The structural origins for the high plasticity of a Zr 53Cu 18.7Ni 12Al 16.3 (at.%) bulk metallic glass are explored. Under plastic flow conditions, in situ synchrotron high-energy X-ray diffraction reveals that the atomic strain saturates to the closest packing in the longitudinal direction of the applied load while atoms yield in the transverse plane. Scanning electron microscopy investigation reveals that global plasticity benefits from abundant shear band multiplication and interactions. Atomic level flows are seen to accompany profuse shear bands. The plasticity enhancement of this metallic glass benefits from such atomic level flows. Atomic level flow facilitates the activation of shear transformation zones that further self-assemble to promote shear band multiplication. On the other hand, it also mitigates the shear band propagation that prevents catastrophic shear band extension. © 2012 Acta Materialia Inc. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.