4 Stages of Goal Setting

This time of year is huge for goals so upward and onward we continue with our New Year’s theme throughout December on DTP.com.  We all know that  January represents an uptick in attendance for all gyms and gym goers, and we typically see a more energized crowd as 2013 hits the calendars at Performance360.

One thing I have learned is that a very small percentage of folks really know exactly what they want out of fitness.  Sure, some folks have the very specified goals of losing 25 pounds, hitting a 2x body weight deadlift or breaking a certain time in a triathlon but I’ve observed the reality that most have absolutely no idea what they want out of fitness.  This isn’t an observation limited to the beginner, as I find that most people never bother to set and complete fitness-related goals over the course of their training until much later than they should have.  It’s never too late to start getting more serious with goals for you veterans, either.

Since opening, we’ve spoken to a few hundred people about their goals and what they want, and to the last person almost everyone simply wants to get a little more toned, a little stronger, and a little more fit all around.

And I am here to tell you two things.

One, that is perfectly normal.

Two, at least for a while, that is.

No one realizes that there is life beyond base overall improvement, that there can and should be more to fitness than just moving and shaking.

You don’t have to treat your workouts like you are qualifying for the Olympics, Boston Marathon or CrossFit Games every time you walk through the door, but some internal direction and compass helps create purpose and consolidated motivation.  The general fitness approach can take you a long ways and produce some great results, but the buck will ultimately stop.  Unless you establish some hard line goals for yourself as you continue to evolve, you will never really reach that level you are most likely seeking.  If you know what your goals are before you begin your training, then you’ve got a hard start but most of us figure them out somewhere along the way and constantly set and reset targets.

Typically speaking, we can expect our training to break down into four stages of development.  Think of your body like a car.  It’s my go-to for cliched analogies because the parallels between the human body and a car are scary.  Both require a functioning engine, thrive on proper fuel, get you around in life, create enormous hassle when they break down, and make you superficially more attractive when they’re hummin’.

Weeks 1 – 8: Assess the Damage

Chances are you have heard sputtering for a while now.  The transmission stalls when you hit a certain speed.  The accelerator can’t maintain high velocity for long.  Tires are worn.  Engine won’t start when it’s cold.  Dents and dings all over the place.  This is the stage where your car is in the shop and all you want to do is get the diagnosis from the mechanic.

During your first eight weeks your entire focus should be strictly on what needs fixin’.  Pay attention to your strength levels.  Do you feel weak on certain lifts?  Tight hips on squatting?  Having trouble straightening your arms overhead on a press?  Do you get winded within minutes of the workout?  Does your core or low back tire before your legs?   Is your lower back sore after everything?

Focus on developing as much kinetic awareness as possible during these weeks.  Learn the basics and how your body moves.  If you are used to machines and cardio, functional training will be a completely different animal to you and chances are your body will have no idea what’s happening at first.  It’s used to robotically following a directed path of movement and now all of the sudden it has to move, think and react for itself.  It has to learn hang cleans and kettlebell swings, which at first will feel as awkward as dancing sober.  Learn this stuff.  Learn how to squat properly and deadlift with neutral spine.  Study your body and learn what comes easy and what movements are difficult.

At this point in your training development, you should not be focused entirely on results so much as taking inventory of your body’s strengths and weaknesses.

it hurts so good

Don’t worry about advanced movements at all during this time frame.  You are far better served by developing a very sound, deep squat than you are prematurely trying to overhead squat with deficiencies abound.

Don’t get discouraged that the girl next to you can do pull-ups when you can’t, or that fellas, the girl next to you can deadlift more than you!  She’s been at it for a lot longer than you have and if anything it should be motivation you to respect yourself.

Accomplishments like a 400# deadlift not only seem impossible, they seem stupid.  After all, who would want that?  And why?!

The fun part is that while all of this is going on you can expect to have your most dramatic fat loss in your first eight weeks.

Focus on your positives and log your weaknesses.  The rest of it is just showing up, working hard and laying the foundation.

Weeks 8 – 16: Be the Best at Exercising

The car has crept it’s way out of the shop and is approved for residential commuting.  You still can’t yet take it on the highway and rev the engine past 60, but you can get from point A to point B.

After eight weeks, your mobility should be greatly improved.  Coordination should be up and you should feel pretty comfortable squatting, deadlifting and pressing.  You should feel a little bit stronger and a much more conditioned.  30 minute workouts that used to seem impossible slowly morph into something to which you look forward, like some kind of masochistic ritual.

Burn After Reading  01

This is the perfect time to begin challenging yourself on load on all major lifts.  It’s still premature to focus solely on strength and not develop other skills, in my opinion.  You want go have a very solid base before you get serious with strength training, and the good news is that during the development of your base you will incidentally get a lot stronger.

Now is a good time to get past your comfort zone on the bigger lifts, push yourself a little bit harder on the band level of pull-ups and focus on bringing your A-game to every workout as opposed to just showing up and moving.  Ask questions.  Improve your base of knowledge.

