Enter the flow-zone…we were flowing before flow was hip

For eons, athletes have recalibrated their psychological mindset to improve training results. Athletes have long known that focusing the Mind heading into a workout improved the overall quality of the training session and that psyching up before an all-out effort within the workout boosted performance. Athletes know that an intense, effective workout is invariably followed by a blissful psychological afterglow. Conscious recalibration of the Mind, before and during the workout, prefigured a predictable post-workout bliss period.

In the larger popular culture, three related topics, Wellness, Mindfulness and Flow State, have much in common with the hardcore athlete’s recalibrated mindset. All three topics are different psychological flavors of the same principle: each uses a highly specific strategy of thinking (or non-thinking) to improve performance, reduce stress and/or attain beneficial mental states somewhat analogous to advanced meditational states.

When dealing with psychological issues, expertise is subjective. There is no real way to determine if a person is mindful, flowing or aware; there is no real way to determine if a guru or sage is really enlightened. In athletics mental recalibration has a report card: performance. Does the psyche approach work or not? Does the athlete perform better after going to the trouble to use the mental tactics? Yes or no.

Improvement is the yardstick. The athletic approach to mental recalibration is objective and devoid of any quasi-religious overtones, no one is seeking enlightenment. In an interesting sequence of events the athlete commences the process by getting his mind right heading into the session. During the training session the elite use mental psyche-up techniques to attack the biggest challenges within the workout. This mental gathering enables extraordinary training efforts that in turn generates extraordinary physiological results.

Extremely difficult training unleashes a cascade of hormones into the bloodstream. In his (recommended) book, The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler identifies the hormones associated with what he labels The Flow State.

  • dopamine improves pattern recognition; released when we take a risk
  • norepinephrine tightens focus; locks us on target; keeps distractions at bay
  • endorphins released in response to extreme effort; narcotic-like euphoria
  • anandamide accelerates lateral thinking; exercise-induced; elevates mood
  • serotonin helps create the after-glow effect, cements the flow state
  • adrenaline kicks off the process, accelerates the process

Hardcore Iron Men have known for decades that savage weight training triggers a flood of hormones. The attuned weight trainer can trigger the hormonal flood within ten minutes of commencing a hardcore workout. The release of the hormones is responsible for the post-workout bliss state. Opening the hormonal floodgates is dependent on one thing: the severity of the physical effort. Anything less than some expression of 100% (or greater) will prove insufficient.

Hardcore weight training is an excellent stress-reliever because it causes the chattering mind to fall silent. No matter how pressing or serious our problems, exerting 100% in some manner or fashion, overwhelms the over-active brain, essentially bitch-slapping the chattering mind into silence. There is no stress if there is no thought. Strictly as a by-product of hardcore training, mindfulness, flow and wellness are most certainly birthed…

  • Mindfulness: if the effort is severe enough, mind and body mustwork together to succeed
  • Flow: attained when intense physical effort causes the hormonal floodtide to be released
  • Wellness: sustained training creates physical and psychological health and true wellness

Mindfulness and wellness have taken on iconic status in modern society. Seminars on wellness and mindfulness are commonplace; wellness and mindfulness experts are numerous and it seems as if every hip business has stress-reduction experts come in to speak to the workforce on wellness and mindfulness. There are no mathematical benchmarks or yardsticks to measure wellness or mindfulness. Effectiveness is in the mind of the beholder.

The psychological mindset called “flow” or flow-state is a bit different and can be measured. Elite athletes were flowing long before it was labeled flow. Being in the flow state was previously called “being in the Zone.” Being in the Zone has long been associated with athletic excellence, artistic creativity and scientific breakthroughs.

When an athlete is in the zone or flowing, the flow-zone, they exhibit an ability to exceed realistic limits and capacities. The flow state was first formally recognized (to my limited knowledge) by the man with the unpronounceable name: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  His books, Flow in Sports, Finding Flow, and Creativity and Flow, were early identifiers of this mind space common to elite athletes and elite artists.

To access the flow-zone via exercise requires a severity of training effort so great that the feat can only succeed by melding both mind and body. The mind must fall silent because the body cannot mount a 105% effort if the brain is simultaneously holding an intriguing conversation with itself. There can be no super-human effort if the athlete is preoccupied or daydreaming. Only through mind/body unification can the athlete cope with the severity of the effort. During an all-out, truly herculean effort, a single stray thought can shatter concentration and cause instantaneous failure.

Crossing the exercise-induced hormonal threshold also induces the purest form of mindfulness imaginable. Being in the flow-zone is a yet another subtle expression of a wordless ecstasy that characterizes deep meditative states. The highest forms of mindfulness mirror advanced meditational states. Higher forms of meditation are characterized by the same lack of mental chatter that characterizes an athlete being deep in the flow-zone.

Krishnamurti hit the nail on the head, “The cessation of thought is the awakening of intelligence.” Only when the brain falls silent (yet stays alert) is the clear perception of reality possible. The immediate present is always unfolding in the instantaneous present. It all comes together for the attuned and educated hardcore weight trainer. Through herculean training efforts, the iron elite routinely access the flow-zone. So can you.

After the training session is over, the athlete, awash in post-workout hormonal bliss, enters a wordless state of mindfulness. Intense training morphs the body, changing us physiologically; intense training morphs the Mind, changing us (for the better) psychologically. Super-hard training is good for the body and good for The Mind. Our form of Iron Zen is perfect for inducing flow-zone mindfulness and wellness. Who knew?

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.