You Gotta Be SMART

I get pulled into a lot of conversations with people who want to achieve a fitness goal but find themselves overwhelmed about where to start. As a result, they generally haven’t made much progress. There are several reasons why starting on your fitness goals can be hard. 

The first issue I see a lot (in myself, as well as the athletes I coach, and people who ask me for advice) is that they had only a vague notion about what they wanted to do: “get in shape,” “lose weight,” and so on. While this is a great starting point, it doesn’t leave you with much in the way of what to do next.

So how do we go from the generic, “I want to do something!” to a plan of action that will get us where we want to go? By setting goals!

You’ll need to spend some time thinking about what your goals are. If the goal is “get in shape,” decide how you want to do that, and what it means for you. Does “in shape” mean “look aesthetically pleasing in a swimsuit?” Does it mean “be strong enough that I can do work in my house and yard without getting winded or being sore as hell the next day?” It will take some time to turn your general thoughts on what you want into a set of concrete goals that can form the basis of a plan of action. For now it is enough to write them down. Once you know what these goals are, it is time to make them SMART.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. While this is a lot of criteria to apply to each goal, they are pretty easy to use. When you set a goal, you ask yourself five questions:

Is this goal a specific one?

Lots of people set goals that have no clear “win” criteria. How will you know when you’ve achieved this goal? If you can’t answer that, your goal isn’t specific enough. “Get in shape” is a non-specific goal. “Bench 300 pounds in a sanctioned USAPL meet” is a very specific goal. There’s a path between the general and the specific. Take some time and work through each of your goals, until you have broken them into a set of goals that each has a defined “win condition.”

Moving from the general to the specific will probably mean breaking those big, generic goals down into several specific ones. “Get in shape” might break down into “get strong” and “get leaner,” and then each of those might have to be further broken down into some specific goals (“bench 300 pounds,” “drop from 35% body fat to 25% body fat,” etc.). With a little work you can come up with something that is specific enough that you’ll know when you’ve met your goal. If you don’t feel like you know enough to set specific goals, consider talking to someone who does. Coaches, other athletes, friends – all can be resources for you. (Shameless plug: that’s what we do here at VS!)

Can I measure my progress on this goal?

If you are a competitive athlete (no matter your sport), the answer is likely “yes,” since many of your goals may revolve around setting PRs, winning games, and so forth. But every goal you have should have some way that lets you measure your progress. If your goal is a 300-lb. bench press, and your current bench PR is 250 pounds, but you’ve been adding 5 pounds to that each week for the past 5 weeks, you are making noticeable progress toward your goal!

Take stock regularly on how you are progressing towards your goal. If you can’t clearly describe your forward progress, you need to change something. Likewise, don’t decide to stop measuring progress because you know you aren’t progressing. Ignoring a problem won’t solve it.

Is this goal an achievable one?

People often give up on their goals because they expected results in an unreasonable time frame.  If you are squatting 95 pounds, setting a goal of a 600 pound squat by the end of the current calendar year is unrealistic. None of the elite athletes you see on TV, on the web, or in competitions achieved their strength, figure, or skill over night. They had to work at it over time, building small success upon small success until they had achieved their goal.

Likewise, nobody gets “out of shape” overnight; it happens gradually over time. It is the cumulative effect of a lot of small decisions about what to eat, how much to eat, how much exercise to take, and so forth. The negative side effects from a sedentary lifestyle can pile up for years before there is a noticeable negative effect (back pain, hampered mobility, etc.). Expecting the reversal of the effects of a lifetime of a long term behavior pattern in a matter of days or weeks is unreasonable.

Making quantifiable progress over time, however, is very reasonable, and is a better way to set and measure your own expectations. With your overall goal in mind, set some interim goals that, taken together, will get you there. Want to squat 500 pounds, but you’ve never squatted before? Start by squatting the empty bar, and then set milestones at 100, 200, 300, 400, 450, and finally 500 pounds. That’s 6 goals that, if you knock them out slowly and steadily over time, will get you where you want to be. But you must set and hit the achievable goals first, even if you already know what the next one (or four, or ten) goals after that will be.

Is this a realistic goal?

So at this point you’ve picked some goals that are specific, measurable, and that you can definitely achieve if you work hard. Now, step back for a second and ask yourself:.

  • What other commitments do you have?
  • What other things do you need to do that are important?
  • How many goals have you set for yourself?

You need to understand how much you are signing up for, and how it fits in with the rest of your life. If you commit to goals, you need to plan on expending the time and energy to achieve them. This isn’t a get out of jail free card (“oh, I’m too busy to hit these goals, so I won’t even bother working towards them”). It is a call to envision the time you are going to have to put in every day, or week, or whatever, and then commit to making achieving your goals a priority. If you can’t do this, or if you can’t do this for all of them, then you may have set unreasonable goals.

One of the best tests I’ve found for whether a goal is reasonable or not is to think of someone who is supportive of me and whose opinion of me matters to me. Then I imagine telling them I am going to achieve this goal. If I flat out can’t envision telling them about your goal, there’s a good chance that it might not be reasonable.

You can try this, too! It can be scary to tell people about goals that are important to you, but it can be a great litmus test for your goal. If the prospect of telling your friend/mentor/coach/relative/partner about the goal scares you in the oh-dang-now-I’ve-told-them-so-I’d-better-get-busy kind of way, that is both normal, and a sign that you are onto something!

(PS: Once you have set your goals, go ahead and actually tell people about them. It will give you a support network when things get hard, and they’ll also sometimes help prod you along when you need it!)

Have you set a time by which your goal will be achieved?

This one is simple. Decide when you’ll be done, and then work towards that date. “Squat 300 pounds in a sanctioned USAPL meet” is specific, and measurable (and, if you are a healthy, able person under 40, probably achievable and reasonable). However, you need to decide when you’ll hit that goal. Spending a decade chasing a goal just because you didn’t stay focused on it is a waste of your limited time on this planet. “Squat 300 pounds in a sancitoned USAPL meet by the end of 2016” is a fully-realized SMART goal, as it has a time component to it as well.As a general rule of thumb, any goal you can’t achieve in a year should be broken down into a number of smaller goals which, taken together, will get you to the larger goal.

So, now we know what SMART goals are, and we have had a brief conversation with ourselves about how to turn each of our general goals into SMART ones. This isn’t easy, and can take quite some time. Hit us up in the comments, or email me at if you need some help with this!

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