“Think theater and go mirror-free! Participants want to be absorbed in a fun and motivating experience, not to watch their possibly out-of-shape bodies attempt to match a lithe instructor’s every shimmy and shake.” – so started a fitness newsletter about the latest workout trends that Turbo Jennie forwarded to me the other day.
I wrote her back a very intelligent response that basically consisted of LOLWUT?
No mirrors in a workout studio? That’s like a restaurant with no fake centerpiece candles or a subway with no bizarre ads or a strip club with no poles! I mean, what are you supposed to look at then?? Turbo Jennie agreed with me, answering, “Mirrors are a must. It seems like most work harder with a mirror and those that don’t stand in the back or sides!”
I figured we were all in agreement until I posted about gym mirrors on Facebook and was surprised when the vast majority of people said they prefer no mirrors. Several women even said that the no-mirrors thing was one of the reasons they switched from a traditional gym to a CrossFit box. (That and the implicit permission to wear crazy knee-high socks. Okay so they didn’t say that but I know they meant it, deep down.)
I’m going to just say this straight out: I’m one of those people who likes to stare at themselves in the mirror while they lift weights. The majority of the time, it’s to check my form, I swear. Although those floor-to-ceiling reflective surfaces have other good uses like making sure there aren’t any bumps in my ponytail or checking out the progress of the cut on my tricep. Occasionally I even use it to stare at people without actually staring at them. (Hello man walking around with a weight plate literally chained to your waist!)
All of this got me thinking about gym mirrors in general. I remember at my old gym the studio mirrors were so warped that just doing a grapevine to the right made you lose 10 pounds. That is, until you went left again. The teachers always wondered why the right side of the class was so crowded compared to the left! At any rate, I tried very hard then to not look in the mirrors.
But aesthetics aside, gym goers avoid the mirrors for other reasons as well. One thing the newsletter got right: A big concern for many women is being self conscious about their appearance. I will always fondly remember one Bosu class where my top was too short and my pants too tight causing a roll of stomach flab/child skin to blurp out. Mesmerized, I watched it the whole class as it bounced when I bounced and turned when I turned… but always a count behind. A friend expressed a similar fear, saying that she refused to wear tank tops to work out in because “then I’d have to stare at my flabby arms the whole time.” I’m pretty sure when our group fit teachers tell us to focus this is not what they have in mind. In fact, I’m told that many female-only gyms like Curves have no mirrors at all and it is considered a selling point. If you can’t see it then you can’t obsess and worry about it, right?
However, as anyone who has taken yoga will attest to, it is easier to stay balanced in bound eagle or dancer pose if you can see yourself in a mirror. In Hip Hop and Zumba, being able to see the mirror helps with footwork and form, not to mention staying on the beat. Mirrors are also an essential tool for being able to see the instructor from different areas of the room (especially if they’re short). Not to mention they are great for catching and preventing wardrobe malfunctions.
Some of these problems could be remedied with an emphasis on creating a “theater experience” according to the newsletter. For example, the GoodLife clubs, in Canada, replaced front-of-studio mirrors with mirrors on the sides of the room, to be used for alignment and safety cues only. “Instructors face the participants (i.e., mirror-teach) to create a theater effect, as if the exercisers were audience members watching performers on stage. This helps participants “lose themselves in the performance,” they report.
They add that the stage adds to the effect, “providing [the same kind of] performance feel you would get in a theater or club.” One club owner reports, “Effectively all of our classes are a performance of the highest level, so a stage is a must.”
Well now! I have always loved me a stage and while I generally prefer to be the one on it, I do also enjoy watching others perform. Plus I’ve taken classes where the instructor is up on a platform and it can be really useful, especially when the class is very large. (P.S. I always knew that TurboKick was 50% performance art! Zumba, I think, goes up to like 90%.)
But we need to discuss this “mirror-teaching” thing. Call me an old fogie set in my ways but I’ve spent years with instructors facing away from me and it kinda freaks me out when they turn around! Zumba is alllll about the mirror-teaching and while some teachers will still face away from the class, it is entertaining to watch the class fall apart like a bag of marbles dropped on an ice rink when the instructor faces us. Yet facing away from the class only works if you have a mirror. If there are no mirrors, it’s just you and the wall having a special moment.
I never thought that I could get used to working out without a mirror but then it occurred to me that I already do. At my new gym, I take a power yoga class every week and that’s done in a conference room. Scratchy corporate carpeting, chairs shoved to the side and no mirrors anywhere. The teacher (who is aMAYzing) faces us. And I do just fine! So apparently I can hold Eagle without the aid of a reflection.
And: if there are no mirrors in gyms then I will never again have to watch someone pop a zit using one. That might be the best argument yet.
So what is your take on mirrors when you exercise? Do they make you focus on things you don’t like about yourself or are they good for form and balance? And what about this whole “theater experience” trend with stage and the teacher facing you – you dig it?