flow state

Develop Your Lifting Flow

By: Barbell Logic Team

One of the marks of an experienced lifter is consistent form, showing very little change from one rep to the next, and if their form creeps, they tend to make the correct adjustment automatically. The experienced lifter doesn’t feel their balance shift, recognize it, then react in separate steps; their sensory input triggers automatic adjustments that tend to be correct reactions without the need to think through an appropriate response. Think about a child learning to walk. The child makes multiple conscious micro-adjustments, making their walk wobbly and effortful. But soon, walking becomes a state of effortless movement. In this, walking can be considered akin to a state of “flow.”

Develop Your Lifting Flow

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Your attention is limited. For example, imagine you are driving in a new and unfamiliar city looking for a parking space. You think you see one, and you are about to parallel park on a busy road with people all around. What do you do? Turn down your music, of course! Though ambient noise has little to do with the operation of your car, you have a limited budget for your attention, and you cannot always direct your attention where you want it to be.

The effects of splitting your attention can be surprising. One of the most famous tests of perception is “The Invisible Gorilla Test.” The name comes from studies done by Daniel Simmons and Christopher Chabris that begins with an investigation into the importance of attention in visual perception. The name comes from one of the experiments in which a video is played showing people in either white or black shirts passing a ball. Observers were told that they would be watching two teams of three players passing basketballs and that they should pay attention to either the team in white or the team in black. Observers were told either to count the total number of passes made by the team they were watching (the easy version) or to keep separate silent mental counts of the number of bounce passes and aerial passes made by their team (the hard version). Approximately 45 seconds into the 75-second film, a person in a gorilla suit walked through the action on the screen from left to right, appearing in the film for 5 seconds. To their surprise, 56% of observers did not notice the gorilla. (Simons, Chabris, “Gorillas in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events,” Perception, vol. 28 pp. 1059-1074 (1999). Inattentional blindness opened up a lot of questions about attention and has given researchers some insight into the nature of perception, including the finding that “all variants of voluntary effort—cognitive, emotional, or physical—draw at least partly on a shared pool of mental energy.” (Kahneman, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2011).)

Lifting is similar to parallel parking in the scenario above. It’s a physical activity that requires control over your movements and in both cases, failing (or crashing) is to be avoided at all costs. Instead of ambient noise and hostile motorists, however, there are many different distracting sensations during a training session, set, or rep. Lifting is uncomfortable, and you may interpret that discomfort of the exercise as pain or fatigue, some of which you control and some of which you do not. You may also carry mental baggage into a lift: squats are hard, deadlifts are intense, presses are uncomfortable, and to some, the bench press looks like just a dull guillotine. Distractions like these take your attention away from the lift, reducing the amount of mental effort you can give to fixing your form, and perhaps making the lift more difficult that it needs to be.

For newer lifters, each rep may present a cascade of reaction-based decisions. You unrack the bar and discomfort creeps in, maybe the bar feels heavier than you think it should, or your grip doesn’t feel quite right—did you remember to look down? As you start the movement, your balance shifts forward to your toes, and you have to adjust. The bar slips or moves or rolls, and you adjust. You finish the first rep and try to figure out what changes to make for the next one. By the fourth rep, you are just surviving and not thinking about form anymore, moving the bar through the range of motion (more or less). Each change in the movement for a less-experienced lifter requires attention: sensation, decision, change.

One of the marks of an experienced lifter is consistent form, showing very little change from one rep to the next, and if their form creeps, they tend to make the correct adjustment automatically. The experienced lifter doesn’t feel their balance shift, recognize it, then react in separate steps; their sensory input triggers automatic adjustments that tend to be correct reactions without the need to think through an appropriate response. Think about a child learning to walk. The child makes multiple conscious micro-adjustments, making their walk wobbly and effortful. But soon, walking becomes a state of effortless movement. In this, walking can be considered akin to a state of “flow.”

