How many times have you set a weight loss goal or made a resolution in your life and not been successful?
…Or been temporarily successful, only to put the weight back on or backslide later? Some of my clients come to me with a history of repeated failed attempts at weight loss. I know this can be disheartening at best and at worst can lead to a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting and self-loathing. As an athlete in a weight class sport for ten years, I sympathize, the scale can feel like your worst enemy.
The scientific and nutritional reasons why diet and exercise often fail people is a topic for another blog. I’ll touch it briefly by saying that successful clients don’t focus on calorie restriction (especially low calorie, low fat and hi carb diets) and excessive exercise. Instead, they focus on real food choices, food quality, lifting weights & finding joy in sports (like Muay Thai, Jiu Jitsu, basketball, rock climbing or tennis).
Today I would like to focus on how to set a fitness, health or even a life goal, something that when done correctly can bring great happiness and fulfillment to our lives. I’ve written before about willpower and neuropsychology has lately been the research topic that is most interesting to me. Goals setting is just a part of the willpower and habit human experience. If you want to know more, see the end of this blog for recommended reading.
Unfortunately, when it comes to goals, many people incorrectly set goals or make vague resolutions that steer them into a quick defeat. Almost every client I see wants to look good in a swimsuit and feel confident; and that goal, 90% of the time is achieved through losing body fat and gaining lean muscle, which may or may not means weight loss. It is rare a client that comes to me who just needs to put on muscle, but yes they do exist, and those lean, hard gainers are just as self-conscious about being too skinny as most people are about having too much body fat – but I digress… Okay, so to achieve these body comp goals everyone thinks they have to set a weight loss goal, but this is not necessary or good for the psyche in my professional opinion.
First, I have witnessed time and time again from hydrostatic weighing, which gives clients an accurate body fat percentage and lean body mass measurement, that some students who are already in a somewhat “normal” or just above “average” weight range will not lose any weight. Instead, they will gain some muscle, lose fat and stay the same weight, but look completely different and amazing – i.e. toned, fit, athletic, defined abs and curves in all the right places! We had a client at the gym who weighed almost the same from one test to the next, but lost 7% body fat! If she had been going by the scale, she would have been very upset with the progress.
Other times overweight clients have come to me with a weight loss goal which is impossible or ridiculous given their lean mass. For example a female client once told me she thought she should weigh 125 (a very dangerous statement to make to yourself) but when she got her lean body mass and body fat tested she had 122 lbs of lean mass (muscle, bones etc). So to be 125 she’s have to have close to 0% body fat, which is impossible. I suggest to all my clients they do away with scale weight goals unless they are a fighter in which case that is unavoidable and an entirely different blog topic. Instead, I suggest they get their body fat measured with hydrostatic weighing and set a body fat goal that realistic, specific, measurable and in a particular time frame. I prefer three months, which, is a good enough amount of time to get and see results. That is why I have the Body Fat Truck come to my gym every 3 months for clients.
If clients insist on making a body composition goal I tell them the only goal they are allowed to make is body fat % loss or pounds of lean muscle gain because they are the only trackers that are truly accurate. They may lose weight getting to that goal, they may not, but either way, a drop in body fat, especially when paired with some beautiful new lean muscle will make them look and feel more amazing than scale obsessing. Ideally, I’d like to see most client’s lean body mass go up, especially the ladies! For 90% of women, tank top arms, short-short legs, and washboard abs all come from an INCREASE in lean body mass as well as body fat loss.
However, just because body fat is a great tracking tool I don’t think that any body composition goals (weight loss, fat loss, jean size, etc.) are the best goals to make if those are your only targets. It’s okay to know that you want better body composition, but the goals you set daily, weekly & monthly should be action driven rather than outcome driven.
Action goals are lifestyle behaviors, or performance benchmarks you work on that will get you creating positive habits and a healthy lifestyle that will produce the outcomes of your “bigger picture” goals.
Here are some examples of outcome vs action goals…
Outcome Goals – these are general, sometimes vague goals almost everyone has:
- Lose body fat
- Gain muscle
- Get fit
- Become healthy
- Eat “better”
Action Goals – these are specific goals in areas you need to work on:
- Log my food and drink in a food journal for two weeks
- Attend two Muay Thai and two strength classes weekly
- Eat a fist size serving of veggies with at least two meals per day
- Go gluten free for a month
- Get 8 hours of sleep most nights
- Apply the School Nights Rule to your weeknights
- A certain number of strict pull-ups in a row
- Deadlift your body weight (1.5 or 2 x your body weight!)
- Listen to a Meditation Mini for 10 minutes three x a week.
- Take a walk every day for 30 minutes with my dog
- Remember to take my fish oil, probiotic or BCAA’s every day
- Jump rope for 3 minutes without stopping
- Only treat myself to dessert once per week
- Journal daily for 15 minutes
As you can see action goals are specific and measurable. Working on every one of the above action goals will help get you to the larger outcome goal of fat loss, fitness & health, but you are focusing on a creating positive habits and behaviors rather than on a number or vague goal, which is not only better for your sanity, but it is shown by research to increase your willpower.
Each small goal you set & achieve helps you become more focused on health, builds your willpower and will improve your life (trust me they will). Even the small, seemly insignificant goals can add up and help with the larger goals. It all about stringing together action goal after action goal to create a new, super charged you!
Don’t make the mistake of piling on too many goals at once. Just focus on something simple, create the new positive habit and then move on to tackle a new goal. Goal setting should be a constant and encouraging process in your life. It’s not about perfection and it’s definitely not about shaming yourself. It’s about slow, constant improvement, knowing yourself, your dreams and always working towards a better you.
Health, happiness, fitness, fat loss and that killer body you want are all the result of a string of ongoing positive habits you form through action goals in life or in the gym. I know this first hand from training for fights. Each fight I made an improvement in my lifestyle, nutrition, discipline or mindset and over time those improvements added up to a new body I felt proud of, a healthier me, a new outlook I felt good about and eventually someone I was truly proud to be inside and out. But I also see this trend with clients. My clients who have the best success are the ones who focus on action goals and sports performance goals, who look at fitness & health as a journey, who are open minded, passionate and positive about learning everything they can about their body and health and who don’t let life’s setbacks phase them, but stay always focused on what they CAN do.
So, what action goal will you make today?
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath