Think back on a time in your life when you had a big goal (a promotion at your job, a bucket list trip, a competition, graduating from college). Do you remember how good it felt to cross that finish line?
We’ve all done that at some point in our lives. Setting those big goals for ourselves, even if they’re sometimes never said out loud, helps us keep moving forward toward something. And when you achieve a goal you set for yourself, you feel so accomplished, propelled to take on more and bigger challenges.
Yet, when it comes to fitness, most people throw caution to the wind and do random exercises or workouts, without any sense of what they’re trying to accomplish (other than the vague goal of “getting in shape”).
And that’s a shame because you can achieve so much more when you have a clear idea of what you’re working toward.
So in this article, we’ll talk about:
- How setting clear goals will help you
- The difference between short-term and long-term goals
- What goals to focus on at different stages of training and life
- The 3 “M’s” of setting kickass goals
Approaching your training in this manner will not only help you achieve more, but when you have concrete goals that are meaningful to you, you’ll enjoy the process a whole lot more.
Let’s get into it.
Why is Setting Fitness Goals So Important?A few years ago, I was talking to a woman about her training schedule. She was about 50 at the time and told me she’d been getting up at 5am to go to the gym every day since she turned 40. She went to the gym six days a week, like clockwork. I was so impressed by her dedication!
And then she told me this: For ten years, she’d been following the exact same routine, every single day. No progress or improvement–just the same thing day after day.
When I asked her what goals she had with that routine, and how she measured progress, she looked at me like I had three heads.
Going to the gym every day was a self-contained goal.
Don’t get me wrong–that kind of consistent dedication is impressive, and something very few people have.
But she’s not alone in having no clear sense of what she’s trying to accomplish with her training. Most people who train regularly do so without any specific goals in mind.
What’s unfortunate about that is, when you don’t have concrete goals that you’re working toward, you’re putting a whole lot of effort into something with no clear idea of when you’ve passed a major goalpost, when you should celebrate wins, and how your efforts are adding up toward new skills or attributes you didn’t have before.
That woman I spoke to had a lot to be proud of–consistent training for 10 years is no small feat–but can you imagine how much more she would have been able to do with her body had she been working toward concrete goals along the way?
Goals mean that you’re working toward making real improvements that add up over time. None of us wants to be in the same exact place 10 years from now as we are today, and your training progress should be no different.
Most Important Benefits of Clearly Defined Smart Goals:
- If you know why you’re training, you’re far more likely to do it. It’s a lot harder to stay consistent with something that doesn’t mean something to you.
- Having a clear goal helps you figure out the best way you should be training. This means your efforts won’t be wasted on random activities, but rather, targeted toward actions that will help you improve.
- Working toward a goal gives you a sense of purpose in your training. We all go through the motions sometimes, but if you’re going through the motions every time you train, without a sense of purpose to your actions, why do it?
Short-Term vs. Long-Term Goals
When you set goals for yourself, it’s important to think about how to set short-term and long-term goals.
Let’s take an extreme example of an Olympic athlete. You can’t get to the Olympics without planning for that for a minimum of 10 years in advance. But without short-term benchmarks (smaller competitions, etc.) along the way, it would be impossible to keep the momentum going for 10 years.
But you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to apply this to your own life and training.
In fact, you certainly don’t have to plan 10 years in advance. A long-term goal could mean a year or two years for you, depending on what you’re after. And short-term goals could be anywhere from two weeks to six months.
Let’s say you’re 38, and you set a long-term goal to run a marathon by your 40th birthday. That’s awesome! Small caveat: you’ve never run before. Okay, you’re going to have to break that big goal into lots of smaller goals along the way. For instance, some benchmarks might be:
- Your first mile.
- Your first 5k.
- Your first 10k.
- Your first half marathon.
- And finally, the full marathon.
And you could break it down into even smaller goals than that, but that should give you a good idea of how short-term goals can add up to a bigger, long-term goal.
Another way to approach short-term goals is around whatever is going on in your life right now. I’ll talk about this in a bit more detail in the next section, but simply put, if you’re going through a major life event, it’s probably not the time to ramp up your training and try to check off bucket list goals.
Instead, your short-term goal during that period might be to just show up and do something a couple of times a week to maintain your skills.
Fitness Training Goals at Different Stages
We talk all the time about how important it is to make sure your training is geared toward your goals, but not everyone has a clear sense of what their goals are or should be.
The marathon goal in the previous section is really concrete, but most recreational trainees are not necessarily working toward a race or competition like that. So, how do you go about setting goals for yourself if you don’t have something specific to aim toward?
A lot of that is going to depend on where you’re starting from and what’s going on in your life beyond training.
Training Goals for Beginners
If you’re brand new to training, or you’re getting back into it after a long hiatus, a good approach to setting fitness goals for beginners is to dig deep to figure out what you’re trying to accomplish with an exercise program.
We always recommend going through a self-assessment before starting a training program, as it will help you see where your weakest points are, and what you should prioritize for your training. Many new trainees go through this and discover some surprising things about themselves!
