Ask Charles Staley #13 – Goal Orientation
Someone recently asked me if I’d ever like to be able to bench press 500 pounds. I replied that, no, not really, because obviously, if I had really wanted a 500 pound bench, I would have taken the steps necessary to get it, which I obviously haven’t. Now of course, it might be the case that even if I applied maximum effort and resources to the goal of bench pressing 500 pounds, it might not be in the cards for me anyway. But my point is that self-actualized people make things happen, rather than hoping they will happen. (Incidentally, I’m also philosophically against playing the lottery, because it takes you away from making it happen and toward hoping it happens.).
Where Are You Going?
We all have desires, things we hope to achieve in life. The question is, what exactly do you want? And how badly do you want it? How serious are you really? Have you really considered what you’ll have to give up to get what you want?
Anatomy of a Goal
A goal is a written expression of intent to accomplish a specific, personally meaningful objective within a predetermined time-frame.
Based on this definition, I’d guess that fewer than 5% of all people have even a single goal at any one point in time. Sad, isn’t it? If you’re in the 95% club, this article will show you how to cross over. As a starting point, let’s examine the above definition point by point:
1. A goal must be stated in writing: If it isn’t written, it isn’t a goal. Period. It may be a wish, or a vague desire, or a fantasy, but it isn’t a goal, and you’re not likely to achieve it.
2. A goal must be specific and measurable: Your desire to become “as big as a house” isn’t a goal. It isn’t specific enough. We need to talk pounds at a certain bodyfat percentage, not real estate.
In order to be specific, your goal must be quantifiable. This is a very significant for bodybuilders, who’s sport is by definition qualitative and subjective.
Why Are You Going?
3. A goal must be personally meaningful: Your goal must be worthy of your unconditional resolve and personal sacrifice (defined as giving up something in order to gain something greater as a result) for the allotted time-frame, or you won’t bother to pursue it. It must have real value and undeniable potential to improve your life. The desire to get down to 7% bodyfat by May 1st so that you’ll look great at the beach this summer is specific, challenging, and has a completion date, but other than soothing your ego, what meaning does it really have?
Now of course, if this goal (getting down to 7% bodyfat by May 1st) is part of your long-range objective to become a champion bodybuilder or fitness competitor, we now have a more meaningful context for your objective, since your competitive aspirations will have rewards above and beyond ego-gratification, such as career possibilities, character development, and so on. Once you can see the complete range of benefits that accomplishing the goal has for you, you’ll be ready to commit enormous personal resources to achieve it. Now think back to your original motivation— looking great at the beach. Is this goal really worth the considerable time and effort that it’ll take to achieve? If so, proceed. If not, explore other goals which will significantly impact your life when you accomplish them.
Additionally, goals must be framed in such a way that they push your emotional “hot buttons.” For example, it may be that you have a goal to parallel squat 400 pounds by your 30th birthday which is in eleven months. Your current PR is 355. This is a specific, challenging, and presumably meaningful goal for you. However, step back for a second and consider which sounds more attractive: 400 pounds (a nice even number), or, 405 pounds, which is (4) 45 pound plates on each side of the bar. Or, if you happen to weigh 205 pounds, perhaps the concept of lifting 410— double your bodyweight— has the most appeal.
There is no right or wrong answer here— the point of the exercise is to see how slightly different ways of framing an objective can effect your emotional reserves. Which option seems most appealing to you?
4. A goal must be challenging: If your goal isn’t challenging, you’re not likely to mobilize significant resources to attain it. For example, using the previous example of the 400 pound squat, some would argue for a more “realistic” goal of 365 pounds. However, while certainly realistic, a 15 pound improvement in 11 months is hardly the stuff of dreams, is it? In fact, it’s such a small increment that you might be likely to forget about it before the day is over! Better to aim for the stars and fall on the mountain peaks, as they say.
How Long Will it Take?
