I didn’t want to gain or lose 10 pounds. I didn’t want to work out X number of times per week. I wanted to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club.
When you’re thinking about good fitness goals and New Year’s resolutions, it’s easy to get locked in by what you think a goal “should” be. People set weight loss goals, right? People try to work out a set number of times per week, right? It’s easy to focus on those things.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
All those goals you hear about people setting exist because…people set them. There are some fitness goals that a lot of people are trying to achieve.
But taking your goal setting one step further—really just half a step—can drastically improve your chances of achieving it.
Let’s talk about your fitness goals.
Table of Contents
- Why Is It Good to Set Goals?
- How to Make Fitness Goals: Fitness Goal Ideas Based on Your Lifestyle
- What Should Your Fitness Goals Be?
- The Psychology Behind Good Fitness Goals
- How Can You Avoid Fitness Goal Mistakes?
- How to Achieve Fitness Goals (By Setting Them Better)
- Workout Goals You Can Set Right Now
Why Is It Good to Set Goals?
Goals are important. Setting goals is proven to help you achieve more  because goals help you strategically pick the right actions, help you put in more effort, and keep you motivated over time .
Having good fitness goals can help you push through feeling too tired to go to the gym or feeling uncomfortable because you aren’t sure what to do.
But goal setting isn’t actually about the fitness goal. Coming up with random numbers or ideas is one place where goal setting can go wrong. It’s more important to know your vision: the way you want your goal to change your life.
I wanted to be ripped and confident. Say what you will about Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club; he was both of those things.
Trying to set good fitness goals without understanding how they are meaningful to you personally is a great way to set weak goals.
But do it right and you can lose weight, increase physical activity, and increase motivation by setting fitness goals.
How to Make Fitness Goals: Fitness Goal Ideas Based on Your Lifestyle
Let’s use the fitness goal “lose 10 pounds” as an example.
Even though it sounds specific, losing 10 pounds is actually super vague. Are you losing 10 pounds of fat? Losing 20 but gaining 10 pounds of muscle? How are you losing it? If you lost 5 pounds of fat but gained 20 pounds of muscles, would that be the same?
And the real question: how will this make your life better?
Fitness Goal Examples (That Actually Matter)
If you ask “what are some good fitness goals,” I’d urge you to take a step back. And to ask a different question.
You can Google “fitness goal examples” and find plenty of examples out there. Some will be really vague and not that helpful, like “lose weight” or “be active.”
Some will seem a bit more motivating and specific, like “do a pull-up.”
And ultimately, you can set those types of goal.
So what are some good fitness goals?
- Be healthier and more active
- Look better and feel comfortable in your own skin
- Be stronger
There’s nothing wrong with big-picture goals like this. But I would urge you to consider two things.
- How will you know when you’ve achieved your goal?
- How will achieving your goal make your life better?
Your goal needs to be specific enough that you can answer “have I achieved my goal” with a clear, instant yes or no.
And you need to personally know exactly why your goal is important to you. That’s what makes you motivated to actually take action towards achieving it.
In training, training other people, and helping people work out better, I’ve heard a lot of reasons that people want to work out. There are common workout goals, but they don’t always relate directly to fitness. Let’s see if any of these examples feel familiar to you:
- You feel uncomfortable in your body, and have never looked in the mirror and liked what you saw
- You who have aches and pains that are finally becoming too much to deal with
- You want to be better with women (or men)
- You have unhealthy family members, and don’t want to go the same way
- You just want to push themselves to be better
Those are the things that matter. When you’re setting fitness goals, focus on how the goal affects your lifestyle.
What Should Your Fitness Goals Be?
It isn’t about chasing a number on the scale. It’s about the first time you turn around and catch someone shyly looking away because they were checking you out.
It’s about realizing that carrying groceries the 6 blocks back to your apartment isn’t as hard as it used to be.
It’s about the newfound confidence you carry with you in everyday life.
Your answer to the question “how will this make my life better” might be different, and that’s a good thing. It should be different because it should be yours.
So ask yourself: what are your fitness goals, and how do they relate to the life you want to lead?
You should never need to look somewhere else for fitness goal ideas. If you have to ask “what should my fitness goal be,” take a step back and ask what’s important to you.
As always, there’s some research about this.
The Psychology Behind Good Fitness Goals
I already mentioned some research showing that setting fitness goals helps you do things better. But not all goal setting is created equal.
In order for a goal to be good, you need to be committed to it (kinda duh). And you commitment goes up when you think your goal is important .
