How to Actually Hit Your Fitness Goals [Part 1/2: Mindset]

“Greatness is a lot of small things done well.” – Ray Lewis

As January comes to an end so do most New Year’s resolutions.

With his enthusiasm slowly waning, the gym-newbie slips back into old patterns of behaviour. The intermediate, frustrated by a lack of progress, discards his more ambitious goals and resigns to tackle them at a future date.

In both cases, either they hadn’t properly mapped out what they were trying to do, or, they went into 2021 with faulty expectations. Probably both.

It’s one thing to have goals and another to actually achieve them. If the latter sounds more appealing to you, there are 2 things you need above all else: (1) the right mindset and (2) the right set of habits (or lifestyle).

Before getting into part 1, here’s why you should set goals for yourself in the first place.

(44:15 – 46:20) Prolific author Steven Kotler on how having goals affects motivation

The Value in Goal-Setting

By setting goals, you have to actually consider what it is you’d like to achieve. This is important because it gives you a sense of purpose – a direction you’d like to move in. Take some time and actually think. It’s literally the first step.

The more specific you can be with your goal, the easier it becomes to then pave out a route.

This is especially true when it comes to fitness. If your goal is to ‘get in better shape’ this year, don’t be surprised if you’re in the exact same spot next January.

Instead, set goals that are both measurable and specific. In doing so, you get a much better gauge on whether you’re headed towards them or not.

For example, if your goal is to run a sub-25 5k by 2022, (a) it’s easy to find out how close you are to that target and (b) you know how much time you’ve got.

If your goal is to do a muscle up with strict form, you know (a) what progressions you first need to master and (b) there’s no ambiguity as to whether you’ve hit the target or not.

Falling off track doesn’t make us weak; it makes us human. But life’s more fun when we’re doing the things we set out to – having clear goals provides clear reasons to hit the gym each day, and good health is a key pillar to a good life.

So whether you’re looking to build on an already existing routine or start from scratch, here’s how to actually hit your fitness goals.

Getting Motivated

It all starts with motivation.

We can be intrinsically motivated or we can be extrinsically motivated. In the former, we do something because we enjoy doing it and, in the latter, we do it because we want a reward. Both have their uses, so use both. More fuel for the fire.

Intrinsic Motivators

  • Health (i.e. physical and mental)
    • Strength, size, flexibility, mobility, cardio endurance etc.
  • Ambition – a general desire to achieve, inner growth, making the most of your time
    • Replacing a ‘bad’ habit with something you’d like to develop
  • Enjoyment – flow states, new experiences, feeling good, greater confidence
  • Mental performance – more energy, better focus, clarity, etc.
  • Our egos (for better or for worse) – wanting to feel ‘better’ than others
  • Cultivating new character traits – discipline, grit
  • Inspiring others (our friends, our family, those around us)

Extrinsic Motivators

  • Letting other people’s success inspire you (seeing something cool and wanting it for yourself)
    • Online routines, YouTube tutorials
  • Making new friends or hanging out with existing ones through the gym/other hobbies
  • Looking better (improving your dating life/prospects)

With the internet, there’s plenty of motivation. Make a habit of listening to inspiring shit – on your walk to the gym, as you cook food, when you wake up in the morning, whatever the case may be. Fill your mind with the thoughts of successful people (through books, podcasts, vlogs etc.) and soon you’ll start thinking in the same way they do.

Here’s a great video on the topic of motivation by fitness YouTuber Zac Perna:

Congruency

As humans, we frequently fluctuate between different moods. In some, working out and chasing goals is easy and in others, it’s not. We all know this but this to be true, and yet, we don’t plan for it.

To achieve our goals, we must recognise each of our different moods, and, as best we can, align them all towards the same target.

Put differently, we need to know WHY we’re doing something and at every level. This means not just knowing why our ‘higher self’ wants to do something, but also why our ‘petty self’ wants that exact same goal. Denying that this ‘lower’ (or pettier) side of us exists means not using all the tools at our disposal.

Envy and guilt can be used to fuel productive work in the same way ambition can. And whilst ambition may take us further, if envy or guilt is what initially gets us going then so be it. The key idea is to consider ALL the reasons for pursuing your goal, so that you’ve always got motivation, no matter your mood.

In one instance, the thought of getting a six pack for summer may be what inspires you to put on your running shoes. In another, you may think there’s more to getting in shape than being really, really, really, ridiculously good looking.

