Why you shouldn’t set fitness goals based on attendance

May 11 2016 Coaches Feedback

As Coaches we love seeing you, we really do. We want you to work hard and make progress and be happy with where you are and where you are going on your fitness journey. After a few weeks most athletes start to set goals for themselves intentionally or unintentionally. It’s no surprise that the intentional ones tend to get more accomplished in the long run, but the unintentional ones are valuable to. Goals and goal achievement give your fitness pursuits a sense of purpose and accomplishment; you gain incredible psychological resources from trying new things, learning, and succeeding in your desires, and those resources carry over to other aspects of your life.

When we hear athletes talk about goals, especially starting out, they fall in to 2 main categories: body composition (lose weight, gain weight, gain muscle, fit different clothes, etc.) or activity level (be more active, get to the gym more, get at least 3 hours of exercise per week). The problem with many of these goals is that they are poorly defined, and as such, are very hard to accomplish in any definitive way.

Let’s take an extremely common example for a New CrossFit athlete with 2 months experience: “I want to try to get to come 4 (or 5 or 6) days a week.” As goals go, it certainly isn’t terrible – but it’s definitely not optimal for a number of reasons. As written, all you have to do is show up and just showing up doesn’t cut it. Stumbling through a workout at low intensity because it is your 4th day on in a row really isn’t doing a whole lot for you; you need to bring the effort and the fire if you really want progress. I’m not saying low intensity days are bad – but just getting in the work regardless of effort or quality is not a recipe for long term success. You’ve set yourself up to prioritize volume over intensity, because that’s the kind of goal you’ve generated.

We all recover a little bit differently from different types of workouts. If you need a second rest day, an extra rest day, or an easy day, you need to take it. Goals based on attendance don’t account for this and the variation inherent in life. Got a deadline at work? Goal is trashed this week, on to next week. Mother in-law is visiting? There goes another one. Want to take a long weekend vacation? Might lose 2 weeks there. You’ve created a goal that is difficult to maintain week after week and goals we can’t accomplish are goals we end up ditching.

A third reason why goals based on attendance aren’t ideal is that they are often a very poor substitute for something else we actually want. I doubt you want to go to the gym just because you want to go to the gym; you desire to gain something from that experience. The thing that you want (more strength, a different look, faster runs or better health for example) is what you should be setting your sights on. Setting goals based on duration or number of visits in fitness is akin to setting financial goals based on the number of hours you work. Sure, if you work more hours you might make a little more money if you get paid by the hour, but I think most will agree that what you actually want is a job that pays more per hour worked or a job where working harder results in greater financial gain. No one wants to work 80 hours a week. I’m sure with a little imagination you could take this financial metaphor onward infinitely, and most of it would carry over to the fitness side.

So how do we make better goals?

We’ve touched on a few main flaws: volume over intensity; difficulty to maintain; and the correlation problem. A really good fitness goal doesn’t suffer from these missteps. I’m sure you have heard this before, but you have to make SMART goals. SMART goals meet a number of criteria that allow us to mobilize the specific effort to accomplish what we really want. If you want to be somewhere else you need to define your destination or you’ll probably waste a whole lot of time on the journey. The acronym SMART stands for:

Specific – very specific rather than general

Measurable – something you can quantify

Achievable – realistically a possibility with the tools and resources you have available.

Relevant – It needs to be a goal you identify with and actually want to achieve.

Time-bound – a timeframe is assigned to the goal with a finish line. It will be “attained” at some point; does not go on ad infinitum.

These characteristics lead to success. Given this framework, lets evaluate a goal of “getting to class 4 days a week.” Is it Specific? Although it might be moderately specific on its own, it is extremely general if the desired outcome is increased fitness. Is it measurable? Yes but is it is a dichotomous outcome; either you do or do not go. We can add the numbers up, but a passing grade is highly unlikely week after week. What about Achievable? Certainly, you literally just have to show up. Relevant? Unfortunately attendance is likely a very poor correlate of something else you actually want to achieve. Is it Time-bound? Not really, there is no end point. It resets every week.

Safe to say it doesn’t stack up very well once we put it in the SMART framework. Instead of just attending, let’s look at 3 SMART goals that are directly related to what you might really want:

  1. Increase my 5RM Back Squat from 155 lbs to 200 lbs by January 1st of 2017
  2. Decrease my body fat percentage from 22% to 19% by October 1st 2016
  3. Run 5 Km in less than 30 minutes by August 2016

Notice how they all share the same characteristics? We could take these goals and make a plan to smash them using some of our facilitators!

How do we facilitate achievement of those goals?

1. Set a schedule, but don’t be afraid to break a pattern. Applied:  If you goal is to squat more you don’t want to miss the days we are squatting heavy; but if you do then you might need to get in the next day to make it up.

2. Set micro-goals that will help you reach your endgame. For example: Today I will run 3 km in 18 minutes.

3. Give yourself a realistic time frame to achieve the goal in question. Even the most achievable goals need an appropriate amount of time. Be realistic about the amount of time things take.

4. Tell anyone who will listen. This adds a layer of accountability. Not just your dog, an actual person. Preferably your Coach.

5. Invest in the resources that will get you there. Do you need extra coaching or personal training to learn technical pieces? Do you need program design specific to your goals? Do you need to eat better to get what you want? If the route to success isn’t clear you need to buy a map.

What are 2 fitness goals you have your sights set on? Comment below and let us know! Seriously, do it.