Fitness goals are important on several counts. They hold us accountable, expand our definition of possible, and encourage us to push through temporary discomfort for longer-lasting change. But figuring out how to set fitness goals you’ll actually want to attain can be part art, part science.
The problem is that during this time of year, it’s easy to get caught up in the rush of New Year’s resolutions and set goals that are too lofty, unsustainable, and otherwise unrealistic. We then fail to achieve them and feel worse about ourselves than before we started. This year, to avoid that detrimental downward spiral altogether, we asked DiSalvo and four other top trainers to share their advice for doing fitness goal setting right. Here, 11 of their tips for enacting real, positive change.
1. Focus on one goal at a time.
When it comes to setting a fitness goal, “one of the biggest mistakes is that people try to do too much at one time,” Kellen Scantlebury, D.P.T., certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Fit Club NY, tells SELF. Perhaps you want to hit the gym every day, cut out added sugar, and get at least eight hours of sleep a night. Trying to tackle that much at once is essentially just setting yourself up for failure. With so many things to achieve, “people get anxious, and if they didn’t do one thing, they feel like a failure,” says Scantlebury. This can lead to negative self-talk that lowers your chances of achieving any of the goals.
2. Make it your own.
It can be easy to scroll through the ‘gram and feel inspired-yet-envious by images of the super fit. Yet basing your own goals off of what you see others achieving is neither productive nor practical.
“When we are bombarded by images of what fitness should look like and how we should do XYZ, it can be hard to identify what’s good for you,” Tony Vidal, NYC-based certified strength and conditioning specialist and master trainer with fitness app POPiN, tells SELF. Certain things that top athletes can do—run a marathon, do 100 push-ups, master the most challenging yoga poses—“may be great for them, but it’s not metric that everyone should be measured by,” says Vidal. In other words, your goal should be your goal—something that you personally are excited about and realistically able to achieve—not someone else’s.
3. Make it measurable, specific, and time-bound.
Having a measurable goal allows your to track your progress, says Vidal, and the more specific your goal, the clearer the path to achieving it becomes, adds DiSalvo.
Wanting to “be stronger,” for example, is a great place to start, but what does that mean to you? Saying you want to increase the number of push-ups you can do makes the goal measurable, and saying you want to be able to do 20 push-ups in one minute makes it specific. On top of that, the goal should be time-bound, as this helps you focus your efforts, develop a more structured plan for actually achieving the goal, and creates a sense of urgency that can be motivating. Examples of measurable, specific, and time-bound goals include being able to deadlift 10 repetitions with 50 pounds in three months, running a 5K nonstop by the end of the year, and correctly performing a pull-up by the start of summer.
A great way to remember this is through the SMART method, which helps you make sure your goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.
4. Set the bar low—at least, at first.
Speaking of attainable: “Your goal should seem relatively easy or within reach of what you are doing,” Mike Clancy, NYC-based certified strength and conditioning specialist, tells SELF. Why? If you think it’s easy, you have likely already worked through any mental obstacles that could thwart your progress, he explains. On the confidence scale, you should be at a 9 out of 10 when it comes to your belief that you’ll actually achieve your goal. The less confident you are, the less likely you will adhere to the steps needed to make it happen, says Clancy.
Plus, attainable goals help ensure that you start out with some all-important wins. “The more success you have in your fitness journey, the more you will stay with it,” adds Scantlebury. Having this success early on is especially important as it builds confidence that can snowball into long-term results.
5. Play the long game.
We all want instant gratification, but it’s important to be realistic with the time frame you develop for achieving your goal, says DiSalvo. “Lasting changes take a while,” he explains.
Know that “you are never going to make an overhaul in one week,” adds Scantlebury. Instead, pick a goal that can be achieved over the course of several months or even a year. A long-term mentality will help you see your goal as a lifestyle change, rather than quick fix, and you’ll be much more likely to adhere to it.