The 5 Pillars of Progress

1. Consistency

“Your success in training is the accumulation of effort over time. Any time you aren’t adhering to a program is wasted time, so start, even if what you start with sucks. There is no optimal program.” u/m092 – r/bodyweightfitness mod. Quote from here

You’ve heard it before and you’ve heard it for good reason: consistency is key. Achieving any goal is simply a case of putting in the reps, over and over again. If you want to become a better runner, you must run; if you want to lift more, you must lift more.

Therefore, at any level of training, consistency should always be the primary focus. A good program and hard work are both important but they won’t do much for you if you quit.

The thing is, being consistent is hard. Most people can’t do it. Those who can reap all the rewards.

Whatever your goal, you must be consistent with the process (the set of habits that lead you to progress).  If you’re just starting out, set the initial bar low. Don’t worry about the numbers, just focus on showing up and let time take care of the rest. You’re not special – it’s the same formula for everyone.

The mistake people make is wanting to be consistent with too much too quickly. This means in the long run they aren’t consistent with anything. They burn out. They don’t see the value in first becoming consistent with taking small steps. They want it all now. Their ego clouds their judgement and they become impatient, thinking that the end result will make them happier than the process itself. They’re wrong.

End rant.

2. Patience

If you’re a beginner getting into the gym, you’re probably going to be weak for the first 3-6 months. If you’re a beginner getting into running, you’re probably going to be slow as hell. Who cares? In a year or two, the difference will be night and day.

Would you rather be impatient and not achieve your goal at all or take a slower approach and actually follow through?

Alongside consistency, you must cultivate a greater degree of patience. Focus on gradual, sustainable improvement and you’ll go pretty far. Focus on immediate results and you’ll probably get carried away – think injuries, think burnout.

How many dudes do you think were jacked in their 20s only to become fat fucks in their 30s? What do you want? How long do you want to be in shape for? Perhaps you don’t need to tick off all your fitness goals in the next three years.

Impatience can obscure the bigger picture. Realise that as long as you’re showing up, you’re moving towards your goals. So make a commitment to yourself to stick with it; to take your time and to trust the process.

3. Recovery/Rest

When you’re committed to the long-haul, you don’t care about missing a day here and there. If you’ve been consistent in showing up and patient with your expectations, taking a day to rest when something feels off (or you just don’t feel like training) isn’t an issue.

Don’t be a needless perfectionist.

Further, don’t buy into the idea that working hard means resting less – it’s the opposite. Pushing in one direction requires equal force in the other. You can choose to consciously sustain this balance or learn the hard way. This is particularly important when you’re first starting out as your body isn’t acclimatised to the stress you’re suddenly putting it through.

More often than not, insufficient rest will lead to lower quality workouts which will then lead to less motivation on your part, less consistent effort, and ultimately, less results. Think long-term baby.

4. Quality Over Quantity

By lifting with your ego you’re doing your future self a disservice. Using bad form may get you a few more reps today, but usually at the cost of more gains in the future. Those extra reps might make you feel like you’re killing it in the moment – but it could also mean one week off as you take time to recover.

To reach our long term goals, we must place quality over quantity. Take pride in your ability to perform movements well. A clean set of pullups is more impressive than whatever they’re doing over in the CrossFit section (sorry guys). Again, you’re not above the process – using bad form will catch up with you, it’s a question of when, not if.

Realise that when you go on YouTube and see those guys making L-sit pull-ups look effortless, it’s because they first learnt to do 1 with strict form. From there, 1 became 2, 2 became 3 and so on. They didn’t bad form their way to perfect technique.

5. Progressive Overload

Incremental progress. That’s the key to improving. Progressive overload is about gradually increasing the strain on your body so that it’s forced to adapt and come back stronger, faster etc.

When it comes to lifting, we can do this in four main ways:

  1. By increasing the weight on our lifts.
  2. By increasing the number of reps or sets in our training.
  3. By increasing the frequency that we train.
  4. By performing exercises at a slower rate (i.e. greater time under tension).

But if your goals lie outside of lifting (and some probably should for the sake of balance and longevity) the same concept applies. Find ways to challenge yourself ever so slightly. In turn, this will become a habit – you’ll always be looking for small ways to improve and it’ll show in the results you achieve.

Enjoy the Ride

“…The peak of the mountain is important only because it justifies climbing, which is the real goal of the enterprise.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

Setting goals is a great way to enjoy the journey, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “It’s never enough”.

Feeling satisfied is something you practice as much as anything else.

Further, being satisfied with your results is not the same as becoming complacent. Rather, it allows you to push further, because it means you genuinely enjoy your time working out. As much as possible, celebrate the small wins – they will keep you motivated over the long haul.

In the end, having the right mindset is only half of the battle, the other is ensuring we’re instilling the right habits: i.e. by understanding how they work, being resourceful and designing our environment in a way that will help.

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