SMART Goal Setting: How to Set Fitness Goals for Women and Men
Setting goals is a behavioral philosophy that dates back to ancient Greek civilizations. Aristotle and Plato believed "purpose can incite action," which is an undeniable truth about what drives humans to achieve new heights (1). However, goal setting is most effective when it's done in a "SMART" fashion.
So, what are SMART goals? Why is goal setting important for fitness?
This article will detail all you need to know about SMART goal setting and provide actionable tips to help you see your fitness resolutions through to the finish. (SMART goals examples are included!)
What Are SMART Goals?
The term "SMART" in SMART goals is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant/realistic, and time-bound (more on what these mean later).
The concept of SMART goals dates back to the mid-1900s and stems from managerial practices in the workplace (2).
Nowadays, SMART goal setting is encouraged in many facets of life, especially when setting personal goals like improving your health and fitness. But what makes SMART goals any different than something like a New Year's resolution to lose weight and get in shape?
Why New Year's Fitness Resolutions Rarely Pan Out
When holiday gluttony spills over into the waistline, many people frantically plan out how they will start hitting the gym and watching what they eat come January 1st.
A sizable proportion of these folks are quick to hop on the fad diet bandwagon while they are at it, which is problematic for a number of reasons. However, there are some finer points to take into consideration before you raid your pantry and toss out all the starchy carbs you can find.
Truth be told, about 1 in every 2 people that set a New Year's resolution never achieve their goal (3). In fact, most people give up on their New Year's resolution within four weeks!
Well, it's likely that these individuals are not setting goals that are realistic. Frankly, everyone wants instant results, especially in the context of health and fitness goals. Unfortunately, that's not how losing weight, building muscle, and getting stronger work.
When you set a fitness goal to lose 50 lbs in three months, you are setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. It's important to set realistic goals and be honest with yourself. If you want to lose 50 lbs, it might take upwards of a year, but this shouldn't discourage you!
It's completely irrational to not do anything at all when making small progress, consistently, over time is the true path to success. Just think, if you lose 3-4 lbs a month for the next six months, that's upwards of 24 lbs; in a year, nearly 50 lbs!
Focus on the long-term. Even if the short-term results seem inconsequential, they will inevitably add up to something significant.
Ask yourself this: Where will I be in a year If do nothing to achieve my weight loss goal?
The answer: You'll be right where you are now. The same weight. No different. Maybe even heavier.
Steps to SMART Goal Setting for Fitness
SMART goal setting starts with you answering the following questions:
Specific: What exactly will you accomplish?
Measurable: How will you know when you have reached your goal?
Attainable: Is achieving this goal realistic with diligent effort and commitment? Do you have the resources and capacity to make it a reality?
Relevant: Why is this goal significant to your life? How will it improve your well-being?
Time-bound: When will you achieve this goal?
Before moving forward, it's essential that we clear up a common misconception many gym-goers have when goal setting for fitness, especially if they are just starting out on a new weight-loss diet.
Losing weight for the sake of seeing the number on your bathroom scale drop should almost never be your fitness goal. Rather, your aim should be to improve your body composition, which is a completely different task than just "losing weight."
Quality matters when "cutting down" and "bulking up." Quantity is a secondary measure.
Your body composition is a qualitative and quantitative measure that tells you how lean you are; it's a measure of your body fat relative to your lean mass (such as muscle tissue). When you rely on nothing but the bathroom scale and how much you weigh, you have no qualitative measure of progress, just a quantitative one.
The Pitfall of Fitness Goals to Lose Weight
Sure, it's nice to see that you weigh less if your fitness goal is to slim down for the summer, but losing all your muscle is not ideal as this can actually make your body fat percentage go up.
For instance, if John/Jane Doe is 30% body fat and loses 10 lbs in two weeks, they might presume this is great progress. But what if more than 70% of the weight lost was muscle tissue?
Well, they just got fatter!
Therefore, if your fitness goal is to lose weight, you should care most about maximizing fat burning and minimizing muscle tissue breakdown. For bulking up, you want to build muscle and limit fat gain.
Avoid the trap of setting fitness goals that rely on weight loss (or weight gain) as a measure of progress. It’s wiser to concentrate on improving your body composition.
