Setting goals

December 16th, 2008  |  Published in Learning  |  3 Comments

I see a lot of folks get into the gym with the best intentions and a bit of knowledge, and even some smashing gym outfits and nice little navel rings, and either make no progress or make so little progress it’s discouraging.

Either way they get bored and don’t achieve what they want. Many quit as a result. One of the main reasons for this problem is a lack of clear goals, which leads to a lack of focus, which leads to a disorganized program, which leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suuuuffering. Oh wait, that was the being-a-Jedi advice.

Anyway, an important part of success in whatever fitness endeavour you choose is setting goals. Ostensibly this is easy. You can just say, “I want to be in better shape.” Well, frankly, that’s kind of like saying, “I want to get a good education.” At some point you’re going to have to start figuring out specifics, like what you want your education to be in, what school you want to go to, what things you want to study, and so forth. Then you have to break it down even more, into what courses to take, whether or not you can handle the Monday morning calculus lecture (a no-go unless it’s taught by the buffest calc prof I know, Tom Morley), and where you can get one of those cute Britney Spears kinderwhore schoolgirl outfits.

Every big goal must be broken down into smaller goals or the project will be so enormous and vague that you won’t be able to achieve it. Trust me, I’ve written a PhD dissertation. I know.

Since folks seem to like easily memorizable acronyms, here’s one to help you figure out the process of goal-setting. SMART (not to be confused with “smrt”, a la Homer Simpson) is a model you can use to determine your fitness goals. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time limited (yeah, so I ripped it off one of those corporate motivational-speak brochures… hey, at least it’ll be more useful to you than Chicken Soup for the Downtrodden Glass Ceiling-Meeting Paper Pusher Soul). Let’s explore each of those in greater depth.

Specificity is important in goal-setting because it lets you know exactly what it is you have to do. Do you want to lose fat? Gain muscle? Improve strength? Are you training for a particular sport or activity? Get a general sense of your aim, and then narrow it down further. What is your target bodyfat percentage? By how much would you like to improve your strength, and on what exercises? By how much would you like to increase your vertical jump? And so forth. Be as specific as possible about your goals.

Measurability refers to the degree to which you can quantify your goals. Saying, “I want to lose some fat” is not a particularly measurable goal. How much is “some”? A better goal is, “I would like to lose 1 lb. of fat per week for the next 8 weeks,” or, “I would like to decrease my caliper measurements by 5 mm over 2 months.” Another example might be: instead of saying, “I’d like to get stronger,” say, “I want to improve my squat by 10 lbs. in the next month.” Get some numbers and units of measurement in there.

Achievability is the third part in goal-setting. Don’t try to do too much at once. Small changes are lasting changes. You can make it a goal to make one small positive change every week. For example, for a complete beginner, Week 1 might mean joining a gym and getting familiar with the equipment; Week 2 might be committing oneself to at least 2 days of gym attendance; Week 3 might be trying to eat one less piece of junk food per day; Week 4 might be trying to eat one more portion of lean protein, Week 5 might be starting to add 10 minutes of cardio to each workout, and so forth. Make small goals that you are able to achieve, and reward yourself for meeting each one. Nothing succeeds like success.

Realistic doesn’t need much explanation, I think. Don’t set unrealistic goals for yourself, like losing 10 lbs of fat per week, or increasing your bench press by 100 lbs. in a month. You’ll be disappointed and lose motivation. By the way, I firmly believe that process can be a goal too. In other words, you can make it a goal to simply commit to a fitness plan, rather than worrying about achievement. When I first set up a home gym, I didn’t worry about making any great progress. Instead, I made it my goal to commit to regularly working out first thing in the morning. Once I had consistently trained in the morning for a month, I concerned myself with other things. Making a process-oriented goal is extremely realistic, and accomplishing it is a significant achievement. For most people, the pressure NOT to work out is significant. Simply having an ongoing and consistent fitness plan is more important than accomplishing a kickass squat. Of course, having both is even better.

Time limited refers to setting, well, time limits on your goals. I suggest you make a variety of goals for yourself for each day, workout, week, and month, with varying expectations. So, a goal for the day might be to get through without eating any junk food, or drinking 8 glasses of water. A goal for a workout might be to lift 5 lbs more than the workout before. A goal for the week might be 1 lb. of fat loss. A goal for the month might be 20 lbs. of improvement on a particular lift. A time limit is like a report card on your progress.

Ideally you should come up with several goals which vary from quite short-term to more long-term. The details are as important as the big picture.

So, once you’ve taken the first step and come up with goals, the second step is to make them concrete. Write them down. Nobody has to know if you don’t want them to, though you may find it helpful to recruit the support of friends and family. Use a diary, a calendar, a series of post-it notes, whatever works to remind you and helps you keep a record of progress. Periodically review your goals to see if you’re achieving them, and if you’re not, figure out why.

The third step is to take action! Shit or get off the pot, as my granma would say. Figure out what action has to be taken to achieve each goal. Again I suggest you make this as specific as possible. “Eat less” is not as useful as, “Calculate optimal daily caloric intake, then distribute it into 5-6 small meals daily” or “Make shopping list and stick to it.” “Get stronger” is not as useful as, “Note weak points in squat strength, and include more hamstring work to address this.”

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, reward yourself whenever you achieve a goal. Some folks I know indulge in a Krispy Kreme donut when they set PRs (personal records) in a particular lift. Buy some fabu new piece of clothing when you knock off 5 lbs. of bodyfat. Have the zebra-pant-wearing mulletboys at the gym kneel before you and kiss your massive biceps when you do your first pullup. Whatever works. As every dog knows, a cookie makes it all worth it.


  1. Corinne says:

    March 9th, 2009at 7:11 am(#)

    I totally agree! Before I started tri-ing a few years ago, the most specific goal I had for myself in the gym was “I want to lose some weight.” VAGUE! An old boyfriend suggested that I train with a goal in mind… I had to pick a grueling sporting event but what a great decision it was!

  2. Pam says:

    June 24th, 2009at 2:18 pm(#)

    Your website is such a big help. I am 40 years old and am in the worst shape of my life. I weigh 190 lbs and already have high blood pressure (I am 5’3″). Can you give me any advice on how to get myself going…to get myself to feeling better so I can exercise? Have a great day!!!! Please keep blogging.

  3. Mistress Krista says:

    June 25th, 2009at 11:30 am(#)

    Hi Pam,

    Get out a calendar. Pick four small goals. I mean small goals. Like “Take a vitamin every day”. Write down one goal for each week. Commit to doing that one thing each week by using the calendar to schedule it in. Set reminders (e.g. using Outlook, Blackberry) each day to remind yourself of your week’s goal. I recommend:

    -walk 10 min each day
    -take a multivitamin every day
    -eat one more helpful food serving (e.g. one vegetable) each day
    -eat one less unhelpful food serving (e.g. one can of soda) each day

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