Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Setting Goals 102

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | June 09, 2020

carl raghavan after a successful attempt at a meet

I often ask my clients, What’s your goal? And the reply usually goes something like this: “I just want to improve and do the program. I’ve never done strength training before and just want to experience the process.” That’s cute – but it’s a fart in the wind. It doesn’t help us figure out what direction we need to take. If we want to succeed, we need numbers. We need a plan. Because if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. 

But setting goals isn’t easy. There are all sorts of factors to take into account. I’ve already written one article on goal-setting, but there’s more to be said, so I put pen to paper once again (or rather, thumbs to smartphone – I write every article exclusively on my iPhone) and came up with a step-by-step outline of how a lifter might progress, all the way from learning to hit depth to getting a 1.8 x bodyweight squat. 

Please bear in mind that it’s very uncommon to hit all the target goals at each stage at the same time. It’s normal, for instance, for your deadlift to pump full-steam ahead, reaching all these numbers first, while your press lags behind. I’m not putting this forward as a yardstick – these are simply general guidelines designed to help you form some realistic goals as you progress from novice to intermediate. Think of this article as fuel for thought. I want you to question what is possible. Could you go from being unable to squat to a double bodyweight squat in seventy-two weeks? 

My clients may not have a clue, but as a coach I need to have a plan in place for them. I need to set goals for them. Yes, even if they’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and just want to lift!and don’t care about their numbers. By “goals” I mean an actual target number for each lift. Otherwise, I can’t tell if I’m doing my job. Hint: being a strength coach means I should be making my clients stronger. Not leaner, not more intelligent (although being strong is a smart life choice). I’m not increasing their social media following or helping them find their true calling in the world. I’m making them stronger

That’s what I’m being paid to do, especially if they’ve gotten lost in the weeds and come down with a case of Fuckarounditis. If you don’t know what this severe gains-related illness is, it’s a horrible epidemic that afflicts lost sheep in the weight room. Sufferers become convinced they’re in some movieland where it’s possible to get everything they want right this minute. To paraphrase Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: they don’t care how, they want it now. Sadly, gyms are not chocolate factories. That’s the bad news. The good news is that even in the most dire cases, the treatment for Fuckarounditis is strength. 

First, let’s look at the big picture. You want to “get fitter” and improve your health? Great. But where do you start? What are the components of fitness? One well-known definition – originating from a company called Dynamax who makes the medicine balls famously used in CrossFit to practice “cleans” and wall throws – breaks it down into ten constituent parts: cardiovascular endurance, stamina, strength, power, agility, speed, flexibility, balance, coordination, and accuracy. One might argue they’ve repeated themselves on this list; cardiovascular endurance and stamina could be brought under one umbrella, as could agility, balance, flexibility, coordination and accuracy. I’d therefore prune this list down from ten to five components: strength, power, speed, Supple Leopard-ness (wink) and cardio. 

When you set your goals, it’s a good idea to bear all these components in mind. But here’s the bottom line: strength is superior to any other single attribute, whether you’re looking at Dynamax’s list of ten or my five. It is the master component. It will advance you closer to any other goal you might want to chase down. Whatever else my lifters want to do, strength is always at the top of my mind, so it’s always a core part of how we set our goals. Even for people who are already quite strong. Novice coaches might look at a lifter with decent numbers and think, Wow, he squats 405! Let me move on to the next person, my work here is done. But more often than not, a lifter who’s gone from 225 to 405 will want to keep improving, not just hang up his lifting shoes, smoke a cigar, and call it a day. Once you’ve coached enough people, you don’t see weights on the barbell anymore – you just see movement patterns. You’re no longer awed by a heavy bar or jangling plates. An experienced coach will see what needs to be improved and help get the next 45lb plate on the bar. 

So you know you need a plan, and you know strength is paramount. Now on to the practical stuff. There are two main types of goal: long-term and short-term. Both must be taken into account as we formulate our overall training plan. Long-term goals are my favourite. These are the big numbers that take a long time to train for. They’re usually weights that are scary but exciting, the major milestones that set you apart from the average globo-gym bro. I’ll let you in on a little secret about training: when you catch someone – or lots of people – counting how many plates you’re about to squat, that’s when you’ve arrived. And it can be quite an emotional experience. In my own training, squatting 500lbs and pressing 264lbs were milestones that were very meaningful to me. 

So what would a “big number” look like to you? What expectations are reasonable here? To an extent, the results will be a direct product of your training history, your physical attributes and your genetics. Maybe you have a gymnastics background, played a lot of team sports, or did a lot of bench pressing and curls growing up; maybe you did Starting Strength before but did it badly; maybe you were good at cross-country and distance running; maybe you loved dance classes or ballet; or maybe you just sat in the corner reading books and giving all physical activity a wide berth. All of this will be obvious as we move through the novice linear progression. In most cases I can tell what a lifter's background is from the first few sets of squats, or at least hazard a guess. I’m not always right, but I like my odds. 

Physical factors likewise play an important role. Everyone’s body has different strengths and weaknesses. For example, if a dude has a big back and fingers that dangle past his kneecaps, it’s safe to say he has the potential to achieve a great deadlift, but he might struggle on the press. Similarly, a female with thick thighs and a short back and arms might have a decent squat and bench, but could struggle with deadlifts. A dude who is lighter than a soaking-wet mop will probably struggle at first to get anything dialed in with heavy weights. Still, these factors are not all set in stone. Training will progress and evolve based on your anthropometry, yes, but building technique and strength will allow your prime mover muscles to develop and grow, so your strengths and weaknesses may adapt and change over time. 

