How to Set Fitness Goals That Actually Work
High-quality shoes? Yep. Nice gym gear that makes you feel good when you’re working out? Check. Fitness goals set? Yep.
Results? Not so much.
If that sounds like you, don’t worry too much. You’re not alone. If you’re the kind of person who has already taken steps to hit some new fitness goals or just get into the habit of exercising, lifting and sweating more regularly, then you’re already ahead of the curve.
And goals are a big part of that.
But too many of us set goals and fail to actually hit them. There’s a whole body of research and science about why this happens. So, if you want to find out:
- Why goal setting isn’t enough,
- What barriers your mind and habits throw up to get in the way of hitting your goal,
- How you can set practical, achievable goals, and
- The tactical ways that you can set up your fitness goals to set you up for success, rather than failure,
then we’ve written this article just for you. By the end of it, you should have the answers to each of those questions.
Goal Setting (And Why It’s Flawed)
Anyone who has set a New Year’s resolution has set a goal. And as the joke goes, if you’ve stuck with one of those beyond mid-February, you’re a bit of an exception, not the rule. It’s not a scientific statistic, but we’re willing to bet that about 95% of New Year’s resolutions are extinct by March!
But more specifically, goal setting is defined in behavioural research as the action taken to set a target you want to achieve. That’s a great definition. But did you notice that the definition of goal setting is 100% focused on the target to be achieved and nothing else?
That might be the reason that simple goal setting is a bit flawed.
Think about it. If you asked 100 people, wouldn’t all of them want to earn 10% more, or get leaner and more toned, or put on five kilograms of muscle mass (depending on the person)? Chances are that everyone you asked would have a desire like this. So if you asked them to phrase that desire in the form of a goal, that would be easy to do.
But if it were that easy, then everyone would be earning more and be hitting their personal fitness goals. It obviously isn’t that easy.
What’s missing is the specific steps that you’ll take to get to that goal.
Your Mind and Hurdles
And what’s even more important is figuring out what discomfort you’re willing to put up with to get to that goal.
Improving your strength on your big compound lifts, losing a certain number of waist sizes or adding muscle tone are all great goals. But they require a level of discomfort and pain to achieve them. And to be really clear, we aren’t talking about ‘bad’ discomfort or pain, like the kind that comes from injury or muscle strain. We’re talking about ‘good’ discomfort. That’s the pain that might come ‘in the moment’ as you push into the last five minutes of a gruelling high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout or the discomfort you experience when a run or cardio session takes you past your previous personal best.
If we want to make our goals effective, we have to think about the moments that are going to occur on the way to achieving them.
Goal Setting Strategies
There’s no magic to goal setting strategy. It’s just a follow-on to the idea we introduced above about having a clear end goal but ALSO having a clear idea about the fact you need many steps to get to that end goal.
Your strategy is going to be all about those steps. If you think about your goal like your ‘destination’ on a map for a driving holiday, then this part is all about planning out your route to get there.
Some examples help here:
- Goal: Lose five kilograms. Strategy steps: plan how many days a week you’ll have to train. Plan what type of exercise you are going to do. Plan your nutrition. Plan your time frame to achieve this goal.
- Goal: Add 10 kilograms of lean muscle mass. Strategy steps: plan how many days a week you’ll have to train. Plan what type of exercise you are going to do. Plan your nutrition. Plan your time frame to achieve this goal.
- Goal: Increase muscle strength and tone: Strategy steps: plan how many days a week you’ll have to train. Plan what type of exercise you are going to do. Plan your nutrition. Plan your time frame to achieve this goal.
Converting Strategy to Tactics
Notice anything? The strategy steps are the same for each one. What will be different is the ‘how’ of how you ‘fill in’ these strategy steps. The answers to these ‘how’ questions are the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to setting effective goals for your training. We call the ‘how’ part of the equation the ‘tactical’ parts.
Take the ‘plan your nutrition’ step for two different goals. The first goal is to ‘lose five kilograms’. The second goal is to ‘add 10 kilograms of lean muscle mass’. The tactical step for each of these goals is just varying the number of calories you will eat in a day.
The person who has the goal to lose weight is going to have to consume fewer calories in order to get to a calorie deficit so that their body is burning more energy than it is consuming. Another important consideration is obviously to ensure that the dietary intake of vitamins and nutrients is also supporting healthy body function and appropriate for any medical conditions.
For the person with the goal to increase their muscle mass, the equation is flipped. The tactic they need to adopt is to increase their caloric intake so that the amount of energy they consume is more than the amount their body burns in a day. Another important consideration would be the amount of protein consumed, as countless studies show that high-quality protein taken consistently is required in order to build muscle.
Now you know how to break the goal, strategy and tactics up, we’re going to go through some proven hacks you can use to stick to these steps that you’ve identified.
Following Your Plan
At this point, you’ve got your big goal, you’ve figured out the steps you need to take, and you’ve also identified some tactics you need to follow to accomplish those steps.
- Be clear and focussed – this is one of the biggest traps we fall into when we set goals. Most often, it occurs when we set ourselves too many goals at one time. You know the feeling: you have a sudden burst of motivation and set yourself a bunch of things that you know you can accomplish if you just put your mind to them. In a fitness context, that might be something like: add 20 kg to my squat weight, add 5 kg of muscle and cut out alcohol plus add a weekly run to your training schedule.
Don’t do it! This is a classic trap of overcommitting. When you set these goals, you’ll feel like you can do all of them. But in all likelihood, what actually will happen is that you’ll do all of them badly or complete none of them.
Pick one goal. Focus on it. Hone in on it. Figure out your strategic steps for it, and your tactics. And do them. Once you’re well on the way, then, and only then, think about another goal.
- Make it easy for yourself – we are all heavily influenced by our environments. If you spend two hours cleaning your house or apartment one day, the next time you walk in the door, you are far more likely to put everything away where it’s supposed to be.
You can make your environment work for you when it comes to your fitness goals. Some examples:
- Put your workout clothes and shoes right next to your alarm clock/phone and in your eye line when you wake up. That’s a nudge to get dressed for your workout straight after you get up.
- Put any pre and post-workout snacks and water bottles in a bag/in the fridge to chill the night before (if you work out in the morning) or in the morning (if you work out in the evenings). That preparation of your nutrition is a nudge to not miss your workout.
- Put a physical post-it note on your computer or in your car that says ‘next workout on (insert date and time here)’. That’s a planning nudge where you lock in your future behaviour for yourself.
- Commit Publicly – a key part of making any goal stick is to commit to it publicly. That’s why programs like 12-week challenges work so well: you’re making a commitment not just to yourself but to others. Other options are to write down the goal and the time frame for it and put it somewhere you (and ideally someone else, like a housemate or partner) will see it regularly, like on the fridge or the bedroom mirror.
Goal setting is easy. Putting steps in place to get to those goals? That’s where the ‘work’ is. But doing that work makes it far more likely you make progress faster and get the satisfaction of hitting those goals sooner. For additional help with training programs, challenges and nutrition, we have plenty of resources available that you can use that can be found here.