In a perfect world, you would be able to simultaneously maximize muscle building and fat burning.
Sadly, doing so is impractical and theoretically impossible at any given moment due to the immutable laws of thermodynamics. However, don't misconstrue this to mean you can't improve your body fat percentage and muscle mass (i.e., your body composition).
SMART Goals Examples for Fitness
Now that you know how not to outline your goals, let's take a look at some pertinent SMART goals examples for fitness:
SMART Goals Examples: Losing Weight
Want to lose the love handles and get in shape? Here's how you might approach SMART fitness goals pertaining to weight loss:
Specific: I will lose 20 lbs, at least 5% body fat, and reduce my waist circumference by 3 or more inches.
Measurable: I will assess my progress with daily weigh-ins in the mornings, monthly DEXA scans to measure body composition, and bi-weekly progress pictures with waist measurements.
Attainable: I'm confident I can achieve this goal with a proper weight-loss diet and exercise routine. Just as important, I will be able to sustain my results once I reach my desired body weight.
Relevant: Losing weight, cutting body fat, and slimming my waist will make me feel more confident in everyday life. I'd like to be able to fit into the same pants I wore several years ago.
Time-bound: I will achieve my goal within the next 12 weeks; this gives me enough time to lose weight while not sacrificing lean muscle mass or having to severely restrict food intake.
SMART Goals Examples: Building Muscle
Trying to pack on muscle before your next bodybuilding show? There are SMART fitness goals for that, too:
Specific: I will build 10 lbs of muscle this offseason, mainly targeting my quads and biceps, without letting my body fat percentage get above 15% (currently 12% body fat).I would like to add at least one inch to my arm circumference and one inch to my thighs.
Measurable: I will assess my progress with daily weigh-ins in the mornings, monthly skinfold measures to check body fat, and bi-weekly progress pictures with leg and arm circumference measures.
Attainable: Given my success with adding 15 lbs of muscle last offseason, I'm confident I can achieve this goal if I'm consistent with my workout routine and nutrition plan.
Relevant: Adding lean muscle mass, especially in my legs and upper arms, will make my physique more proportional for upcoming bodybuilding contests.
Time-bound: I will achieve my goal within the 16 weeks, before I start prepping for my next bodybuilding show.
SMART Goals Examples: Increasing Athletic Performance
Looking to run faster or squat more weight? Here's a SMART fitness goal example to guide your ambitions:
Specific: I will add 25 lbs to my barbell back squat one-rep maximum (1RM) and 15 lbs to my flat barbell bench press 1RM.
Measurable: I will test my 1RM on barbell back squats and the flat barbell bench press every other Monday to ensure I'm getting stronger.
Attainable: I will achieve this by following a full-body strength-training program that has me benching and squatting three times per week. I will also eat a protein-rich diet and take a creatine monohydrate supplement daily to support recovery and athletic performance.
Relevant: Increasing my lower body and upper body strength will help me be a better athlete in the upcoming football season.
Time-bound: I will reach my strength goals within the next eight weeks, before football practices start.
SMART Goals Examples: Improving Health and Wellness
Here's a SMART goal example if you just want to develop healthy habits to improve your wellness:
Specific: I will eat 5 to 6 servings of fresh green veggies and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight every day.
Measurable: I will keep track of my food intake by using a food-logging app, like MyFitnessPal.
Attainable: I can achieve this goal by various high-protein recipes and eating 1 to 2 servings of green veggies with every meal.
Relevant: This will help me lead a healthier lifestyle and allow me to cut back on junk foods.
Time-bound: I will achieve my goal within two weeks, and maintain it indefinitely thereafter.
Tracking Progress: Take Before Photos and Measurement
If your goal is to lose weight, you mainly want to burn body fat, not muscle tissue (lean body mass). Seeing the number on the scale go down is certainly encouraging, but it’s not substantive without a qualitative measure. Hence, taking before photos (front, side, and back) is imperative. Follow up pictures should be taken either weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly to ensure you’re making the right kind of progress.
