Finding your “Flow” in Weightlifting

What is flow?

It’s always easiest to start with something that someone else said, rather than give my own horrible description that would only serve to confuse people.

In positive psychology, flow, also known as zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. Named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields, though has existed for thousands of years in other guises, notably in some eastern religions (1).

Remembering this definition, what are the requirements of flow and how they relate to Weightlifting?

A Clear Goal. The objectives are clear and not confusing.

This easily relates to Weightlifting. When you give yourself an adequate but not impossible challenge you have the obvious short term goal of lifting the weight. You also have the longer term absolute goals of hitting a certain total or qualifying for a particular challenge.

Immediate feedback. Almost any kind of feedback can be enjoyable if related to your goal. You know whether or not what you are doing is getting you closer to your goal, you can change your course if something unexpected happens. 

The obvious feedback of the miss or make of any given lift, but you also have the feedback of your coach or training partners. The only difference between feedback and criticism is the way that you hear it. Often people have an emotional attachment to a method and have a hard time letting go. That’s why it is often important to ask the person “How does that feel?” “why is that?” instead of “do this, do that”.

Challenges of the activity match the skills of the person. When is a game enjoyable? When your opponent is the same level of the other person. A task beyond your skill level leads to stress and one below your skill level makes you bored and you get distracted. Almost any new skill is hard to learn. But over time it becomes addictive. 

This is where experience and smart programming takes over, you often hear max every day and go hard or go home when it comes to work in the gym. This may work for some personality types. For others it will lead them to getting frustrated and venting at the bar/random chair people around them.  If you smartly and correctly choose the weights, you should feel that momentum when you approach that bar. Anyone who has been involved in high level performance (in any field) will tell you that momentum is a key component.

If a person is struggling with a particular weight or activity, it can help to avoid it for a period of time and focus on what they have a knack for. This may lead to an increased confidence in future sessions. Coaches can switch squats to the end of a particular tricky session so when the person leaves they have that recent memory of doing good work rather than the potential memory of having a rough time with a particular new skill.

A feeling of focus and concentration in what you are doing. Usually your attention is split throughout the day. In flow the split attention is focused into a single beam of attention. That is why you can achieve so much more. 

Once you have some degree of mastery of the sport (or anything else) it becomes quite easy to focus completely on the task at hand. The other factors have to be in place but it is an important aspect of performance. You should be thinking of nothing else. You often find beginners thinking about the lift whilst it is in progress and technique very quickly seems to break down and other errors occur. Weightlifting is a feed-forward motion once you start the lift, it should be an automatic process. The feedback comes later. For coaches this is useful on lighter weights as the lifter can be reminded about various technical cues, but in competition you want to focus them on the moment, not the possibilities that may occur. You will see people in the warm up room looking at X/Y and calculating. The only outcome you can affect is your own.

Consider watching:

to grab an insight in the sheer will and focus required for some sports. I can’t recommend this video enough.

Loss of background noise. You cannot worry about what is going on at home when you in flow. It is a great feeling to be in the present, you have total focus on that moment. Flow is a form of escape from reality.

This aspect of flow is somewhat similar to the previous. When you are on form, the distractions that surround you seem to fade away. A fun example of this being the oft quoted “Invisible gorilla” selective attention task(2):

This is important in all performance sports, if that noise gets to you it will break your focus. From a Weightlifting point of view. A clear example of this focused individual is Ilya Illyin, if you ever get the chance watch:

His mental game is on point. “By the time I step on stage I have already lifted the weight”. This is the attitude that you need when you step up to the bar. You have to be the baddest dude around.

Sense of Control: The most addictive part of the flow is experience is the sense of control or the illusion of control that you have when you precisely and correctly control the difficulty level of the activity.

This ties in with section 3, with smart programming you will have that feeling of control that is so addictive, there are so many forces in life that are beyond your ability to influence. But for that moment on the bar you have control over the outcome if you execute correctly. On the other hand if you are constantly trying to max out and missing you will very rarely have that positive feeling from a session and will kill your momentum.

Loss of Self-Consciousness: Thinking about yourself and what others think about you are a great source of psychic drain. In flow you are so involved that you are no longer aware of peoples’ opinions of you. When you reflect upon your experience you often enriched by it. 

You would have noticed that mid –session, no one cares how you look or what a person is wearing. To be honest most people simply aren’t interested. If they are, odds are they are there for the wrong reasons. 

Personal example: playing in front of a large crowd, the energy flowing around, you are disconnected from it. The beginning of the game I was terrified I would drop the ball or make some sort of mistake and get a rise from the crowd. About 30 seconds into the game that all melts away and you don’t notice anything other than your performance. 

Transformation of Time: In flow hours get condensed into minutes. Or a second gets stretched out for so long – dancer spinning – lasts an instant but often they feel the experience for a long time. 

I think this experience is quite common with people when they work for a purpose they believe in. You look at the watch and all of sudden it is time to pack up and head home. From a personal standpoint I know that when I am lifting and really enjoying a session, it is easy for me to burn through a couple of hours. The same thing applies to coaching lifters and when they are responding well you have that same experience.

How can this help me?

In terms of your own lifting, you can start to see why smart programming is an important factor in the training of the Weightlifter.  Missing weights that you should not be attempting tends form poor motor patterns. The lifts usually are being missed for a specific reason. Identifying that should be your priority, rather than attempting the same weight repeatedly. A recent example of this is the brilliant Tatiana Kashirina (Current +75kg World champion, holds all 3 world records). Quoted as saying:

“Tatiana and her coach could not remember the last time she missed a lift in training.” can you say the same about your training?

Consider reading: for the full article.

