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The Science Behind ‘Getting In The Zone’ For Your Workout

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You’ve been in the zone before. Athletes talk about it all the time:

“When I’m scoring, I have a narrow, laser focus. I get totally lost in the rhythm of shooting.” — Kobe Bryant (NBA)

“The zone is the essence of the athletic experience, and those moments of going beyond yourself are the underlying allure of sport.” — David Meggyesy (NFL)

“You can’t think and hit at the same time. If you ask me, this is true with any sport.” — Yogi Berra (Baseball)

“When I am fighting I am keeping my mind empty from any expectations. I am waiting for something unique, completely new.” — Rickson Gracie (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu)

“I felt I was truly in the present moment. We tango dancers strive for this above all else, a zen-like state.” — Shama Fabiano (Tango)

“The zone is not about trying hard. You can’t force it. The zone feels effortless because you’re operating at a higher state of consciousness.” — Garret Kramer (Sports Psychology)

Everyone has heard of the zone, and most people have been in the zone at one point or another, but few actually know what’s happening. Even fewer know the science behind the experience.

Being ‘in the zone’ is called flow, or at least that’s what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi — former head of psychology at the University of Chicago — named this mental state. Here’s how to apply it to your workout.

 

What Is Flow And How Do I Get There?


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First things first, you’re not going to get in the zone the first time you workout. Flow happens at the specific intersection of challenge and skill — or, doing any activity that’s challenging, yet requires a developed skill to complete.

If you are new to an activity like working out — whether that’s starting a new exercise regimen or joining a new class — you won’t have the skill needed to reach flow. It takes time and practice. But don’t despair, with training and dedication the rewards can be amazing.

Flow is most likely to occur when you’re wholeheartedly getting your sweat on for intrinsic purposes. In other words, it’s important that you value your workout. You’re exercising because you WANT to; not because anyone is forcing you to. Conversely, passive activities like taking a bubble bath or even watching TV usually don’t elicit flow experiences.

That’s not all it takes though.


7 Steps To Flow Into The Zone


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The latest research tells us that there are a few conditions required for you to be able to get in the zone. Psychologist Owen Schaffer proposed 7 flow conditions in 2013. Here’s what’s key:1

1. Know what to do. 

This one’s simple — have a plan when you’re going to the gym. Are you lifting weights, focusing on ab training, working on your aerobics, or doing crossfit? Your training session shouldn’t be a random hodgepodge. Make sure you know what you’re doing before you put on your shoes.

Having pre-written workout plans ready-to-go is doubly effective because it also reduces decision fatigue, leaving you with more willpower and mental capacity to focus on performance.

 

2. Know how to do it. 

Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Get familiar with the exercises you’re going to do at the gym. Lean It Up’s workout plans and exercise demos have great technique walkthroughs — study them, practice over time, and make the movements second nature.

If you’re scheduled to bang out 3 sets, there’s no excuse for walking into the gym without knowing what a dumbbell renegade row is.

 

3. Know how well you are doing. 

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Photo: Nerdmeister

Brain surgery is a profession where getting in the zone is almost a given. Surrounded by monitoring equipment and very detailed operational plans, brain surgeons know second by second how well the surgery is going.

Be the brain surgeon. Test your 1 rep max, see how many times you can do a push-up, track how much weight you’re lifting, and write down your fastest mile. And then constantly monitor your workouts against these measurements, always shooting to progress.

*Important: monitor both your results and your form, otherwise you’re just cheating yourself.

 

4. Know where to go.

This is only if navigation is involved — it won’t apply to most workouts.

 

5. Perceive high challenges.

If you don’t challenge yourself during your workout, you won’t get into flow. That doesn’t mean every workout has to be a killer or that you should beat your 1 rep max every time you lift. But, you should set concrete and measurable goals that force you to push yourself, make improvements, and feel the enjoyment of a challenge attained.

 

6. Perceive high skills.

Now we’re getting closer to the mental side of optimal performance — my favorite part. More to be discussed in the “free from distractions” section, but the main takeaway here is to always carry a positive attitude. Having conviction in your abilities and eliminating doubt will take you far.

The second part of the equation is putting in enough work, that way you can honestly and truly say to yourself “I know what I’m doing. I’ve been here before and I will be successful.”

I’m a big fan of MMA, so I’ll let the man behind the biggest UFC upset of all time say it better than me:

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7. Be free from distractions.

This means focusing on your workout and not spending your time at the gym chit-chatting about your day. Remember, you value your workout; don’t let obvious distractions get in the way.

Beyond that, you have to learn how to control non-obvious distractions. Letting your mind wander and thinking about “real-life” problems will snap you out of the zone faster than Usain Bolt. Learning to control mind-wandering can be tough, but here are a couple tools:

  • Good posture will create better balance, enhance sports performance, boost testosterone production, lower cortisol production and may help conserve energy. Your neck and lower back should be relaxed. Use abdominal muscles to support the back. Not only does this help prevent injuries, but it’s body language that fosters confidence.
  • Regular meditation practice is one of the best ways to get into and stay in the zone. One study noted that, “athletes’ flow dispositions and mental skills adoption could be differentiated using mindfulness.” It appears that meditating for 20 minutes each day is sufficient level for athletes to easily be able to return to this flow zone state and optimize their performance.2

 

Wrap Up


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There will always be days where you can’t into the zone regardless of what time it is, how much coffee you drink. or what music you’re listening to. And that’s OK.

If you’re just not feeling it, cut yourself some slack. Listen to your body, improve where you can and get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a great day.



Gene Kobilansky

Gene Kobilansky

Founder at Flow Athletics
Gene Kobilansky is the founder of FlowAthletics.com, an NYU Wrestling Coach and a BJJ Blue Belt. When not training, he writes for the Flow Athletics blog.

If you want to get better at getting in the zone, be sure to follow Flow on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Gene Kobilansky

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References, Notes, Links

  1. HumanFactors — Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method To Facilitate Flow []
  2. Ying Hwa Kee, C.K. John Wang. Relationships between mindfulness, flow dispositions and mental skills adoption: A cluster analytic approach. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Volume 9, Issue 4, July 2008, Pages 393–411 []

 

  • If anyone has questions, or wants to talk to me about the flow state, I’ll be checking in on the comments!

  • Ducky

    Do you have any suggestions on how to tune out distractions in a gym? Movement in the gym, noise etc?

    • For me, personally, it’s two things:

      1. Music — pop in your headphones, crank up the volume, and everything else seems to zone out.

      2. Get off your phone — it’s a portal to the outside world and everything that’s going on. I like to treat my workouts as a mini break from the rest of the day. No phone = severely limited distractions. If your music’s on your phone, set your song and then don’t check it again.