Fitness Basics: Goal Setting and Motivation

Julia Malacoff
by Julia Malacoff
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Now that you have a solid foundation around cardio, interval training, strength training and training plans, you’ll probably want to start a fitness program. Before you can put together a well-rounded plan, it’s smart to have a clear understanding of your goal, how long it will take to achieve it, and how you plan to keep up with your routine. Read on for four steps to do all that and more.

Simply getting started can be a huge barrier to committing to a fitness program. It can be helpful to do a little “pre-work” before actually taking action so you feel ultra-prepared. Here’s what fitness pros recommend keeping in mind when you’re ready to embark on a new regimen.

If you’re brand new to fitness …
Start by finding a gym that feels comfortable and approachable. “The hardest part is walking through the door and not knowing what goes on within the confines of that gym,” says Zack Sparber, a certified personal trainer with F45 Training. If the gym isn’t welcoming right off the bat, it probably isn’t a great fit, he adds. There should also be someone there to show you how to use the equipment, and if there’s not, that’s a red flag, Sparber says.

If you’re experienced, but pursuing a new goal …
“If you are switching goals, reflect on the habits and techniques you utilized to achieve your prior goals and apply them to your new one,” suggests Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist, sports nutritionist and author of “The Micro Workout Plan.” “Learn from what has (and what hasn’t) worked for you in the past to avoid making the same mistakes and capitalize on your proven successful strategies.”

If you’re getting back into fitness after a break …
Whether you took time off because life got crazy or because of an injury or illness, remember and come to terms with the fact you cannot rush back or pick up where you left off. “I have seen this happen too often, and then those people are sore beyond belief,” Sparber says. “When it is so painful that you can’t even move, do you think you would go back the next day?” It’s pretty unlikely. So go accept that you’ll need to go easy to start, then ramp things up as appropriate.

“Fitness goals generally come down to looking better, feeling better and living longer,” Holland says. But there are a variety of ways you can achieve that. Here are some of the most popular:

Fat Loss
“This is one of the more common goals,” says Darin Hulslander, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, who runs This is Performance. To clarify, fat loss and weight loss are technically different things. “Fat loss is losing body fat, not weight,” Huslander explains. Most people who lose body fat do end up losing weight, but it’s key to lose fat rather than muscle, as muscle adds to your lean body mass and helps you burn more calories.

To accomplish fat loss, you’ll need a combination of training and proper nutrition. In terms of training, you’ll want to think about incorporating a combination of resistance training, cardio, conditioning and non-exercise activity (like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking your car further away).

“This is an ideal goal for someone that’s ready, willing and able to increase their movement, and make changes to their nutrition that create a calorie deficit,” Hulslander adds.

Muscle Gain
Sometimes, this one gets confused with fat loss. “You can build muscle and lose fat, but it doesn’t typically happen simultaneously unless you’re a beginner,” Hulslander explains. This is a phenomenon also known as body recomposition.

How do you know if this is the right goal for you? “If you want to gain serious muscle mass, look more toned and visibly stronger, or have specific areas of focus that you want more clearly defined, then hypertrophy (muscle gain) training is likely for you,” Hulslander says. “This is a good goal for someone that has been resistance training already for at least 3–6 months, is comfortable performing bigger, more compound exercises (Think: squats, presses and deadlifts) and can train 2–3 times per week in order to hit the effective dosages for hypertrophy.”

Maximum Strength
This is a performance goal, but you might get muscle gain benefits along with it. “Muscle size compliments strength, as the larger the muscles are, the greater potential for maximum strength exists,” Hulslander explains. “But you can also increase strength without increasing muscle size!” What’s more, maximum strength has a host of benefits, Hulslander says: preventing sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss), preventing age-related declines in metabolism, injury prevention, preventing bone-density loss, and building confidence.

No matter your goal, there are a couple of general guidelines for successful goal setting to be aware of.

Break goals down into smaller goals. For instance, if you want to lose 50 pounds in a year, how might that look in six months, three months or even one month? “Having smaller goals helps with bigger-picture outcomes,” Hulslander notes.

Be realistic: “For some, losing 80 pounds in a year might technically be realistic, but could take very intense training and long stretches of intense dieting to achieve, and may not be ideal for a beginner,” Hulslander points out. If you’re not sure whether your goal is doable, consult a qualified professional, like a trainer or nutritionist.

Making your goal time-bound helps to hold you accountable and gives you an end in sight. So what’s possible

  • Fat loss: You can expect to lose between 1–3% body fat in a month as a starting point, Hulslander says. “But fat loss is never linear and many things like stress, lifestyle and hormones can change how our body defines a true calorie deficit,” he adds. Some people may take more or less time to reach their goals.
  • Muscle gain: Males can gain anywhere from 1–3 pounds of muscle per month, while females can gain 0.5–1 pound a month, on average, for a beginner-to-intermediate lifter, according to Hulslander. This also requires being in a calorie surplus, or eating more than your maintenance calories, as well as a solid lifting program.
  • Maximum strength: Here, goals are often defined as a one-rep max, of the maximum amount you can lift in one single repetition.” For this goal, bigger increases usually take place in the first six months and then become more nominal after that,” Hulslander says. So, shooting for a specific one-rep max within a six-month timeframe is realistic for most people.

Many people rely on willpower and motivation to get them to their goals. But both of these are finite resources. Here’s how to keep yourself going even when you don’t feel like working out.

Use excessive moderation. “Success comes down to consistency,” Holland says. “Most people quit right before they start seeing results. Focus on what I call ‘excessive moderation:’ doing a little bit a lot rather than a lot a little. Small, consistent steps will get you to your goal if you simply give it time.”

Add variety to your program. Variety helps prevent boredom. “Add enough variety so you don’t get bored after a month, but not so much that you have no idea what you’re doing the next day,” Sparber recommends. Mixing and matching workout types is a good idea, he adds. For example, you could have a set solo routine in the gym, but mix it up with HIIT classes once a week.

Collect data. Monitoring your progress — however you define it — is a great way to maintain momentum. Aside from your primary goal, look for ways to evaluate secondary goals, like having more energy and getting better sleep. “Even if you’re rating your energy levels from 1–10 each day, find other ways to measure progress besides the one big goal, and it’ll do wonders for compliance and motivation,” Hulslander says.

Look beyond aesthetics. There’s nothing wrong with having an appearance-related goal. But acknowledging that working out improves health can help keep you coming back, even when you’re dealing with some internal resistance. “While weight loss, fat loss and muscle building are all good goals, just because the scale isn’t moving or your appearance isn’t changing does not mean that your workouts aren’t working,” Holland points out. “Improved heart health, blood chemistry and mood are but a few of the benefits of exercise that you can’t see on the scale or in the mirror.”

About the Author

Julia Malacoff
Julia Malacoff

Julia (@jmalacoff) is a seasoned writer and editor who focuses on fitness, nutrition, and health. She’s also a certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition Level 1 coach. Based in Amsterdam, she bikes every day and travels around the world in search of tough sweat sessions and the best vegetarian fare.

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