“I’m wondering if anyone has a recommendation for a physical activity (or pair of activities) that efficiently accomplishes the following three things:
-Get into a flow state
-Increase strength/muscle mass”
That was a recent post of mine in the Stealing Fire Pyros Facebook group.
The responses I received were of so much value to me in my attempt to maximize the mental and physical benefits of my time spent participating in physical activities that I decided to compile the responses into a blog article that I can share with my friends and anyone else interested in cultivating more flow in their lives and improving their physical fitness.
To begin, here is the definition of flow given in Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal:
“[Flow is] defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best. Flow refers to those ‘in the zone’ moments where focus gets so intense that everything else disappears. Action and awareness start to merge. Our sense of self vanishes. Our sense of time as well. And all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, go through the roof.”
I received responses to my post from 32 people, including flow and physical fitness experts such as Flow Strategist and host of Flow Real Tone Floreal, three-time Ironman competitor Evelyne Cardinal, and 11 year personal training business owner/operator Emma Somerville.
The recommendations for physical activities that I received were an interesting mix, ranging from activities that are well known but that I hadn’t previously considered for both getting into flow and improving my physical fitness (e.g. swimming) to activities that are more under the radar that I had never even heard of before (e.g. MovNat).
Before jumping into the specific physical activities, I want to highlight a few comments I received on flow that I found to be particularly insightful:
One commenter described that flow is individual, so it is a good idea to experiment with various activities and discover what tends to get you more into a flow state as opposed to pursuing a specific activity for it.
Likewise, another commenter said that getting into flow depends on you and your background. He goes on to recommend:
“Match up your flow profile (crowd pleaser, deep thinker, flow go-er, hard charger) to the type of fitness: group/class, solo, chill, or goal-oriented. Crowd Pleasers need to be in a group; Deep Thinkers working out alone and self-directed; Flow Go-ers something meditative and repetitive; and Hard Chargers something pushing your body to the max like Crossfit/HIIT.”
I decided to take the free Flow Genome Project flow profile quiz to determine my own flow profile. It turns out that I am a Flow Goer, meaning I’m especially drawn to activities such as yoga, meditation, and personal growth retreats. I found the process of reflecting on the quiz questions to be incredibly helpful for getting a better sense of which physical activities I should test out, so would highly recommend taking it!
A final point before digging into the specific physical activities:
There is an especially strong focus on flow in the remainder of this article (in comparison to strength and flexibility), so if you have no interest in cultivating more flow in your life then this may not be the best article for you.
In some cases, commenters may have been biased towards focusing more on flow than on flexibility or strength since a) I mentioned flow first in the question I posted, and b) the responses I received, with a few exceptions, were from a Facebook group full of people with an especially high interest in flow.
Nevertheless, I did receive a fair number of comments relating to increasing strength and flexibility that I personally found to be very insightful, including helpful responses from experts in the fitness industry and high level athletes.
Top 3 Most Frequently Recommended Activities
Out of the 32 responses I received, here are the 3 most frequently mentioned activities:
Yoga was by far the most recommended physical activity, mentioned by 11 people:
Of these 11 mentions, 5 people said “yoga”, without getting into more detail on specifics. Emma Somerville said that yoga is one of the two modalities that she feels has been most effective for getting into flow states personally (the other modality will be discussed in the following section).
Hot Yoga — Three people recommended hot yoga, with one commenter saying “I find the heat and intensity helps with the meditation/flow part”.
Ashtanga Yoga — Three people recommended Ashtanga yoga . As one commenter described, “it’s an elegantly designed sequence of breath initiated standing and sitting postures. I call it my meditation in motion”. Another commenter said he has been practicing Ashtanga yoga four-five days a week for more than three years and believes it is great for flow.
Relating to selecting a yoga class to attend, one commenter described:
“Every class and every instructor provides something completely different. Some are good for flexibility, some strength, some spiritual, some heart opening, some for mind quieting. I recommend trying a variety of classes/instructors until you find something that resonates.”
2) Martial Arts
Four commenters mentioned martial arts:
Jiu Jitsu— Tone Floreal recommended jiu jitsu. Another commenter suggested it as well, adding that jiu jitsu had been described to him as an example of extreme physical problem solving.
“Training in [Brazilian jiu-jitsu] offers a powerful lens through which to examine some primary human concerns — truth v. delusion, self knowledge, ethics, and overcoming fear.”
-Sam Harris, author and neuroscientist
Here is a fascinating introductory video to Brazilian jiu-jitsu from the legendary Gracie Academy:
Tai Chi — Emma Somerville mentioned that in addition to yoga, tai chi is the other modality that she feels has been most effective for flow states personally.
One other commenter recommended “martial arts” as a great flow generator, but did not elaborate beyond that.
Three commenters mentioned swimming:
Evelyne Cardinal commented “mentally, swimming is very meditative. All you can do is focus on your technique and your breathing and everything else in your mind melts away”.
Two other commenters mentioned “long distance” and “open water” swimming.
Nothing in sports makes me want to get into a sport as much as when watching Michael Phelps swim:
Other Recommended Activities
Three commenters mentioned biking, including two recommendations specifically for mountain biking.
However, Evelyne Cardinal mentioned swimming ahead of biking (and ahead of running, which is discussed in the section below) in terms of getting into a flow state, due to the intense focus on your technique and breathing while swimming. She went on to say though that she could easily argue for biking and running being good modes for flow, especially long distance and triathlons, which require huge mental strength training.
Although three commenters mentioned each of swimming, biking, and running, I included only swimming in the above “Top 3 Most Frequently Recommended Activities” because a) no one added any caveats when mentioning swimming, and b) from my personal experience doing all three activities, I personally found swimming to be by far the most mentally and physically engaging and challenging, whereas I have sometimes found myself not present in the moment while biking and running.