Tips for Taking Progress Pictures
Progress pictures are a qualitative measure that serve a crucial role in many fitness goals. You won't regret it down the road when you can compare photos and see how far you have come.
Here some tips to follow when taking progress pictures:
- Wear something small - For females, a sports bra and underwear/shorts is sensible. For males, boxer briefs or compression shorts should do just fine. It's important that you show as much of the body as possible (without revealing a bit too much "below the equator.")
- Be consistent - What you wear, your stance/pose, surroundings/location, and lighting all play a major role in how you look when taking photos. Try to keep all of these variables consistent every time you take a new set of progress pictures.
- Use a well-lit area - Taking progress pictures in part of your home that is poorly lit will make it hard to see your results. Find a suitable location and make sure the lighting is bright enough and evenly distributed; use this same spot in EVERY photo you take. Generally, the more natural daylight a space gets, the better it is for pictures.
- Include front, back, and side pictures - There are 3 to 4 angles necessary for progress pictures: front, back, and one (or both) sides. Make sure you are standing directly in front of the camera lens, using the same height and distance for each round of progress pictures (it might help to put a piece of tape on the floor to mark where you should stand).
- Ideally, get a tripod and use the self-timer function on your phone or camera, or have someone else take the photos for you. Selfies and mirror photos should be an absolute last resort.
How to Weigh-In Properly
Your body weight will fluctuate on a daily basis due to many factors that are not related to actual changes in body composition (e.g., hydration status, bowel regularity, hormonal changes). To offset these daily fluctuations, it's prudent to weigh yourself every day and calculate your average weight at the end of the week.
Ideally, take your weight in the mornings, before eating and after using the bathroom. It’s important to measure your body weight at the same time and under the same conditions every day.
You can download an app like Happy Scale to do this for you, or you can use a spreadsheet if you’re a fan of crunching numbers. Here’s an example of how this might look:
Week 1 Weigh-Ins (in lbs)
Week 2 Weigh-Ins (in lbs)
Average (in lbs):
Notice how this person’s body weight fluctuates every day; some days it goes up, some days it goes down. Yet, it consistently goes down - on average - by the end of the week. Therefore, weighing-in daily and taking the weekly average gives you a more accurate depiction of your progress.
“How fast can I lose weight?”
A realistic goal for most people is to lose up to 2 lbs per week on a proper calorie-controlled diet. Remember, the goal should be to maintain as much lean body mass as possible (i.e., you want to lose body fat, not muscle). The more weight you lose weekly, the greater the risk that you lose precious muscle tissue (which can negatively impact body composition).
Also keep in mind that the leaner you get, the less you will have to eat to keep losing body fat. To get extremely lean (i.e., under 8% body fat), you will inevitably face periods of hunger. In such cases, eating a lot of green veggies, fiber, and using a thermogenic supplement is highly recommended.
"How long does it take to build muscle?"
Assuming you follow a proper diet and training program, you can expect to gain about 0.25 to 0.5 lb of muscle per week while minimizing fat gain. If you put on 2 to 3 lbs in a week, chances are a good chunk of it was body fat. Sure, you’re “bulking up,” just not in the best way.
Some exceptions are newbies who haven't lifted before and inveterate gym-goers who have been training consistently for many years. "Newbie gains" is a phenomenon where people who haven't trained with weights in the past put on muscle rapidly once they start a lifting routine, often upwards of 15 to 20 lbs in a matter of months.
As you become more experienced and inch closer yo your "genetic potential" for lean body mass, it becomes increasingly hard to build muscle tissue. Hence, veteran bodybuilders may struggle to add even 2 to 3 lbs of muscle over the course of a year despite diligent training and adequate nutrition.
7 Steps to Accomplish Your SMART Fitness Goals
Having a general idea of where you want to go is a good start, but even more important is laying the foundation for how you will get there.
With that in mind, here are six tips to help you achieve your SMART fitness goals:
Be Practical About Your Fitness Goals
It's rather common for people to say their goal is to lose 40 lbs of fat in two months. Let's be honest, that's not going to happen (at least not in a healthy fashion). While it's great to shoot for the stars, SMART fitness goals need to be something you can actually achieve. In other words, you need to be realistic when you set your goals.