5. A goal must have a specific date of completion: Time-frames are what create pressure to get the job done. Your time frame must be aggressive, but realistic. If you’re not sure if your goal can be accomplished within a certain time frame, you’ll have to either base your time-frame on personal past experience, or you may have to do a bit of intelligence work in order to find out. If you like, send your proposed goal and time frame to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll render my opinion in my column, Staley on Strength. Make sure to include all relevant details such as gender, age, health/injury status, and years of training experience.
6. Your goal must be stated in the positive: Remember the old story where the football coach says to his star receiver “Whatever you do, don’t drop the ball!”? Guess what he ended up doing? You can’t plan to not accomplish something.
A Few Essential Items to Pack for the Trip
The following collection of strategies and skills are like a psychological “toolbox” which will properly arm you while in pursuit of your objectives.These tools are found in the blueprints of all champions, not only in sport, but in life as well.
Visualization and Imagery: If you can’t genuinely picture yourself achieving your goal, it’s very unlikely, probably impossible that you will achieve it. The old, overused, cliche axiom “conceive, believe, achieve” is packed with truth. Let me relate a story from my martial arts background. When I taught martial arts professionally, I always had very successful kid’s classes. Occasionally, during a quiet moment either before or after class, or simply when the moment seemed right, I would take a kid from a beginner’s class, and I’d remove my black belt and tie it around his waist. Words simply cannot express the wonder and complete change of “state” that would instantly overcome that child— you could literally see the gears turning as that child imagined what it would be like the day he achieved the rank in the future.
You know the old expression “I’ll believe it when I see it”? Long before I ever squatted 400 pounds, I saw it clearly in my mind. I actually practiced by loading the bar on the power rack and just pondering the day when that bar would be mine. I’d even perform “walk outs” with the weight in preparation for the big day. I also frequently used Olympic bumper plates, which are much thicker than iron plates for their weight— using bumpers, a bar loaded to 176 pounds occupies about the same space as 405 pounds of iron plates. This way, I was really able to see myself squatting 405. Funny thing was, the day I actually lifted 405, it wasn’t particularly a big deal for me— I’d felt as though I’d already done it, and this was simply the physical expression of a capability I already knew I had. The moral of this story is, I could give you 50 ways of becoming more successful, but if I could remove your self-doubt, those 50 things would improve all on their own!
Affirmations: An affirmation is a statement of belief. It can be regularly recited, or written and posted at a place that you’re likely to see it often during the course of a normal day. The concept of affirmations is to overload your psyche with positive belief statements until there is no longer any room for preexisting negative self-perceptions— much like taking a jar filled with water (which represents old, limiting beliefs), and filling it with pebbles (representing the positive affirmations) until all the water has been forced out of the container.
Although the concept of affirmations is often the butt of late night TV humor (e.g., Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley), in truth, they are very powerful tools for the acquisition of goals. The mind is immensely powerful— if you can control it, that is. Ever notice how women will tell you that they gained too much muscle after 2-3 weight training sessions? Or have you ever heard lifters (usually guys) extol the virtues of XYZ supplement, even though science has proven it completely useless? This is the power of belief, my friends. If you can harness that power to a well-designed plan, the battle is already half-won.
- “Because I expect to succeed, I find it easy to take daily action on achieving my goal.”
- “I am responsible for my own future. I expect to succeed. I control my own destiny.”
- “I dream big dreams, believe in them, set goals to achieve them, and take action to make them become reality.”
Create your own affirmations to support your goal, as well as the habits and attitudes necessary for achieving your goal. Write them on note cards and choose a consistent time to read them at least once a day.
Modeling: A very useful concept, popularized by Anthony Robbins (if your only exposure to Robbins are his info-mercials, don’t rush to judgment— his concepts and teachings have very real merit), implements what I call the “don’t reinvent the wheel” principle: find other people, similar to yourself, who have accomplished similar goals. Then, find out what they did to accomplish the task(s), and repeat those steps. Since all humans share essentially the same biology and physiology, you should get the same result, or at least very similar results.