Three commenters mentioned running, including both Emma Somerville and Evelyne Cardinal. One of these commenters recommended trail running specifically. However, some of these commenters included caveats in their responses.
Emma Somerville said that although she does a lot of running personally and trains a lot of runners and has found that long distance running does have the potential for flow, there is a lot of self talk that goes on while running that may be a barrier to flow.
As described in the biking section above, Evelyne Cardinal mentioned swimming ahead of running, although she does believe that running is a good mode for getting into flow as well.
Tone Floreal and one other commenter recommended kettlebells.
Onnit describes kettlebell training as combining “ explosive strength with muscular endurance to provide an efficient and athletically optimized full body workout”.
Check out this kettlebell workout with Pavel Tsatsouline, a former physical training instructor for the elite Soviet special forces units, who is widely credited for introducing the kettlebell to the United States:
Tone Floreal recommended gymnastic rings.
As Ryan Hurst, co-founder of GMB Fitness explains,
“One benefit of the rings is their inherent instability. Independently swinging from a long strap, the rings will move at the slightest touch. This instability forces you to concentrate every second that you are on the rings in order to keep from swaying. It can be difficult enough to pull and press your weight on a fixed bar, let alone on two rings that wiggle around! This difficulty translates into building more strength and muscle in your upper body and core.”
Here is a very brief introductory gymnastic ring workout for beginners:
For more information on the benefits of using gymnastic rings and how to get started with them, check out this article titled Gymnastic Rings 101: Why to Use Them, How to Buy Them, and Where to Hang Them.
Tone Floreal recommended Animal Flow.
At animalflow.com, Animal Flow is described as a “fitness program that combines quadrupedal and ground-based movement with elements from various bodyweight-training disciplines to create a fun, challenging workout emphasizing multi-planar, fluid movement”.
Watching this video certainly makes me want to give it a try:
More more information on Animal Flow, check out their website here.
One commenter mentioned surfing, adding that of all the things he has read, surfing tends to rank high for getting into flow.
As surfer and life coach Jiro Taylor explains,
“Surfing hits nearly all of the triggers for flow, meaning that we experience flow more than most people. As surfers we are at the forefront of flow state discovery. We are flow state pioneers. This puts us in a unique position to learn about it so we can add flow to all areas of our life.”
Check out this article Putting The Flow State into Practice: Tips for Surfing.
One commenter recommended going to a rock climbing gym.
Indoor rock climbing appears to be a relatively cheap and easy option to get into in comparison to many of the other activities included in this article (my local rock climbing gym has day passes including rental of equipment for $23.50, as well as introductory classes for beginners).
The first minute of this video discusses the physical and mental benefits of rock climbing, including describing rock climbing as a full body workout:
One commenter mentioned weight training.
Here is a weight training guide for beginners from bodybuilding.com
Relating to weight training, you definitely want to check out this fascinating new London Real documentary on Dorian Yates, winner of six consecutive Mr. Olympia titles:
One commenter recommended boxing, at least for getting into flow and building strength, although a supplemental activity may need to be added to work on flexibility. He also mentioned that boxing is a good way to build confidence.
Osho Dynamic Meditation
One commenter recommended Osho Dynamic Meditation, saying that it is a good way to increase flow states and improve flexibility/mobility. She describes it as “a 55 minute seemingly crazy process to remove rigidity (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual)”.
Here is a video you can follow along with:
For more information on Osho Dynamic Meditation, check out this overview of the process.
One commenter recommended GMB Fitness, a series of online training programs described on the company’s YouTube channel as teaching “bodyweight exercise skills that develop real, functional strength, agility, and body control. You’ll get in shape while learning fun moves like handstands and cartwheels — without having to travel to a gym.”.
I’ve found that watching their YouTube videos on flexibility exercises over the past few days has been particularly helpful for me, and I have learned about a lot of interesting new flexibility exercises to test out. Here is one video with hamstring flexibility exercises:
For more information on GMB Fitness, check out their website.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
HIIT involves repeated bouts of high intensity effort followed by varied recovery times.
Three commenters recommended HIIT, with one commenter describing it as “effective and efficient”. This commenter added that she uses apps to make up her own HIIT sessions (HIIT Timer, Seconds, UltraTimer). Another commenter said that he has found that HIIT followed by a cold shower puts him in flow. A third commenter mentioned that a positive aspect of HIIT is that it can pretty much be incorporated into any activity.
However, it is important to keep in mind a point made by Emma Somerville, that since HIIT is highly structured, consisting of efforts of intensity then rest, it may be challenging to stay in flow in the recovery period unless using a routine that can be easily transitioned through.
For more information on HIIT and its benefits, check out this video:
One commenter recommended GymnasticBodies, described on the company’s Facebook page as “a system of exercise which utilizes the body’s own resistance to build world class levels of strength, power, agility, balance and mobility”.
The strength and flexibility of the guys in their Introduction to Gymnastic Strength Training video is pretty mind blowing:
You can check out their Gymnastic Strength Training online programs here.
One commenter recommended MovNat, which he described as working out in nature, performing challenging but natural movements.
This video really makes me want to give it a try(!):
Increasing Time In Flow And Improving Mental and Physical Health
I plan to do some yoga, martial arts, and swimming over the weeks and months to come, and then slowly get into some of the other activities on the list.
It is my hope that by putting more thought into how I spend my time doing physical activities I will find this time more fulfilling and experience increased benefits to my health and well being.
I hope this list gives you a few ideas for activities to test out to maximize the mental and physical rewards from the time you spend doing physical activities.
This list is a work in progress. I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below, and will update this list as I hear back with new ideas!