Sound familiar? Fitness goal ideas that apply to your life will be more effective.
Another way to increase your commitment is to make your goal your own . If you have a role in shaping your own goal, you’re more likely to be committed to it and follow through.
That’s one reason I advise people not to blindly follow cookie-cutter programs: your goals are more effective when they are yours.
Reminding yourself of why your goal is important can make it yours, increase your commitment, and improve your results
Don’t Visualize Your Goals: It Demotivates You
When I talk about knowing your personal vision, I don’t mean blindly fantasizing about achieving your goals.
Somehow the self-help community got the idea that “visualization” is a great thing. You’ll hear people recommend spending some time every day imagining your ideal self in front of a mirror.
And that does not work. In fact visualizing has actually been shown to make you LESS likely to achieve your goals .
Habits expert James Clear argues against goals and in favor of systems:
If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get results?
The idea behind understanding your personal vision is to have something to work towards and strive towards. It helps you understand where you want to go so you can set up a system to get there.
The idea behind visualization is to make you feel good for a few moments. That doesn’t help you actually do stuff.
If you do want to visualize, focus on the process instead of the outcome. People that imagine themselves working towards their goals do better than people that imagine achieving their goals .
In the same research people with negative fantasies actually can do better! Imagining the challenges you’re likely to face makes you less likely to crumble when you actually face them.
How Can You Avoid Fitness Goal Mistakes?
Not to be all alarmist, but it’s possible to make mistakes before you even start working out. Because if you set the wrong fitness goals, you’re going to start working towards the wrong destination.
Setting the wrong goal is like coming to a fork in the road and going in the wrong direction. You’re still going down a specific path—and you sort of make progress, because you are still working towards a specific destination.
It just isn’t the destination you really want. It might not even be the one you intended.
Remember, part of the reason that goals are a good way to build habits and stay consistent is that they help you decide what you should be doing.
In diet, fitness, and everything, there are more “things to do” than any one person could ever actually do.
Goals help you decide what to focus on.
But only if you set them well. Here are the 3 most common fitness goal mistakes.
Mistake 1: Vague
What do these fitness goals have in common?
- Lose weight
- Gain muscle
- Get abs
- Be healthy
They’re all extremely common, that’s true. But the reason I call them out is that they’re incredibly vague.
They’re so vague that they’re barely even goals.
If you want to lose weight, chopping off a leg is by far the fastest way to happen. If you want to gain muscle, they’re selling pork shoulder at Walmart.
That sounds harsh, and I’m being a little abrasive to make a point. The point? Saying you want to “lose weight” isn’t helpful, for these reasons.
If you lose 1 pound, have you achieved your goal?
What are you going to do to lose weight?
If you aren’t losing weight, when do you change your approach?
A vague goal leads to vague actions leads to vague results. By the way, another way to say “vague results” is “no results.”
Mistake 2: Arbitrary
Where do your goals come from?
If you say you want to lose 10 pounds, where did “10 pounds” come from?
You probably didn’t do a DEXA scan to find out your exact body fat percentage, or look up the research about how quickly you can lose weight (1-2 lbs per week is reasonable). So where did the number come from?
You don’t need to choose your goal numbers perfectly. You certainly don’t need to hop into a tank to do a hydrostatic body fat test.
But do spend a bit of time thinking about where your numbers come from. At the least, have a reason that the number you choose is right for you.
Mistake 3: Outcome-only
Ok, so let’s say you have a goal to lose 10 pounds. Now what?
Focusing on outcomes is important in that it can help make your goal more specific. But only setting outcome-based goals can cause problems too.
If you want to lose 10 pounds, great! How are you going to do it?
Great goal setting gives you some insight into how you’ll actually go about achieving your goal. But a goal like “lose 10 pounds in 3 months,” even if it’s realistic, doesn’t help much if you don’t know how to achieve it.
Also, what if you only lose 5 pounds? Is that failure?
What if you only lose 3 pounds, but in the process manage to set up a regular routine of going to the gym (and start eating healthier). Is that failure?
You get the idea. That’s why process goals are equally important. We’ll talk about them more in a few moments.
How to Achieve Fitness Goals (By Setting Them Better)
Enough about mistakes! Just like how outcome goals don’t tell you anything about how to achieve your fitness goals, listing a bunch of fitness goal mistakes doesn’t actually tell you anything about how to set better goals.
If there’s one thing you take away from reading this, it should be to focus on goals that are personally important to you.
When you understand exactly what a goal means to you, you’re more likely to follow through.
