Doing any one thing in particular is unnecessary for your goals, no matter what they are. But doing something is necessary for progress.

  1. Find a direction.
  2. Figure out what steps will get you towards there.
  3. Re-evaluate monthly.
  4. Stay the course.
  5. Make every day a win.

Fitness is a bit of an amorphous target. It’s generic. Does it mean cardiovascular fitness? Weight loss? Relative strength? Absolute strength? Weight deadlifted? Flexibility measured? Workout done in x number of minutes?

Is your goal a fitness goal? Or are you just trying out a new training method?

Most people I work with — at least the “regular” people with day jobs — want to be more fit. It would always be nice to be skinnier, stronger, leaner, toner, healthier, smarter, more muscular, more patient, more even-keeled, less anxious, less depressed, less neurotic, less unstable.

But if you want these things, we have to talk about goal setting.

Are you working towards your goal?

The hardest part of being a coach is getting people to work towards a clear goal. If you want to be skinnier and more muscular and stronger, well, it’s possible, but you can’t have it all right now. I have to write a program that helps you lose weight. Then you have to eat to lose weight. Then we have to measure weight lost. Training and diet for muscle gain is a lot different.

Let’s say, though, that you’ve decided on a goal. Let’s say it’s weight loss (because that one is pretty common). What do you NEED to accomplish this goal?

  • Increase metabolic output through highly intensive exercise
  • Increase metabolic output through low intensity, long duration exercise
  • Increase metabolic output through non-exercise physical activity
  • Decrease caloric intake by eating less
  • Maintain muscle mass by keeping protein intake high
  • Maintain hormonal balance by sleeping 7+ hours a night, minimizing external life stress, and eating some healthy fats

Notice that the guidelines here are still pretty general: you just need a few different types of exercise. Some to preserve your muscle mass. Some just to help you burn some calories. Some to help you recover.

Notice what I didn’t say:

  • hot yoga
  • power yoga
  • postural yoga
  • CrossFit
  • PRI
  • FRC
  • PNF
  • FMS
  • SoulCycle
  • Peloton
  • Orange Theory
  • Virtual Training
  • squatting to depth
  • lifting without a heel lift
  • benching to the chest
  • dead hang pull ups
  • loaded ab work
  • shoulder ITY raises
  • band pullaparts
  • band-assisted pull ups
  • lunges with your knee to the ground
  • push ups with a full reach at the top

NONE of that is necessary. SOMETHING is necessary, but it doesn’t need to be anything specific.

Don’t be a hero

Hips hurt after you back squat ass to grass? Don’t squat deep. Maybe don’t squat at all? How bad does it make you feel?

Back hurts after deadlifting from the ground? Raise the bar a little higher. Or do a high handle trap bar deadlift. REDUCE the range of motion into a range of motion that is safe for you to work in.

Holding a new yoga pose? Maybe don’t crank your Achilles tendon off the bone. Or force your NECK motion until embolism.1 Or until vertebral artery dissection.2 Or bend your knees until you neutralize the common fibular nerve.3 Or tug so hard on that sciatic nerve.4

The PR board at your gym doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you get better by whatever standard you’re measuring.

Stay the course

One of my online training clients recently went through the wringer. After breaking up with the woman he loved, he spiraled downward. His pain came back. His lifts went down. His confidence in the gym plummeted. He had lost stability in his life. All he could see was unhappiness: a job he hated, a body that couldn’t work out, no meaningful social relationships, and a history of bad decision making. He was thinking about getting a dog to help him through all this.

Everything just felt like s***.

After he told me that his deadlifts, a movement his done for years, was feeling terrible… I drew up a graph that explains where he is in the space-time continuum.

Progress over time is not a linear process

You see, he’s come so far! But we, as humans, are notoriously bad at judging our progress. We can only see in the short-term. Last month he was feeling great. Now he’s back to where he started.

…but he’s actually NOT back to where he started. He’s come a long way.

One of the most underappreciated values of having a coach is having someone to remind you of this. It’s not something you want until you need it.

