3 Ways “Flow” Can Help You Grow


Vince Del Monte, WBFF Pro Fitness Model, Certified Fitness Trainer
and Nutritionist and author of No Nonsense Muscle

The nuts and bolts of what you need to know…

  • In regards to strength training, if the intensity selected is too low, or too high, the end result will be less than optimal – one must find the intensity that encourages them to stretch themselves beyond their current capacities

  • Balance is a relative term, and will differ depending on what the goal is that you wish to accomplish from your set, and training session

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has coined the term “flow,” which he describes as the state in which humans are most motivated to perform a given task, as it takes a very specific type of task to promote us to perform at our absolute best. “Flow,” as I understand it, entails a state in which one attempts to stretch themselves beyond their current capacities with the goal of bettering themselves.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)

To my understanding, Csikszentmihalyi suggests that tasks that we believe to be too easy are ones in which we are not motivated to even bother attempting, as the reward for accomplishing them is simply perceived as not worth the effort required. On the flip side, we are just as little motivated to attempt to perform tasks that we perceive to be too hard, as we don’t trust in our ability to obtain success, and thus it’s also not worth our investment of time.

In between tasks in which we perceive to be too hard, or too easy, but still challenging enough to force us to stretch ourselves to our limits, are the ones in which motivation reaches its peak, as the tradeoff between investment of time vs. the perceived reward is at its greatest. It’s these tasks the he believes are the ones in which we should seek out, as they are the ones that will put us in a state of “flow,” which is where we do our best work, as things begin to “flow” for us.

If you’re a bodybuilder and need motivation this is a must-watch:

The Bell Curve – AKA The Inverted “U” Curve

We can draw a lot of parallels between “flow” and muscle building, but to do so, one must understand how a bell curve operates. A bell curve, much like Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow, suggests that on the outer ends of the spectrum, the return on investment will be lowest, while the middle is precisely where the return per investment of time is greatest. In the realm of strength training, this can be interpreted to mean that a load that is too light, or too heavy, will not be most beneficial (although for differing reasons), and therefore one should aim to find the load that best promotes the desired adaptation.

For example, we know that those training to build muscle, can do so in a multitude of ways, each independent of one another – one can rely on relatively heavy loads to subject the muscles to high levels of mechanical tension, lighter loads to subject the muscles to high levels of metabolic stress, or extreme ranges of motion and enhanced eccentrics to induce high levels of muscle damage. But each of these three factors are subjected to different bell curves.

The Mechanical Tension Bell Curve

As it relates to mechanical tension, we know that the weight must be heavy enough to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible, but light enough to allow for perfect technique to be maintained to maximize technical proficiency while concurrently minimizing risk of injury. If the weight is too low, the muscles will be under-stimulated, and if the weight is too high, compensation is likely to occur by way of losing positioning and relying on other muscles to help contribute to completing the lift. Therefore, I believe that loads between 85-90% of one’s maximum, or one’s 3-5 rep max (RM) are best suited for building muscle with heavy loads, or also building strength.


The Metabolic Stress Bell Curve

To maximize metabolic stress we want to keep the muscles subjected to constant tension, and anything that allows the muscles to disengage during the set is therefore counterproductive. Therefore, in this case, flow is achieved by performing the range of motion in which the primary muscles are under tension, and negating ranges of motion in which they are allowed to disengage – which in most cases are the end ranges of motion, and this is done in most cases by performing only the middle 80% of the range of motion (avoiding roughly the top, and bottom 10% of the movement).

Once again, a parallel can be drawn from motivational flow, to muscle building. In my opinion, the best loads to maximize metabolic stress are between 50-75% of one’s maximum, or one’s 10-25 RM – although you won’t be able to perform that many reps due to keeping the muscles constantly engaged, as the accumulating metabolic stress will undoubtedly impede performance.

The Muscle Damage Bell Curve

Muscle damage is a little trickier in terms of finding the sweet spot in the middle of the spectrum, since there are multiple ways to induce damage. Heavy loads can be damaging, light loads can be damaging, the speed in which you perform your reps can be damaging, etc. For simplicity, I’d say that the best methods I’ve used to induce muscle damage are those in which the muscles are subjected to high levels of tension as they are being lengthened (AKA eccentric overload), or by performing a high volume of work in which the targeted muscles are placed in their most stretched position under load. In my opinion, the best loads to maximize eccentric overload are between 90-120% of one’s maximum, or anything above one’s 3 RM – obviously this means that the likelihood of actually “lifting” the weight is reduced, and sole focus is placed on lowering the weight only, and therefore this should be performed within the safety of a power rack – the weight needs to be heavy enough to provide an “overload,” but light enough so that it doesn’t impose its will on you and crush you. As for performing a high volume of work in which the targeted muscles are placed in their most stretched position, in my opinion the best loads to use are between 70-85% of one’s maximum, or one’s 5-12 RM – the weights need to be heavy enough to emphasize the stretch, but not so heavy that they tear the muscle or blow out the joint.

Finding Your Flow

The percentages above are arbitrary, and simply guidelines based on what I’ve found to be effective in years of “in the trenches” practice. Regardless of the mechanisms responsible for building muscle, it’s important to use the right loads to achieve the desired result. Too little, and you’re wasting your time. Too much, and you’re likely risking injury, or may end up compensating by instinctively relying on other muscle groups to assist with the lift. The right load for you will always be based on what it is you’re trying to accomplish, and to maximize progress one must use the best load for the job – the one which enables you to enter a state of flow!


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4 thoughts on “3 Ways “Flow” Can Help You Grow

  1. I could not agree more with this concept of being in the flow. That is the place were you will find your grace and endurance. I have often reached the place of “too little” and also “too much” It is all a balancing act. But the results from being in this flow will show up.

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  2. Getting into flow state is extremely powerful and the parallels between flow state and muscle building are particularly interesting. I found the bell curve analogy is a really useful tool for load selection. Great article!

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  3. Love this article as many gym goers fall into this. You need to experiment and play with your load selection/ desired goal. Be your very own Goldilocks not too much, not to too little just right.

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  4. I’ve heard this term being in the “flow.” I feel it often when I’m so focused on what I’m doing (whatever that may be) that time falls away. There is no concept of time because you are doing something that you really enjoy and time is irrelevant. I agree that finding the right loads when building muscle is key and put’s one in a state of flow, where things begin to click.

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