Working Out in Flow-State Part 2 – Perfect Flow VS Imperfect Flow

Tiger in flow!

In part 1 I described how to get started and briefly explained the characteristics of flow.

In this post I’ll finish the example of how I get into flow before and in the gym and describe how it feels to be in two different kinds of flow as well as identify a couple of differences between them and also give a few pointers I feel are important on the subject.

On Your Way to the Gym

Now you’ve shifted your focus into the body, as you’re walking towards the gym listening to your music you’re feeling good, or at least really psyched and energetic! This is the result of  shifting your focus away from your thoughts etc, you’re essentially freeing up mind capacity that can now be used to generate & boost your internal state.

(The brain works a bit like a computer in the sense that what you can focus on at any given moment is, as far as we know, limited. Just like RAM-memory for a computer. I mention this in the end of this post)

You may feel like you want to run because you’ve got so much excess energy. Keep calm and focus primarily on your body and secondarily on the music, try not to spend this energy yet, even though it’s hard.

Breathe deeply from the stomach and feel the energy pulsating through all of your body. Don’t do shallow and stressful upper-body breathing where only your chest moves, feel the air going into your stomach. You control the energy with your calm and composed breaths. You’ll probably feel incredibly confident.

This should not feel stressful in any way. It should feel like you are the calm centre of the world and everything revolves around you. You should feel rock solid, powerful and certain.

You’ll know when you can feel “the energy”. For me the feeling is similar to getting goosebumps but stronger and I don’t get any visible goosebumps. It’s a lot like a pleasant vibration going through the body.

Feel how the excess energy pulsates throughout your whole body with euphoria and resist temptations to excessively move around to spend the energy. It can be incredibly hard to resist this temptation; however the goal is to only release this energy during your sets.

Perfect Flow

The ideal is when you’re able to remain perfectly calm while feeling this incredible excess of energy running through your body to the point of it being hard to just sit there inactive and enjoying the energy. Hard, but still manageable, not wasting this precious energy until when it’s time to focus 100% on the set. This is perfect flow. No thoughts, just feeling the body, music and the energy while breathing deeply and calmly between the sets as recovery.

Optimally you’re able to calm yourself mentally after the set and allow/accept (as opposed to fighting) the pain to pass through you, which quickly turns it to euphoria if you do it correctly. This will speed up the muscle recovery and should lower your heart rate and breathlessness quickly.

(Just by learning this trick you can improve your workouts by probably 20 %. But it’s harder than it sounds)

It’s all about being comfortable pushing yourself to the limit without feeling that you’re forcing it.

That might sound like a contradiction if you’ve never experienced flow, but I assure you it’s not. When you “get it”, you should be able to push yourself to the limit without it feeling unpleasant in any way, it’s actually when you feel naturally comfortable, relaxed and psyched that you’re able to lift the heaviest or run the fastest!

There’s a very fine line between forcing it just enough, and forcing it too much. Picture it like a continuum:

(As shown above you still need to push yourself quite a bit physically to achieve flow – but it shouldn’t be too forceful, that is to say – too far away from your baseline state. Achieving flow is always a possibility no matter how you feel, but you must adjust the level of challenge and how much you’re pushing yourself to your emotional state)

Not trying hard enough: You’re not mentally focused and you’re having problems staying present to the moment. You’re lacking the ability to mentally push yourself further than you think is capable. (I’d place most people in this category)

Flow: The sweet-spot we’re looking for.  Completely present to the moment, 100% focused on your body and what is of importance to your workout. You’re enjoying yourself without feeling judged or caring about what anyone else is thinking, as all of your focus is on yourself and what comes next.

Forcing it too much: You tend to waste energy in between sets by moving around too much and trying to force yourself into flow, often this just makes you more tired and makes it harder for you to recover in between sets optimally. You’re not allowing the pain to pass through you, letting it take the time that it takes. Instead you want to rush it and do the set faster than what your body is allowing you to.

Recovering in Between Sets

I sometimes envision this process of recovering in between sets as me enjoying the subtle feeling of my body, while I build up an increase of energy in the form of a white ball in my heart as I breathe. With every passing breath, this energy rapidly spreads through my body and builds up to a large chunk to the point where I’ve recovered and feel like I HAVE TO MOVE OR I WILL EXPLODE! Then I do another set and focus all this massive amount of energy on it, depleting it completely and then the process starts all over again.  It requires a lot of concentration and a certain skill of visualization, I can’t do it on a consistent basis yet.

The process of lifting and resting is perceived by most people as painful and exhausting while they’re lifting and doing the set, then feeling tired and having problems catching their breath and being generally uncomfortable in their bodies afterwards.

People dislike the feeling, so they’re afraid of pushing themselves to the point where it hurts. The irony of this is that they’re fighting the process, fighting the pain and fighting their own body’s process of recovery because they think it’s unpleasant. So they avoid it. But this only prolongs it!

You’re going to do the opposite.

I hope you understand the distinction.  Allowing the pain to pass through you and quickly dissipate, as opposed to trying to avoid it in the first place, and if you feel it, insist on fighting it.

The difference between these two decisions is that on a cellular level, the first one is telling your body’s cells that they can’t do their job and thus hindering it and prolonging the pain unpleasantly, while the other decision smoothly allows the cells to use their intelligence to the best of their ability and increase your ability to recover as well as stimulating good euphoric feelings.

You may very well come to enjoy the pain after a while!

