The biggest complaint I hear from people who engage in any sort of physical training is “I’m just not getting any better, I don’t know what to do!” Sometimes it’s a case that they aren’t getting stronger, or they aren’t getting bigger, or faster, or more ripped – and more often than not it’s a fixable problem to do with that person’s diet or training programs. As I’ve said in my article on periodization – not planning out how you’ll improve is just a recipe for failure.
But what if the reason you aren’t improving is even more basic than that? What if you aren’t just failing to plan how to reach a goal, but you’re not actually setting any goals in the first place?
It’s easy to do, and it happens to everybody – even experienced lifters. After years of hitting the iron hard it becomes so ingrained in who you are that you sometimes lift for the sake of it. You enjoy the process and you’ve always done it, so why stop?
But sometimes you do stop. How many times have you thought, in between this new superset of squats and deadlifts, “Why the hell do I do this to myself? It’s not doing anything!!” Be honest.
It’s time to work SMARTER not harder. The first step along the path to success is knowing where the path leads, because without that you will just end up walking around in circles! Sometimes you’ll take a step in the right direction, but more often than not you won’t know either way.
Working SMARTER is by no means a new concept, in fact many articles have been written using exactly the same acronym for the purpose of goal setting. Though i didn’t come up with this myself, it certainly bears repeating:
Working SMARTER is your ticket to meaningful training, and by the end of this article I hope you incorporate this process before starting any training program in the future. It’s a simple method to focus your efforts so no rep is wasted. Lets look at those steps more closely:
First thing’s first – what do you want? What do you REALLY want? And not only that, but what do you want right now? Most people answer this question like a child in a toy store “I want that, that, and that, and that and oh that too!!!” I understand you want to be strong, fast, ripped, big, and great in bed all at once but unless you’re a genetic superman with 30 hours a day and limitless resources you will not achieve all those goals at the same time.
If this sounds like you the harsh reality is that you need to be decisive and pick one thing to focus on at any one time. Either focus your efforts and achieve something, or dilute your efforts and achieve nothing. The old adage “Jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind here.
Once you’ve picked the general area you want to focus on it might be necessary to get even more specific. What exactly do you want to do? For some goals “Put on muscle mass” is as deep as you need to go, but for others “Get stronger at the bench press” might be more apt than “Get stronger”. Similarly, “Get fitter” might not be as useful to some people as the more specific “Improve aerobic fitness for swimming” for example. Look at your goals and what you want to achieve and make it as specific or detailed as you can.
This is a problem that usually comes up when people are trying to achieve aesthetic goals like “Look good” or “Get slimmer!” or “Bulk up”. There’s nothing wrong with those goals at all, but quantifying improvement can be a nightmare when your main way of gauging progress is just looking in the mirror. In order to know whether you are achieving your goal or not, the goal should be easily measurable. If it isn’t, then how will you know when you’ve succeeded?
Think about your goal and the ways you can measure changes in your current ability/level. Using the aesthetic example, instead of just looking in the mirror you could take photographs, use a weighing scale, and use a tape measure to get a full picture of what’s going on.
This isn’t so much of an issue with most strength or speed goals, because the measurement is the task itself – if you have lifted more weight than before that is an immediate measurement of progress; if you swam faster than last time, you already have your next measurement.
Frequency of measurements should also be taken into account, making sure not to measure too often or too infrequently. Set a measurement frequency and stick to it. Measuring too early can be un-necessarily de-motivating if you haven’t given your training chance to take effect.
It’s an old saying, and I apologise for cursing, but **** happens. Especially when you’re making a change to your body, things will go wrong. Whether this is down to pushing too hard, or interference from unavoidable events in your life, the majority of trainees can’t devote all their time to training and lack the expert guidance of elite athletes.
This doesn’t make you a failure, it’s just real life. If it were easy to achieve every goal everybody would be perfect, but it just doesn’t happen. In a perfect world, training would be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, but the world isn’t like that.
Your goals should be flexible enough to deal with this, and you shouldn’t stick to your plans pig-headedly just because that’s what you have written down. If something changes, you need to be able to adapt and move on. Compensate for that week off with a cold by dropping your deadlift goal by 10lbs. If you lose control at a party and have a slice of pizza, eat cleaner in the following week.