For instance, you might have assumed that you’re naturally pretty flexible, but your strength could use a lot of work. After going through the assessment, though, you discover your hamstrings are very tight and could use some focused attention.
It’s also helpful to examine your deeper motivations and why this is important and meaningful for you–that will help you determine your long-term goals, which can then help dictate your short-term goals.
When I first started training, I kept thinking about my grandfather, who at the time was around 90-years-old and still playing tennis twice a week (he’s 98 now, and still competing in tennis tournaments!). I don’t play tennis, but I’ve always looked up to him and was motivated to start training because I want to be active and healthy when I’m 90 too!
So that was my (very) long-term goal, but I had to break that down:
- My first short-term goal was making training a habit. Just showing up and putting in the work.
- Then I started getting more specific, working on my motor control, which was a major weak point for me.
- Eventually, my more specific short-term goals added up until I felt ready to start training in martial arts, something I’d always wanted to do.
- Then my short-term goals became even more specific (getting my first stripe in BJJ; learning a specific kick in Muay Thai, etc.)
And so on. Small, short-term fitness goals add up over time, and having a good sense of what’s important to you and what you’re trying to get out of your training will help you keep hitting milestones.
Training Goals for Intermediate/Advanced Trainees
If you’ve been training for a while already, your specific goals will obviously look different from someone who’s just starting out (for instance, a beginner may have a goal to be able to do a push-up, whereas you’re working on handstand push-ups). But the general ideas of how to set fitness goals remain the same.
Starting with a clear sense of your motivations and bigger-picture goals for your physical abilities is going to be a key factor in your success.
Also, the importance of doing regular self-assessments cannot be overstated. Especially when you’re working at a more advanced level, it becomes even more important to fill in gaps in your athletic abilities, and the only way to figure out what holes you have is to assess, assess, assess.
Working toward higher level skills can become a bit of an attribute-tweaking game.
Let’s say your long-term goal is to get a muscle-up this year. You start by working on pull-ups and dips–good start. But then you get stuck when you start working on the transition. This is a good time to reassess and see what’s holding you back. Maybe it’s your shoulder flexibility–that’s a good next short-term goal.
If you’re training for a competition in your sport, break that big goal into smaller milestones and assess which physical attributes need to be shored up before the big competition.
Training Goals Around Life Events
Life has this way of throwing monkey wrenches in our plans, and that goes for both good and not-so-good life events. Whether you lost someone close to you, or you just had a baby–these kinds of life events are going to get in the way of big training goals. It’s just reality.
(This quick workout formula can help in those times when life gets crazy).
But you don’t want to lose all the progress you’ve made even when you’re going through something major. So how do you set goals for yourself when your physical, mental, and emotional bandwidth is a lot more limited?
Well, your goals will likely look a lot different than at other times in your life.
This is a time when your short-term goals should be simplified. Rather than working toward a particular skill, this is a good time to solidify and maintain your habit of training. Just keep showing up to do something, even if it’s just a few minutes of work.
You’ll likely know when you’re ready to ramp things up with your training again. And when that happens, go back to setting goals around something meaningful to you.
3 Rules for Setting Kickass Fitness Goals
Whether we’re talking about short-term or long-term goals, and no matter what stage of training or life you’re in, there are three rules you can follow to set yourself up for success in achieving your goals. We’ll call them the 3 “M’s” of goal setting because, hey, who doesn’t love a little alliteration? 😉
When you set a goal for yourself, it should be:
As we saw in the last section, this is a major part of whether or not a goal will be achievable. And it really makes sense.
If it’s not meaningful to you on some level, why would you keep showing up session after session?
So, as you set short-term goals, think about why you want to reach this particular goal, what it means for you, and how it will help you get to an even more meaningful long-term goal in the future.
One common pitfall when setting goals is that people make them too vague. “I want to get stronger” is great, but how will you measure that? Without measurability, you’ll never know if you’re getting closer to your goal or not.
Make sure your goals are concrete and measurable so that you can make adjustments as needed, and make faster progress toward those goals.
Lastly, if you bite off more than you can chew, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Going back to that marathon example from earlier, let’s say instead of leaving yourself a couple of years to go from zero to marathon, you leave yourself 3 months. Unless you have superhuman genetics, of course you’re going to fail.
Make your goals meaningful, measurable, and manageable, and you’ll start making great progress.
Don’t Just Wing it
The concept of setting concrete training goals is foreign to many people, but without them, you’re shortchanging yourself, and setting yourself up for a lot of wasted effort.
It may be uncomfortable at first, but when you start setting goals for yourself, it won’t take long for you to start feeling like your training is helping you toward something, rather than just being a burden. And when you start reaching your goals? That’s when the magic really starts to happen.
But you can’t reach a goal if you don’t have a goal, so it all starts there.
One thing that can be helpful, especially if you’ve never really set clear training goals before, is to follow a program that helps you define those goals. Our free Strength and Mobility Kickstart is a good introduction to building a good physical foundation, while helping you see where you need the most work down the line.