Just about every commercial gym has a giant wall of mirrors, either surrounding the whole space or lining the portion of the gym with the dumbbell rack. Watching yourself in the mirror can help you to make sure you’re lifting with the correct form and using the right muscles, so what the heck do you do if you’re lifting in a garage with no mirrors at all?
The truth is, your garage (or living room, or backyard) is not the only fitness space in the world that lacks mirrors. Crossfit boxes, for example, often have none. In my experience combined with my creeping on Instagram, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gym set up for powerlifters, competitive weightlifters, or strongman competitors that had a wall of mirrors.
What mirrors are for
Mirrors in gyms come from a bodybuilding tradition, in which you’re doing exercises to target specific muscle groups. Watching yourself in the mirror helps you to know whether you’re doing the move exactly as intended, and you can see your muscles working.
The few times I have seen mirrors in a powerlifting or weightlifting gym, they’ve been small and positioned by the dumbbells. They make the most sense there: if you’re doing lateral raises, you can make sure you’re lifting both arms evenly. If you’re doing a bicep curl, you can make sure you’re keeping your elbow in place to isolate the bicep rather than “cheating” with your body.
Lifting in front of a mirror also makes you look at yourself and decide what you think of your appearance — which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your relationship with your body. I’ve definitely had moments where I was doing an exercise in the mirror and noticed something I liked; but it’s also tempting to judge yourself harshly.
Why you don’t need them
If you’re doing compound lifts, where many of your body parts need to move in sync with one another, you won’t get far until you can do the movement by feel.
Watch where an experienced lifter trains their eyes during a deadlift: they walk up to the bar, look down as they position their feet, look at the bar as they position their hands, and then they fix their gaze forward as they execute the lift. There’s no mirror on the platform. Why would there need to be?
But in countless form check videos I’ve seen, a newer lifter, unsure of themselves, will set up with a mirror at their side. They watch the mirror as they approach the bar and set their feet. They look down at the bar to position their hands, then back up at the mirror to see how everything looks. Face forward again as they lift the weight, then immediately back to the mirror. All that head swivelling messes with their flow and focus, and you can tell they’re thinking does this look right? rather than how does it feel?
Until last year, I trained in a gym lined with mirrors. When I squatted, it was always facing the mirror. This way it was easy to tell when I was squatting low enough. But as I prepared for a powerlifting competition, I realised I can’t rely on looking. I need to know when I’ve hit depth. I stopped looking at my hips, and just stared forward with a blank gaze. Pretty quickly I learned where I needed to be.
What to use instead
If you don’t have a mirror, you can use video for form checks (or, if you have a trusted gym buddy, ask for their opinion). Walk up to the bar, do the exercise with confidence, and then check afterwards to see how it looked.
Video form checks aren’t just for big lifts, either. You can do those lateral raises in front of your phone camera, and use the feedback to teach yourself whether you’re doing them right.
Training without a mirror will feel weird at first, but your body knows how to do the exercises. You’ll be fine.