Now empowered by his progress, he was able to explain to himself what was happening. And he even draws the same graph for his patients that backslide. It’s not that it makes you better, but it puts things into perspective.

I bet you’re wondering how he’s doing now, huh? I’ll tell you at the end of this. We need to stay on topic.

Stay the course. What is your goal? Head in that direction. Not every day will be a PR. Not every day will make you feel like a superhero.

Even still, make everyday a win.

What makes a win?

One thing I worry about with strength clients is PR chasing. It’s easy to think you aren’t making progress if you setting records.

But too many people get caught up in testing their strength instead of building it.

But if PRs aren’t a good measure of progress, then what is? How should you think about training?

Well, to be clear, PRs can be a good measure of progress if you’re looking for more strength. But weekly PRs are unreasonable. You will not add 10lbs to your best lift every day for the rest of your training career. You will break down and plateau.

Instead, have a plan. What is your weakness? What are you working towards? What measure matters? If you’re looking to lose fat, maybe weight is a good measurement. Maybe it’s not and you need something more in depth, like a body composition measurement. Maybe you should only measure that once every three months.

I have clients who want to lose weight, but aren’t ready to make drastic changes in their diet. But if they don’t exercise yet, need that to get the body they ultimately want. So start there. As long as you make it in for your workout, the day is a win.

Then, if you eat an extra serving of vegetables every day, you win.

Then, if you do a little more exercise volume each week, you win.

Then, if you eat an extra serving of protein every day, you win.

And so on.

If you know the goal, the direction, you can then prioritize PROCESS GOALS. Our cognitive bias loves goals based on process and execution because we don’t need to focus on the future. We can act more impulsively and emotionally. We don’t need so much prefrontal cortex.

Setting your goals

Sit down with your coach and figure out what is a good long-term measure for you. Then outline what steps you need to take to get there. Make those sub-goals the ones you focus on today.

Stay the course for a month, then reevaluate objectively. Have you made progress? If not, why not? What can you do differently? If so, go you! Should you keep doing it? Or do you need to focus on something new now?

Where do all these training systems fit in?

Yoga may be able to help you with your goals, but you need to understand it’s utility. Don’t expect it to make your heart much healthier. But can it improve your mood? Totally.

Squatting to depth is necessary if you’re going to compete in powerlifting. Trying to gain muscle? Then it’s unnecessary. It can help, sure, but you don’t HAVE to do it.

SoulCycle may just the thing you need to help you lose weight. If you have a bunch of friends who do it, you probably love the classes. I’m not committed to their system, though, and just doing some intervals on the rower or going for a long walk is good enough for me.

How to make every day a win

  1. Grab your coach and come up with a plan that’s SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-sensitive.
  2. Write down all the sub-goals that will get you there.
  3. Focus on them immediately.
  4. Re-evaluate next month. Have you made progress? Ask your coach to help you determine what you need to change.

How’s my client doing?

You remember my client with all the life stress? He had been regressing rapidly, questioning the decisions he’d made and frustrated beyond belief.

Well, soon after I showed him that graph, he had an epiphany. Mulling over his recent misery, he decided to work things out with his girlfriend. After committing, his lifts, pain, and subjective well-being skyrocketed.

He’s doing great.

How’s that for a powerful illustration of how psychological stress can influence our bodies?

What is currently stressing you? Leave a comment below.

Corrigan GE. Fatal Air Embolism After Yoga Breathing Exercises. J. 1969;210(10):1923. doi:10.1001/jama.1969.03160360069025
Fong K, Cheung R, Yu Y, Lai C, Chang C. Basilar artery occlusion following yoga exercise: a case report. Clin Exp Neurol. 1993;30:104-109. [PubMed]
Chusid J. Yoga Foot Drop. J. 1971;217(6):827. doi:10.1001/jama.1971.03190060065025
Vogel CM, Albin R, Albers, MD, PhD JW. Lotus footdrop: Sciatic neuropathy in the thigh. N. 1991;41(4):605-605. doi:10.1212/wnl.41.4.605