Imperfect Flow-State

That was the perfect flow. Now I’ll describe the imperfect flow, which is a state of mind a lot better than what most people have in the gym, but not as good as the perfect flow. You’ll know the difference in due time. Most likely you’ll fluctuate between these two states.

If, when you get to the gym, you succumb to the excess energy that you built up, and start moving too much, breathe incorrectly, spend the energy too quickly, or lose your focus on your own body – you’ll lose flow because your focus is dispersed, which is less effective and fun.

But you’re still in a heightened state of consciousness, the one from which you build flow from.

To go into flow, the activity you undertake needs to be challenging enough for you to have to exert willpower and push yourself. So if you’re not even tired, you’re not at the right level. It should be just right. Not too easy, not too hard, but challenging enough to make you question whether or not you could do it. So that once you do, you feel great!

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is

stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult

and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”

“The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in

consciousness. This happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested

in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The

pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate

attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else.

These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find

to be the most enjoyable times of their lives

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

I’ll assume that you’re doing this.

So you’re still focused on your body and have some excess energy, but you don’t feel it surging through your body ready to explode anymore. The reason you lost that energy was because you weren’t relaxed enough to handle it for a longer period of time (When you practice some more you will though). Now you may feel anxious, like you can’t really control yourself, almost a bit aggressive. This feeling of anxiety can manifest in ways of having trouble holding eye-contact, or not being able to look yourself in the mirror etc. You’re being controlled by this energy and reacting to it instead of you controlling it calmly with your focus.

You’re literally all over the place with your energy. You likely think it’s really hard to stop moving in between sets even though you’re tired and should be resting and focusing on your recovery.  The music feels so good that you can’t stop moving, so it’s still a good feeling, but also really weird.

Subconsciously on some level you’ve associated this increased energy and focus with continuous excess movement, likely along to the music. You might get addicted to it at first. Then you’ll understand that by doing this, while it’s better than what most people are doing, you’re hindering yourself from perfect flow.

Here’s a quicker easier explanation of imperfect flow in case that one was hard to understand.

The imperfect flow-state, (also generating less energy) starts out the same way as the perfect flow-state, but you’re unable to focus completely on the inner body, breathing, recovering process and allowing of pain to the same extent. Your behavior is likely to be very jumpy as a result of not being able to remain calmly in the energy, but instead feeling addicted to the euphoric feeling and having to use it immediately through movement. You may have problem holding eye-contact because you feel like you are all over the place due to your lack of focus on anything except the energy (you might look like you took ecstasy or amphetamine). Your movement is very frantic between the sets until you deplete your energy and go into a relatively normal state, no longer in flow. This is likely how you’ll begin, and then later after mastering this and keeping the flow while still being all over the place, you’ll one day feel the calm focus and reach the ideal flow-state from time to time until it becomes consistent with mental practice.

General Pointers

If you’re inexperienced with going to the gym, or just insecure, you might be put off when people stare at you or you don’t feel comfortable expressing yourself fully in that environment.  Perhaps you don’t feel like you can move as freely as you would in your own house, or you’re afraid to make noises even if you’re lifting heavily. If this is the case, you’re going to have a hard time going into flow at all. You’re focusing on how other people perceive you and making your workout less efficient since you don’t have a single-minded concentration. You need absolute focus on yourself for flow to become a possibility.

Going into flow means becoming one with the activity, not focusing on what anyone else thinks about you or if you look stupid while doing your sets.

So if this is your ambition, start by becoming TRULY comfortable in a gym environment.

When it comes to music and flow I’ve found that it’s a good idea to have a varied list of music that can be used depending on what mood/emotional state you’re currently in. Sometimes you resonate more with “darker” and more serious songs, while at other times you might be in a pretty good mood and want to listen to “happier” music.

Music is mood-dependent and when certain songs will only appeal to you when you’re in a specific mood.

To sum it up as well as give a few pointers:

  • Create and experiment with a pre-gym routine that you love and that gets you pumped up!
  • Actively focus on your breathing, body and get into your own world as you’re disregarding external things. Challenge yourself and use your willpower, but don’t push it too much, trust your body to tell you when it’s ready. Don’t stress or force it, find the sweet-spot.
  • The mind/body-connection or power of suggestion. Your thoughts influence your body and emotions. Think powerful positive thoughts and your strength, recovery and muscle growth will increase. Know in your mind what you want to look like and you’ll tell your muscles on a cellular level to start transforming into this new shape.
  • Get music that you love and that makes you feel strong emotions. Replace or remove a song if it doesn’t elicit a emotional response any longer.
  • Visualize your sets in your mind’s eye before you do them. See yourself doing it perfectly.

Let me know if it works out well for you. :)


  1. “Music is mood-dependent and when certain songs will only appeal to you when you’re in a specific mood.”

    After I read this earlier this week I started to REALLY notice this effect when everytime I exercised this week – Some of my songs really appealed to me when I was energetic and positive and vice versa, another day i was in a terrible mood and listened to some heavy metal and from there “climbed up” and eventually got into a better mood and maybe even entered some kind of flow. Anyway it was definitely a new and cool experience for me :)

    Honestly I cant really relate with the “perfect vs imperfect flow” becuase i dont think i am at that level yet, but its cool reading about. Personally i believe that once you know of something and hte possibility enters your mind then it is achieved easier!

    • Awesome to hear!

      I completely agree, once you become aware of something and can focus on it, it’s just a matter of “time lag” until it actually happens.

  2. Good post, but whats up with the ending ahhaha

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