In other words, while background and anthropometry are relevant, we can’t simply extrapolate from them to come up with our goals. In fact, this can hold you back – many lifters become overly obsessed with their stats, and what their lifts “should” be like. What’s my deadlift supposed to be in relation to my squat? Or my press in relation to my bench? No one cares – and neither should you. Knowing bullshit percentages gleaned from the interwebs about a “normal” deadlift being 50% more than your squat (or some other random number plucked out of thin air) isn’t relevant to your training. These are the concerns of someone who has trained for less than a year, not someone who’s trained for ten years – that lifter knows better. You – the novice lifter – should be focusing on working hard. The numbers will move into their natural places. 

This is where short-term goals come into their own. Short-term goals, in a nutshell, are the essentials: the small things that make daily progress work. Make it to the gym, remember your kit, stick to the program, add five pounds to the barbell, don’t miss reps, eat enough, sleep enough. Often, the basics go underappreciated. People don’t realise how valuable and important they are for achieving long-term goals, but in fact they are essential for success. You can have the best coach, the best barbell equipment, and the best program in the world, but if you don’t eat or sleep enough and miss one or two sessions every week (or skip the gym entirely for extended periods of time and don’t ramp back up) you’ll become de-trained. You will never reach your full potential, and you’ll miss out on all the easy low-hanging fruit that strength training offers if you stay the course and make it a part of your lifestyle. This is when hard work beats talent every time. The person sticking to the program, clocking in the programmed reps day-in and day-out will eventually overtake the person who didn’t really respect the daily process. 

In other words, the short-term stuff is non-negotiable. It supports your long-term goals. It may also unlock potential you didn’t know you had, and that isn’t necessarily suggested by past performance or anthropometry. I, for example, had no idea I would be a big presser. I could barely do fifteen push ups as a kid – how was I supposed to know I was one day going to press 130 kilos? And yet, by putting my head down and training consistently, here I am. 

It’s also important to remember that achieving your long-term goals may involve lowering your expectations in the short-term. It’s not always about the weight on the bar. Sometimes you have to shift your focus from weight to technique. Often, when lifters come to me, they’re all excited about their deadlift because it’s the biggest number – but when I see them perform the movement, they’re doing it with way too much lumbar flexion. If this is the case, I will take their deadlift down to a weight they can perform correctly. Lifters will often express concern at this point: “Shouldn’t my deadlift be heavier? I’m squatting more than my deadlift!” They feel like they’re moving further away from their goals, and it makes them anxious. But we haven’t lost sight of the long-term goal here; we’re just shifting focus onto technique in the short-term. Once we dial back the deadlift, fix the issues, and continue to progress their squat, the deadlift will fly up. Problem solved. 

Anyway, let’s get down to brass tacks! Below are some realistic numbers and a corresponding timeframe. Again, bear in mind that these are guidelines designed to inspire, motivate and bring some clarity. They are not Gospel. They are not set in stone. No one is expecting you to conform to them precisely. Age, sex, weight, height, nutrition, previous training history – these and many other factors will affect how you progress. If you’re serious about setting goals, it’s best to consult a Starting Strength coach and develop a plan specific to you. But these are numbers drawn from my past experience working with hundreds of clients, and I have found that they are realistic for many people.  


Long-term (lifetime) goals

  • Press x 1 bw
  • Bench x 1.5 bw
  • Squat x 2.5 bw
  • Deadlift x 3 bw
  • Power clean x 45% deadlift


Goal#1 (1st session)

  • Squat x 80% bw
  • Press x 50% bench
  • Deadlift x1 bw
  • Bench x 60% bw
  • Power clean 30% deadlift

Goal#2 (2 weeks)

  • Squat x 1 bw
  • Press x 50% bench
  • Deadlift x1.4 bw
  • Bench x 80% bw
  • Power clean 40% deadlift

Goal#3 (6–8 weeks)

  • Squat x 1.2 bw
  • Press x 50% bench
  • Deadlift x 1.6 bw
  • Bench x 1 bw
  • Power clean 40% deadlift

Goal#4 (12–20 weeks)

  • Squat x 1.4 bw
  • Press x 60% bench
  • Deadlift x 1.8 bw
  • Bench x 1.2 bw
  • Power clean 40% deadlift

Goal#5 (24–44 weeks)

  • Squat x 1.6 bw
  • Press x 60% bench
  • Deadlift x 2 bw
  • Bench x 1.3 bw
  • Power clean 40% deadlift

Goal#6 (32–72 weeks)

  • Squat x 1.8 bw
  • Press x 60% bench
  • Deadlift x 2.2 bw
  • Bench x 1.4 bw
  • Power clean 40% deadlift

Again, I want to stress that this is only one way to map out your barbell goals. You may achieve them faster or slower than I have forecasted. That doesn’t really matter – the important thing is that you make progress, not the pace of that progress. Numbers are simply a way of making sure that we train with purpose. It’s not about doing things “perfectly” – although as coaches we will help you bypass a lot of the mistakes we made. Indeed, one reason why it’s possible for many people to make progress so fast is that you’re benefiting from our past failures: you’re being fast-tracked. Many of my clients progress much faster than I did when I first started lifting. 

So if you don’t hit these milestones in the timeframe outlined above, that doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad lifter. It’s important to set goals because it creates productive training habits, but ultimately the numbers are just a proxy for what actually matters: progress, hard work, consistency. So make sure you’re honest with yourself about that. Your work ethic, the food you consume, the sleep you get (or don’t get), your technique, your consistency, your coachability, and your overall attitude will all pay off in the end. Stay the course and I guarantee you will be surprised how strong you will become. 

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