You may have joined a gym for the social support, but many people get lost in a community or system and can’t see their desired outcome anymore. When was the last time you stopped to evaluate what you are doing for your fitness or strength goals? Are you doing what you need to get what you’re after?
 
Let’s look at what might be getting in your way and some simple steps you can take to get back on track and achieve your big-picture goals.
 
Breaking Muscle Shop
 

What People Say Their Goals Are

Below is a list of common fitness/strength goals based on research (in order of importance). How much importance do you give each one?
 
  • Appearance or weight management (fat loss, muscle gain)
  • Better health (prevent a disease, get back to a previous health status, rehabilitation)
  • Feat of strength (personal best at an exercise or strength goal; e.g., a pull up)
  • Flexibility and mobility
  • Socializing

 

A common goal, written on the whiteboard: “To be Strong. Katie V." (age nine)
 

What People Often Work Toward

Unfortunately, I see a lot of people working toward other goals that might only be indirectly related to their intended goal. For example:
 
  • Getting done as quickly as possible (completing each rep in a haphazard fashion)
  • Working against a clock to beat someone else’s score
  • Using dangerous technique to lift more than others
  • Working out to exhaustion rather than training toward perfection
 
These unintended consequences can happen in any group workout setting. The consequences might seem balanced in some ways by the many benefits of working out in a community. But my hope is that you look at your current program and see what you can do to make it work toward your goals. 
 

"If your fitness program is not directed toward achieving your goals, then it is time to reevaluate and change."

We can work toward our goals even if the system puts up incentives or barriers that take us in a different direction. We need to remain focused on why we train to get what we’re truly after.
 

If It Is Important Enough, Do It Everyday

If your fitness program is not directed toward achieving your goals, then it is time to reevaluate and change. For example, if your goal is to do an unassisted pull up, what are you doing to achieve that goal today?
 
And “active rest” is an appropriate answer only if you are resting from something related to your pull up goal. Otherwise, start building a pull-up program into your plans (for example, you could do a greasing-the-groove style program before each gym session).
 
 

Do the Opposite

Let’s say you look at what you are currently doing and realize it is not directly related to your goals. What can you do to get back on track? You could follow George Costanza’s example and do the opposite. 
 
  • Timed Workouts - If your workout calls for a certain number of reps for time, you could slow down on purpose to make each rep perfect. Who cares about the clock? Will someone remember a year from now if you were a bit slower? 
  • Inappropriate Progressions - If a coach asks you to do banded pull ups, you could respectfully say no and do ring rows instead (or negative pull ups for fewer reps). You are in charge of your goals and no one should get in the way.
  • Skip the Kip - Want to work on absolute strength in the pull ups? Then skip the kipping or butterfly pull ups and do strict pull ups for fewer reps. The same idea follows for the weight you use. If you have to lower the weight to achieve proper form, then lower the weights and work on technique.
 
 
George Costanza Doing the Opposite
 

It Is "Practice" or "Training," Not a "Workout"

Working out to exhaustion might be fun to do every once in a while, but for long-term benefits and health, a more systematic approach is necessary. Pavel Tsatsouline once likened a workout to someone going to practice his or her tennis serve to exhaustion. What good would it do to practice a serve when your shoulder and arm are exhausted? Rather, it is best to train the serve while you are fresh so you can put full power into it. Do movements while you are strong and leave some in the tank for the next day. 
 

"Working out to exhaustion might be fun to do every once in a while, but for long-term benefits and health, a more systematic approach is necessary."

If You Are Training to Failure, You Are Training to Fail

Powerlifting champ Dr. Terry Todd said those words and Pavel is always reminding people of them. The way we train sets the standard for how we do movements later. If we lift with crappy form, do we expect to someday just snap out of it and lift virtuously?
 

Keep It in Perspective

I like the following quotation from Dan John talking about keeping a gold medal in perspective:
 
It’s just a Gold Medal or World Record. In the big picture of things, not everything we do is just very important in the big scheme of things.
 
Given that most of us are not even training in pursuit of a gold medal, Dan’s words become even more salient. Your score in your training session today is not as meaningful as achieving your big picture goal.
 
 

Wrap-Up

I like to ask people what their goals are. I have never heard anyone say they want the best time or to beat everyone else as part of their fitness program (competitive athletes want better performance in competitions, not in practice; we’re talking about practice here). 
 
Sometimes it is just the competitive classroom environment that brings that out in people. But competitiveness and other factors can distract us from our goals. Organize your training around what brought you to exercise in the first place. Are you achieving what you want? If not, then it is time to refocus your efforts on attaining those goals.
 
References:
1. Cash, TF. et al., “Why Do Women Exercise? Factor Analysis and Further Validation of the Reasons for Exercise Inventory.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 78 (2): 539–44. 1994. doi:10.2466/pms.1994.78.2.539.
 
Photo 1 "To Be Strong” courtesy of Katie VanBuskirk (age nine) and CrossFit Empirical.
Photo 2 courtesy of CrossFit Empirical.
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