Joel Snape is a decade-long lifter who’s competed in strongman, endurance sport and MMA. He also writes at livehard.co.uk
However you set goals, you’ve probably been told at some point that you’re getting it wrong. There are two main schools of thought on the subject, and they’re pretty much diametrically opposed: first is the think-big, shoot-for-the-stars-and-land-on-the-moon, aim-for-the-Olympia and-you’re-bound-to-get-big option and second is…well, the more ‘realistic’ take. A goal is a dream with a deadline, the followers of the second school will tell you, and you need to be sensible. Stop looking at pictures of He-Man and settle down to a nice, solid, three-day-a-week lifting plan.
The problem? Neither of these approaches alone is quite enough.
The trouble with small, manageable goals, for instance, is that they give you (or, more realistically, me) what researchers call “Cognitive closure” but not much motivation. It’s easy to tick them off, but not very stirring. The problem with big, overarching goals is that they’re overwhelming, and disheartening. If you’re at the bottom of a mountain with no obvious way up, even taking the first step can be hard.
The best solution, then, is to combine both.
The most effective approach, according to current research, is through a more tailored to-do list, made up of goals written out in a way that identifies both stretch goals and SMART ones – the old Specific/Measurable/Achievable/Realistic/Timeline-based achievements you should be aiming to hit with some regularity.
As a lifter, for instance, it makes sense to write down an overarching ambition, whether that’s a thousand-pound powerlifting total or placing in a bodybuilding show: this helps avoid the need for cognitive closure that makes you more obsessed with short term goals. After that, it’s time to consider sub-goals and their SMART components, making it more likely that you’ll actually get after the big stuff.
If your stretch goal is that total, for instance, one SMART goal might be to improve your bench press by 5kg over the next three months. After that, it’s time to get into further, ‘process’ based goals you’ve got direct control over: hiring a coach to make sure your bar path and grip width work well for your lever lengths, for instance, or doing row variations twice a week to build a more stable base to press from. Because you’ve always got a stretch goal to refer back to, your craving for cognitive closure’s muted: you aren’t going to hit a solid set for a new 5RM PB and decide to leave the gym. You’re always reminded that you’re chasing SMART goals for a bigger reason.
There’s a final part to goal-setting that I find hugely helpful, though, and it’s about making sure you aren’t just planning for perfection.
In any plan, but especially a nutrition-based one, things are going to go wrong. That’s why it’s important to envision what you expect to happen over the course of the next six, eight or twelve weeks, alongside what you’d ideally like.
That’s why, on, say, a Sunday night, it’s a good idea to sit down with a pen and paper and envision what’s likely to go wrong with your plan: an invite to lunch that you can’t realistically turn down, getting stuck on the road with limited options for training or food. If/when they happen, what are you going to do? By just taking a couple of minutes ahead of time to work this out, you’ll be better prepared for what happens when your plan encounters real life.
No goal worth achieving is easy. And gym goals – whether they’re body comp or lifting-based – are some of the toughest. But by building better mental models to deal with them, you’re also building a skillset you’ll be able to use to deal with anything else in your life. So grab a notepad, set some stretch goals, and get after it today.