Use This Tool to Immediately Improve Your Pilates

man sitting on exercise ball in front of mirror in studio
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Stuck home on a bad weather day or just too lazy to get out and get to your favorite workout? Don't fret. Chances are you have the best possible trainer right in your own home. A trainer that never lies, that gives constant feedback, and that will stay completely focused on you through each and every move. It's a simple everyday mirror and it can change everything about your Pilates workout and every other workout you do.

Test Drive Your Mirror 

Find a full-length mirror and turn you back on it. Perform a basic squat, legs apart and parallel, arms outstretched in front of you. Sit low, bending at the ankles, knees, and hips. Tell yourself to keep your chest lifted and back upright no matter how deeply you bend down. Perform 6 to 8 reps. Note how you feel and where the effort is concentrated in your body before moving on.

Now turn around.

Face your mirror, assume the same setup as above and repeat another set of 6 to 8 reps. Use the same cues—tell yourself to keep your chest lifted and back upright. Watch your form in the mirror. Are you following your own directive? Can you improve your form with each and every repetition? Complete the set and move on to the final experiment.

Pivot ninety degrees sideways to see your own profile in the mirror. Repeat a third and final set of squats following the same format as the first two.

This time, watch yourself from the side view in the mirror. Continue to cue your own spinal alignment and focus on your reflection. Can you lift even taller as you squat? How high can you get the chest to lift? 

You may have noticed your form got better and better even as the repetitions got higher and higher.

This is counter intuitive. Shouldn't your form start to suffer as the repetitions increase? Not necessarily. This is the magic of the mirror.

3 Ways the Mirror Helps You

First, the mirror holds motivation. You can see your reflection but at the same time can dissociate from your identity. You can objectively see your form and mechanics and repeatedly speak directly to the image in the glass. Studies have shown that external cueing is superior to internal cueing, meaning that trying to carry out a physical task with instructions that focus on which muscles, bones, or feelings you should target will not be as effective as instructions that are external to the body. The mirror is an external target and is ideal to help you focus your visual and mental attention and thereby achieve physical results.

Second, the mirror provides you with constant visual feedback. Research has demonstrated that when reflections are utilized during training there is an interplay between physicality, imagination, and the ability of the nervous system to adapt to physical exertion.

In theory, the more you see yourself, the more you can do with yourself. If you carried out the test drive above, you may have already experienced this effect. 

Finally, there's what I call the "zoom-out effect". As a teacher of Pilates, the mirror is my most valuable tool. When I teach directly to the body in front of me, I can cue to particular body parts based on my very close perspective. But once I shift my gaze to a mirror in the room and find my student there, I have a whole new set of eyes. The big picture comes into complete focus. So it is with your own reflection. On your own, you may be able to see your abs, arms, or legs. But catch sight of your image in the mirror and you can see the complete picture—the full shape—and adjust accordingly. 

Training Your Eye

Once you've experienced the benefit of the mirror, you'll want to develop your skill set further. A few important things you should be aware of are listed here for your reference.

  • Vary your position with respect to the mirror. The 2D version is fine to work out head-on, but you'll want to get sideways views and even diagonal ones from time to time to adjust posture and symmetry.
  • Be careful of overusing the sideways view. It will require you to turn your head. Turning your head repeatedly while working out can cause all sorts of mishaps to your alignment. Make sure to flip your position to work both sides evenly when working profile to the mirror.
  • Talk to your reflection, not your own body. You are the student in the mirror. If you can make that reflection responsive to your corrections, you will see and feel the results.
  • Go right to go left. Your reflection is flipped. If you are the kind of exerciser who dictates your movements according to the labels "right and left," you will have to adjust for what you see. When you move your right hand the mirror shows you moving your left and vice versa. It can be confusing, so it's better to leave out your direction labels and just use "first side" and "second side," or some other variation.

Visual feedback also helps us build a visual memory. Think of it as an exercise storyboard. Instead of referencing a move by how it feels, you can suddenly build a library of images based upon what you see in the mirror. 

Your reflection is your student. It has no opinions or feelings and it doesn’t talk back. It simply reveals things. If you watch closely, you’ll get what you're looking for. In Pilates, becoming your own teacher is something we preach, but the most important partner you can have is the one most overlooked—yourself.

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