If you train correctly you should be making weights every session, reviewing what could be improved either on your own or with the help of you coach. Then seeing how this fits in with your current goals for Weightlifting. This process would greatly enhance your experience in the sport. Max out errday may serve your ego occasionally but you will have a difficult time sustaining that momentum. If you miss, consider asking yourself how it felt during the lift, then ask how could this be improved? – If you don’t know that’s where the coach should be.

It is important to develop a routine for setting up so you can achieve the correct arousal state for your best performance. This will allow you to ignore what is occurring around you and focus on performance.

Flow can also loosely be applied to aspects of training that you do not enjoy. Throughout the book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihaly” he gives examples of people going through what others may see as mundane tasks. The have a vision of how this can help them and what this task contributes to their current goals. So in the future when you skip out on stretching or assistance work try to see it as part of a process and how it contributes to your goal.

Hopefully you can take something away from this article, more a smattering of thoughts on my part. The “Flow” experience is critical to performance in my opinion.

Some further reading on this subject:

  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
  • Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
  • Start with Why – Simon Sinek
  • Legacy – James Kerr
  • Mind Gym: Wake up your Mind
  • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Sunryu Suzuki


(1) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

(2) Christopher Chabris (2011). The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us

Gamification and the Little Things

People who read this may or may not be aware that I am a massive gamer at heart. Like a lot of kids in my days I went through the fun of Unreal Tournament 2003, Warcraft 3, Counter Strike 1.6 and Street Fighter (various). My main passion in games was RPGs (role playing games), it harks back to the days as a kid playing Warhammer 40k or DnD (Dungeons and Dragons). There was something badass about taking a character that started out as a scrub through to being able to take down huge dragons or powerful Liches many hours/days later.189559_4106547994509_1024487809_n

Naturally this leads me to “gamify” aspects of my life wherever I can so that I get on that Dopamine gravy train and start enjoying the process of improving,

Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems and increase users’ self contributions.¹

Gamification is everywhere these days, lots of websites get you to register and award you some form of points system or badges based on activity. You have computer games to thank for this.

Applying it in the sporting world is a great fit. When you start out you tend to be pretty useless at most things in the gym or in the sport. Once your mastery level improves you can take on bigger and bigger challenges that on the outset would have been mind-blowing. It is up to coaches to set the right challenge level for the athlete so their skill level improves at the same rate as the challenge, this will trigger that juicy flow state.

Flow, also known as Zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.²

One of the things I find in Weightlifting is that people get too hung up on the long term goals of a big Snatch, Clean and Jerk or Back Squat. Sometimes setting unreasonable goals without breaking it down and looking what it takes to get there. Using the gaming analogy:

You have to kill a shitload of boars before you can kill a dragon.

This can be referred to short term goals, daily goals or process goals. It can be something as simple as making sure you get adequate sleep. (Much more important than I wish it was). Making sure you eat right for the day/week or if you have a nasty vice that you know holds you back, like spending too much time on websites that do nothing (Facebook) taking steps to limit your use for a couple of days and reading a book or working towards something else instead.

With a mind to Weightlifting once the noob gains stop it can sometime be a very long time in between a Snatch / CnJ PR. You can use things like complexes to add variety and get a boost. Also keeping track of your 2rm / 3rm Snatch / CnJ PR’s can also help give that small boost in the longer preparation cycles. I use good old Google Drive and then set up a couple of graphs to get easy visual feedback that reassures me everything is moving in the right direction. With a background in CS, I fucking love graphs.Graph bicture

The boar quote can also be used to think about weaknesses in your body. To hit those tasty lifts that you want sometimes you have to do some exercises that you really don’t enjoy. You know they are good for you but somehow you find ways to convince yourself that if you keep trying to Max out or stick with what you have been doing something might fall into place and you will get lucky. Denial is powerful. The dreaded assistant exercises are the boars of this equation. Things like good mornings, overhead pressing or single leg squatting if your knees are wobbly. I have had the good fortune to have trained with / been coached by high level athletes / coaches and more often than not the successful people are the ones that take care of the little things and farm that easy xp.

As a Weightlifter you should have no trouble working towards a 2-2.5 times body weight back squat as a male, it should be one of the milestones you aim for early on. Breaking that lift down you will need sufficient Flexibility/mobility/stability to safely assume the position, more often than not people skip this first part and just start racking up the weight. To maintain the active back in the lifts your upper back, lats and erectors must be beastly to progress to the heavy weights without increasing your risk of injury. Back squatting alone is not always the fastest way to progress.

This video is pretty much squat porn, even though all squats are beautiful – fantastic positions. During the dream team seminars the first thing that Zygmunt Smalcerz (gold medal in the 52kg class at the 1972 Olympics now USA head coach) said about the godly Ilya Ilyin: (undefeated weightlifter who has won two Olympic championships and four world championships) one of the reasons he is the best in the world is that he works tirelessly on positioning. He can hit positions that makes other weightlifters envious.

1294590_668820536565018_5083556538838401441_oThis is one of my new favorite pictures of a back squat (thanks to Allthingsgym), I know the lifter has a fantastic body structure for squatting, but the motor control in the upper back is great to see. The arms are pretty loose and the big movers like the quads/glutes/hamstrings are doing the work. A far cry from people who have to get so tight with their arms on the back squat then lead with the hips so the lower back is doing a disproportionate amount of the lift. For Weightlifting this is not useful, legs do the work. It is not chance that took these lifters to the World Championships, taking care of the little things plays a big role for anyone.

When these little things improve, your skill level rises and you are able to assume more difficult tasks. That dopamine release from improving will also increase motivation for the times when things get really difficult. (And they will). The next time you are hitting a plateau and feel like your lifting world is crumbling, try stepping back and think to yourself.

Have you killed your boars today?

¹ Huotari, K., & Hamari, J. (2012). “Defining Gamification – A Service Marketing Perspective”
² Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience