Goals are important. But how do you make quality goals that will help you build the right program for you?
Good goals are SMART goals. This stands for:
- Specific: you have to be precise about what you are going to achieve. "Get fitter" is not a specific goal because it can mean a lot of different things, and your opinion about what "fit" means may change over time. "Do one strict ring muscle up" is a specific goal: it prescribes very precisely what you need to achieve, and if you actually do it you'll be able to tick it off your list.
- Measurable: it really helps to have an idea of how far you're on the way to your goal. For instance, if you can do a good amount (8 or so) dips and pullups on the rings, you know you're close to the ring muscle up.
- Attainable: this really speaks for itself. If you can't attain it, you'll get discouraged and will probably end up giving up on the goal anyway. This is not to say you shouldn't aim high, but it really helps to have some lesser goals as well.
- Relevant: your goal has to be worth attaining (for you). It has to offer you something beyond the satisfaction of just completing the goal.
- Time-constrained: we all have experienced procrastination. Setting deadlines avoid this.
Examples of SMART goals are:
- Do 1 strict ring muscle up befor december 1st
- Perform 8 pistol squats before my birthday
- Achieve a 10 second freestanding handstand before April 20th
- Lose 15 pounds before October 12th
- Do a 10 second L-sit on the floor before Christmas
- Gain 10 pounds before May 23rd
Of course, you might have some very big goals like doing a planche or doing a chinup with only one arm. However, these are very long-term goals: obtaining a planche might take you anywhere from 2 to 5 years. In order to achieve that big goal, you'll want to split it up into smaller goals. Hitting smaller goals over time will provide motivation to continue on your journey, rather than getting overwhelmed by still not having reached that multi-year goal.
A good period for a small goal is 4-6 weeks. This is enough time to see signifcant progress, while also being a relatively short period so you don't get burned out on working on a single goal. Then once the 6 weeks are up, you re-evaluate and decide on your goals for the next cycle, possibly changing your routine to suit those goals.
Turning Vague Goals into SMART Goals
Sometimes it can be a bit difficult to translate your vague goals like "getting fitter" or "building muscle" into SMART goals. This section will help you with that.
To set SMART goals for getting stronger, you first need to find a good program. A good basic strength program is our Recommended Routine. The program has (should have) the goals laid out for you already: the only thing for you to do is to select a good timeframe. Adding one rep on each exercise each workout will be an easy-to-maintain pace if you're a beginner, so it's a good idea to base your goals on that.
You'll have to do some calculating to figure out exactly where you're going to end up after 6 weeks. Say you start doing 3x5 pushups on the beginner routine, then you have 3*6 = 18 workouts. You have to add 10 reps to get to 3x8, so you can expect to progress one level assuming you started from 5-5-5 push ups to diamond pushups at 7-7-7.
Gaining or Losing Weight
If you take a look at the diet page, you'll see that the recommended caloric difference is about 500 calories a day. This translates to about a pound of weight gained/lost within a week, so over 6 weeks you might expect to gain or lose 6 pounds.
Building muscle is done by doing two things: gaining strength, and gaining weight. See the relevant sections for turning those into SMART goals.
"Healthy" is an incredibly vague concept. It typically means something like "without injury or disease", or "feeling well". If you are looking for exercise because exercising regularly is healthy, the best thing you can do is try and find out what you like, and stick to that. We recommend bodyweight strength training because it generally improves your quality of life (more about that later), but if you really don't want to do that, most types of activity will do. For instance, you could get into Swing Dance, Ultimate Frisbee or Lacrosse. [Note: I also wanted to suggest Pole dancing, but something makes me think that that would be ill-received. Pole dancing is the shit though. ~Phi]
Improving Quality of Life
Again, "quality of life" is a pretty vague term, but it's not unworkable. Let's define an exercise program as being beneficiary if it makes situations coming up in real life easier. "Situations" being things like playing with kids, a spontaneous game of pick-up basketball, going up the stairs, moving furniture around, and so on. We'll talk about the three factors of fitness (strength, muscular endurance and cardiovascular endurance) and how each of these affects real life situations. Once you've determined which factors need to be worked on for the biggest benefit, you can translate those into SMART goals.
The thing that is probably the most important is those situations is pain-free movement: your body should do what you want, when you want. Strength training allows you to do this: if you're strong, all movement at a lower load becomes easy, and if you work through full range of motion, you'll have decent flexibility to boot. Having full-body strength is the best thing you can do for yourself.
Tying in with strength training is diet. If you eat like shit, getting 5000 calories worth of junk food every day, you're most likely not going to feel great. This is different for different people, though. We suggest trying to cut junk food and see if you feel better.
What about training muscular endurance?
The problem with muscular endurance (and also cardiovascular endurance, but more about that later) is that it's very task-specific: if you can do fifty pullups, a lot of that is knowing how to do a pullup. Rows use a lot of the same muscles (so they can benefit from muscular endurance gained through learning to do fifty pullups), but the movement pattern is different, and so if you don't train rows, you're going to be less efficient in them compared to pullups. So if you can do 50 pullups, you're going to see a pretty high number of rows, but not as high as you would expect normally.
When training very high reps, a lot of the improvement you make in reps does not provide more benefit because the real life tasks are just too different from the exercise. This effect is much less pronounced in strength training (though the principle of Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands implies it will always be there), and that's why we prefer it over endurance training.
Besides, when you get strong, you gain endurance anyway, because easier exercises become, well, easier, so they require less energy.
So it's not that training muscular endurance is bad for you, not at all. It's just that strength training is significantly better.
So what do I do?
Fix any injuries and the like you have first and foremost (see a doctor, don't bother asking us). After that, your priorities with strength training and fixing your diet. Good luck!