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Setting Your Training and Fitness Goals

By Alan Frost, updated November, 2013

running001Before you can make a program and before you can ask someone for advice, you need to set your goals. Many people do not understand this; they think that training is about doing a bit of this and a bit of that. Don't get me wrong, any training is most often better than no training, but until you set your fitness and fitness goals you will never be able to create an effective program.

So what exactly do you want to get out of training? This is important because different goals require vastly different training routines and nutrition. If you have multiple goals, it may be best to split them up. For example, a common goal for men is to lose weight and gain muscle. These two are more or less mutually exclusive. If you try to do both at once, you will fail or get very poor results because the body is designed to gain weight or lose weight — not to lose one kind of weight while gaining another.

… the body is designed to gain weight or lose weight — not to lose one kind of weight while gaining another.

Not getting the right results is a major reason why people quit. Those of us who go to the gym have seen this time and again — the overweight girl who hits the elliptical machine for 2 months then disappears, or the young man who trains for 5 months with great results and then suddenly stops making gains.

Each could benefit from a more targeted approach to training. Our fictional girl did not know how to design her nutritional program, nor did she maximize her chances by incorporating resistance training into her routine. The young man also relied on a poor routine. For the first few months, as his body adapted, he made great gains (the first few months are actually called the honeymoon period — because you cannot go wrong). He even started to thinking how funny it is to watch those big guys struggling with painful looking exercises like squats and deadlifts, and taking supplements with that nasty looking rice and tuna that they eat straight out of their plastic Tupperware, when suddenly BAM! He hit a wall. Suddenly nothing worked and there were no more gains — so he quit.

I am NOT trying to say that multiple fitness goals are out of the question, only that some are incompatible with one another and ALL require a targeted and scientific approach.

The best thing you can do is to understand what you want from the beginning and to plan out your goals and your routines. I am NOT trying to say that multiple fitness goals are out of the question, only that some are incompatible with one another and ALL require a targeted and scientific approach.

In this article, I will outline the most common training and fitness goals, each of which link out to more in-depth articles discussing training and nutritional requirements. So here they are:

General health & quality of life: Some people want to train and eat properly so as to remain healthy and physically capable. Their goal is not to compete in a marathon, test the limits of their strength, or play a mean game of tennis. These people are simply interested in feeling good, looking good, warding off disease & injury, and being able to tackle life's challenges head on (at any age). The health aspect of fitness consists of aerobic fitness, muscular fitness, flexibility, and body composition. It requires a sensible and general approach, combining a wide range of exercise with sound nutrition.

Weight loss: This could really have been grouped under "general health", but since it is arguably the most common goal particularly among casual gym goers, I figured it deserved special attention. Developing a successful weight loss routine involves focusing on the preservation of muscle mass (and hence preservation of your metabolism as you lose weight) and the burning of calories. Ideal weight loss routines therefore combine cardiovascular workouts, weight lifting, and interval training with a well-designed nutritional program that accounts for your activity level, age, desired results, etc.

Size: This is one of the most common goals for guys who go to the gym to "get big". At the top of this particular food chain are the bodybuilders. You might think that being big means being strong, but this is not exactly right. You see, there are different kind of muscles, and while a bodybuilder will be strong by regular standards, he will not be as strong as a pure strength athlete, despite having much larger muscles. If you want to understand why, check out my post on Training for Strength vs Training for Size: The Three Pathways for Re-Generating ATP. To train for size you need a higher rep range (above 6), more sets, and of course a lot of calories and protein.

Power: This is another very common goal because power involves functional strength. Virtually all sports depend on power — on your ability to activate multiple muscles in an explosive burst. Power is therefore at the core of virtually every sport. Olympic weight lifters who compete in events like the clean and jerk are examples of pure power athletes. Training for power involves using explosive movements and/or compensatory acceleration.

running001Strength: Limit strength is the maximum force you can produce. Unlike power, it is not a function of speed, so its practical applications in day to day life are more limited. However, strength is largely influenced by your central nervous system (CNS). Limit strength training improves the functioning of your CNS, which in turn enables you to lift more weight at the gym, which in turn helps you gain muscle more efficiently (Giandonato & Bryant, 2012). Therefore incorporating some limit strength training, particularly in combination with big lifts like deadlifts and squats, can be beneficial towards other goals.

Nonetheless, for some of us strength is an end unto itself; the sole reason for training. The only athlete that I am aware of that trains for pure limit strength is the powerlifter. Aiming for strength involves a lot of very heavy, low rep training and of course lots of calories and protein.

Sports/general physical performance: How to train for sports performance is something that will vary greatly depending on the sport. For some performance-based activities (e.g. like running a marathon), the training is relatively straightforward. However, for many other sports it is much more difficult.

One of the basic principles of training is that you get better at what you actually do. How many sports involve casual jogging? Yet this is one of the most common things you will see amateur athletes do. Most sports consist of explosive actions, with a heavy demand on the body's anaerobic system, as well as reaction time, balance, coordination, strength, etc. For instance, football consists of sprinting, tackling, throwing, and kicking. Baseball involves striking (a very fast moving object) and sprinting. Soccer combines aerobic elements with repeated explosive sprinting, sharp changes in direction that tax your core musculature, and obviously a lot of kicking. All of them require balance, reaction time, etc. to varying degrees. You get the idea — jogging just won't cut it.

Defining your own Personal Goals

Now it is time for you to think about what you want, and then to formulate specific goals that you want to attain through your fitness lifestyle. Think about what you want the end product to be, and then break it down into clear, specific, and attainable short and long-term goals. Make sure you put everything in writing and keep track of your progress.

Think about what you want the end product to be, and then break it down into clear, specific, and attainable goals.

In the very least, a good goal:

  • Is clear and specific: The more precise you can be the better.
  • Is measurable.
  • Has a fixed deadline for completion.
  • Is realistic yet challenging.

I would define a long-term goal as something that takes more than 5 months. Your short-term goals should be stepping-stones on the way to your long-term goals.

For example, let us say my long-term goal was to lose 25 pounds in 6 months. I could break this down into the following short-term goals:

First month sample goals could be:

  • Start cardiovascular training 3 times a week (30 minutes).
  • Start resistance training 2 times per week.
  • Eliminate all foods that have sugar added.
  • Eat 500 calories less than I burn every day.
  • Lose 4 pounds.
  • Walk/bike to work at least twice a week.
  • Go to sleep by xx:xx every night.
  • Etc.

References

Giandonato J, Bryant J (2012), Maximal Strength Training for Muscle Mass, TNATION, http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/maximal_strength_training_for_muscle_mass



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