How to define your fitness goals

What are your fitness goals?

Whenever you join a gym or speak with a personal trainer, this is usually the first question they’ll ask you, but the answer isn’t obvious to everybody. Other than a general sense that getting fit is a good thing to do, does anybody really consider what they’re actually trying to achieve by working out?

On one level it doesn’t really matter, just getting started with any kind of fitness activity is a good first step. Jut pick something you enjoy and keep at it – you’ll start to look and feel better in a month or two.

But it’s always good to have a plan, and if you think a little about your real motivations for working out then it will be easier to achieve what you want.

If we’re honest, the main reason most people think about getting fit is simply that they want to look better – but this could mean different things for different people. Maybe you’re overweight and want to be skinny, or maybe you’re too skinny and want to look more athletic.

How to look more athletic and build muscle

So, first of all, if you’re skinny and want to look more athletic then you need to build muscle. This doesn’t necessarily mean getting completely jacked or overly muscular (and that would take years of commitment and hard training) but just working the muscles so that they clearly visible and well defined.

To achieve this you’re going to need to do a weightlifting program. This means focusing on lifting heavier and heavier weights at between 5 and 10 repetitions per set for each exercise. If you’re able to perform more than 10 or 12 repetitions of any exercise, then the weights probably aren’t heavy enough to help you build muscle. It’s all about lifting increasingly heavy weights.

For a beginner, you can easily do this in three one-hour training sessions per week, and expect to see results within a month or two. I highly recommend a 5×5 training program like Stronglifts (it’s free – everything you need to know is in the linked blog post).

To do a program like Stronglifts at home you will need a barbell, some weights, a bench and some kind of rack that can hold the barbell at different heights (for squats and bench-pressing) like this one.

For any fitness goal, diet is really, really important. To gain muscle you need to eat a lot – your body will need extra protein (the stuff muscle is made of) and energy in the form of carbohydrates (bread, pasta, etc). This is where a lot of people go wrong, they eat protein but neglect the carbs because they’re worried about getting fat. The bottom line is that it’s very hard to build muscle without putting on some body fat at the same time. Strong Lifts has some great practical advice on how to eat for muscle-gain.

If you reach a point where you have too much fat, then you can switch to a weight-loss routine, which will strip away the fat so that your underlying muscles will be more visible.

Programs like Stronglifts are primarily designed to increase your physical strength, and for a novice that will also produce some pretty impressive muscle-size increases all over your body. After a while (six months to a year for many people) you might want to switch to a body building program (designed specifically to improve aesthetics of your muscles, rather than your strength), or continue getting stronger with a more advanced strength training program. But that’s advanced stuff, not for this article.

Getting skinny by losing body fat

Real talk time. If you want to lose body fat, the most important thing you need to do is control your diet. There are lots of different approaches to dieting, and I’m not a nutrition expert, but try to avoid fads and simply follow well established  rather than this years hottest diet trend. Cut out sugar and processed (white) carbs), eat smaller portions, eat more protein, try not to drink wine and beer (Get Drunk Not Fat has some great tips on how you can still booze without gaining weight).

If you’re not prepared to get your diet under control, you’re wasting your time here – you can’t out-train a bad diet. Got that? Good, now, for the next step, read the above paragraph on weight training. That’s right – a good weight training program will help you lose weight more easily than cardio exercise. Why?

The body needs more energy to build and maintain muscle. So you lose weight by building muscle in the first place and, once you have that muscle, you’re constantly burning more fat/energy even when you’re not doing anything. The best exercise you can do to lose weight is the squat – because it works the biggest muscle in your body; your butt (gluteus maximus). Not only will you lose weight, you’ll have an amazing ass. It’s also great for the thighs and the rest of your legs – whether you’re a man or woman, squats will make your legs and butt look good.

Don’t get me wrong, cardio is a great and important exercise that you should definitely do, but when you run, swim or cycle, you only burn the calories it takes to do that work. Once you’ve finished, the fat burning stops. With weight training, you’re constantly increasing the amount of fat your body burns at rest.

So, when you think about it, whether you’re a skinny person who wants to bulk up, or a fat person who wants to lose weight, the exercise approach is pretty much the same.  But what other fitness goals might people have?

General fitness, stronger heart and lungs

I mentioned cardio is important earlier. Cardio-vascular exercise (also called aerobic exercise) is good for improving the function of your heart and lungs, so you can do more physically intensive activity without getting out of breath or too tired to continue. It also helps you live longer and enjoy better health into old age. These are common fitness goals for many people, especially those who are starting to feel the effects of aging a little and perhaps realize that they need to make some changes in order to stay healthy.

So, if you’re happy with the way your body looks but you just want to be healthier and more capable of physically demanding activity, cardio is what you need. Cardio will not help you build muscle, but it will help you burn fat (although not as effectively as weight training).  That said, good cardio-vascular fitness will help you to do other exercises – so in an indirect kind of way, you will find it easier to build muscle if your cardio health is good.

Cardio exercise can be any kind of activity that increases the heart rate and your breathing (I know what you’re thinking, and yes, sex counts as cardio). Popular aerobic exercises are walking (for very unfit beginners), running/jogging, cycling, swimming, hiking, and dancing. There are also sports like tennis, squash, soccer, that require a lot of running and moving around. But really, anything that gets you moving for a sustained period with an increase in heart rate counts as cardio.

Some serious weight-lifters will scoff at cardio exercise because it burns valuable calories that they would prefer to be spent on building more muscle. If all you care about is muscle, that’s fair enough, but if you want a good level of all-round fitness then cardio is essential.