It’s a common experience to walk into a commercial gym and see the facility decked out with mirrors along the walls, including the wall in front of the squat racks. In contrast, when you walk into a powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting gym, it’s common not to see any mirrors at all, especially not in front of the squat rack or the lifting platform.
So why do powerlifters squat without using mirrors? Powerlifters train without mirrors because it more closely resembles the competition conditions of their sport. Powerlifting is one of the few sports where an athlete can practice exactly how they compete, so it is hugely advantageous for an athlete to set up their training environment to do so.
Despite that being the most popular reason, there are actually 5 reasons in total why powerlifters choose to face away from the mirror while squatting. In this article, we’ll cover all of these reasons, and explain the practical applications of squatting without a mirror.
Reason # 1: There Are No Mirrors At a Powerlifting Meet
The goal of powerlifting is to lift the maximum amount of weight under competition conditions.
When a lifter stands on the platform, they face the head referee and the audience. There is no mirror in front of them and they receive no visual feedback. It is the job of the three referees to determine if the lift meets the criteria of that federation.
Reason #2: Powerlifters Need To Learn How To Squat Deep Enough Without a Mirror
One of the most difficult skills for a powerlifter at any stage of their career is to achieve the competition requirement of squat depth.
They want to achieve the required depth while being as efficient as possible. This means not going deeper than what is required (hip crease below the knee) but also not risking missing depth, which would result in a failed lift.
The lifter receives no visual input on the platform about their squat in terms of where depth is. Therefore, lifters must develop the internal ability to judge where their hips are in space without looking at themselves in the mirror.
An athlete’s ability to assess their depth improves as a novice lifter builds up kinaesthetic awareness, but remains challenging if they’re constantly looking at themselves in the mirror, especially under heavier loads.
Reason 3: You Need To Train As Closely To How You Will Compete
Looking into a mirror while you are squatting provides visual feedback which may at first seem like a good idea, but there are several problems with this when we apply this visual feedback specifically to powerlifting.
The first is that an athlete may focus primarily on the visual feedback, becoming reliant on it and not developing the kinaesthetic awareness of where their body is in space without visual input. When it comes time to compete, they may feel disoriented and fail to mimic the same technique they’re used to when there are no mirrors.
We are lucky in powerlifting that we get to train the exact movement we will need to perform in competition, so it’s a good principle to train as close as you can to how you will compete.
Reason #4: Squatting In Front of The Mirror May Give You The Wrong Type of Visual Feedback
The visual feedback provided by looking in the mirror can in some instances provide inaccurate, confusing or distracting information.
For example, the mirror image you see is actually the reflection or mirror image of your body. It might sound silly but learning to correct your body position while looking at a reflection takes practice.
The visual feedback is also not the same angle that the three referees at a powerlifting meet will be looking at you from to determine whether you have achieved the necessary depth. I.e. it may appear like you are hitting depth looking into the mirror, but actually, when we look from the same angles as the seated referees front and side views, this may not be the case.
You may experience distractions looking into the mirror seeing other people moving around you. This is not the most valid reason to not use a mirror for a powerlifter as there could be people moving in front of you at a powerlifting meet. With that said, a lifter needs to learn to focus their gaze, attention and be able to tune these things out.
Reason #5: Processing Visual Feedback May Slow Down Your Lift
Under a heavier load, powerlifters are trying to squat as fast as they can. Their lifting may look slow to the untrained eye, but these athletes are moving relatively massive loads with the intention to move them as fast as possible. As a general rule, a lifter will try and squat as fast as they are able to without compromising technique, for example, a straight bar path.
Why are powerlifters trying to move the weight as fast as they are able to?
Because FORCE equals MASS multiplied by ACCELERATION.
You should be able to produce more force or lift more weight if you do your best to move it as fast as you can. Increased time under tension leads to greater fatigue.
Our visual system can actually process visual images remarkably quickly, but when you look into a mirror to correct movement, there is not just the processing of the visual image that takes place but also the feedback loops through other areas of the brain including the cerebellum, motor cortex and frontal cortex which determine the corrections that need to be made.
So, although visual feedback from a mirror could be used to improve your technique (good), the time it takes for the brain to process the visual information can slow the lift down (bad).
Practical Applications When Squatting Without a Mirror
Here are a few practical recommendations when deciding to squat without using a mirror:
Ditch the Mirror
First, let’s get you squatting without looking into the mirror. Options include:
- Moving the squat rack if it’s transportable and turning it around
- If you cannot turn it around, change the hooks so you can face the other way
- If you cannot face the other way, cover up the mirror with a yoga mat or towel
- Consider moving to a powerlifting gym with no mirrors and great squat racks, after all, you love the sport and it’s a great investment
If looking in the mirror when you squat is not a good idea for powerlifting, what can you do to get feedback to improve your performance?
Film your lifts
Most of us have smartphones with cameras. Filming from the correct angles, reviewing the footage after the lift and adjusting your next rep or set is a great option.
You can set the camera to the same angles that judges may use in competition. You can also set the camera up to record from different planes of view, such as the frontal plane to assess the symmetry of the bar, your stance, the squat movement, and knee position just to name a few examples.
You can set the camera to record a side view (sagittal plane) to assess depth, bar bath, rotation.
Train with a coach or training partner
Another option is to work with an experienced coach or a training partner who knows what to look for when it comes to your depth and movement mechanics.
Use tactile or audial cues
You can also use a tactile cue to improve technical performance rather than relying on visual cues from a mirror.
For example, use a stack of plates or a box while squatting so that every time you hit the plates or box it acts as a target to help learn where depth is. Over time you’ll have built up motor memory and can take the box away.
Another option is to use a cue word to correct technique or confirm where you are in space.
Are There Exceptions Where a Powerlifter SHOULD Squat Facing a Mirror?
I personally struggle to find a reason why a powerlifter should squat facing a mirror, but here are two justifications that are made for using a mirror.
1. A mirror allows you to make adjustments to your lifts in ‘real-time’
Using a camera to film your lifts is an important tool for seeing how you move in space. The only potential con with filming your lifts, however, is adjustments cannot be made during the lift in ‘real-time’ and need to be made after review and analysis for the next lift.
However, ask any experienced powerlifter and there’s a good chance at the higher level, the weight they are lifting is so heavy and the task so difficult, there really isn’t time to adjust mid-lift other than minute corrections made too quickly to be done with visual feedback (or tactile or audial feedback).
2. A mirror provides feedback for those learning how to do a controlled bodyweight squat or rehabbing from injury
If you do not have access to a camera, or a coach, and are attempting to learn squat technique at a controlled bodyweight pace, or doing careful rehabilitation exercises, then a mirror might be useful. This is because you’ll want to get as much visual feedback as possible while you’re still learning where your limbs are in space.
However, beyond using a mirror to learn the movement for the first time, a recent study at Angelo State University has shown that we are equally as good at determining weight distribution through each leg i.e. stance symmetry, with or without a mirror.
In the sport of powerlifting, we squat in front of the referees and audience without a mirror to provide us with visual feedback. Therefore, it makes sense then that we would also train our squat under similar conditions in order to develop the necessary body awareness of performing the squat as we would in competition. This is not to say however that mirrors aren’t useful for initially learning how to squat or performing rehab exercises where video recording isn’t available, but every powerlifter will want to get used to squatting without mirrors.