For example, if your hectic, 6 day a week work schedule is a severe obstacle to accomplishing your goal, find a talented lifter who has succeeded with a similar schedule. Find out how he managed to do this, and then implement the same strategy. Chances are very strong that it’ll work for you as well.
Cognitive dissonance: The mind can’t maintain two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. When you’re trying to extinguish a negative or limiting thought process, or emotion, cognitive dissonance can be your best friend. Let me provide an example from my competitive fighting career: When you step into the ring with a skilled opponent your own size or bigger, and you don’t have Don King on your side, it’s natural to be afraid. After all, you can get hurt doing this stuff! While fear is not entirely a bad thing (it’s a self-protective mechanism), it does tend to make you doubt your abilities, and your skills erode accordingly. Over my own fighting career, I learned little trick that helped me enormously: I learned to act. I would put on an air of total disregard, joking with my opponent, yawning, goofing off, and so on. It’s called “acting as if…” What I learned is that you can’t be scared and act like you’re bored simultaneously— something has to give. Incidentally, this can also be called the “fake it ‘till you make it” principle.
How does one apply this principle toward the acquisition of challenging goals? Going back to my personal experience with the 405 pound squat, I remember that I thought, acted, and presented myself as a 400 pound squatter long before I could actually do it. I would look for any and every opportunity to demonstrate this, for example, squatting 315 completely cold (i.e., no warm-up) when someone asked me to demonstrate something about the lift. Although inwardly, it was quite a challenge for me to squat this weight cold, outwardly I’d act completely nonchalant about it, talking through the lift and acting as if I could squat that weight all day long. The idea behind all of this is that I was gradually convincing my unconscious self that I was a 400 pound squatter. With a bit of creativity and imagination, you’ll come up with various ways to employ the “fake it ‘till ‘ya make it” principle in your own training. And if it’s not obvious by now, yes, it IS dangerous to squat big weights without a warm-up.
Avoiding Collisions Along the Way
Although it will seem tempting, don’t automatically express your goal to everyone you come in contact with. You need to consider the likely responses you’ll get, and how you’ll react to those responses. For example, if you thrive on proving people wrong, then it might be a good idea to express your ambitious goal to your friends and peers who are most likely to doubt your abilities. On the other hand, if you’re somewhat dependent on more positive forms of feedback, avoid such people in favor of those who will be supportive of your project.
Let’s face it— if you are in the process of pursuing challenging goals, the “common herd” will view you as a freak. If this sort of antagonism really drives you, express your goals to everyone you know, and get ready to surf the wave of negativity all the way to your completion dates! On the other hand, if you think you’ll be a bit intimidated and depressed by having everyone you know doubt your abilities, it’s better to keep your plans to yourself.
Fear of Failure
Probably the number one reason that few people establish goals for themselves is the fear that failing to succeed will bring unbearable negative consequences. These people postulate (usually in an unconscious way) that if they never set a goal, they can never fail. These people also fail to realize that the flip side of this pattern is that they will also not succeed!
If fear of failure seems to be a reality for you, consider that even if you fail to realize your goal, it’s still likely that you have improved to a measurable degree along the way. For example, maybe you set a goal to enter and place in a local bodybuilding show. It turned out that you came in dead last and felt terribly embarrassed. But consider what really matters— did you significantly improve you physique in the process of pursuing the goal? If so, you efforts were totally worthwhile. In general, “process oriented” people tend to be more effective than “results oriented” creatures. Develop the habit!
Are We Still on the Right Road?
Monitoring Status and Adjusting for Errors
Once you’ve created your plan, you need to have a reliable way of assessing whether or not it’s working. This involves testing quantifiable outcomes on predetermined dates, and then implementing changes if these tests fail to reveal appreciable progress. When implementing these changes, it is critical to change only one element at a time, while holding all other variables constant. A pseudo-placebo effect often ensues when an athlete starts taking an expensive new supplement, and, in an effort to maximize his gains, also starts to eat better and train harder as well. Then, when results do indeed surface, the supplement gets the credit when in fact, it may have had insignificant impact on the results.
