Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and long-time player in the fitness industry. He has been featured as an expert in the Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Runner's World and Self. He holds a master's degree in exercise science and health promotion, and several advanced certifications and specializations with NSCA and NASM.
Help Clients Flow Through Their Workouts: The Flow State and Exercise
There are those days when things feel out of sync—your clients seem to lack the motivation for their workouts, some of the regulars in your group fitness class don’t show, and no matter how you coach or cue an exercise it appears as if your clients just aren’t getting it.
Then there are those days when things are ROCKING—your clients are fully engaged in their workouts, your group fitness classes are so much fun that time flies by and your communication skills are completely on point, so everyone knows exactly what they’re supposed to do and when.
Do these different types of days happen by accident? Is there anything that you can be doing as a health and exercise professional to create a positive and engaging experience during your workouts? Whether you work as a group fitness instructor or personal trainer, there are specific strategies that you can implement to create an engaging exercise experience, one in which every participant is fully immersed and focused on the workout through which you are coaching them.
During competition, athletes strive to achieve what they call “the zone,” which occurs when playing a sport is effortless, actions happen automatically and time passes quickly. The good news is that researchers have identified characteristics of this zone (also known as the flow state), and have outlined specific conditions that can be created to help achieve it. Knowing the characteristics of the flow state and the conditions necessary to achieve it can help you develop specific strategies to create optimal experiences for your clients and class participants as you coach them into flow with every workout.
The Flow State
Psychology professor Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, first identified the flow state. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi observed that much of psychology focused on negative emotions and pathologies of the mind, so he instead became interested in studying how psychology could be used to create positive experiences. He was particularly interested in experiences in which individuals are fully immersed in the actions of the present moment (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009).
Through his research, Csikszentmihalyi identified specific qualities and conditions of the flow state, which he described as: “The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost for the sheer sake of doing it” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Put another way, the flow state is where peak performance intersects with peak experience to create a situation of intense focus. Clearly, this is a desirable state for most exercise experiences. Think of those workouts when you have been challenged to lift a set amount of weight, perform a specific number of repetitions or travel a certain distance, during which you may have become so immersed in what you were doing that you didn’t notice time flying by. As a health and exercise professional, you strive to create an environment for clients and class participants to function at the highest level of their individual abilities. Achieving flow removes distracting thoughts and the world outside the gym stays outside the gym, so the focus is specifically on performing the workout and becoming completely immersed in the experience.
In The Rise of Superman, Stephen Kotler describes how action sport athletes like extreme skiers and skydivers tap into the flow state to achieve amazing feats of human performance. Kotler also collaborated with Jamie Wheal to establish the Flow Genome Project, which studies how to help both individuals and organizations tap into flow to optimize performance.
Kotler and Wheal’s book, Stealing Fire, provides an in-depth review of how the pursuit of the flow state is creating what they call the “Altered States Economy.” This includes the fitness industry, where vigorous exercise, powerful music, well-defined goals and direct feedback all serve to create the conditions necessary to achieve the flow state (Kotler and Wheal, 2017).
As a health and exercise professional, you can apply the information from Kotler, Wheal and Dr. Csikszentmihalyi to create an optimal environment for the flow state in the workouts you deliver to clients and classes.
Characteristics of the Flow State
The following are characteristics of the flow state, which your clients and class participants can expect to experience once they have tapped into this level of performance. The essential ingredient for achieving a flow state is a high level of intrinsic motivation and that performing an activity is an autotelic experience, which means it is performed simply because the activity is rewarding in itself (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009).
Concentration on the task at hand: There is complete focus with no distractions. A workout is the one time in the day when a client can focus solely on his or her own needs. Unless clients or class participants are expecting a life-altering phone call, encourage them to keep their phones in the locker so they can focus completely on the workout. Simply remind them that this is their opportunity in the day to be selfish and focus on their needs to improve their quality of life.
Action and awareness emerging: This is the state of total absorption—a feeling of “being at one” with the activity. This is the power of group fitness classes: many different people working together, often vigorously, to achieve a task. Moving as a group, especially to rhythmic music, provides a powerful stimulus for achieving flow.
Loss of self-consciousness: Focusing on reaching a well-defined outcome creates strong inner clarity—the individual knows what needs to be done and receives immediate feedback on performance. Providing a specific, tangible goal at the start of a workout or class, like performing a specific number of repetitions or riding a certain distance, can take participants’ focus off of themselves and place it on the actions required to successfully complete the workout.
Sense of control over performance and outcome: Feeling that one’s actions have a direct impact on the outcome of a performance is often a powerful motivator. It can be hard for people who work for a demanding boss or take care of a busy home to have a sense of control over their lives. An exercise session may be the only time when an individual has a feeling of complete control over his or her performance and outcome, and working hard can lead to a sense of accomplishment.
Transformation of time: An intense focus on the activity leads to a loss of awareness of the passing of time. Encouraging a class or client to focus on each exercise in a workout can lead to the sensation of time speeding up.
Brain Chemistry and Flow
Being in flow isn’t just about feelings; specific chemical changes are happening in the body as well. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that stimulate or inhibit actions of the nervous system and signal whether to do more or less of a certain activity. Exercise produces specific neurotransmitters, which are characteristic of the flow experience as well.
During exercise, the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine are used to help provide energy to fuel muscle activity, but they also help the brain focus specifically on the task at hand. Dopamine promotes feelings of well-being, while also helping neurons to function in pattern recognition. In fact, thanks to dopamine, a “rush” of positive feelings often occurs when specific patterns are repeated. If dopamine is produced as the nervous system works to learn and repeat movement patterns, it is creating a pleasurable learning experience. Anandamide, another neurotransmitter, dilates blood vessels to improve oxygen flow, reduces pain and amplifies lateral thinking, making it an important component of helping the brain learn new exercises. In addition, anandamide is an endogenous cannaboid, so it plays an important role in promoting the positive feelings and good mood that follow a strenuous workout (Kotler, 2014).
