Hey Cross Fitters…You Might Be Doing It Wrong

Firas Zahabi’s Concept of Flow Training & The Value of Consistency over Intensity


The idea of ‘flow’ in exercise or physical activity, has been discussed over the years mainly in reference to achieving increased performance within sport. Recently however, the concept has now been examined in regard to everyday exercise and physical activity.

Flow, as a mental state, was conceptualised much earlier in reference to a range of activities though.

“We’ve all been in a state of flow. The number one way to tell if you’re in a state of flow is that time flies by. To be in this state you need the right amount of difficulty so that you’re not reaching anxiety or stress, but also so that you’re not bored,” explains Firus Zahabi, elite mixed martial arts trainer and philosopher.

Zahabi is referring to Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s psychological concept of flow. Something we have all experienced. Whether it was during a project at work, in a conversation with someone, or just simply while doing something we enjoy, like painting or playing music. We have all experienced those activities that make time pass quickly. Where things get really interesting for you fitness freaks out there, is when Zahabi discusses trying to achieve this every time you exercise or workout.

“I’m a big believer in never being sore. When you train, you should wake up the next day feeling GOOD! This applies to everyone. Even the person who is doing their first workout ever! Outside of competition, we should never wake up sore or tight from our training.”

Is that the sound of a smart phone being flung in frustration against a wall? I can hear people screaming at me through the digital stratosphere at this very moment. That’s right my fellow gym junkies. All those vein busting workouts and pats on the back for getting through it have all been for nothing. We’ve been doing it all wrong for all these years apparently!

‘But this doesn’t make sense! How do you get the most out of your workouts if you don’t put in 100%? Feeling sore means you did the workout right!’ People.. I get it…I asked the same questions and said the same things when I first heard it. Before we move into intellectual nuclear meltdown, let’s hear what Zahabi has to say:

“It’s about what’s known as ‘rate of perceived exertion’. Let’s simplify a particular movement for the purposes of exemplifying what I’m saying. Say I make you do pull ups with the maximum amount of pull ups you can do being 10. You couldn’t do 11 if I pointed a gun at you. Should I make you do 10 pull ups during our workout? No! I’m going to make you do 5. Why? Because I’m setting you up to work the next day. That day we’re going to do 5, and then the next day another 5, and then the next 5 more. Until 5 becomes so easy that 6 is now easy as well. If you did the absolute max of something on Monday (in this case 10 pull ups), you’re going to be sore until Thursday. Me, I’ve done 5 pull ups every day from Monday to Thursday, I’ve done 15 more pull ups than you in that time. By patiently building myself up and allowing my body the amount of recovery nature intended, I have more volume than you. If you add up at the end of the year who’s trained more between me and you? I’ve trained way more than you.”

Sounds so simple right? I can still hear you saying, “But I need to get the most out of my workouts! I don’t have a lot of time to exercise and I need to make the most of my time in the gym!” And you will. Zahabi’s advice comes with the need to use something we are all not very good at these days. Patience.

In our smartphone dominated, information overloaded, short attention span lives, these days the art patience is like a relative we haven’t seen in over 10 years. You know they’re there, but you’ve kinda forgotten what they look like. We all want everything quick – information, a relationship, likes on our latest Instagram post, food, and yes…the body we crave from the efforts we put in the gym.

So, what happens when we try to attain the body of our dreams without genuine patience? Well, we get in the gym and we punish ourselves. We workout to exhaustion, or in Zahabi’s words, “We push ourselves to anxiety.” We think that by punishing and breaking down our bodies with intense workouts every time we get in the gym, that we’re getting ourselves closer to the body we want. That the amount of effort exerted simply equals results.

This is particularly bizarre considering we’ve known for a long time now, that to achieve weight loss, the ratio of food vs exercise is somewhere in the range of 80% diet and 20% exercise/productive movement.

In a paper titled Exercise for overweight or obesity, published in a Cochrane Review (which is considered one of the highest forms of published medical evidence), Shaw describes diet vs exercise in regard to weight loss as follows:

“However, high intensity exercise was only significantly better than low intensity exercise at inducing weight loss when undertaken without dietary change. When diet was also modified, exercise intensity did not significantly affect the degree of weight loss. It is possible that this occurred because when exercise is combined with diet, the effect of exercise intensity on the magnitude of weight loss is outweighed by the effects of the dietary intervention.”