Don’t think that just because of one or two set backs you have to abandon your goals altogether or you will suck all the motivation out of your training and give up before you achieve anything. The worst thing that can happen after your adjustment is that you’ll over-achieve, and why the hell would you feel bad about that?
This is a big one. Yes it would be lovely to look like Ronnie Coleman, or Jamie Eason. Yes, you’re right it would be cool to deadlift 800lbs. But those things aren’t going to happen overnight or even in the space of twelve weeks.
Goals you set are set for the express purpose of achieving them. That’s the point of goals – you set them, work for them, achieve them, and then set a new goal. It’s this process of ‘baby steps’ which creates constant improvement. Climbing a mountain in one step is impossible, but climbing a mountain one small step at a time, though difficult, is definitely possible.
Apply this principle to your goals – if you’re deadlifting 300lbs, an achievable goal might be 350lbs, or 325lbs. Hell, even 301lbs is an improvement. Putting on 50lbs of muscle might not be possible but 5lbs sure is, and losing 5lbs of fat is just as achievable even if your overall goal is to drop a few waist sizes.
Take a look at what you want to achieve, and make sure it’s actually possible. Look at the big picture – don’t slave away endlessly at something too big for you to handle. Successfully reaching lots of little goals in turn is going to keep you focused, motivated, and will make sure you get to the top of that mountain.
Not only should a goal be realistic, but it should also be realistic in a time frame you set to achieve it. Putting on 10lbs of muscle might be possible in a year, but if you’re going on holiday in three weeks and you want to look good on the beach I’m afraid you’re in for some disappointment!
Timeframes should toe the line between too soon and too far away, since there are problems with each – set the deadline as too soon and not only will you be immediately under pressure, but it might not actually be possible after all; set the deadline as too far away, and any sense of urgency is gone and you might put it off “until tomorrow”.
Getting this right comes with experience, so don’t be disheartened if you mess up sometimes (Just add an extra week! Your goals should be adjustable, remember?). Look at things you’ve achieved in the past and use them as a guide as to the time it takes for things to happen. Just be aware that having a deadline will keep you motivated, and make the goal that much more real to you.
This seems basic, but so many people forget why they train in the first place – enjoyment. You may get caught up in the desire to better yourself, but for most people training is also an enjoyable hobby. Setting interesting, exciting, and enjoyable goals is a sure fire way to makes sure you stick to them!
A goal should be something you WANT to achieve, not something you feel you have to achieve. While it’s important to address areas of weakness (and where postural issues are concerned, this should be a priority), focusing on your strengths is where your attention should go.
Who cares if Jim from the gym can bench more than you? If you enjoy barbell rows damn well go ahead and work on your barbell row. If you’re happy with your appearance don’t go and cut weight just because America’s Next Top Model made you feel you “should”, and focus on improving your running times instead.
Boring or forced goals are an effort just to think about, let alone achieve. Focus on something you actually want to achieve and you’ll be beating down the gym doors.
The last point on our list deals with actually recording your goals. In order to see whether your training plans are working you need to record your progress (or lack thereof) and regularly look over this data. Since we’ve already dealt with measurements, this should be pretty obvious.
Whether your records take the form of a training diary, a diet/nutrition log, or both, they should be kept regularly updated and most importantly – kept honest. Whether you’re honest about your measurements with other people is your business, but at least be honest with yourself. If you planned to do 10 reps but only managed 8 before failure, write it down and figure out why later. If you had a cheat meal, write it in there, warts and all.
The only way to plan where you’re going is to see where you’ve been, where you are, and how you got here. The more detailed your logs, the easier it is to identify patterns in where and why your progress is stalling so you can fix them and keep going. Not only that, but there is nothing more motivating than looking over old logs and seeing all those tick marks next to previous goals – goals that more than likely look much smaller this far up the mountain.
Well, looks like I can tick something off my own goal list – write another article! I had to adjust my timeframe a little bit because of assignment deadlines, but it’s done! I hope this guide to goal-setting has been useful, and I wish you all the best with whatever you apply yourself to next. Train hard, and train smart!
getlifting.info Working Smarter