We all know the feeling of doing something with purpose – with a clear goal in mind, pushing through temporary discomfort to achieve something that we had decided in advance was important to us. Any time you’ve studied for an exam, prepared for a job interview or learned a new skill. Most things we do in life we do with some purpose. When we are happy and motivated, we know exactly what we want to achieve in our work lives. Our engagements with our friends and family are positive and uplifting and we engage in hobbies deliberately and with enthusiasm.
But we also know what it feels like to go through a period of any habitual activity when there seems to lack a clear purpose. As the purpose becomes less clear, the motivation also drifts and the satisfaction from that activity disappears. The drudgery of a job with no sort of goal in sight, the boredom of doing the same thing over again without being satisfied with it. We all seem to understand implicitly that if there’s no clear goal, and furthermore, if you haven’t made a conscious choice to do something with that goal in mind, the activity itself loses its importance, is less satisfying and often done with less care and attention.
And so it is with training. But even more than other activities, it often tends to be done with only the vaguest of purposes. Lose weight? Feel better? And as with most non-essential activities that we don’t fully appreciate the reason behind, it is often hard to gather motivation for it.
Finding clear goals for your training, whether you’re working with a PT, in a group or alone, should be the first thing you do before you lace up your trainers. But where to start? Most people have heard of SMART goals, the helpful mnemonic that reminds us that our goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound in order to keep us focused on results and duly motivated. This is a helpful and important guide to articulating the goal, but it doesn’t give any help as to the kind of thing we should aim for.
So what I want to talk about is the two broad categories of goals that I see and how for most people, getting a balance between the two could be the key to adherence, motivation and satisfaction in your training.
These two broad categories are aesthetic goals and performance goals.
Aesthetic goals are in reality what get most people into exercise in the first place. It is a natural human instinct to want to look attractive in whatever way you have deemed it. Some people want to have ripped abs, some want big guns, some people want smaller bum and thighs. But if you’re anything like me, the prospect of having a ripped six pack is appealing for about a day, until I realise what is required of my diet and training regime to achieve one, and I want to go out for a plate of pasta and a glass of wine with my wife and have a great conversation. And some people have a lot of weight to lose, but losing 10, 20 or 30kg takes a long time and is a huge commitment and keeping that motivation up when it’s just about a number on a scale is unbelievably hard. Just look at the statistics of how many people actually achieve this.
I used to work in a gym in London and I remember early on talking to a Personal Trainer there who told me that most of her clients were serious about their training, but they were also smart enough to have other interests, and the desire to make the most of their lives in other ways. And they weren’t prepared to sacrifice everything, just to look like they could be on the cover of a fitness magazine.
And that’s great – totally understandable and sensible. But the question now is: so what does the aesthetic goal become? If you’re not careful, the goal can slip very quickly to just be something like: “offset the effects of my social life” or “look ok, just make sure I can keep fitting into my jeans”. But what kind of goal is that? That’s not the kind of thing that’s going to be motivate me to go to the gym after a long day at work.
So what else is there? Well the other option is to make your goal performance related. And this is where I think the questions can become a bit more interesting. What specific physiological adaptation do you want to make to your body? Do you want to be able to squat 250kg? Do you want to be able to complete a freestanding handstand push up? Do you want to be able to run a marathon in under 3 hours? Because once you change the conversation and start to focus on the enjoyment of achieving something specific and demonstrable with your body, suddenly a whole load of exciting possibilities open up.
While aesthetic goals can sometimes be vague, performance goals give you a clear objective to every training session. While aesthetic goals can make you feel like Sisyphus (the guy who was cursed to eternally push a rock up a hill, only to see it roll back to the bottom, and have to start again), performance goals can be endlessly diverse and allow you to take enjoyment and pride in each individual achievement.
While aesthetic goals can sometimes make you feel like you’re holding back the hands of time as you get constantly reminded of your ageing body and having to keep it in shape, everyone has something practical they can improve no matter how old they are. I’m always looking for something else to work on in the gym, whether it’s around flexibility in my shoulders or hips, or something really challenging like a muscle up or some other crazy callisthenic move.
And perhaps most importantly of all, because of the wonderful laws of adaptation, if you push your body to achieve ever more diverse and interesting things, it has to adapt by getting stronger, or getting leaner, or getting more flexible. And this is the key. By focusing on improving your performance, you ensure that you’re always pushing your limits, forcing your body to adapt and then pushing it again. And this is the way real change happens. So you will make aesthetic changes at the same time as making real achievements with your body.