look really good in this shirt, especially as I near the lockout of this tricep pressdown."

"Hmm, I don't look quite as fat in these pants!"

"I didn't realize my calves looked so great as I work it on the stairmaster."

Sound familiar, anyone?

Seriously, most people would be better off focusing on the task at hand (making improvements in the weight room) than looking at how big their biceps looks under a particular lighting, or how defined his/her legs are looking at the moment.  And, when there are mirrors in the weight room, it is near impossible to avoid doing this. 

For the gents: This means that spending more time actually working hard (deadlifting, doing pullups, etc.) will actually help you fill out your shirt faster than spending 15 minutes checking out your biceps as you curl away in front of the mirror.

For the ladies: This means that improving your performance on squats, lunges, rows, etc. will help you look better in that dress than wasting time looking at your legs as you slug away on the elliptical.

From my personal experience, it is especially critical for women to use improvements in the gym as the true marker of success, as opposed to the weight on the scale or their own subjective opinion (usually negative) of how they look in the mirror.  If you are squatting more than you did last week, or improving your time in a prowler sprint or metabolic circuit, then you are going to look better as a result!

Look, I'm not saying it's inherently evil to train for appearance.  Most people would be lying if they said that 0% of their motivation for training was because it helped them look better.

HOWEVER, focusing on tangible measures of improvement in the weight room (ex. technique improvement, improving on a timed challenge, increasing weight lifted, etc.) will ultimately help you reach your goals more effectively than constantly checking yourself out. 

2.  It develops your proprioception.

Proprioception is just a fancy of way of saying "an awareness of your body is in space," or even more simplified: balance.  It's one reason why older people tend to fall over more: they lose proprioception as they age.

Anyway, I remember the first time I went to perform a stepback lunge in SAPT.  I nearly fell over!  I was furious as I really had to take the weight down in order to perform the movement properly.

This was because I had always completed single-leg work in front of a mirror.  When I didn't have the mirror in front of me, I realized how dormant my "internal receptors" had become when it came to telling my body where it was in space.

Bottom line: I wasn't quite as athletic as I had thought (at least when it came to moving under an axial load).  Up until that point, I had predominantly used visual feedback to tell me where my body was in space, as opposed to using my internal sense of balance (hint: you want to develop the latter).

3.  It allows you to "do work" with the Med Balls. 

No need to elaborate much here, but when a gym is plastered with mirrors on every wall, you can't perform medicine ball work.  Medicine balls are a fantastic tool to develop rotational power (important in athletics), as well as general rate of force development for the upper body.

For older clientele, we use them quite a bit for their "plyometric" portion of the training session (you lose power output as you age, unless you maintain those properties through training).  The medicine balls provide a very safe (and effective) option for the older adults to work on their power output through some throw variations.

Not to mention: they're just plain fun!  Here is Taylor (one of our high school softball athletes) getting after it with a "Side Throw to Slam":


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