college bodybuilder tips: looking in the mirror

Dear K***,

In your last letter you seemed very stressed out. Let me see if I can sum up what you were telling me: One day you look in the mirror and you think you look incredible. The next day, you look in the mirror and you think you look scrawny. Later in the week, you feel like you look fat. Then it starts all over again.

I’ll start by telling you that this is pretty normal. Almost anyone who works out in order to look good goes through the same thing, to one extent or another. So you don’t have to worry about having “muscle dysmorphia” or anything dramatic like that. This is just a regular part of dealing with self-image. There’s nothing “wrong” with you.

On the other hand, these mood swings can be frustrating. So I do have three specific tips to help you to understand these mood shifts, which might help to make them less severe.

Mirror, Mirror

Animation by jfgemini107 on

First, when you are looking at yourself in the mirror, you don’t really take in yourself as a “whole” person. Your eyes flick from one feature to another: you look at your shoulders, you look at your abs, you look at your waist, your look at your neck, and so on. This might not even be a conscious thing. But even if you’re not aware of it, it can effect your overall feeling of how you look. If you feel like your arms are “too skinny” and you spend most of your time looking at your arms, then you will step away from the mirror feeling “I am too skinny.” If you think your waist isn’t as narrow as it should be, and you spend all of your time looking at your waist, then you will step away from the mirror thinking “I’m too fat.”

So when you are looking in the mirror, try to force yourself to look at different things. On the same day that you feel like your abs aren’t as defined as you want, make sure you also look at how big your chest is and be proud of that. On the same day that you feel like your arms are too small, make sure you look at how defined your shoulders are and be proud of that. Try to make a conscious point of going through an inventory of both good and bad individual traits. That way, you don’t end up focusing just on the bad things and having that be the driving force behind how you feel about yourself.

Second, think about who you are comparing yourself to. It won’t always be the case, but many times if you are suddenly feeling “too skinny” after feeling great a moment or a day before, it’s because you saw someone at the gym or in some magazine or at the bar who was bigger than you, and so you compared yourself to him and now you are suffering for it. This kind of thing can drive you crazy.

You can push yourself to be the biggest guy in the room, but all that will happen then is you will find someone really cut and defined and think “I’m not defined enough!” Then you can be the most defined guy in the room, only to see someone who is bigger than you and you’ll think, “I’m not big enough!” There is always going to be someone who has some body part or feature that is more of what you want than what you have.

So what’s the solution? I’m not going to tell you to not compare yourself to other people. That is stupid advice, because it’s impossible. Instead, just remember that consistency with your goals matters: long-term consistency. If you are working on bulking up, there is nothing wrong with picking some specific guy at the gym who is a little bigger than you and saying to yourself: “My goal is to gradually work toward that!”

The only time that it’s a problem is when one week you pick a huge guy because you’re jealous of his size and the next week you pick a super-lean ripped guy because you are jealous of his abs. You need to pick a goal and stick to it. Then, when you see the big guy, tell yourself: “Even if I’m not there yet, that’s where I’m headed!” And when you see the skinny guy, tell yourself: “That’s not what I’m working on right now.” Your own plan and “vision” for your goals of your workouts has to stay consistent. Then, when you make a conscious choice to shift from one mode (e.g. bulking) to another (e.g. “cutting”), then you can deliberately make the changes you need to make to make that happen.

Third, remember that real changes don’t happen that fast. If you feel like your abs looked incredible one day, and the next day you think you look fat, you need to have that Spock voice in your head that speaks up: “You are being illogical. It is physically impossible for a person to go from having great abs to being fat in the span of 24 hours.”

Try to introspect a little, and think about what might make you feel that way. Sometimes it’s as simple as: you’re tired, which makes you more likely to be in a “depressed” mood and feel bad about things. Sometimes, all you need is a good night’s sleep to be able to look in the mirror and feel better about yourself. But whatever it is, if you find that your self-image is “flickering” quickly between looking in the mirror and seeing yourself as too fat, then too thin, then “hot”, and back again, in just a span of a few days… remind yourself that that has to be in your head. It’s literally physically not possible for your actual appearance to change that quickly.


Some trainers and fitness experts tell people that they shouldn’t rely on the mirror at all. They give this advice exactly because of all of these psychological issues: it’s a very subjective way of tracking your progress. If you are an athlete who is training for strength or speed, then those trainers are correct: the mirror is useless to you.

But if you’re specifically working out because you want to look good, then as bad as looking in the mirror is… it’s still the best thing you’ve got. Your weight can go up and down or stay the same, and having nothing to do with how good you look. Your individual body measurements tell you something about overall size, but don’t tell you if your proportions or definition look the way you want them to. In the end, if you are working out to look good, the only way to tell if you are succeeding is to look!

It’s like Winston Churchill said about Democracy as a political system: “It’s the worst way to do things… except for all the others!”

Talk to you soon!



Previous Letter: College Bodybuilder Tips: The Steroids Question

Next Letter: College Bodybuilder Tips: Why isn’t my chest getting bigger?