How Gym Mirrors Make you Weaker, and How to Hack the Visual Systems for Better Performance (Part 2)


Now last article I hinted at the partial and fully blindfolded method, and how and when to use them. If you haven’t read part 1 of this article go read it now. Seriously, click that little menu button, and go to the home page and it’s the article right underneath this one. For those of you that won’t, here is the basic points:

  1. Your brain lifts the weight; your muscles are passive and just apply the force they’re told to
  2. Vision is incredibly complex and takes a lot of attention and focus – “brain horsepower” that isn’t being used to power your muscles
  3. Mirrors invert the image and your brain must work even harder to produce an image. This makes you react slower, and your output to the muscles weaker
  4. Looking in the mirror, you make small mistakes that you can’t see, often leading to pain and cumulative injury. Mirrors actually make your form worse.
  5. You have an internal movement analysis system call the proprioceptive system, and it’s faster and more accurate than the visual system. Increase the output of the proprioceptive system by focusing less on the visual and more on the internal
  6. Face away from the mirror when working in the rack

So hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that mirrors aren’t helping you in your quest to improve your form or increase your strength, and the take home point was to turn around and face away from the mirror while in the rack, this time around I want to take it a step further, and show you how you can hack the visual systems to improve strength and coordination, and improve athletic performance, here’s how:

The relationship between vision and the inner ear, how less than 1% of your vision takes 50% of the brain’s visual processing, how an exercise fits on the stability continuum changes the need for focal vision

Try this:

  1. Take your squat position, and put your arms straight out in front of you (think old school zombie movie or frankenstein)
  2. Close your eyes
  3. Squat to the bottom and hold for a 3-4 seconds
  4. Return to the start
  5. Bonus points if you can have someone film you eyes open vs eyes closed
  6. Repeat the experiment with one leg in front of the other and do a split squat
  7. Repeat the experiment by taking one leg off the ground and doing a single leg deadlift

Chances are that if you are a decent squatter that you accomplished the bodyweight squat with little difficulty, and with the eyes closed, it was smooth and you may have noticed some sensations you don’t normally notice (glute stretch in the bottom, the thighs pressed against the torso, tension in your knee etc). If you filmed the two attempts, you’ll probably notice that the eyes closed version looks smoother and more controlled than the eyes open one. Chances are the split squat was harder, but you probably still did it. If you weren’t able to do the first two, then your proprioceptive system needs some work, but fear not, there’s instructions on how to improve below. Now for the one legged deadlift; if you did it, congratulations, you have a very efficient proprioceptive system, but even if you did, it was probably pretty damn difficult and may have taken you a couple of tries.

So closing the eyes improved the bodyweight squat but made the split squat and one legged deadlift worse. In all three of the exercises we closed the eyes to increase the output of the proprioceptive system (much like the blind man example in part 1) and took away the visual system’s scanning of the external environment. So what was the difference, and how are we going to use this information? The biggest difference was the stability demands of the exercise; with each progression the exercise selection became more unstable.

Low stability demand exercises, think two feet on the ground or torso supported, centre of gravity (the weight being used) is at or below the hips, and moving in one plane (not twisting or rotating in multiple directions) i.e. deadlift variations, bench press variations, T-bar rows, barbell hip thrusts etc. rely more on your strength than on your ability to balance. These types of exercises benefit from eyes closed or or fully blindfolded methods by taking the attention normally spent on the visual system and allowing you to focus it entirely on the internal cues arising from your proprioceptive system. This can increase the control you have over that motor pattern, leading to more efficient patterns of muscle recruitment, better movement quality, and increased strength.

Somewhere in the middle of the continuum lies exercises like loaded squats (these are different than our bodyweight example because the centre of gravity is higher), split squats, lunge variations, and other exercises where you actually move through space or rotate like barbell twists. These exercises have a high strength and high stability demand, and therefore completely closing the eyes doesn’t usually improve performance or the rate of skill/form acquisition, this is due to the relationship between the horizon and the inner ear.

You may have had a bad cold or ear infection and felt incredibly dizzy or had mild vertigo; this happens from changing or closing off the input from the inner ear. When the information from the inner ear and the visual system don’t agree, this causes huge problems for you and the resulting confusion usually leads to dizziness, nausea and generally a shitty day. The inner ear and visual system work together and check each other to help you make a decision on where you relate to the pull of gravity and the horizon. So as the stability demands of an exercise increase, so does the need for the visual system, so does this mean we need to take all that valuable attention away from our proprioceptive system and neural drive to the muscles? No, we can use a portion of the visual field instead.

Less than 1% of our visual field takes up 50% or more of our brain’s visual processing power. It’s the 2-3 millimetres right in the center of our visual field and it’s responsible for all the fine detail we see. Try it out, focus on the “O” in this random assortment of letters STKFFTRFOGHTSTVVS now try to read the rest of the letters without changing your focus from the centre of the “O”. The thing is, for exercises in the middle of the continuum, we don’t need this type of focus, we just need a general sense of where we relate to the pull of gravity, and most of that information comes from the very bottom of our peripheral vision. This is where the partial blindfolded method comes in. If you tie a blindfold so that it comes just below the bridge of your nose, the relationship between the inner ear and the visual system is maintained, and your balance improves drastically; however, you still take advantage of the higher output to the proprioceptive system and higher neural drive to the muscles. Meaning all the good things mentioned above, smoother motion, increased strength, and better movement quality still apply.

How about high stability demand exercises? Ones in this category include high velocity movements, especially overhead, or exercises where your head and or body will be moving through space in large degrees. Examples would be the olympic movements and their variations, any kind of jumping or plyometrics, or anything involving catching an implement. For these types of exercises you react not only to gravity, but also to another objects, or are required to manage other significant multi-planar forces; this is what vision is designed for and you need to use it in it’s entirety. That being said, many of these movements can be broken down into components that would fit into the medium to low stability demand area of the continuum, and improved. Once those improved pieces are reintegrated into the whole movement, the whole movement usually improves by better sequencing, improved strength, and hitting key positions in the movement. For example, a kick in soccer could be reduced to the lower leg swing, it could be made more efficient, strengthened, and increased in power, then when the athlete integrates that motion into the full kick with lead up, an increase in shot velocity and accuracy occurs.

You’re now miles away from that person who was squatting in the mirror with terrible form and nagging knee pain, but what if that nagging knee/ankle/hip/shoulder pain isn’t going away? In part 3 I’ll go over how to modulate the visual system to improve that nagging discomfort that could be related to joint stability.

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