All the research agrees. And even though “motivation” isn’t the best way to go about starting up a fitness habit, this is one of the few ways to actually increase your motivation.
With that big lesson hammered home, though, here are 3 other ways to set better fitness goals.
Goal Fix 1: Get Specific
The antidote to vague goals is…specific goals!
Specific goals help because they hold you accountable. They give you a sense that you’re working towards something (instead of spinning your wheels with no progress).
A specific goal also gives you a hint of the specific actions you need to take to achieve it.
You can make your goals more specific by:
- Attaching a number
- Giving yourself a deadline
If we take the four vague goals from earlier, how might you make them more specific?
- Lose weight → lose 10 pounds in 3 months
- Gain muscle → gain 1o pounds of muscle in 6 months, and get bigger arms
- Get abs → have noticeably improved core definition in 3 months
- Be healthy → decrease resting heart rate to under 70 bpm by the end of the year
When you get specific, you have to be careful about creating arbitrary goals. Choosing numbers out of thin air can sometimes lead to problems with achievability.
Also, as I’ve hinted, it’s important to consider outcome and process goals. I’ll say more about those in a moment.
Goal Fix 2: Screw Realism
You want to set goals that are achievable, right? Of course you do, and it’s worth spending some time thinking about how realistic your goal is.
At the same time, screw realism.
If you’re just starting out, you don’t really have the experience to tell what goals are realistic. And you won’t necessarily get that experience until you try and fail a few times.
Also, you may find that internal, damaging beliefs make it harder to set the goals you really want.
I’ve worked with people who claimed that they didn’t want to lose weight…until they actually started losing weight (by virtue of active living and healthier eating). At first, they were afraid to say that they wanted to be thin and fit. But once they saw that it was in fact possible, the floodgates were opened.
If you’ve ever thought something like “I could never look like that,” I’d urge you to put those thoughts aside.
Are they true? Are they not true? It probably depends on what “that” means. And where you’re starting.
What’s definitely true is that beliefs like that are self-limiting. And, more often than not, not really based on what is or isn’t actually possible. They’re based on the perception of what’s possible (which is easier to change).
Try to be as realistic as possible by sticking to evidence-backed goals and deadlines. But don’t overthink realism — and always acknowledge that goals are experiments. Tests of what is reasonable for you to achieve.
What does an evidence-backed goal mean?
It means the goal is based on something real. For example:
- Weight loss can typically happen at a rate of 1-2 lbs per week
- Muscle gain for untrained men happens at .25 to .5 lbs per week
- Muscle gain for untrained women happens at .125 to .25 lbs per week
That “something real” doesn’t always need to be a benchmark like these numbers either. It could just be your calendar. How many days a week will you work out? There you have a goal.
Goal Fix 3: Outcome vs Process Goals
Outcome goals are the goals that most people set. “Lose 10 pounds in 3 months” is an outcome goal.
Outcome goals are good because they help you appreciate what you’re ultimately working towards. But they’re also limited, because they don’t make sure that you’re actually taking action to reach those outcomes.
In addition to your outcome goals, set process goals.
Process goals are goals related to actually doing something. “Do 3, 45-minute workouts per week” is a process goal.
The benefit of process goals is that you can actually work on taking action—which ultimately is what will get you results.
The drawback of process goals is that you might not be taking action in the right direction for what you really want. That’s why it’s worth setting both outcome and process goals, and understanding the distinction.
Workout Goals You Can Set Right Now
There are two things you can do to start setting fitness goals.
- Write down three ways your life will be better if you achieve your exercise goal.
- Write down three challenges you’re likely to encounter (bonus points if you include ways to deal with them).
The more specific the better. “Be more confident” isn’t as good as “be more confident so that I can bring up my ideas at work meetings.” “I don’t have time” isn’t as good as “I’m tired after work and it feels like I have million things to do before I even think about working out.”
And if you want to learn more, check out these two:
- Why Do You Set Unrealistic Goals?
- Don’t Just Do It – A 5 Step Technique to Consistently Go to the Gym
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 Locke, E. A. (1996). Motivation through conscious goal setting. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 5, 117-124.
 Latham, G. P., Winters, D. C., & Locke, E. A. (1994). Cognitive and motivational effects of participation: A mediator study. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 15, 49-63.
 Oettingen, G., & Wadden, T. A. (1991). Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss: Is the impact of positive thinking always positive?. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15, 167-175.
 Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2002). The motivating function of thinking about the future: expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1198.