The Flow State of Strength Training

DeShawn Fairbairn

NASM Certified Personal Trainer

Brooklyn, New York, United States

Personal Training, Fencing, Karate

Flow. We all know the feeling of time standing still when we are engrossed in what we are doing. During a set, we may feel like Neo in the Matrix “finessing” a deadlift or a bench press. We’ve yet to fully explain this phenomenon in a way so that others can share in this euphoric feeling.

 

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

 

 

Strength training is my zen. It’s where I feel on top of the world, yet I feel like a child, humbled and in tune with my true self. The aspects of flow that I want to focus on are concentration, a feeling of control over the task, and clarity of goals. To do this, I must turn to the fundamentals of training and the implications of how goal setting allows us to enter our flow such that we are progressing on a consistent level.

 

Entering the Flow

Training, as I’ve expressed in my article Learn How to Fail, is the “education, instruction, and discipline of a person or thing that is being trained.” The focus of entering a flow comes from the most important word in this statement “discipline.”

 

Another word for discipline, in this respect, could also be self-control. Self-control is defined as "restraint exercised over one's own impulses, emotions, or desires." It may seem counterintuitive to concern ourselves with flow and its connection to, as Mihaly describes, “autotelic personalities” (persons who do things for the sake of the action itself)—and in some regard it is.

 

However, it is with the mind that we begin to use self-control, and the actions we execute allow us to achieve flow and ultimately our end goal. In the words of Bruce Lee, ”possession of anything begins in the mind.” This concept will help us to set our goal.

 

Training is a matter of dialing in our programming and “trusting the process.” It is also creating a state that is blurred between intense concentration and intense discipline. Keep in mind that training doesn’t then become robotic—the goal is to have it become second nature; akin to walking. We learn how to adapt our pace based on the steepness of the road or we speed up to chase a bus.

 

Higher order thinking skills are kept at a minimum here as well as between sets of an intense workout. Rather the notion of proprioception, the body sensing how you generally move and adjusting on its own, is where we can begin to see how strength programming allows one to correct their form on the fly to create better habits.

 

The Flow State of Strength Training - Fitness, focus, mindfulness, muscle growth, training frequency, growth mindset, dedication, flow state

 

Clarity of Flow

Strength training isn’t easy. It’s mentally tough and requires some fortitude to say where you stand earnestly and honestly—even if it means you’re not where you want to be. Say my goal is to hit 325lbs on my squat for a top set of two with 2 minutes rest for the set on Monday afternoon. Here, I've utilized the SMART principle of goal setting (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely).

 

This is an important concept to understand in order to attain flow because we set an expectation for ourselves, and while under the bar we may not think about it, but it’s something to aim toward—something to make us strive and stretch beyond our body's norm.

 

 

We turn from our natural cerebral cortex loving selves to our frontal lobe selves. The frontal cortex is divided into the pre-motor, motor, and pre-frontal cortices. To defy the body such that the mind controls the muscles is to transcend a robotic routine and allows us to enter flow because of our goal setting.

 

In doing so we move from higher order thinking to training based on movement, impulse control, and emotion—we get closer to our “rawness.” When we train this way, we create an artificial “set point” of which falling below is unacceptable.

 

Control of Flow

Once this artificial “set point” is created, we have taken control of the conduit in which flow takes place—the body. Producing force necessitates a level of neuromuscular control and efficiency that, without previous goal setting, can set the body up for failure. The body is controlled by a multitude of biochemical processes that control food intake and sleep to allow the body to perform at its peak and, in the case of flow, beyond.

 

I’ve personally fallen victim to the idea of letting my training go on autopilot, not tracking my workouts, and failing to take pertinent mental notes. But having consistent control, fortunately, becomes autoregulation. Something that the human body does quite efficiently.

 

If the body expects us to head to the gym Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we may start skipping out, begin choosing poor feeding habits, or fail to get enough rest to recover. If this happens, the body will let us know, and as a result, it will become virtually impossible to concentrate during our next set.

 

Concentration of Flow

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, has a mantra during his training which most would agree with. He looks in the mirror mid-set and yells ”focus!”—then he puts his head down and re-enters his workout with newfound gusto. Concentration is a culmination of the maximum amount of clarity and control that one can muster during a given set.

 

In strength training, I tend to struggle with my overhead press and squat because I’m not turning my focus to the right muscles or the right aspects of movement during that set. As a result, 315lbs—which for my high school self would seem like a joke—seems like trying to move a mountain.

 

Things that can contribute to a fault in concentration include poor form (or form degradation), hunger, fatigue, and external and mental distractions. All of these lead to disturbing your flow. As you descend into the “hole” during a squat try to feel your hamstrings load, feel your glutes light up, feel your back as an immovable unit of contracted muscles, and think of your core as the walls of a well-shaken can of soda maintaining intrabdominal pressure. You are now entering flow. Don’t stop.

 

Find Your Flow

Flow is something you can create for yourself during your strength training. It isn’t some bizarre phenomenon. Work towards a steady flow in every workout and you’ll reach the goals you’re aiming for.

 

Lift well, my friends.

 

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