During this time frame you will notice major changes to both your body and performance.  You will be much stronger, leaner and more athletic looking.  It’s not just fat loss, it’s your car undergoing a complete recomposition.  An overhaul.  A restoration of sorts.

At this point it’s safe to start realistically planning what you want to accomplish.

  • Fat loss?  At this point, you will have burned a significant amount of fat.   Anywhere from 5 – 25 pounds depending on your starting body composition.  Have more to go?  Done with fat loss and want to focus on performance?
  • Deadlift twice your body weight?
  • Perform a pull-up?  Perform 20 pull-ups?
  • 36 inch box jump?  50 inch box jump?
  • Sub 4-hour marathon?

The question, “Who would want a 400# deadlift?” now starts to make a little more sense.   The point of setting a big goal is not because picking up 400 pounds is at all functional or life changing on a microscopic level.  I don’t know a single farmer that benefits from farmer’s walks.  The act of accomplishing a goal in the tunnel of a single rep is not life changing.  It’s the improvements your body, mind and performance undergo along the journey to picking up that weight that are profound.  Every muscle becomes stronger.  Your core becomes more of a rock, posture improves, confidence and self esteem run a bit higher and you become more of an all-around achiever.

Weeks 16 – 32: Polish the Hood

Approved for highway use!  By now you can expect to have a pretty high level of fitness and a motor that feels like it just won’t quit.  Squats are six inches deeper than when you started.  Deadlifts are more efficient and on a level of strength you didn’t think yourself capable of at the beginning of your training.  Your body now feels completely different from when you first started and you become angry at your gym for causing you to spend hundreds on new clothes and toss your old fattie jeans.

This is the time frame where you want to get really serious.  You can’t just be incredible at exercise forever, otherwise you will most likely just be decent at everything.  You want to really hone in on a major goal and attack it as a main priority.

Consult your coach and find out some good benchmarks to target.  If you don’t know, there is absolutely no shame in asking.  At this point you should be in complete control of your own outcome.

Alex with 265# on the bar.  She literally did not know what a deadlift was when she first started.
Alex with 265# on the bar. She literally did not know what a deadlift was when she first started.

Let’s use the 400# deadlift from above.  For some with stronger genetics than others, this pull may be achieved by now.  Others have to work a bit harder.  Regardless of whether or not you have accomplished it, you are certainly near it.  Pulling mid to high 300’s and well on your way.

Weeks 32 and Beyond: Cruise the Strip

By now, you have a fixed engine that went from John Deere to Ford Mustang and it’s time to take that puppy out and let it purr. Your strength is up across the board on all major lifts and you look like a completely different version of yourself from whence you started.  You can surge through 30 minute met-cons and can maintain power for much longer than when you started.

At 32 weeks, you can expect a myriad of goals to be crossed off your list from 10 – 50 pounds of fat loss, deadlifts around twice your body weight and an all around dramatic level of fitness.  At eight months, advanced goals such as full pull-ups for a woman are a perfectly attainable goal regardless of starting level.


It’s potentially now appropriate to start accessorizing your lifts and thinking about buying those fresh new rims you’ve been eyeing.  So long as your squat and deadlift are up to par, which by most strength standards are a 2x/1.75x bodyweight deads and squat, it is an approved time start thinking about advanced overhead movements, more one-leg training, resisted plyometrics and very low rep, heavy load training in the one to three range for more consistency and as the bulk of your strength training.

At eight months, you should be setting single and specific goals until you see them through.  Gone is the mentality of simply being great at exercise with no direction.  In order to stay motivated and trending upwards, it’s important you continue to set new goals and benchmarks for yourself.  Pick an exercise and corresponding goal until you hit it.  Train it until it’s done.  Put your kill on the wall. Move onto the next.

Remember, it’s not the actual act of accomplishing it that ultimately matters, it’s the improvements you make along the way that do the most work for your improvement.

That’s why we set goals; because goals beget results.

“I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

The whole point of this entry was to be quick and very general.  I don’t want people to get caught up in exactly when they should or shouldn’t do things, nor do I want people thinking this is all textbook and mapped out.  It’s not.  Some people begin with a greater fitness level than others but by and large, you follow a certain formula and you are more or less guaranteed results.

In your first few weeks, show up and learn the basics while improving your health and mobility.  Understand permanent results don’t happen overnight, only when you build the proper foundation.  Without it, your temporary house of cards will crumble.  Strip down all that you don’t need on your body and focus on fat loss and developing your engine.  Once your horsepower and engine are good to go, take things to the next level and begin to target your goals.

The beauty of fitness and health is they’re the one part of life where we have complete and total autonomy over our success.  No one else is responsible for your failures or your success.  It’s 100% your action, so start thinking.

What exactly do you want to achieve?

The gym is your playground.

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