From Using Mirror Muscles to Using Deep Muscles

Research shows that body image problems can be the elephant in the room.

Posted May 29, 2018

With my colleague Joy, we were invited to give a lecture to undergraduate kinesiology students who were visiting our campus from other Canadian universities. As many of the students also practice as personal trainers or group fitness instructors, we decided to discuss our experimentation to instruct fitness from a different premise than creating a better-looking body. 

Our approach to fitness instruction draws from social theory to first problematize current fitness practices. While there are many positives to fitness—why would we otherwise care about being involved in instructing it—there are also a number of problems associated with many current practices. In our talk to the students, we focused on the problems associated with building the ideal fit feminine body in fitness. To illustrate some of the problems such an objective presents, we first drew from a study we conducted with group fitness instructors (Markula & Chikinda, 2016).

Much of the feminist research has illustrated that the lean, taunt, toned (but not visibly muscular) and youthful body is commonly promoted in the fitness industry. In our study, we looked at how women fitness instructors viewed the role of building the ideal body in their practice. During our interviews, the instructors were very aware of what their clients identified as several ‘problem spots’ in their bodies: their stomachs, legs, and underarms. As Laura, one of the instructors, cited her participants: “It’s my muffin top, … it’s my um cellulite, it’s my grandma arms, it’s my double chin.” The instructors also felt significant pressure from their clients to provide exercises that targeted these problematic body areas.

The instructors also faced pressure to look ‘fit’ themselves. Jenny confessed: “I judge my own body very, very harshly…if you get up there and your body’s not in good shape and you can’t teach very well, yikes, I think you’re in for a hard time.” 

Jenny’s comment aligns with the findings of feminist research: many women feel there is an imposing invisible gaze, a sense that we are always under the microscope, being judged by our shapes and appearances. This creates an unspoken obligation to always be involved in improving how we look through diet, exercise, and other measures. It is not that someone necessarily has to tell us. We do it ourselves: We effectively survey our own bodies to detect any flaws. This does not go away when we grow older. Joy gave an example of her 90-year-old mother who cuts back on her food if she isn’t able to get out for a walk. 

The ideal body shape is impossible for most women who, nevertheless, feel they are required to work toward it. As a result, there are a number of problematic unhealthy outcomes from the battle for the perfect body. Among them are:

Despite a common problem, the instructors in our study felt that the ideal body shape was not discussed in their training courses or fitness conventions. Kim explained that the problems created by the body ideal are “like the elephant in the room. We all sort of know it, but no one really talks about it.”

In our lecture to the kinesiology students, thus, we openly talked about these problems, but in addition to demonstrating how the ideal body as a fitness goal can be unhealthy, we wanted to offer practical alternatives to a focus on body aesthetics.

We challenged the students to think how building strength and flexibility to function better in everyday life could work as a primary goal for an exercise program.

While many training sessions and group fitness classes, indeed, include exercises for flexibility and particularly, for strength, if the main goal is to tone clients’ underarms, stomachs, and legs, the ideal body shape remains the underlying purpose. Acknowledging that the students are likely to feel great pressure to offer more appearance oriented exercise programs, we encouraged them to take a typical everyday moment in the life of their clients, many of whom sit most of the time at their desks, in their cars, on exercise bikes, in public transport, in the front of television, as a starting point. 

How can so much sitting impede functionality, we asked the students who also sat in front of us. As researchers, Joy and I are by no means immune to the same problems as we also spend significant time sitting in front of our computers. We have noticed our head jutting forward, our shoulder hunching up, and our upper backs curved forward. As a result, we have back pain, tight shoulders, and tight hamstrings and pelvis muscles. What if we designed our exercise classes to help with such problems? What would such exercises look like?

First, we need to reassess what muscles will be targeted in our exercise sessions. For example, a person who sits a lot is likely to have weak rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, teres major), with tight upper trapezius and levator scapulae, weak rhomboids and serratus, weak abdominals (particularly transversus), tight and weak hip flexors (iliopsoas), and tight lower back muscles (erector spinae and particularly quadratus lumborum).