Conditions for Reaching the Flow State
Research has made it possible to identify the components that lead to a flow state, which you can use as a guide to create positive, successful experiences with every workout. When the proper conditions for flow exist, a shift happens in the brain that results in a transition from a state of thinking to one of perceiving (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). While you can help create an environment conducive to achieving a flow state, your clients and class participants need the right mindset and have to be actively engaged to achieve a flow state.
Challenge skills balance: An activity should challenge a client’s existing skill level, which encourages him or her to work above an existing capacity and develop new skills. Exercises should be challenging, but not too difficult. Use the program-design principle of progressive overload to create workouts that challenge clients and participants to work a little harder each session. Working to learn or perform a new or challenging exercise results in intense concentration on the task at hand.
Set clear goals: The pursuit of a specific, well-defined goal enhances attentional focus and awareness, causing one to momentarily forget everything else. Establish clear expectations and goals at the start of each training session or class. Predetermining a specific number of repetitions, an exact amount of weight to be lifted, the amount of time at a target heart rate, performing a certain number of intervals or a set distance to be traveled can, when appropriate, provide clear, easy-to-understand goals and set the expectations for what the exerciser should achieve.
Offer unambiguous feedback: Provide specific feedback on performance and, where applicable, give information on how much remains to be done. Here are some examples of specific feedback to offer your clients or participants:
- “Great form all of the way through your squat—you kept your spine extended on the way up!”
- “Excellent explosion from the hips during your kettlebell swing.”
- “You’ve done 750 meters—only 250 to go.”
- “You’ve completed 12 sets—just three more to go before we are finished.”
It’s also helpful to use positive reinforcement to encourage progress toward a goal. “Keep your energy up” is more positive than “Don’t get tired.” Language makes a difference, so choose your words wisely as you coach a client or class through a workout.
Set the Conditions for Creating Flow in Your Workout Programs
“Experiencing flow encourages a person to persist at and return to an activity because of the experiential rewards it promises, and thereby fosters the growth of skills over time,” observed Csikszentmihalyi (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). In other words, the more effectively you are able to help your clients and class participants reach the flow state during their workouts, the more they will look forward to returning for future sessions.
How to Set the Stage for Achieving Flow During Workouts
Challenge skills balance
Design exercise programs that can challenge clients and classes with exercises and drills that lean toward the upper ends of their existing skill levels. A workout that is too difficult does not allow for successful completion and could increase the risk of injury. A workout that is too easy will not create a sense of challenge. Monitor skill levels and encourage clients to challenge their existing abilities.
Set clear goals
The late efficiency expert Stephen Covey included “Begin with the end in mind” as one of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Establishing specific goals and communicating them at the start of the workout allows each individual to focus his or her efforts on the process of achieving those objectives.
Offer unambiguous feedback
If clear goals have been set for the workout, be sure to update participants on their progress toward those goals. Knowing how much time remains in an interval, for example, allows participants to work at an appropriate level of effort through to the end. Keep workout participants informed of the number of exercises or drills left in a workout so they can focus on how hard to work during each one.
Finding Flow Through Play
Trevor Tom, a founder and co-owner of Genesis Performance in Westlake, Calif., uses complex movement patterns to help his clients achieve flow during their workout. Tom challenges clients to learn a series of exercises in which one movement flows right into the next. Clients learn the individual movements before organizing them into one long sequence. This creates the perfect challenge skills situation for flow to occur. As clients become increasingly focused on learning and mastering the movements in a particular sequence, they don’t realize how hard they are working during the session.
“As a coach, I try to get clients to focus on learning movements as opposed to doing specific exercises,” explains Tom. “Clients love the challenge. The feedback I hear is that it makes the workout fun and helps them to feel like an athlete.” Watch a video of a Genesis flow workout class in action HERE.
Playing games during group fitness workouts can help participants achieve the flow state. The Pursuit is an indoor cycling class offered by Equinox in which participants work toward both individual and group goals.
“Our members really get caught up in the games they play during the Pursuit, which features a giant screen in the front of the studio that can show each individual rider his or her performance as it relates to the rest of the group,” explains Jeffrey Scott, the Senior National Group Fitness Manager of Indoor Cycling for Equinox. “Some games focus on individual performance, while others will places riders into groups. Either way, the games track progress based on distance or power output. The members become focused on the goal of each game and love the direct feedback, which, when combined with an energetic playlist, creates a perfect environment for flow to occur.”
Mind-body connections don’t just happen in a yoga studio—any form of exercise requires a specific mindset and focus on the task being performed. When clients or classes are focused on a challenging workout, they stop thinking about outside issues, whether at home or at work. When this happens, exercise becomes the escape from the norm. When combined with the powerful neurotransmitters that produce positive feelings, the flow state makes exercise a pleasurable experience instead of one that is dreaded or to be avoided. Creating challenging, yet achievable, workouts, helping clients and class participants focus their attention on the exercises they are doing, creating a sense of being in the moment and using powerful, energetic music are all effective ways to remove outside distractions and create an optimal exercise experience for both you and your clients.
Listen to Pete McCall interview Jamie Wheal, the executive director of the Flow Genome Project and co-author of Stealing Fire, in his All About Fitness podcast.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow. New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins.
Kotler, S. (2014). The Rise of Superman. Seattle, Wash.: Amazon.
Kotler, S. and Wheal, J. (2017). Stealing Fire. New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins.
Nakamura, J. and Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). “The Concept of Flow.” In Snyder, C.R. and Lopez, S.J. (Eds.). Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press. 89-105.