Flow is a state of effortless concentration, named and studied primarily by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This non-aversive cognitive effort, which Csikszentmihalyi calls an “optimal experience” is something like a state of concentration where the otherwise deliberate control of your attention is, for a time, subsumed by the task you are focused on. While Csikszentmihalyi has applied his theories of flow to comprehensive psychology of happiness and well-being, the outcome is certainly worth aiming for as a lifter struggling with consistent form. A state of flow during lifting would be a state of intense concentration but effortless execution of good form, no intruding thoughts, no distracting sensations, just twenty seconds of a concerted effort toward the singular goal of lifting.

Principles of Flow

Flow has presented as a desirable but more or less static state, something that occasionally graces athletes and experts but is and often fleeting. Newer research and presentations on the subject, however, suggest that achieving flow is something that you can develop habitually over a long period. Three conditions facilitate a flow experience:

  1. Balance of perceived challenge and skill,
  2. Clear and proximal goals, and
  3. Unambiguous and immediate feedback.

By chasing each of these principles, you can develop the “effortless concentration” that marks experienced lifters.

Challenge-Skill Balance

The first condition is the most studied aspect of flow. The challenge-skill balance is where “the demands of a situation match the individual’s ability, and the individual is engaged fully in the act of doing the activity.” This condition is conducive to flow, but not a cause. It is contrasted with other disparate states of skill and challenge such as boredom (low challenge and high skill), apathy (low challenge and low skill), and anxiety (high challenge and low skill). 

You need two things before actively developing a flow state. You need skill, and you need a challenge. For any given task, the development of the skill-requirements for that task is a prerequisite to flow. Similarly, for a given skill-level, the self-assigned challenge should match be difficult enough to tax your skill level.

For the lifter, you cannot expect a flow state without some foundation of training and practice with the lifts. While different people have different athletic acuity, no one should expect these lifts to be effortless on their first day. There are many layers to the movements that make up our basic lifts. One glance through “Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training” reveals discussions and diagrams of anatomy and biomechanics, detailed explanations of what each lift encompasses and how to execute them, and trouble-shooting guidelines for the inevitable problems every lifter experiences under the bar. If lifting were as simple as moving a bar through a set range of motion, there would be no gym fail videos, and the world would be a little more boring. Lifting takes skill, and reps under your belt increase your competence with experience and ability.

The challenge of lifting also changes continuously. As you add weight to the bar, the lifts change and become more challenging. They change because the system you are using for moving the bar through space is changing. This lifter-barbell system includes the combined mass of you, the lifter, and the bar. When you add weight, you change that combined mass, shifting the center of mass slightly and changing the actual execution of the lift. A changing center of mass in magnitude will change the lift. And for all the lifts, perfect form with an empty bar does not yield perfect form at maximal weights. The control over your movements must become more precise the heavier the barbell gets.

As a lifter, how you engage the process of mastering each lift can affect how readily you can flow during training. If you are seeking a balance between the challenge of lifting and your skill with the lifts, then you have to recognize that when you are first starting, you are at an imbalance. Many lifters will experience the fourth state listed above, anxiety, with their lifting due to the steadily increasing difficulty of the lifts and their perceived inability to keep up. Instead of viewing each lift as the comprehensive nuanced details comprised within the entire model for each lift, break the lift down into smaller goals for learning and developing your lifting form. 

You or your coach should prioritize your form issues beginning with those issues that are most important to mastering the lift. For example, much of lifting depends on maintaining the feel of being in-balance—your center of mass over the middle of your foot. One of the first learning goals for most lifters is to learn to feel and control their balance. This is a cue in of itself—the Master Cue—and all other cues tend to presume that you are not going to make a change that takes you out of balance. While your overall execution may not be perfect, if you were struggling to control your balance and you have that “aha!” moment where you maintain balance and recognize the feel of a mostly correct lift, that is a goal worth celebrating. As you continue to lift, then balance will become automatic, removing one distraction from your formwork and contributing to the state of flow you are trying to achieve.

One of the keys to challenge-skill balance is the intrinsic motivation of the act itself. Your feedback during the lift is the feeling of a well-executed lift,  not the weight on the bar. When you are lifting, practicing your form is similar to marksmanship practice. The marksman’s feedback on his or her skill is the immediate mark on the target marking the accuracy of a shot or the precision of multiple shots. There is a difference between the motivation of marksmanship (accuracy and precision) and the purpose for which the marksman is practicing (to take down an animal or bad guy). Motivation is in the execution itself. You can train more like a marksman by placing intrinsic value on a well-executed lift and celebrating breakthroughs in your form (form PRs).

Clear and Proximal Goals

Distinguishing between the reasons why we train and short-term goals is a must for developing a flow state. “To get strong” is neither a clear goal (see The Problem with Strength) nor is it necessarily proximal, depending on what you consider to be “stronger.” You build strength on form and consistency. 

Form goals are built on single-task and short directive cues. The master cue above is a directive to maintain balance on your midfoot during a big, difficult movement. Other cues or directives might be fixing issues by having you control your knee position in a certain way. Or keep your elbows or wrists in place. Sometimes these directives are related to body parts, and sometimes they are tasks. If you consider that each cue or short-term goal is a smaller piece of the model for each lift, then each workout, set, and rep has a purpose, clearly defined by the previous workout, set, or rep.

Flow seems to depend on the clarity and unity of thought and action. When you show up to train with a clearly defined goal in mind, it helps you meld those two things together and increases your chance of the “optimal experience” described by Csikszentmihalyi. Each form-related goal represents a smaller task that is meant to be intensely focused on for a time so that you can discard it as you widen your focus to the movement at large, moving from localized control over individual pieces of the model to global understanding of the movement as a whole. A clear goal also helps with the next condition.

Unambiguous and Immediate Feedback

Did you complete your task and meet your goal for that rep, set, or workout? If flow comes from the positive experience of a thing, then you need to be able to set in your mind what “correct” feels like. You need feedback on each of your lifts.

There are different modes of feedback from lifting. One is feel: if you know what “correct” feels like, you have a built-in feedback loop for each rep. If you felt your weight shift forward on one rep, adjusted, then felt yourself in-balance on the next rep, you successfully adapted to your feedback. Feel takes practice, and practice is best facilitated by both a process and expertise. 

There are different modes of feedback available to you. In-person coaching represents the gold standard for learning because the feedback is immediate, accurate, and aggregating, building upon itself each rep for an intensive learning experience. Expert rep-to-rep feedback is extremely useful, and perhaps the most conducive to establishing flow.

Set-to-set and workout-to-workout feedback processes offer different but useful iterations of this condition as well. A video of your lifts, for example, lets you visually confirm or understand your form tweaks. If a lift felt correct and you can visually confirm that you made the correct adjustment, that is a useful experience toward mastery and flow. Workout-to-workout feedback helps you establish and set workout-related tasks, directing your efforts and how the lift should feel, giving you a deeper understanding of your set-to-set feedback adjustments, and creating a long-term process for developing and mastering a lift. 

Ultimately, a combination of rep-to-rep, set-to-set, and workout-to-workout feedback is best. One-off, in-person training is fantastic but lacks the long-term relationship between a coach and lifter that builds mastery. Just like playing a musical instrument takes time and directed effort, mastering these lifts is a process that extends far beyond a single session. Also, while a personal video review of your lifts is good set-to-set feedback, both conditions for flow unambiguous feedback and goal setting require expertise. Coaching isn’t the only condition conducive to producing flow, but better feedback will likely shorten your learning curve.

Developing Flow

Growth in any area requires a continuous cycle of “challenge-seeking and skill-building to sustain flow experience.” (Csikszentmihalyi 2018.) Because you cannot redefine a lift to make it easier, the regulation of your challenge-seeking aims has to be a conscious focus and acceptance of smaller victories as your skill develops. Instead of flow as a static state, you invite flow with your efforts toward establishing mastery of each lift. 

If you try to do too much, the upregulation of your goals can cause anxiety. So it is important to set form-related goals that reflect a challenge, not impossible, to your current level of skill. Some skill and form developments include control over your balance and progressing from conscious control to unconscious or automatic control, fixing your grip to overcome shoulder or elbow pain, transitioning from unconscious and uncontrollable bar path to conscious control, to an unconscious control over your bar path. Each of these represents the development of flow over pieces of your lifts. 

As your skill increases, the challenge should also increase, naturally as you progress toward setting new PRs. 

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