An Approach to Reaching Fitness Milestones
A reader from the West Coast asks how should I go about setting fitness goals?
One of the hardest things for me to do is choose a focus. It’s like clockwork, the second I choose a focus, I realize that it means I’m leaving something on the table. I honestly think this inability held me back for 40 years, but I’m not letting that bother me anymore.
Yet, it is very difficult to work on multiple things at the same time and see results.
That is not to say that there isn’t a space for flaring out and exposing yourself to a lot of newness at times. But at some point, you need to direct your energy towards one goal if you want to make efficient progress.
When it comes to setting fitness goals, it’s helpful to understand the different physical skills which can be developed and articulate your ideal outcome. Knowing your why… or your deeper reason for doing something is also important, but perhaps the topic of a future post.
Strength: capacity to produce force
Aerobic Endurance: capacity for using oxygen over time
Power: ability to exert strength quickly
Stamina: ability to go as hard as possible for as long as possible
Balance: maintaining equilibrium
Coordination: using different parts of the body together
Speed: ability to go as fast as possible
Agility: ability to quickly change your body’s position in space
Flexibility: ability of your joints to move through their full range of motion
Accuracy: ability to perform movements with precision
It’s very difficult to get better at all skills at the same time. But each skill will impact the others and over time gains made in one area will help you reach new gains in other areas.
For example, if you want to run faster, it is helpful to have strong legs that can propel you forward.
Unfortunately, it’s counter productive to attempt to make meaningful gains in both aerobic endurance and strength at the same time.
It’s not impossible. And beginners will be able to do both for a while. However, studies have shown that working towards these two goals at the same time compete with each other and result in less strength.
Which is why I prefer to choose one goal at a time. I design a plan around that specific goal and give myself time to make progress.
Timelines for setting fitness goals
Without the right mindset, fitness can be frustrating.
Most of our goals require significant periods of time to achieve. It’s not overnight and it’s not even in 3 month.
That’s not to say you wouldn’t see results in shorter periods, but the reality is, building strength, getting lean, developing a muscular physique, getting good at a sport... these things take years.
And should absolutely not stop the second you get out of high school or college.
While reaching goals may take time, there are wins to be had everyday.
For me, everyday I show up to the gym is a win. I wish motivation was “trainable” but it’s not.
I’d say at least 50% of the time, I am not expressly motivated to workout. But I go because I am a more joyful, focused, and resilient person when I lift consistently. I also want to look good.
I find it helpful to think about goals on different timescales.
Try my best
Do more than last time*
Prioritize quality of movement above all else
*More weight, more reps, more sets.
Yearly, Quarterly and Monthly Goals
I like to think about the year in quarters. I set overall goals for the year and rotate my focus within that every 12ish weeks. In sports, the shorter cycle is often referred to as a mesocycle, which is a segment of a macrocycle (often a year).
Personally, I’m dedicated to building strength between now and the end of the year. I’ve broken down the next few months into microcycles of 6 weeks.
I could have chosen to make each month a microcycle too. There are no rules here other than giving yourself time to make meaningful progress. The biggest shift for me between these shorter cycles is the primary exercise I will focus on. In one phase it might be back squat, deadlift and chin up focused. In the next phase, it might be bulgarian split squat, hip thrust and pendlay row focused.
There are many ways to build a training program. I’m really new to this myself as I’ve only been writing my own lifting program for 11 months. In that time, I’ve read several books and studies on the topic. Every time, I learn more, but the basics stay the same.
Don’t let indecision hold you back
What I find most frustrating is that progress takes time and I only have four 12-week cycles per year to work with. This used to hold me back. I was afraid of making a mistake so I wouldn’t even start.
True story… I cried the first time I wrote a training program for myself because I was convinced I was messing it up, I didn’t know if I could ever do it, and I couldn’t find anyone to help me. How’s that for dramatic!
Was my programming perfect? Probably not. Was it acceptable? Yeah, it was.
So to answer the question proposed by a reader on the West Coast, “how should you go about setting fitness goals?” Here's my take - examples are purely illustrative.
