by Marcus Jessen
Have you ever failed at getting in shape?
Perhaps it was a specific goal like losing 10 kg (22 pounds) that you failed, or perhaps it was more of a vaguely defined goal like “I want to be fit”.
The pattern I have seen with most people including myself can more or less be described like this:
You start off feeling very confident in yourself and your ability to summon the willpower to push through.
But then “life happens”, you get tangled up in a lot of other important things and you completely lose track…
Don’t feel ashamed if that also sums up one or a few of your experiences, because I think everyone has tried that. I have multiple times.
It is not necessarily a bad thing to fail in this way and if you are perceptive enough, you might learn a valuable thing or two about why.
What is bad, however, is if you keep trying over and over again without learning from your mistakes.
Whether your fitness goal was to lose fat, build some muscle, or both, the reason why you failed is very likely that you were not “SMART” about your goal setting.
Setting goals that are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound) help you keep on track and focus on what matters.
They work very well because the thought process that goes into creating a SMART goal forces you to think critically and plan how to achieve it. It gives you a clear sense of purpose when you first map out how you are going to achieve your goal.
With that being said, it also means that it is harder and takes longer time to create a SMART goal. Maybe you will even discover at a later point that your plan needs to change because some assumptions you had were wrong, but realizing that some initial assumptions were wrong is also a form of progress.
S.M.A.R.T. Fitness Goals
SMART is an acronym made up of each of the guiding principles that you should use in your goal setting.
Although I am going to focus on fitness goals in this article, SMART is actually not specifically related to fitness. It is more of a universal concept to achieve any kind of goal and originates in management theory and practice.
S – Specific
Probably won’t be a surprise to you, but your goal should always be very precise and easy to understand. You do not want a goal that goes like this: “I want to be fit”.
That can mean a whole lot of different things, but you won’t get any of those things, because you will be spreading yourself thin going in many different directions.
When people think that they want to be fit, it usually means something like losing 5-10 kg (11-22 pounds), get visible abs, gain muscle, or maybe even get a better blood cholesterol level.
But your goal should be made much more specific than that, e.g. lose 5 kg of fat within 3 months with about 0.5 kg of fat loss (not weight loss) per week.
M – Measurable
Putting numbers on your goal helps you determine your progress and whether or not your effort has been sufficient.
Again, saying “I want to look good” or “I want to get in shape” are bad goals since there are no exact ways to track your progress. But, you can make that goal measurable by adding a number to it.
So in order to improve the statement “I want to get in shape” you can instead say, “I want to reduce my waist measurement by 5 cm (2 inches)” or a little bit more sophisticated goal could be “I want to have an ideal waist-to-hip ratio”(for women). For men, it would “waist-to-chest ratio”.
If you are lifting weights, another great metric that you can use is relative strength (your body weight relative to your strength). You can then benchmark your relative strength against standards on different exercises.
In order for any of this to work, you will obviously need a baseline measurement.
A – Attainable
There is nothing wrong with thinking big and I would encourage it, but big goals need big plans, long time and a lot of smaller SMART goals for support.
Many people fail to achieve their goal because they simply underestimate how hard it is or how long it is going to take. Having extremely high expectations or in general unrealistic goals will ruin any momentum and confidence that you have built up.
You can’t just “power through” and lose 10 kg of fat in one month (not even if you fasted the whole time).
If you are not used to going to the gym or getting up early in the morning, you are probably not going to be able to sustain getting to the gym 6 days per week at 5:30 AM in the morning to exercise and lift weights for 1.5 hours. You will burn out after one week…
Pick instead a goal that you can handle, like losing 2 kg of fat in one month or going to the gym 2-3 times per week.
However, don’t get too lazy with your goals. Remember to challenge yourself by identifying fitness goals that are realistic yet stimulating.
Setting goals that are meaningful to you will help you keep motivated and inspired.
For example, saying “I want to reduce my belly fat so that my old favourite pants will fit again” can bring more relevance to your effort. You may also say “I want to lose 2 kg (4.5 pounds) in one month in time for my wedding day” or “I will exercise every Tuesday and Friday to help reduce the effects of ageing so I can play longer with my grandkids”.
Adding this kind of relevancy is going to help you visualize your goal and attach some positive emotions to it. Both are powerful at helping you achieve your goal and is credited by many to be a key component in their success. You can read more about visualization here.
Find reasons for why you want to achieve something, know why it is important to you, and focus on how that will make you feel. When you see the significance of working out and its positive effect, you become more motivated and inspired to achieve your goal.
Deadlines keep you on track and provide a sense of urgency. Set a time limit on your fitness goal but be realistic and consider what I would call “healthy standards”.
For example, losing weight too fast is not a good idea. What is ideal or realistic depends on a few factors, but your current body fat percentage is a useful metric to base it. This is what I have done in the table below.
Here is another great resource on setting smart fitness goals.
Now that you know how to set fitness goals correctly, let’s look at some examples of both SMART short-term and long-term goals.
Examples of SMART Fitness Goals: Short-term goals
Short-term goals are a great way to start off and achieving them can help build confidence in your own ability and give you a sense momentum. In addition, short-term goals can be a part of a larger plan for achieving a long-term goal.
I would argue that short-term goals take days, weeks or a month to achieve.