Who has ever heard of such muscles? We certainly do not commonly refer to them in our exercise classes where delts, pecs, triceps, abs, glutes, and quadriceps dominate the exercise lingo. These muscles can also be referred to as ‘the mirror muscles’ as they are superficial muscles on our bodies and thus, are clearly visible. The strange set of muscles that we wanted our student audience to think of are mostly located underneath the mirror muscles and are typically not visible. A focus on these ‘deep muscles,’ then, takes attention away from how the body looks. This approach requires fitness professionals to teach their participants how to feel their bodies and, hopefully, learn to function pain free in their everyday lives (even if they have to continue to sit).

We performed a set of exercises using body weight or gravity as resistance to demonstrate how to engage the deep muscles. These exercises might have appeared, at first sight, to be effortless as most required quite a small range of motion. We emphasized, however, that because it is difficult to see if the deep muscles are working, clients need to learn how to activate them. To perform the exercises correctly and ensure their maximum impact is, thus, a learning process. As instructors, we asserted, we need to educate the exercisers to take advantage of more intricate and complex exercises, to fire the deep muscles, and release muscles not performing the exercise. This requires patience from both the instructor/trainer and the client, but will pay off with much more efficient movement patterns: Being aware of how one’s body moves is necessary for purposeful everyday activity.

After explaining and demonstrating example exercises for each of the deep muscles, it was the audience’s turn to ask questions. While some wanted further information regarding the optimal performance of the exercises (e.g., how to ascertain that a client is engaging the deep level abdominals in addition to the superficial rectus abdominis), most were concerned with ‘social’ issues affecting their clients’ attitudes towards exercise programs.

For example, a male personal trainer wanted advice on how to motivate his women clients, who do not want big muscles, to do any type of strength training. He added that his scientific explanation—women typically do not have the hormonal make-up to build big muscles even if doing heavy resistance training—has failed to convince his clients. As such fear draws from the aesthetic orientation to fitness (building the ideally toned, not muscular, feminine body), a focus away from the looks of the body can alleviate anxieties to turn too muscular (i.e., looking ‘masculine’). Unlike the mirror muscles, the deep muscles are not visible—after all who would exclaim that she does not want a huge teres minor or serratus! When working with deep muscles, the focus is on improving everyday function and alleviating muscle tightness and pain. No one, then, has to worry about building too much muscle bulk. However, better posture can certainly look nice and, unlike the ideal feminine body, is definitely achievable!

Another personal trainer inquired how to inspire his clients who are predominantly 20-35 old males, to train anything but their mirror muscles. He was more than ready to insert the training of deep muscles into his clients’ programs, but they either skip such exercises or do not do them ‘fully.’ It was obvious that these young men found training for better looks functional for them. However, as training for deep muscles can involve multi-joint resistance training and require a large number of muscles to function together, they benefit the body more holistically than isolating one or two muscles group. This way the clients can train the deep muscles without giving up all aspects of their usual resistance training. The men, however, have to be able to perform the more complex multi-joint movements correctly to benefits from their training. 

A barre exercise instructor wanted to know how to restructure her exercise repertoire to improve the posture of her clients who are mostly in their 50s. The barre class can be an ideal space to focus on upper and lower back strength as well as hip flexor flexibility and strength, but requires the instructor to modify the exercises from the focus on ‘lean legs’ to other aspects of a healthy, well-functioning body. However, it is possible to include functional exercise into any type of fitness program if the instructor has the knowledge to design functional exercise programs to include the deep muscles.

It was clear that effective exercise is not only a matter of performing a set of exercises, but includes social expectations of what is proper feminine and masculine body shape and behavior. Both the instructors and clients are influenced by such expectations. Because a focus on shaping the body toward a narrowly defined ideal body can be unhealthy, it is important to consider what type of exercise regime one is committing to and why. Due to the gender norm expectations, it is not feasible to change the focus of one’s entire program all at once. Instead of getting rid of the familiar exercises, it is more realistic to gradually replace some mirror muscle exercises with training the deep muscles. The workouts can then be a balanced mix of training the body holistically with some familiar exercises that the clients can recognize and perform with confidence

It is important to find an instructor or personal trainer who is trained to offer alternatives to the focus on body aesthetics. In our lecture, we were hoping to educate the kinesiology students, the future (and current) aspiring fitness professionals, about one such alternative by providing them with a rationale for moving from training the body beautiful to improving everyday functionality. 


Markula, P., & Chikinda, J. (2016). Group fitness instructors as local level health promoters: A Foucauldian analysis of the politics of health/fitness dynamic. International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics. 8(4), 625-646.