Establish your primary physical objective
What is your ultimate goal?
Articulate your intention for the cycle, usually quantified
How will you know if you are on track?
Learn how to lift with a barbell
Squat, press or deadlift 5% more
Take a minute off my 5K run time
Identify a realistic timeline you want to work within and break it down into smaller segments if needed
How long might it take you to reach the goal? What do milestones look like?
Define your approach to secondary goals / areas that will take a back seat for this cycle
What else is important to you? What do you enjoy doing even if it’s not 100% aligned with the primary goal?
If resistance training is my primary goal, I will restrict cardio to two days per week and I won’t have specific goals related to it other than maintenance.
If aerobic endurance is my primary goal, I will restrict lifting to two days per week with a focus on maintaining current strength versus gaining.
Identify mobility and / or accessory skills
What additional work would support your goals?
I usually choose one to three additional areas of focus that will support or not compete with my primary goal.
For example, I am currently focused on increasing my ankle mobility, shoulder stability and single leg squat ability which will all contribute to a stronger squat.
You might choose to work on handstands, splits, hip mobility, etc.
This is the type of work that can be incorporated before or after the main training. I like being deliberate about this part because there are limitless mobility, flexibility, stability, coordination, etc. skills to work on and if I am not focused, I find I jump around too much and don’t see meaningful progress.
Choose a split style
How do you want to structure your week?
In lifting, you can take a full body or upper body/lower body approach. There are many variations.
There is some evidence that a full body approach is preferable because you work body parts more than once per week, while there are other studies that show that it doesn’t matter how you split up your work in a week (volume equated).
In endurance training, this might look more like, one day I bike long distance, one day I run intervals, one day I bike intervals, one day I run long distance.
Accept that they journey is not straight
The more advanced you get and the more ambitious your goals become, the more you need to break down goals into milestones.
For example, I wanted to back squat 200 pounds this year. I was close but not making progress. So I approached it in phases.
In my first cycle, I focused on sets of 3 reps. My thinking was that if I could increase my strength at this rep level, I would be able to hit 200. After 12ish weeks, and getting up to 175 for sets of 3 reps, I tested my one rep max and failed the 200 pounds.
My observation at that time was that I was leaning too far forward and my hips were shooting up faster than my torso. I also felt an imbalance - my right leg was weaker.
So I did another two cycles focused first on single leg strength (bulgarian split squats) and then on paused squats. I like paused squats because you slow down, feel the positions and can work on form.
After that, I went back and tested… boom 200 pounds went up!
Another goal I have for 2021 is to be able to do a single leg squat.
This move felt so hard that I seriously doubted that I could ever do it. I couldn't even feel the muscle that was supposed to be working. Flash forward 9 months and I’m really close.
Now I didn’t think it would take me all year to do this, but I’m still in awe of my progression. (Yeah I guess I somehow held two very different beliefs in my head: one that I could never do it and one that it should only take me a few weeks… lol)
Live like an athlete
I like to say that I treat life like a sport and train like an athlete so I can stay in the game as long as possible.
We have learned so much about human performance and have seen such incredible athletic achievements year after year. There is no reason why the knowledge and techniques used by professional athletes can’t be applied to your own life.
Sure I can’t train multiple times per day and build my entire life around my physical goals, while also having a career, in a field I enjoy, building a company I am thrilled about. But I can apply those same principles towards becoming the strongest, fittest version of myself for as long as possible.
In my professional life, I have become very fond of OKRs (Objectives & Key Results) as a system for setting and achieving goals. In writing this newsletter, I realized I have unknowingly taken a similar approach to fitness.
It seems to be a universal truth that you can’t improve what you don’t measure.
And much like in business, you can’t improve everything at the same time.
But something magical happens when you focus on just a few things at one time. All of the sudden, your ship is sailing in the right direction.
Let me know if you have a fitness goal but are struggling to break it down into an actionable plan. I’d be happy to share ideas.
👩⚕️ You should consult a medical professional before starting an exercise routine.
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