by Aaron Friday
Do you remember why you started working out? Maybe to lose weight, get stronger, improve mobility? Just to “get in shape”? Have you made progress in these areas? Yes, no? A little? Can you quantify that progress?
The fact is, you will reap tremendous benefits from regular training even if you don’t have crystal-clear goals. As long as you stick with a program and progressively increase intensity, volume, and frequency, you will continue to get more strength, stamina, and skill. For a lot of people, this is a clear enough path to improvement, and more specific goals aren’t needed to stay motivated. Progress, all by itself, tends to be very motivating.
If you do have a specific desire, though, you really owe it to yourself to articulate a clear and specific goal. Often, the process of discovering and then specifying exactly what you want gets you halfway toward achieving it, especially if it is something that is nearly within your abilities right now.
A proper goal is a specific, realistic result that you intend to achieve because it is meaningful to you. Furthermore, a proper goal has a deadline or at least a timeframe for completion.
The Main Thing — You Have to Care
It should go without saying, but your goal needs to matter to you. If the 30 extra pounds you’ve been carrying for the last 10 years has been making you feel bad (for the last 10 years), then you should make up your mind to lose some of it. It will make you happy, and that’s the key. There’s no mystery to getting it done, you just have to make up your mind to get going in that direction. Start with a goal to lose a pound a week for each of the next three weeks. See how that makes you feel.
Maybe you’re motivated to get stronger, bigger, or better at sports; or improve your health outlook or mood; or live with less stiffness and pain – or a combination of these things. Or maybe you want to try a new activity that requires you to be more fit. It’s worth identifying potential results that excite you. Try these on for size:
- Do a barbell deadlift with 2x bodyweight (or 1.5x, 2.5x, 3x, etc.)
- Stop worrying about my blood pressure (or blood sugar, cholesterol, weight)
- Look great in yoga pants
- Exercise so regularly that I miss it if I can’t go
- Do a kettlebell press with 20kg (or 40kg, 32kg, 16kg, etc.)
- Look 10 years younger than I am
- Attend 100 kettlebell classes in a year
- Do a perfect pullup (or 3, or 10, etc.)
- Have huge, muscular legs (or arms, butt, shoulders, etc.)!
- Have smaller, lean legs (or arms, butt, waist, etc.)!
- Perform overhead squats and/or handstands with beautiful form
- Do 100 snatches in 5 minutes with 16kg (or 20kg, 24kg, etc.)
- Get through a day with no back pain (shoulder pain, hip pain, etc.)
- Control my eating better and feel like I can lose weight when I want to
- Move with good posture, balance, and grace
- Press (or squat, or snatch) more than Stacy (or Tim, or Linda, or Bill)
- Be more competitive in basketball (or softball, cycling, martial arts)
- Run a 5k (or 10k, half marathon, etc.)
- Compete in powerlifting, or weightlifting, or the TSC
It doesn’t need to be something other people care about, but it does need to be an appropriate health- and fitness-related goal (that is, something that can be accomplished with sensible training and nutrition).
Also, keep the following in mind:
- The list contains process goals, performance goals, and outcome goals. See Types of Goals to understand the difference. All three types can be used.
- Unless you are a preparing for a competition, you should keep working on general fitness (mobility, endurance, strength) while pursuing more specific goals.
- If you identify a true goal, you may feel bad if you don’t achieve it. That’s a good sign – it just means you care.
Be Specific (enough)
A goal needs to be specific enough that you (1) know when you’ve reached it and (2) are able to track progress toward it. Just how specific it needs to be depends on how much you care about the specifics. Maybe you want to do 100 or more snatches in 5 minutes because that represents a worthy achievement to you. Does it matter to you if you actually end up with 102 or 107? Probably not, so 100 is a specific enough goal for now.
Here are some other examples. Be as specific as you need to be:
- Deadlift 305 pounds, which is 5 pounds more than my current PR
- Do at least 20 strict (chest-to-floor) pushups, non-stop
- Attend at least 12 classes per month for October, November, and December
- Get below 20% bodyfat as measured by the BodPod
- Run an official 5k race in 27 minutes or less
- Get my blood pressure down to normal (120/80)
- Press the 32kg before Jim does!
Be Real (and take small steps)
Start with an honest assessment of your current condition and abilities and aim for realistic improvements. I want to break this down a bit because it is important. By “your current” condition and abilities, I mean:
- “Your” — Not those around you, not your workout partners, and not people on the Internet. You. What can you lift? How far can you bend? What is your bodyfat percentage? Find out. It’s not a contest; it’s just data.
- “Current” — Not how fast you could run in college, not what you lifted five years ago, and not even what you weighed at your last physical. Current means now. Again, it’s just data.
You might not feel great about your current condition, but acknowledging it will be a key to your success.
Let’s say you just maxed out on kettlebell presses and were able to do 14kg on each side. You discover that you love to press, and you want to press 24kg like you saw the instructor doing. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Yes, but push that into the back of your mind for awhile and call it a long-term goal. A 71% improvement is not a realistic near-term goal.
Your near-term goals should be along the lines of:
- Press a 14kg kettlebell for three reps instead of just one
- Press a 16kg kettlebell once on each side (a 14% increase)
- When pressing, get tight, stay tight, and ensure vertical forearm alignment – every time, and no matter what the weight is
Think in terms of incremental achievements. Two reps with 14kg would be a PR, would it not? That is progress, and it’s worthy of celebration. This is how improvements happen most of the time in real-world gyms – little by little. Engage with the process and enjoy it.
Also make an honest assessment of your available resources, including energy, time, training opportunities, equipment, enthusiasm, training partners, and knowledge. If three kettlebell classes a week is what you can “swing” on a regular basis, then you must work within that constraint. Set goals that can be achieved with that program (hint: you can achieve a lot!). If you can, try to get in a few brisk walks and some stretching on the off days, and you’ve got yourself a great program for the long term.
Also, if you have multiple goals, make sure they are not at odds with each other. For example, forget about getting bigger muscles while you train for a marathon. You can do them both, but not at the same time. Pick one.
If you’re wondering if your goals are realistic, talk to your trainer or other experienced trainees whom you trust.
Deadline or No Deadline?
A proper goal is supposed to have a deadline, but I imagine a lot of our goals are not really proper goals.
If you have a meet, a race, or another type of competition, there’s your deadline right there. You must perform on that day. Same thing if you’re trying to fit into a smaller-sized dress for a wedding or look good at a beach party, or whatever. The date is already set.
For other types of fitness goals, I’m not convinced that a deadline is needed unless it helps to keep you focused, which it definitely can. Maybe you give yourself three months to train for the 10-min swing protocol, and then test yourself on a predetermined date. If you can’t do all the reps, give yourself another month or two to train, and then try again. The only thing that is really required, in my opinion, is that you keep making progress toward goals that you value.
At any rate, don’t ever feel put-upon because your goals are coming due and you haven’t been doing the work! Remember that these are your own goals, your own desires, that you’re putting off. If you care about something, you’ll go get it!