T Nation

Atomic Pup - Let it Flow


Psychology has always fascinated me.

I think if you can understand how people think - what motivates, aggravates, and incapacitates their total progress whether in the gym, the kitchen, or in any other faculty of life - it's easier and more exciting to coach them while having a significant impact on their overall performance.

With this in mind, I'd like to introduce you to the concept of flow.

Coined by renowned psychologist, Mike Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "cheeks sent me high"), flow describes a state in which one is so completely engaged with an enjoyable task that time seems to stop.

Now, while that may sound all well and good, Csikszentmihalyi is careful to differentiate between pleasures and enjoyments as they pertain to flow.

While pleasures are seen more as consumption oriented activities that satisfy biological needs (bodily pleasures such as delectable tastes, soothing sounds, or being stuck between two voluptuous red-headed sisters) enjoyments are categorized as building psychological capital.

Simply put, while they may not bring about intense bodily pleasures instantaneously, enjoyments cause us to invest in absorption and a feel a greater sense of accomplishment in retrospect.

Just check out the components of flow:

The task is challenging and requires skill
We concentrate
There are clear goals
We get immediate feedback
We have a deep involvement
There is a sense of control
Time seems to stop

As Dr. Martin Seligman points out in his book Authentic Happiness, "...flow is a frequent experience for some, but this state visits many others rarely if at all."

I believe that those of us into this whole "fitness thing" experience flow on a much more regular basis than the average individual.

Whether we're gasping for breath after our last set of squats, taking our third lap around the track, or sinking into a hot, epsom salt bath, I think it's safe to say that most of us are constantly engaged in a sort of flow continuum.

Personally, I couldn't imagine not being dedicated to lifestyle that brings about such high "psychological capital."

Seligman writes, "While we moderns have lost the distinction between the pleasures and gratifications, the golden age Athenians were keen on it. For Aristotle, distinct from bodily pleasures (eudaimonia) is akin to grace in dancing. Grace is not an entity that accompanies the dance or comes at the end of the dance; it is part and parcel of a dance well done."

That's good stuff.

However, while both Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi separate pleasure from flow, I don't necessarily agree. While they're both incredibly intelligent and renowned psychologists, I have reason to suspect that their physical conditioning may not be quite up to par with their 'mental muscle,' which is just a nice way of saying they're fat as hell.

Now, if you have Berardi's Precision Nutrition program (which you should) you damn well know that your meals can be both pleasurable with the right spices and food combinations and gratifying with the right macronutrient balance and other healthy effects.

And if you've ever been under hundreds of pounds of iron, you know that the cold bar against your hands just feels right, the way it bends just looks cool, the inhalation of chalk dust just smells, well, chalky.

But along with those simple pleasures, come the other enjoyable consequences (consequences can be defined as either negative or positive) associated with weight training: better body composition, proper and realistic goal setting, and increased motivation to just set the bar higher.

If you get a 'rush' or a 'high' from training, good for you; now you know that you're also building a strong foundation of good habits and strength in every respect.

So the next time you're in the weight room, inhale deeply and let the whole experience flow right through you.

Just don't forget to exhale.


Nicely done, Nate.


Keep 'em comin.



Good one Nate. You get extra credit for writing Cheeksentmehigh right.

BTW, Bob Nideffer wrote some pretty interesting thing along those lines, but especially performance-oriented. Great read


Good post.



I've started reading (but then put it down when I got distracted by other books) Seligman's Learned Optimism, which is about actively pursuing a state of hope. I wonder if he'll talk more in it about producing the feeling of flow?

I would agree that fitness-oriented people experience flow more often. I also suspect that we tend toward optimism in comparison to the general population. That "internal locus of control" thing. (Are you familiar with Rotter's Locus of Control? http://wilderdom.com/psychology/loc/LocusOfControlWhatIs.html )

It's an interesting topic for me because, like you, I work with people who need help developing their own motivations. I'm very good at lending people my optimism, but that requires that I continue to be present to cheerlead them. The goal for me is to teach them to motivate themselves.

Anyway, you're right...it is fascinating!


20 rep breathing squats= Flow


40 rep breathing squats= More Flow. heh.


I love the atomic pups, they're insightful, well-writen, thought out pieces and I hope Nate keeps em comin.


I've been doing a lactate inducing workout where I do higher reps with much lighter weights and much slower tempo than normal, and I have the hardest time focusing on it. Relevant point being, "flow" seems to be a phenomenon I can only experience whilst doing something extremely challenging. Heavy lifting, like pairing front squats and RDLs like so:

A1. Front Squat 3-5 reps
A2. RDL 3-5 reps
5-6 sets

seems to really get me focused to the point of almost being inconsiderate to people around me, whereas I am usually a very considerate person.


Amen to that


What methods have you found to be effective at developing motivation within an individual? Any resources you could recommend?


I was just thinking about flow this lunch time and then i read this. good post.
I like to describe flow as a state of hyper readyness, where coordination becomes super senitive as hands, eyes and body operate synergisticly seamingly without direct instructions from the brain whilst effortlessly staying two/three steps ahead of any hectic activity.

I find that i get a type of 'tunnel vision' where unused sences shut down without me noticing it, for example my hearing will faid, or i'll be obliviouse to the fact that its freezing cold untill i 'snap out of it.'


I'm not sure how to identify what's been helpful to me, Craig. I'm a social worker by trade, so trained to work with people who are in the process of change, and I've had sales training as well, which I think is helpful. Too, I'm a voracious reader and motivation is an area of intense interest to me, both as an aspect of change and as an understanding of people and what makes them tick.

If I had to identify one thing that I do - or attempt to do - to motivate change it would be to find out what people are yearning for (what change), and then really sell it to them. This probably has two parts:

1) Asking enough questions that we can both really identify what the change is and what impacts it will have. I can then easily describe what things will be like post-change, which makes it all seem real.

2) Helping them find the courage to pursue it and risk failing. This is a big one. People get caught up in "why bother, I'll probably fail." My attitude with regard to that is generally so what? Will you regret having tried? Probably not. I think honesty is important here, because if you can't be relied upon to admit that it'll be hard, how can you be trusted when you insist that they can succeed?

So in a fitness or weight loss setting you have a client come in. Let's say an overweight twenty-year-old female. She wants to change, but there are several barriers. One is that she's overwhelmed at the distance she's got to go.

It's going to take forever. Another might be that she'll feel foolish at the gym in such poor shape. And maybe worst of all, she's tired and lazy and isn't even sure she wants to mess with it. And maybe she doesn't, in which case nothing I say will convince her otherwise.

But we can't know until we try, so I'd begin by asking her what brought her in. Typically there's a specific event or feeling that pushes people to consider taking action. These are invariably negative, and there are always other negatives. We'll explore and identify these, but negatives don't really motivate.

They make you...tired, I guess. So on to the change and the positives. A thorough exploration of these should have the client energized. I sort of mold these into an easily referenced word picture and then begin talking about it in a concrete sense. "When you're shopping at Abercrombie and Fitch and stealing your sister's boyfriends to pay her back for her many insults to you..." or "I think you're going to be surprised at how much you enjoy [whatever aspect]."

And then dealing with the barriers. Mostly that consists of looking at the worst case scenario and deciding how bad it is and whether it can be dealt with. Usually the answer to that is yes, because to not initiate the change still leaves the person in a bad place.

Anyway, I didn't mean to write a book, and in Nate's thread. Sorry!

I'll give some thought to resources and post if I come up with any.


Don't be sorry. That's why I write this thing - to get some discussion going.

Keep it up!