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Goal Setting in Fitness & Nutrition

A goal is the result or achievement toward which effort is directed. Without setting goals in exercise or nutrition, there is far less value and purposeful direction; and they need to be measurable and realistic. For example, a thin teenager weighing 120 pounds wishing to weight 220-pounds of muscle is both specific and measurable. However, he cannot hope to achieve such a physique, especially not soon and probably not without growth-enhancing drugs. Therefore, in this instance, the goal to gain 100 pounds of muscle is specific, it is measurable, but it is unrealistic.

Non-measurable goals, such as "I want to lose fat and get lean," will never be realized since the term "lean" is subjective with no objective measurement. What is lean to one person may not be lean to another... or perhaps it is "too lean". Once the individual obtains a supposed state of leanness, will that person know that he has achieved that goal or will his perception of what he thinks is "lean" change because of higher standards and greater expectations? On the other hand, if a trainee indicated that he wants to reduce body fat to a level of ten percent, then he has a measurable goal 'one that can be quantified.

Next, to achieve goals better, trainees must provide a measurement and do so in the smallest amount necessary and within reason relative to past accomplishments. Don't aim for something greater than you could ever have achieved in the past. Moreover, the more distant the goal, and the smaller the increments, the more likely the success of obtaining the goal. But it should be noted that a goal must require some degree of effort and challenge. If the goal is too small or easy to obtain, there is little incentive or sense of accomplishment or pride.

Goals can be measured in terms of outcome and performance. An outcome goal refers to that which a person is aiming to achieve, such as lifting five pounds more in the bench press next workout or a far greater weight over the course of several months. There is little flexibility in this type of goal 'either it is achieved or it is not. Performance goals refer to the process through which a person achieves those goals, including both the short- and long-term. Performance goals are much more flexible, and allows a person to reorganize a strategy from day to day in order to meet the outcome goal(s). Performance goals are associated with less anxiety, since there is flexibility and, as a result, should be emphasized in an exercise and nutrition program. It can be upsetting not to achieve an outcome goal, but if all the steps leading up to the outcome were done to the best of your ability, it is easy to maintain motivation in preparing for the next outcome goal.

When determining a long-term goal, a strategy of immediate, short-term goals (performance goals) must be considered. For example, if you desire a ten-pound increase on the best bench press, how will you get there? This is accomplished by creating a workout schedule, a long-term plan of increasing "x" pounds/ounces to the bar each workout until you achieve the extra ten pounds. The plan may need to be reevaluated then re-designed 'particularly if you fail to increase the weight by "x" pounds/ounces during one of the workouts, and falling short in the end. It could be further stated that creating a goal strategy in exercise is very similar to a marketing or business plan in that goals may be established, but they may also need reformulating on a regular basis to reflect current facts of finance, the economy, sales, customer satisfaction, etc.


Set Specific Goals. The goal must be measurable, such as "bench press 275 pounds" by a certain date rather than "increase the bench press" and without a concrete date in mind.

Set Difficult and Realistic Goals. The goal must be within reach, yet challenging in order to increase mental arousal and motivation. Easy goals will not be motivating, yet goals that are nearly impossible will hinder motivation for future workouts. Goals must reflect your genetic ability accurately; as strength and size increases, the ability to match past goals will diminish.

Establish Short-term Goals. Each main goal must consist of sub-goals or short-term goals. Before a person can increase chest measurement by an inch, or bench-press an additional 50 pounds, he must progress in smaller amounts. Being able to see patterns in those amounts (your results over a particular period of time), or lack thereof, provides valuable data and feedback in your ability to achieve long-term goals during a specific time frame. Not being able to achieve short-term goals provides further information as to what is not working and the need for a new plan of short-term goals in order to achieve the long-term goal.

Develop Goal-Achievement Strategies. A trainee cannot achieve short- or long-term goals without knowing how he or she eventually will get there. In order to lose an inch off the waist, you must first lose a quarter-inch, then a half-inch, etc., and each step requires a certain amount of exercise and a proper eating plan. These aspects determine your daily or immediate goals.

Create Backup Plans of Action. What happens if a short-term goal is not reached? If something goes wrong, is it probable that the long-term goal will be reached? It will be difficult to get back on track if a backup plan of action is not established to correct any minor setbacks. If the goal is to lose a quarter-inch off the waist during the first month, and the trainee only lost one-eighth inch, the chances of losing a quarter-inch during the next phase of the strategy is highly unlikely (unless exercise is increased and eating is decreased). It will be necessary to rethink the strategy and decide what must be done in order to get back on track. But rather than waiting for the possibility of failure, strategize ahead of time and anticipate failure or what could go wrong.

Individual Personality Considerations. Prior to establishing goals, personality must be considered. Is the person a high-achiever or a low-achiever? Does the person have the commitment and can he or she maintain that commitment? Can the person sustain the motivation to reach a difficult goal that may be a year away while paying attention to diet and intense exercise during that time on a daily/weekly basis? Does the person have the maturity and intellect to work through any problems leading to each goal? How does the individual accept failure 'as a learning experience or another "nail in the coffin" of defeat?

Provide for Goal Evaluation. At the end of each short- and long-term goal, evaluate performance, dedication, motivation, and well you did to achieve (or surpass) your goals. From this information it will be easier to establish future goals, and to make goals easier or more challenging, by learning from mistakes, failures, and successes. Also, evaluate the backup plans of action and if any of those steps needed to be implemented, your problem-solving skills, what went right, what went wrong, and any factors that were not considered.

Provide Goal Support. Share goals with others, such as a loved one, friends, a mentor, or associates on the Internet. Telling people about what you intend to achieve increases support and keeps you on the path to prove your ability rather than experiencing humiliation or embarrassment from backing down when the going gets tough. Regular updates on a long-term goal, and how each short-term goal is proceeding will keep you in check and sustain motivation.

About the Author
Brian D. Johnston is the Director of Education and President of the I.A.R.T. fitness certification and education institute. He has written over 12 books and is a contributing author to the Merck Medical Manual. An international lecturer, Mr. Johnston wears many hats in the fitness and health industries, and can be reached at Visit his site at for more free articles.

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