Working Out in Front of a Mirror Isn’t Vain, It’s Smart
There's a thin line between narcissism and mindful muscle work.
Microgen / Getty
I recently wrote an article in which I explored a handful of the fitness dogmas that Ngo Okafor—the god-bodied trainer who presided over my four-week body transformation—either doubts, ignores, or decries. There are, however, several elements of received gym wisdom with which Ngo is very much on board. Among these is the importance of what’s called the mind-muscle connection. This is generally defined as a conscious, deliberate, and mindful contraction of a muscle to recruit a high number of fibers within that specific muscle. This differs from the simple act of swinging dumbbells around while you crank your favorite jams, futz with your smartphone, and/or think about something else.
“Look around a gym and you’ll see people phoning it in, literally,” he says. “By not concentrating on what their body is doing, they’re cheating themselves out of getting better results while increasing the chances of getting injured.”
Many reading this will think of trainers’ recommendation to take advantage of the mind-muscle connection as tantamount to being told to read The Secret, use the force, or heaven forbid, dance like no one’s watching. But in fact, plenty of research has used electromyography (EMG)—a diagnostic procedure used to to assess the health of muscles and the nerve cells that control them—to demonstrate that there’s something to this mindful muscle work—or “bro-ga”—after all.
One such study demonstrated that when thinking about the contraction of the chest while performing a push up, activity in the participants’ pectorals increased by 9 percent. Another found that volunteers doing the same trunk exercise increased the activation of different parts of their abdominus rectus depending on which area they were instructed to concentrate on. Even more illustrative of the mind’s power over muscle was a study from Ohio University in which 29 people volunteered to have their wrists put into casts for a month. Half of the participants were told to focus their entire mental effort on pretending to flex their muscles for 11 minutes, five days per week. When the casts came off, the people who’d been thinking about exercising had double the wrist strength of those who hadn’t. They had, in effect, thought themselves stronger.
The results of studies like these led me to reflect on whether people who use mirrors get more out of their workout and in doing so, start a positive feedback loop. Here’s my thinking: You watch your muscles contracting as you perform an exercise, your clothing tightening around thighs, arms, shoulders, and back. As a result of focusing on those muscles, you recruit more fibers and consequently the muscle grows faster and more convincingly. Enamored with your swole quads, biceps, triceps, deltoids, and lats, you’re more inclined to look in the mirror at them contracting when you work out and thereby optimize the potential for further growth. It’s a untested theory that I’ve come up with that both motivates me to “bring it” in the gym and gives me license to look in the mirror just a little too much.
Most of us would be embarrassed to be called out for gazing at our reflections while working out. Why? Because it’s narcissistic. Narcissus, the mythological namesake of this wholly uncool character trait did, you’ll remember, become so enamored by his reflection on the surface of a pool that he hung out there gazing at it until he realized that his love could not be reciprocated and killed himself. The perils of vanity have been preached in cautionary parables, fables, and verse again and again over the centuries. While the ubiquity of the selfie demonstrates that we appear to be getting over it at lightning speed, the stigma of self-adoration still hangs on in the collective conscience.
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In fact, looking in the mirror at the gym is still considered so incredibly gauche that Planet Fitness’s latest ad campaign is all about their facilities not having any. It features a shirtless and ripped bro telling the camera that he’ll never join Planet Fitness for this very reason. Planet Fitness—which has over 1500 locations nationwide—is pushing a message about their fostering of a non-judgemental environment.
CrossFit facilities—called “boxes”—generally don’t have mirrors either. That goes well with their spartan, “functional fitness” ethos, but it could also be linked with the prevalence and types of injuries that occur more frequently at CrossFit boxes than they do at conventional gyms. The primary reason mirrors adorn the walls of so many conventional gyms is that they give users the ability to check that their bodies are moving in a such a way as to stress the muscle or muscle group they wish to target without getting fucked up in the process. CrossFit proponents say that the lack of mirrors in their boxes help develop proprioception—the ability to sense the relative positions of body parts without looking or thinking about them.
But CrossFitters do CrossFit with the aim of getting better at doing CrossFit. I, on the other hand, just want to look better naked and stay out of physical therapy. Mirrors, I think, will help on both counts. A little over 18 months ago, researchers sought to prove a similar hypothesis.
In 2016, Israel Halperin, then a physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport and Edith Cowan University decided to look into whether mirrors imparted the vain with any advantages when it came to growing their muscles. “No studies to my knowledge were conducted on this topic despite widespread use of mirrors in gyms, studios, etc,” he tells me. “We know very little about how mirrors influence performance related outcomes.”
The study, which was published in the journal PLOS ONE, compared working out while looking in a mirror with two other ways of directing your attention. Those other attention types were focus on the contraction of a muscle—what Halperin called an “internal focus”—and focusing on what the muscle is doing (i.e. raising a dumbbell, which he termed an external focus). During these trials, Halperin recorded surface EMG activity of the biceps and triceps.
Halperin observed that external focus—looking at the thing your efforts are moving through space—was superior in producing more force than concentrating on the contraction of the muscle. Unfortunately for my theory, Halperin found that looking in the mirror had a neutral effect on performance, neither helping nor hindering performance compared to a non-mirrored environment.
“That doesn't necessarily mean that mirrors are useless,” Halperin says, adding that they might help when the information derived from the mirrors is relevant to executing the exercise effectively and safely.
That said, in order for your reflection to be helpful in correcting your form, you have to know what the correct form looks like. I’ve looked at my form in the mirror many times and thought I was doing a textbook job, only to be told by Ngo that I’m yanking a dumbell or pulling a cable in a manner that’s not stimulating the targeted muscle the way the movement is intended to. In effect, I don't need a mirror when Ngo’s around. The net result of his tutelage in the gym however, may have resulted in the sleeves of all of my t-shirts mysteriously falling off—so I've been seeking my own reflection quite a bit anyway.
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