Holly Lofton, M.D., an Assistant Professor of Medicine and Director of the Weight Management Program at New York University’s Langone Medical Centre, backs this up when she describes the exercise vs diet concept a little more simply:

“The reason dieting is so much more effective than exercise is because it takes a ton of activity to create a 500 to 700 calorie deficit through working out. Essentially, you’d need to run seven to 10 miles a day to lose one pound a week. The average person can’t keep this up, especially without increasing their caloric intake. I see this in patients all the time. People think, ‘If I run the marathon or start going to boot camp, I’m going to lose weight’ but they’re often disappointed when they don’t.”

Not only is it obvious that if we want to get ‘shredded’ it’s A LOT more important to focus on diet, but we also know that the more intense the exercise, the more nutrition you need to repair your body. The harder we go in the gym, the hungrier we will be. Making our goals just that much more difficult to achieve.

With that, and Zahabi’s advice in mind, what we are doing is, in theory, completely unnecessary and, in fact, counterproductive to achieving and sustaining our best possible bodies. Zahabi would in fact argue, that by working ourselves to our ‘maximum’ every time we workout, we are actually making it impossible to exercise as much as we actually can.

“Exercise can produce energy. If I’m tired, feeling about a 4 out of 10, if I do the right amount of exercise, THE RIGHT AMOUNT! I can get myself to feeling an 8 out of 10. This is the same principle we should have when we feel good and go to the gym. Don’t redline your body every time till the point where your beat up and broken down! Yes, every once in a while, go for it! But not every time. When you do decide to try reach your max, you will be amazed at how much more you get out of your body and how much stronger you are with a body that isn’t wearing the effects of long term stress.”

A long time ago a friend of mine said something to me when discussing gym routines and various styles of workouts and exercise. He said, “Do you think you could do this until you’re 60 years old?” It has stayed with me ever since and it took listening to Zahabi’s approach to understand how to achieve that.

“Training should be addictive. Imagine if exercise was something genuinely fun? Everyone would do it and everyone would be fit. People always take their workouts to anxiety. They go into the gym and they kill themselves. They slam their bodies. Then the next day I’ve got to convince you to do it again. It’s not logical to expect the human mind to enjoy this. People often say they love working out, but they don’t really enjoy it in terms of what I’m saying. Sure, they enjoy the endorphin release and the pleasure associated with completing a task they don’t enjoy, but it’s not a pulling force. If something is genuinely fun, you’re going to do a lot of it,” Zahabi says.

Zahabi’s concept comes down to consistency over intensity, with intensity having a place in our workouts, but only “periodically” so that we can actually know what our ‘true’ maximum is. And before all you Cross Fitters start drafting your first lot of hate mail, let’s elaborate:

“With all due respect, they’re wrong. CrossFit’s problem is it is ‘fatigue seeking’. It taxes your body so much that your body is in a constant state of recovery. When your system is in recovery what can you do but rest? That is your body is telling you that you need to stop, but the next day you go back to the CrossFit gym and punish yourself all over again. This slowly but surely breaks you down in the long run, meaning you will pay a price at some point. I guarantee you the best Cross Fitters in the world don’t go all out every time they train. At the CrossFit Games sure, but that’s them reaching intensity or their maximum periodically,” describes Zahabi.

“By nature, intensity can only be done once in a while, it can only be done periodically. If you go hard every day, you’re not really going hard every day. We cannot go to our max every day because there is a cost to doing that. Intensity entails that we take a break after finding that maximum. If you don’t need to take a break, you didn’t really go to your maximum. Meaning that you might think you are pushing yourself to you max every time, but because your body is still recovering and under stress, you actually can’t reach that level at its true point. If you do it every day, it becomes something that isn’t really your max.”

With all this in mind, what should we be thinking about when it comes to our workouts and the way we exercise? Well, maybe it’s actually that we think about it too much? Maybe the concept of exercise has become overcomplicated in response to things in our society, such as the obesity crisis and the pleasure seeking associated with food, or the ridiculous self-worth and importance we place on appearance. When, in fact, exercise or movement is something we have actually always done… every day!

Whether it was hunting for animals with a spear in the stone age, or digging our fields during the agricultural era, moving was part of living, part of our daily routine, like brushing our teeth is now. It’s only recently that the human body has become so sedentary and flooded with non-nutritious foods. This doesn’t mean we need to change the way we are designed to move as a response to that. Rather, we should be changing the way we produce and consume food and remember to move every day without trying to combat or make up for those things.

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