Record keeping is a critical factor in the success of athletes. I keep precise records on all my athletes, as well as for myself. Accurate records not only tell you what’s working, but also what has, and has not worked in the past. To me, failure to keep records is like failing to record transactions in your checkbook. Sounds crazy, right?
Never Been Here Before!
PR’s: Your Own World Records
In the realm of sport, nothing compares to those rare moments when existing World records are broken. Only the rarest of human beings can do it, and even then, only rarely. Personally, I never considered it relevant as to whether or not I could ever break a World record (fortunately, it turns out!). What really matters is this: can you exceed your lifetime best performance? If you can, you’re making progress, and getting ever closer to your ultimate destination, whatever that happens to be.
In any given training session, there are several ways you can exceed your all-time best performance. You can increase the volume, intensity, and/or density of the workout, holding the exercise menu and session duration constant. You can also break your RM record for any given lift. Or, you can equal or beat any of the above at a lighter bodyweight— an indicator of relative strength. Let’s look at a sample workout I did on New Year’s Day 1999 to illustrate (please seeto view the tracking data):
During a 90 minute session consisting of dumbbell bench presses performed on a Swiss ball, dips, and barbell preacher curls, my total volume was 18,400 pounds. My average resistance was 160 pounds, and my training density (work/rest ratio) was 30%. During this workout, my RM records were:
Ball DB Bench Press: 110’s x5
Dips: Bodyweight plus a 45 pound plate x5
Preacher Curls: 80×5.
Using the data above, it becomes clear that I have numerous ways that I can exceed the 1/1/99 performance:
- Generate the same or greater data but in a shorter period of time and/or at a lighter bodyweight.
- Increase average resistance used (by using heavier weights) without increasing the session duration.
- Increase volume without reducing average resistance or increasing duration.
- Break any of the 5RM records for any or all of the 3 exercises performed.
Although I can continue with increasingly more creative ways to break your best performances, I think the point has been made. However, I hope it has occurred to you that you can’t break your PR’s if you don’t know exactly what they are. And if you don’t document your training, you’re not likely to remember this information. If you’ve never documented your training, start now. Right now.
You’ve Arrived at Your Destination! Now What?
Maybe the scariest aspect of goal orientation is the moment when you achieve your goal. What’s the next step?
My suggestion is that you document your success— use your training log or tracking software if you use such tools. This act enables you to review your goal from inception to completion. It also fosters belief in your own abilities, especially as you accomplish more goals. Why do you think it’s so universal that kindergarten kids receive “stars” or similar tokens as testament to their accomplishments? Why do you think Weight Watchers awards 10, 20, 30-pound (and so on) ribbons to members when they lose the corresponding amount of weight? The answer is simple— to provide a visual reminder of the accomplishment. You should do the same, as silly as it may sound.
If you goal was designed to be a quantitative measure of a qualitative objective, did the fact that you accomplished the goal fulfill the objective? For example, if your objective was to increase the size of your quads and hamstrings (qualitative), and you established a goal to increase your back squat by 50 pounds in six months (a quantitative goal), did the gain in your squat performance correlate with significant leg mass? If not, was accomplishing the goal worthwhile anyway, for other reasons? If the answer to either or both of the above is “yes,” you now have solid information to base further goal-setting on.
Goal orientation is truly an autotellic activity— in other words, it has intrinsic value above and beyond the expected outcome. History shows that individuals facing specific challenges which must be solved within a specific time frame are able to mobilize seemingly impossible resources to achieve their objective. Conversely, individuals who rarely face such challenges never reach even a small percentage of their true potential.
Just like muscle, goal-orientation responds to training— the more you do it, the stronger it gets. The more difficult the challenge, the more you’ll learn how to “raise the bar” and set new standards for yourself. If you still find yourself thinking “Jeesh— this seems really involved and complicated!”, consider the following question: Will you be more successful as a goal-oriented athlete, or an athlete with no goals? I’ll let you be the judge.