Short-Term Goal Example #1
By the end of this month, I will have eliminated all snacks in between meals to effectively reduce the total amount of calories I consume so I can lose some weight without feeling like I am on a strict diet.
How to achieve it?
Snacks can account for a lot of calories and eliminating them can have a big impact. If you are used to eating a lot of snacks, it will probably be very hard to go cold turkey. Instead, you could phase them out over a couple of weeks.
The first week you could eliminate all morning snacks. The second week you take it a step further and eliminate all snacks in the middle of the day, and finally the third or fourth week you don’t eat snacks anymore.
Let’s say that 2 weeks in you realize that you especially crave snacks when you are watching television, and need to figure out a solution. One solution could be to instead drink a calorie-free (or almost) like lemon water, tea, coffee, sparkling water or even a diet soda.
You could also try doing something other than watching television e.g. take a walk in the nearby park.
Short-Term Goal Example #2
I will drink 8 glasses of water per day this week to keep me hydrated so I am performing my best in the gym and can progress faster.
How to achieve it?
Hydration is important for your general health, but lack of it can also negatively affect your performance and slow down your progress in the gym. Read more about it here.
Regrettably, you can’t just pour down all the water in one go – that is not how hydration works. You need to drink water throughout the day. It is a good idea to drink both before and after exercising.
Bringing a portable water bottle with you wherever you go is a good start to increase your water intake. Remind yourself to drink a glass of water every 2 hours. You could set up an alarm to keep you on track.
You can check out more examples of short-term fitness goals on livestrong.com.
Examples of SMART Fitness Goals: Long-Term Fitness Goals
Long-term goals are more difficult to achieve because they require more effort. To make them more achievable, break them into smaller goals and plans.
Long-Term Goal Example #1
I want to be ripped for the summer so I can look awesome at the beach i.e. good amount of muscle, low levels of body fat and 6-pack abs.
How to achieve it?
Who wouldn’t want a jaw-dropping beach body? Besides that, it is a great candidate for a SMART goal.
The trick to getting this kind of body is having the right amount of proportionate muscle while maintaining low levels of body fat.
What you have to do first depends on how much body fat you currently have. But assuming it is already relatively low (if not check out the second goal below) your goal is to build muscle while gaining the least amount of fat.
There are several ways you can train to build muscle, I know a lot about weight training and that is what I would recommend you do. Do weight training 3 times per week focusing on a few heavy compound lifts like bench press, overhead press, squats, weighted pull-ups, and deadlifts. Schedule it in your calendar at a time that fits you the best.
Keep track of how much weight you are lifting in a workout log. By using small but gradual increases to the weight you should be able to make steady progress. You can refer to the strength standards mentioned above.
Make sure your diet consists of a good amount of all macronutrients (carbs, fats and protein), and be careful of your overall calorie intake. Basically, you want to eat just a bit more than your “maintenance calories” to minimize fat gain. Perhaps somewhere around 250-350 calories above.
In addition to your lifts, you should keep track of your body weight and waist measurement to make sure you are not gaining weight too fast. Since you are building muscle, you should be gaining weight (muscle) but if it is too fast e.g. 0.5 kg per week and your waist is expanding, then you know that you are gaining a lot of excess fat. You can use the guidelines below to determine that.
Regarding 6-pack abs and their visibility, it all boils down to two things:
1) how much fat you got around them and
2) how developed your abdominal muscles are.
That is one more reason to keep fat gain under control. You can add in abs training 2-3 times per week. Take photos of yourself once a week in the same lighting to track your progress.
Following A Plan Made By Someone Else
For achieving some SMART fitness goals, you might find that it is easier to follow a plan made by someone else and proven to work by thousands of people. In this case, there is such a workout and nutrition program which I can also personally attest to works very well.
If you want to know more, you can check out my review of this popular program from Kinobody that transforms you into a Greek god.
Long-term Goal Example # 2
I want to lose 10 kg of fat (22 pounds) in 4 months in time for a very special gathering.
How to achieve it?
Losing 10 kg in 4 months will make an average of about 0.63 kg per week. In the beginning, your fat loss will likely be higher than the average, and in the end, it will be lower than the average.
Losing 10 kg of fat is a significant achievement and will be very challenging.
It will require you to exercise and reduce your caloric intake. Your plan could be to eat 300-500 calories less every day while including a good amount of protein, lift weights 3 times per week, and walk about 45-60 minutes every day. Schedule your lifting and walking sessions, and be clever about it. E.g. instead of using public transportation, could you walk?
Weigh yourself every morning and put it in a spreadsheet to do weekly averages and take pictures of yourself every week.
Being a fitter, stronger, and healthier version of yourself starts by being SMART. Decide on what you want to achieve and set your fitness goals. Be consistent with it and reap the rewards of your efforts.
If you are new to this, I would suggest you start by setting a short-term goal. Sit down for about 20 minutes and go through the framework. If you want to go big you should break it up into smaller goals.
By the way, If you are perceptive you will probably have realized that setting a SMART goal gets into the “what, why, how, when” part of achieving the goal.
Marcus is the owner of the site Strengthery.com where he likes to write mostly about weight training, weight loss, and other health-related topics. He prefers a balancing approach to health and fitness where the amount of effort needs a corresponding gain in order to be worth it.