It's more reasonable to set an objective to lose 60 lbs in say 6 months on keto and succeed instead of expecting to lose all that weight in 10 weeks and missing the mark.
Have an Action Plan
This stage is typically where individuals waver and fall prey to paralysis by analysis. To paraphrase George Patton, you’re better off acting on an imperfect plan today than executing a perfect plan months from now.
Don’t sit around and search for some "miracle weight-loss protocol" deep in the bowels of the Internet. You're wasting your time because it doesn't exist.
A keto diet, for example, can certainly be a great tool for weight loss, but you should be wary of the highfalutin claims people make about it. Just like any other weight-loss diet, keto works by controlling your energy balance.
You also need to be realistic about the long-term sustainability of extreme diets like keto and paleo. Will it work with your lifestyle to eschew carbohydrates indefinitely? Do you think you can handle it mentally? Is it something you think you would actually enjoy?
If you can't honestly answer those questions with a resounding "Yes!", then it behooves you to use a more practical approach (i.e., a balanced, calorie-controlled diet).
After all, the journey to reaching your fitness goals is something you should relish, not loathe.
Keep a Workout & Diet Log
Tracking your food intake and logging your workouts is imperative for keeping you on track towards your fitness goals. It shouldn't need much explanation, but having a record of what you eat and how you perform in the gym ensures that you're making steps in the right direction, and it can also help you identify things that you might need to adjust along the way.
Short-Term Successes Bring Long-Term Results
A New Year’s fitness resolution is usually quite ambitious, such as losing 50+ lbs by the end of the year. However, you can't climb the mountain in one day.
Focus on your immediate short-term fitness goals and use them as stepping stones to your ultimate goal. For example, if you want to lose 30 lbs in the next six months, then your short-term goal should be to lose 1 to 2 lbs this week.
It might help to reverse engineer the path to your long-term fitness goals by creating milestones that lead to your destination (kind of like a road map).
While humility is a noble character trait, it’s okay to pat yourself on the back from time to time. Don’t hesitate to treat yourself to something you’ve been looking forward to whenever you reach a new milestone on your journey.
It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant, just keep it simple - like a new gym t-shirt or a pre-workout supplement you want to try. Doing this will keep you motivated to reach the next stepping stone.
However, don’t “reward yourself” by binging on food or having a weekly “cheat day"; it's not a sustainable pattern in the long run, nor is it a healthy mindset.
Surround Yourself With a Supporting Cast
Selflessness is something fitness and bodybuilding subculture desperately needs more of these days. When you see an athlete or gym-goer with the body of your dreams, it shouldn't make you envious; it should inspire you!
Naturally, you’ll have to be a little selfish if your goal is to improve your physique and be healthier. However, this doesn't mean that you need to isolate yourself.
Make an effort to connect with other enthusiasts who share similar fitness goals (social media makes this exceptionally simple nowadays). This can help keep you accountable. Even better, you can support them in their journey as well. Seeing others achieve their goals will drive you to do the same.
Prepare for Setbacks
Resiliency is a crucial attribute for seeing your SMART fitness goals through to the end. Adversity and setbacks will arise during your journey, but don't worry - these are transient and won’t ruin your success...if you don't let them!
It's okay to slip up from time to time, but quitting altogether because of short-term setbacks is not. For example, if you injure a joint or strain a muscle, do not use it as an excuse to give up on your long-term fitness goals. Persistence is key: You can overcome injuries and bounce back better than before.
Set Your Goals and Take Action!
If you want to succeed, you need to be consistent and master the basics, which means being diligent with your diet and exercise regimen above all else. Follow the seven steps mentioned above so you can finally turn your fitness goals into a reality. Eventually, the seemingly small accomplishments you make on a day-to-day basis will take you to your ultimate goal.
Once your nutrition and workout routine are on-point, using a high-quality supplement stack can help you reach your SMART fitness goals.
And on the off chance that you already set a New Year's resolution this past January and have stuck with it, kudos to you! If not, that's certainly understandable, but you shouldn't let it stop you from setting a new SMART fitness goal, right now!
After all, you don't have to wait until January 1st to set your goals. The sooner you start, the better!