There is one area of my life where measurement has come easy.
In lifting, everything is numbers. How much weight are you lifting? How many sets? How many reps? Is it more or less than last time? It’s very easy to see if you’re improving.
I measure everything when I lift and track it over time.
However, this is only half the battle.
If I really want to improve, I need a specific objective and a program designed to get me there.
Some of my goals may be so big that one lifting mesocycle (i.e three months) or even a macrocycle (i.e. one year) might not be enough to get me there. I need milestone goals along the way.
Last year was my first year programming for myself. I started in early November 2020. Here is a Twitter thread of books I read to get me up to speed.
I was coming off of 8 months without access to a gym, so the goal was basically to build back the basics, while figuring out the science and art of training program design.
I had a few specific goals too.
One was to back squat 200 pounds, which represented a 10 pound increase from my previous max. However, with the pandemic, I was building back from around 175 pounds.
I also had a skill goal to be able to do a one-legged squat without having to hold up my non-working leg.
Lastly, I wanted to deadlift 300 pounds, which represented a 45 pound increase and probably was a stretch goal.
I achieved the first goal completely!
I achieved the second goal at 90%. I can do the movement but I still need to use a little wedge under my heel because I lack the ankle mobility to do the movement flat-footed.
I did not achieve the third goal. I added only 5 pounds to my deadlift over the last year.
Reflecting on this mixed bag of results, I can see that the goals I achieved were the ones I focused on.
I found myself prioritizing the back squat goal.
I took months to slow down and worked on paused squats to build better form. I spent an entire cycle working on rear foot elevated split squats to even out imbalances between my two legs. I reduced the frequency of my runs to avoid impacting my strength gains.
My second goal (the one-legged squats) probably also helped the first goal too.
Whenever I had a choice to make about which lifts to focus on, I put the squat front and center.
Deadlifts took a back seat. At some point during the year, I accepted that the deadlift goal was off the table. I was disappointed, but overall I am thrilled with my progress.
I also have more confidence in setting goals for next year. Which is why we are here today.
Last week, I was meant to be reading the brand new science fiction thriller by Neil Stephenson, one of my favorite authors. But somehow I stumbled on the book Measure What Matters by John Doerr, chief evangelist for the goal setting framework known as Objectives & Key Results (OKRs).
I could not put it down.
For a couple of years now at work, I have used the OKR framework to set team goals every quarter. More recently, the team has been creating their own OKRs too.
I’ve read about OKRs online. However, I had never read the book by the person who brought them from Intel, where they originated, to the world.
The book is a crystal clear explanation of why and how to set goals. It’s a blueprint for how to tackle doing hard things. Despite being born in the 1970s, the concept is fundamentally empowering to everyone involved and thrives in a transparent, collaborative organization.
From a professional perspective, it’s fantastic. But that is not why we are here today.
I started thinking about how I would apply OKRs to my training goals. In doing so, I realized that I was doing this last year, but without deliberately writing them down or tracking and tweaking them as I went along.
A Quick OKR Primer
In the book, Doerr explains:
An objective is WHAT is to be achieved. It is concrete, action-oriented, and ideally inspirational.
Key results benchmark and monitor HOW you get to the objective. They are specific, time-bound, aggressive, yet realistic.
It can help to say, “[We/I] will achieve a certain OBJECTIVE as measured by the following KEY RESULTS.
What I appreciated in the book is how flexible the system can be in certain ways. If you’re a small company, just starting out, you can use this system to map out your next month. If you are more established, maybe a quarter or annual objectives make more sense.
There is also a very thorough discussion about how OKRs unite and align teams, how they should be decoupled from performance reviews, and why it’s ok to change course mid-way through your cycle if new information indicates that your goal is no longer the right path.
All of this is fascinating, but today, I want to (finally) get to how I’m using OKRs for setting strength training goals and plans for next year.
OKRs Applied to My Strength Training Goals
I sat down and thought about what I really want to achieve in the coming year, or years, and wrote them down in the OKR format.
Objectives can be long range, like my first objective below. In each cycle, the key results will change. They are milestones along the way.
Here’s my current plan for January - March 2022.
Objective #1 Back Squat 300 pounds by the time I am 50.
KR1: Back squat once per week for sets of 6 reps using the back off set approach ending the cycle at 190 pounds for multiple sets of 6 reps
KR2: Increase rear foot elevated squat 8-rep max to 120 pounds
KR3: Spend 10 minutes mobilizing my ankles and hips 3 times per week
Objective #2 Hold an L-sit position for one minute
KR1: Train the L-sit twice per week adding 2.5 seconds to my hold per week
KR2: Increase hip flexor strength by incorporating 2 target accessory lifts every week
KR3: Build parallette bars out of PVC pipe because they will be more comfortable to train on compared to the hard kettlebell handles
Objective #3 Deadlift 275 pounds by the end of 2022
KR1: Deadlift 3 x 5 reps every week with a goal of ending with a 5 reps max of 255 pounds
KR2: Increase mid and lower back strength by doing at least 4 target accessory lifts every week.
Objective #4 Complete 10 single leg squats per side without taking a break
KR1: Practice single leg squats twice per week
KR2: Complete 3 x 25 reps of single leg pulses one per week
Let’s break down Objective #1.
This objective will be with me for the next 9 years or until I reach the goal. Every quarter, I will set new key results which are indicators of how I am getting to that ultimate goal.
To get from where I am today to this goal, I need to improve 5% per year. That seems attainable. With that in mind, my first year’s goal is to get to 210 pounds.
What I know from last year is that tempo squats (lower slowly, pause at the bottom) made a difference. Weighted single leg squat variations (like the rear foot elevated split squat) also worked. I also feel like I do better when I keep my rep ranges a little higher.
But there are many things I haven’t tried yet such as back off sets. I could do 4 x 6 reps of back squats at a heavy weight, then drop the weight by 15% and do another 2 sets of 8 reps. This is a way of increasing volume.
OKRs are about setting and crushing amazing goals. They can sometimes be challenging to write. I know I often struggle with it, but I think that is part of the purpose.
It’s hard to prioritize. It’s hard to do hard things. But the sweet rewards are only there if you stretch for it.
One more example.
One thing a lot of women struggle with is getting their first pull-up.
I know I did. So often you find yourself with this seemingly out of reach goal. You might go to the gym every day and try to pull yourself up, but never get there because you haven’t broken down the challenge into meaningful milestones.
If every day between now and my 50th birthday, I tried to squat 300 pounds, I would not get there.
If I was trying to get my first pull up, I would write a one month OKR that went something like:
Objective: Do one pull-up
KR1: Complete 3 x 8 pull-up negatives 3 times per week
KR2: Complete two max effort pull-up hold 3 times per week
KR3: Test pull up once per week and film it so you can see progress
I believe OKRs are empowering. In most areas of our lives, progress is slow. It’s hard to know if we’re getting where we want to go. Breaking things down into measurable, meaningful steps helps.
While OKRs were conceived in a group setting, to help organizations achieve their ambitions, I love using it for myself too. I’ll let you know how it goes.
A final note. Learning to set OKRs is a skill. It takes time to get it. But don’t let that hold you back from getting started. Each time you set an OKR you’ll get better.
🤗 Thank you for reading!
💬 Let me know if you have questions. I love unpacking this stuff.
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