Setting Goals 101

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | April 29, 2020

pushing through the middle of a press

So you wanna make some Gains? Well, I’ve got news for you. Just saying so isn’t enough: you have to have a specific goal. You know how you don’t just point at the menu and say to the waitress, “I want the food, please”? Yeah, it’s like that. 

And what is a suitable goal, you ask? Well, that depends. What are your current abilities? What’s your starting point? What kind of goal is going to make sense for you? For example, if you want a double bodyweight squat – because that’s what people on the forum say is doable or what your favorite social media influencer rants about – but you can’t squat to a twenty-inch box, then maybe your first goal should be to squat to a fifteen-inch box. Then we’ll move on from there. 

One of my favorite quotes is “Never mistake activity for achievement.” And nowhere is this more applicable than to strength training. Being busy for the sake of being busy is counterproductive: you need to do quality training and then rest. Mindless junk reps aren’t an intelligent way to approach training. If you train right, you’ll end up doing less work than you thought and resting more than you thought between training days. No extra runs, no spin classes, no boxing or CrossFit. Just lift, refuel, sleep, rest, and repeat. 

I’m going to give you the small print, which many people don’t want to hear. A successful program requires all of the following: 

  • Good food choices
  • High-quality sleep
  • Consistency: showing up for every session
  • Not missing reps
  • Listening to your coach 

It’s not sexy, I know. I’m not exactly letting you in on a secret. I’m not telling you what supplements you need before, during and after training. I’m not telling you to incorporate hot and cold showers or to twist your pinkie with a dumbbell to get that Arnold peak on your bicep. Yet these five things are what will best enable you to achieve your goals as a strength lifter. 

Another favorite quote of mine when it comes to setting goals is as follows: “One ass cannot ride on two horses.” You can’t ride two horses, the same way you can’t successfully reach two polar-opposite goals, like getting ripped abs and a triple-bodyweight deadlift. There are some who can, but I’m talking to you – the novice lifter – and we want to keep things simple. We want to make sure that you achieve your goals. Increasing your squat, press, deadlift, bench and power clean is more than enough to work on for the next six to twelve months. You can’t do it all in twelve weeks. It takes time. 

Here’s another saying for you: “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” Novices generally do not have a clear sense of how long it takes to attain these skills or what “good progress” actually looks like, so as coaches we need to gently readjust their mindset, teaching them how things work in the real-life world of the gym rather than in the world they see on late-night shopping channels, which show people getting shredded in four weeks just by doing a few crunches on some bar that looks like a baby’s crib or wheezing through a DVD workout like “Insanity.” 

Don’t bother looking for short cuts and life hacks. There aren’t any. The people selling them to you are professional bullshit artists who studied bullshit-ology in the back streets of Who Cares. There is no secret ingredient to be found in a bottle or a supplement. It’s all about hard work, consistency and dedication. Unless you take steroids – those you actually can find in a bottle. You got me there. But even then, simply taking gear won’t automatically make you look like Arnold or deadlift like Eddie Hall: you still have to put in the work, just like anyone else – enhanced or otherwise. 

When it comes to strength training, we want to do enough work and cause enough stress to precipitate a specific adaptation – in this case, strength. But we have to tread carefully. We want to train optimally towards our goals. We want to do just enough to make progress. This means that ideally we only stress our bodies the precise amount required to achieve our goals, no more and no less. 

Physical stress needs to be managed the same way emotional stress does. It’s a tightrope walk, and you need to find a balance that works for you: three sets of five reps, let’s say, to improve your squat. Too much physical stress and you can’t walk for a whole week; likewise, too much mental stress and you’ll have a panic attack. Training in the sweet spot wards off burnout. It allows you to make steady and consistent progress and it sets you up to make more sustainable progress over the long haul. 

The classic acronym used to help set achievable goals is SMART. A goal should be: 

  • Specific – e.g. the squat
  • Measurable – a number in pounds or kilos
  • Agreed upon – get squat stronger
  • Realistic – 50 kg/110 lb improvement
  • Time-based – within 3 months

Another great saying to do with goal-setting is “The goal is to keep the goal the goal.” Now, this repeats “goal” enough times to make the word lose all meaning, but if you break it down it’s so true. Make sure you stay on track. Stay in the fucking saddle and reach your goal – don’t get distracted by all the shiny new programs that pop up as you scroll through “da gram.” Now more than ever we are vulnerable to distraction, overwhelmed by technology and the flow of information bombarding us from all sides. 

We sit at our computers, muttering about how great everyone else’s life is and how they’re making more Gains than us. Real talk: for most of us, this is probably true. (Unless you’re Dwayne Johnson – that man is making all kinds of Gains, physically, financially and career-wise. #mancrush.) But so what? Just accept it. That’s life. Don’t worry about what other people are doing – focus on taking baby steps towards reaching your own personal goals. You hit enough of those baby steps, and maybe one day you too will have trolls deep-diving your account and complaining that you’re a “fake natty” or diagnosing the health of your spine. 

Recently I’ve been asking my online clients two new questions during their initial consultation. I wanted to get more insight into how my lifters tick: 

  1. If you achieve your goals, how would you feel? 
  2. If you don’t achieve your goals, how would you feel?

People get motivated in different ways. Some people like to focus on the thought of achieving their goals and the feeling of satisfaction they will get when all their blood, sweat and tears come to fruition. Others, like me, are motivated by a fear of failure and how it would feel to know they didn’t try their best. Asking my clients these questions helps me understand how best to help them set and achieve their goals. 

Looking at someone on Instagram and buying their cookie-cutter template is not going to make you look or lift like them. These “influencers” do not understand progressive overload, the novice effect, the stress/adaption/recovery cycle, or how to fix an incorrect movement pattern. They won’t help you choose a goal that’s suitable for you, and they won’t adjust your programming to help you get there. So if you want to make lasting changes to your mind and body, get a qualified Starting Strength Coach, agree on a goal and make sure it has some meaning for you – so that you get that feeling only a scary number can give you as you ride the squat down and stand back up. And that is how you make some Gains!

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