How Mirrors Make You Weaker and Ruin Your Fitness (Part 1)

“Why do you always have your athletes facing away from the mirror when they’re in the rack?” – Great question. Actually I often take this a step or two further and partially blindfold or have them close their eyes completely depending on the stability demands of the exercise. Here’s why, and how you can instantly improve your fitness by the simple act of turning around.

Those of you who have ever trained in a hardcore gym, athlete specific weight room, or spent some significant time in a good physiotherapist’s training room will probably have noticed one of the biggest differences between these facilities and a commercial gym (aside from the lack of redundant machines) is the lack of mirrors, but unless you’ve asked, you probably don’t know why. So here’s the slightly watered down technical explanation and some common sense examples

Lifting with your brain, attention pools, the visual system, the power of proprioception, and the blind man that can hear exactly where you are:

The first myth that needs to be dispelled is that you lift weights with your muscles. Sure they actually provide the force to overcome the inertia, but muscle tissue is actually pretty dumb tissue, it’ll respond to pretty much any electrical impulse, like a electrostim machine, a taser, or sticking a fork into an electrical socket (seriously why in this day and age do I actually have to tell you not to do this?). However, we’re going to assume you’re not hooking yourself up to your car battery every time you want to move the couch, so in everyday life the “battery” creating the electrical impulses that command your muscles to contract is actually your brain. Without the brain and spinal cord sending small electrical impulses to the muscles at all times you are literally reduced to a glorified immobile puddle of flesh that is being held together by your ligaments and bones.

Ok so the brain is pretty important; however you may have heard it doesn’t multi-task very well. Which is partially true. I don’t want to get too much into multi vs central attention pools and their effects on motor performance, but one thing we can agree on is that the more complex the task, and the more options we have, the less likely it is that we will be able to do anything else at the same time with any shred of competence. For example, If I take you out to the driving range and ask you hit a few balls, whether or not you suck to begin with, you will suck way more if you’re asked to recite the alphabet backwards while setting up and taking your shots, or you will slow significantly in your reciting while you hit the ball, but without fail, you will suck more at one of the tasks than if you were to do them separately. Now what the hell does this have to do with squatting in a mirror?

Vision is extremely complex; not only does visual information come in upside down, but it must be broken down and then reconstructed before it is interpreted and the brain makes its best guess as to what’s out there – and make no mistake, it is a guess; our visual systems are easily fooled. How complex is the system? The process is so specific that some neurons respond to lines that are exactly 45 degrees, but not to ones that are 44 or 46 degrees. So needless to say your vision is taking a lot of cognitive energy (about 30% of the cortex is dedicated to this task vs 8% for touch and 3% for hearing), and when you look in the mirror you’re inverting the image again, and your brain thinks you’re an asshole for making the process even harder. Consequently, you must focus more of your attention on processing visual information and less on the task of coordinating those millions of electrical impulses that are controlling the muscles involved in your squat. Just like when you were 10 and playing with your remote control car, when the battery dies the car gets slower and reacts poorly; your muscles are no different. So by simply looking in the mirror to improve your form, you’ve actually made yourself worse at the task, and made yourself slower and weaker. You’re also taking away some of the attention from a very powerful system of motor coordination: the proprioceptive system.

Unlike the visual system that focuses on the external environment and how you relate to it, the proprioceptive system is an internal system that communicates positions of joints in relation to each other and muscular tension differentials, among other things, and it just so happens to be way faster and more accurate than the visual system for coordinating movement. The problem is that we’re hard wired to accept visual information as more important and more accurate; however, if you just turn around and face away from the mirror, you never give your brain the chance to override proprioceptive input with doubly inverted visual information,  and you’ll instantly starting moving better. A common phenomenon that occurs when you turn someone around and face away from the mirror is that previously painful movements are suddenly pain free; this occurs by correcting small, visually imperceptible, movement errors that cause tissue to be overloaded.

So this proprioceptive system is pretty bad ass, but can we make it even better? What about the blind man that can hear exactly where you are in a room, how does he fit into all this? Well he provides a real world example of how you can hack the visual system to improve the other sensory systems. Most of us know that blind people have better developed sense of smell, hearing, and touch to respond to their external environment, and this is partially due to the attention that is not being used to run the visual system. We can take advantage of the same effect and increase the sensitivity of the proprioceptive systems by partially blindfolding athletes or asking them to close their eyes. There are specific instances as to when to apply one over the other, more on that in part 2.

For now, the take home points are:

  1. When you look in the mirror you make form worse and your output is weaker
  2. Turn the hell around.

Make sure you don’t miss part 2 by subscribing to the Blacksmith Fitness Facebook page, and for many other fitness/athletic training articles ranging from elite hockey training to cutting up for summer

3 thoughts on “How Mirrors Make You Weaker and Ruin Your Fitness (Part 1)

  1. warriorsandc

    Good post! I’ve had a lot of friends who are shocked and stunned that my gym doesn’t have mirrors, “how can you tell that you’re using good form?” they’ll ask. I try to explain to them that it’s really the opposite. I do think it’s important to take video from time to time for analysis after the fact.

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    1. blacksmithfitness Post author

      I am a huge fan of filming with high speed cameras, and as of right now I have still been showing the athletes the footage. Although anecdotally we have seen great results with this method there’s still conflicting research on whether the athlete should view the footage or not. Trying to keep an open mind on this one while the academics duel it out. Stick around for part 2 that includes the partial blindfolded and eyes closed methods. Would be interested in hearing your feedback

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